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Nottingham Castle - from Normans to Tudors

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Nottingham Castle: Museum & Art Gallery | From Normans to Tudors | From Stuarts to the 21st Century

Mortimer's hole.

The history of Nottingham Castle began shortly after the Battle of Hastings where King Harold met his end, and William became king of England, in 1066. The Norman king set about conquering the rest of England and quashing the Saxon uprisings, and in doing so had thirty new 'castles' constructed, not just as defensive buildings, but also to ensure his Norman knights could suitably threaten the Saxon scum from behind big safe walls. Here follows a chronological list of important events that have taken place at one of these castles, Nottingham Castle, from its very beginnings to present day.

1067 - 1099

While travelling to York to quell some revolting Saxons, William the Conqueror passed through Nottingham (then Snotengaham) in late 1067, and spotted a narrow sandstone cliff of about 130 feet overlooking the River Trent. This was a perfect site for a defensible fortress that could control the largest crossing over the river, Trent Bridge; he ordered the construction of the first wooden 'motte and bailey'-style castle at Nottingham. William Peverel1 undertook the task in 1068, and using the local populace as a workforce (probably under much protest, but death and taxes have a wonderful way of provoking hard work), the Normans soon held sway over their Saxon counterparts.

1100 - 1190

During the reign of Henry I, the castle walls were reinforced by stone, and towers began to take shape. After Henry's death in 1135, the Empress Matilda and Stephen had a civil war of sorts and in 1140 the grandson of the original castle builder, William Peverel, held the castle for Stephen against an attack by Robert, the Earl of Gloucester. Robert destroyed Nottingham, but failed to take the castle.

In 1154 Henry II, Empress Matilda's son, came to power and soon granted Nottingham its first Royal Charter. The castle was ceded to him, for which he was glad, as it

could not be taken by storm, or, well supplied as it was, starved into submission, the site being by nature impregnable.

Henry grew to love Nottingham, hunting in nearby Sherwood Forest, and in 1170 he enhanced the castle's stone fortifications, enclosing the Middle Bailey with a high stone wall, adding a tower over the gateway and a new bridge over the middle moat. In 1181 Henry also had a Great Hall built in the Middle Bailey, along with modifications to the Royal Apartments and King's Hall in the Upper Bailey.

1191 - 1199

John took Nottingham Castle for his own when his big brother Richard was off galavanting in foreign lands and crusading, and during this time the legend of Robin Hood and his battles with the Sheriff of Nottingham began to flourish. Richard the Lionheart didn't come back to England very often, but when he did he reclaimed Nottingham Castle from his brother in 1194, and it was his siege of the castle that was the only successful assault of the site in its entire history. Apparently Richard arrived

with such a vast multitude of men, and such a clangor of trumpets and clarions, that those who were in the castle were astonished and confounded and alarmed, and trembling came upon them.

Richard ordered that the outer wooden fortifications be burned, and after three days the occupants yielded and Richard proceeded to hold council in the Great Hall, where he banished his brother (and, if Hollywood were to be believed, was also witness to the marriage of Maid Marion and Robin Hood).

John later became king in 1199 and, having learnt his lesson from his brother's successful siege, had the castle defences improved, so much so that a large part of the royal treasury was secured within its walls. With this greater protection, the oft anxious John, like his predecessor Henry II, enjoyed visiting the castle and hunting in the grounds - a hunting lodge at Clipstone was a refuge away from his kingly duties.

1200 - 1299

In 1212 the castle became the prison of 28 young boys, the sons of Welsh barons who had taken up arms against King John. These hostages were cruelly hanged from the battlements for this act of treason, and reports of the time indicate that their screams and cries for mercy prior to execution could be heard rolling across Nottingham.

After John's death in 1216, not long after he'd signed the Magna Carta, the castle continued to grow in magnificence. By 1251, Henry III was in power and Nottingham and its castle had the favour of royalty, so much so that Henry had Christmas Dinner within the castle. He ordered the building of a curtain wall for the Outer Bailey and

a good stone gateway with twin towers and two round towers with loopholes at the angles of the yard open towards the castle.

With the completion of these defences in 1252 the castle was truly fit for a king, and 13th-Century chronicler Wykes wrote that it had 'no peer in the Kingdom of England'. Henry was happy with the castle as a fortress but he also had the place prettified, with stained glass windows and the chapels and royal apartments painted with both biblical and allegorical scenes.

Edward I came to power in 1272, and he continued the fortification of Nottingham Castle, having both the Black Tower to the north east corner of the fortress (some 50 feet in height) and Edward's Tower to the west of the Gatehouse built by 1300.

1300 - 1399

In 1300 Edward II took over the throne from his dad, then quickly married a French girl called Isabella to strengthen political relations between France and England. However, it was soon apparent that Edward preferred the company of young men, especially one Piers Gaveston, a knight of Gascony. A bunch of barons and earls called the Ordainers didn't think this much cop. Their leader, the Earl of Lancaster, relieved Gaveston of his duties (the rest of the Ordainers captured him within spitting distance of Warwick Castle and separated his body from his head). Edward was not pleased and had his revenge on Lancaster and his family, the Welsh, and the Scots (although Robert the Bruce taught him a little humility at Bannockburn).

But did Edward learn his lesson about fraternising with merry young men? No, he soon shacked up with another man, Hugh De Spenser. Isabella quickly tired of sharing her husband with other men and boarded the first fast boat to France with her son, and heir to the throne, Edward. Hugh de Spenser had the ear of the king (and probably some of his other bits too) and the English people began to live under a very oppressive reign. Meanwhile, Isabella found her own 'ear' in the exiled Roger Mortimer, the 1st Earl of March. Her brother, Charles IV of France, wasn't keen on this adultery but understood it seeing as much of England was fed up with Edward and his favourite, so he assisted Isabella in building up an invasion force to rescue the English from their tyrannical leader.

