Nottingham Castle was built in 1068 on top of rocky headland overlooking a former Scandinavian burh. It became the most important fortress in the East Midlands region and witnessed numerous events of national importance including a coup that overthrew Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. It was razed to the ground in 1651 and thereafter it was rebuilt into a stately home.
Scandinavian Burh and Saxon Defences
Nottingham was a key nodal point in medieval England for it was located on the banks of the River Trent at a point where that waterway, which provided access to the sea via the Humber, was both navigable and fordable. It was also in proximity to the Trent's confluence with the Rivers Leen and Beck. The site became incorporated into the Kingdom of Mercia but, during the ninth century AD, this domain was coming under increasing pressure from the Danes. Nottingham was seized by them in AD 868 and they founded the first (fortified) settlement on the site - a good reminder that burhs were not exclusive to the Saxons! However, the town was captured by King Edward the Elder in AD 918 who upgraded the defences. The settlement at this time occupied an area on top of a cliff to the north of the River Leen and was protected on its east side by the River Beck.
Although not mentioned in the Domesday survey, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the foundation date of Nottingham Castle as 1068. It was constructed by William I during his 'Harrying of the North', a campaign to suppress resistance against his rule. He entrusted the castle to William Peveril, a Norman Knight who had accompanied William on his Conquest of England and had been granted lands in the Hope Valley (with the caput being at Peveril Castle). Unusually, Nottingham Castle was constructed some distance to the west of the existing settlement. This seems to have been for purely military reasons as the location chosen was on top of rocky headland which offered strong natural defences. This early castle was probably an earth and timber structure and would have consisted of Inner and Outer (now Middle) baileys. The River Leen was diverted to provide additional protection for the fortification with the associated loss of fishing for the local (Saxon) residents. Despite the separation between castle and burh, a new settlement grew up outside the castle's walls that linked the two sites. This became known as French Borough and eventually supplanted the original burh as the commercial hub of Nottingham. Town Walls, constructed from earth-and-timber, were built to protect the enlarged settlement.
The castle was rebuilt in stone by Henry II and the Outer Bailey was probably added at this time. Royal accounts record expenditure of £1,737 at Nottingham, a vast sum that would have funded substantial upgrades including construction of a Shell Keep. The resultant fortification was undoubtedly impressive for in 1194, during the absence of Richard I on the Third Crusade, the castle was seized by supporters of Prince John who was attempting to take control of England. Along with Tickhill Castle, John attempted to use the fortifications to assert his influence but his timing was poor for Richard I returned, besieged both fortifications and quickly re-took them. Richard himself led the assault on the outer bailey at Nottingham and slaughtered all the defenders within. However, John was forgiven and, following the death of his brother, became King. Nottingham became one of his favourite palaces and in 1212 he made major upgrades including adding a stone built Keep within the existing Shell Keep. In the same year he ordered 28 Welsh hostages to be hung from the battlements as their fathers had rebelled against him. It was during the tenure of Richard and John that the stories and legends of Robin Hood are set.
Henry III made substantial upgrades to Nottingham Castle rebuilding the Great Hall and constructing dedicated accommodation for both himself and his Queen. In 1252 he ordered the Outer Bailey, the defences of which still consisted of a timber palisade, to be rebuilt in stone and the twin-drum gatehouse was probably started at this time. The upgraded defences did not stop the site being occupied by Robert de Ferrers, Earl of Derby when he joined the rebellion of Simon de Montfort against Henry III in 1264. However, following Simon's defeat at the Battle of Evesham (1265), Nottingham Castle was recovered without a fight. Rebuilding of the town walls in stone started around this time.
By the fourteenth century Nottingham Castle had become the primary fortification in the East Midlands region. The easy access to its rich hinterland made it a key site for collection of taxes and control of communication and movement between lowland and highland England. Accordingly it was regularly used as a seat of Government and it was in this role that it witnessed a Royal coup in 1330. Four years earlier Roger Mortimer, Earl of March and Queen Isabella had overthrown Edward II. That King had been forced to relinquish his crown after which he was taken to Berkeley Castle where he may have been murdered. For the next few years Mortimer and Isabella effectively ruled through Edward III who, whilst not a prisoner, was under the exclusive 'control' of Mortimer. However, Edward was not one to be controlled and with a few trusted companions mounted a coup. Whilst Mortimer, Edward and Isabella were staying at Nottingham Castle, the King arranged for a number of loyal nobles to access the fortification via the underground tunnels in castle rock. With help from William Eland, who knew the castle well and was able to leave an access door unlocked, Mortimer was seized and arrested before his men could respond. Bundled ungraciously back down the tunnels he was immediately tied