In 1326 Isabella and Mortimer invaded England, and a bloodless coup saw Edward II deposed as king. Well, relatively bloodless, for Hugh de Spenser was hanged, drawn, quartered and castrated for his crimes against the queen. Edward II was sent to Berkeley Castle to see out his time imprisoned, because downright killing a king can't be done. Or can it? A plan was hatched to get rid of Edward, which involved a cow's horn, a red hot poker and a nasty bit of sodomy. Needless to say, Edward's screams could be heard for miles, but not a bruise was to be found upon his lifeless body after the torture, so he surely died of 'natural causes' in 13272.

Isabella and Mortimer took over as 'caretakers' of the kingdom, because young Edward III was seen as too young to rule. Also, unfortunately for Isabella, Mortimer appeared to have had a large chip on his shoulder, and he went about wantonly taking revenge for losing his lands and so forth when exiled. Isabella seemed to have lost her head to love, but the young Edward III had his own supporters and looked to take back the kingdom from his mother and her lover.

Isabella and Mortimer retired to Nottingham Castle in 1330 to hold council over what to do about the growing civil unrest. Unbeknown to Mortimer, the Deputy Constable of the Castle had sympathy for Edward III and let in a team of men to kidnap Roger and bring him to trial. Legend has it that on the night of 19 October, 1330, a group of men were taken up a passage3 that led secretly into the royal apartments, and Mortimer was grabbed from the queen's bed and dragged back down the tunnel kicking and screaming - and then later executed at Tyburn. This 'secret' tunnel, soon named Mortimer's Hole, attracted much myth and legend, but it is more likely that the young Edward's men were simply let in the tradesman's entrance4.

Edward III continued to use the castle as a place of residence and even held Parliament there, and in 1337 banned the wearing of foreign cloth except by royalty, which the local traders loved him for. In 1346 the castle was also the residence of the captured King David II of Scotland, and there are tales of him spending time in its dungeon and carving into the sandstone walls with his fingernails his interpretation of the Passion of Christ. During the years of the Black Death, the caves and areas underneath the cliffs of Castle Rock were used as 'housing' for plague sufferers, and in later years leper colonies 'prospered' there.

In 1365 Edward III looked to improve the castle, and he ordered Stephen Romylow to build a new tower on the western side of the Middle Bailey, to rebuild the King's Chapel, the Great Kitchen, the Queen's Hall, the Black Tower and to supervise the construction of a new prison under the High Tower for all the Scots he was capturing. Edward's successor, Richard II, imprisoned the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Sheriffs of London at the castle in 1392, and moved the Court of Chancery5 to the Great Hall. Richard's was a troubled reign, and in 1399 Henry IV took the crown.

1400 - 1499

From 1403 until 1437 Nottingham Castle was the residence of Henry IV's queen, Joan. Not much was done to the castle in that time as far as records show, except the rebuilding of some mills. Nottingham and its castle seems to have fallen out of favour with royalty during this period as Henry V and Henry VI weren't particularly fussed with its upkeep. Not until the Wars of the Roses did Nottingham Castle became of interest again, as a military stronghold. When Edward IV proclaimed himself king he did so in Nottingham, and in 1476 he ordered the construction of a new tower and Royal Apartments, described by Leland in 1540 as:

the moste bewtifullest part and gallant building for Lodgyng... a right sumptuus pece of stone work.

In 1483, when Edward's brother Richard III took the throne, he completed the work to the castle his brother had begun and Richard's Tower, a six-sided monstrosity, took pride of place. Richard appreciated the castle for its strategic importance, and on 19 August, 1485, he raised his standard atop his tower, then rode from the castle to Bosworth, where he met his death. Henry Tudor became king by plucking the crown from a bush, or so legend has it.

1500 - 1599

During the reign of Henry VII the castle remained a royal fortress, but its use as a military stronghold waned. When Henry VIII became king he ordered new tapestries for the castle in 1511 before he visited Nottingham in August that year. By 1536 Henry had the castle reinforced and its garrison increased from a few dozen to a few hundred due in the main to the 'Pilgrimage of Grace' - the rebellion against the king's religious policies - the Reformation.

However, the castle was proving to be a constant strain on the royal treasury. In 1538 the Constable of the Castle, the Earl of Rutland, reported that there was a need to maintain the fortress. A survey of 1525 stated that there was much 'dekay and ruyne of said castell' and that 'part of the roof of the Great Hall is fallen down. Also the new building there is in dekay of timber, lead and glass'. The Earl indicated that '40s spent now ... will save £40 in the future', and funds were acquired to help rebuild the Middle Bridge and some of the other much needed repairs.

In 1560 Elizabeth I was queen, and the Earl continued to appeal for more funding for the castle's upkeep from the treasury 'concerning the dekay of the quene's castell of Nottingham and the needful repair the same doth require'. The reply from the treasurer was bureaucratic to the tee, stating that funds would be available from 'tyme to tyme'. Further repairs were made in advance of proposed visits to Nottingham by Elizabeth to meet with Mary, Queen of Scots. These fell through, and by 1600 the castle was no longer a royal residence.

The history of the castle continues in the next Entry, A37329276.

1The illegitimate son of William the Conqueror.2Although some historians maintain that Edward actually escaped this fate and spent the rest of his days in hiding.3Edward II would probably have approved.4Look, these puns are not intentional. Well, okay, maybe a little.5A court of equity that acted on the king's behalf.

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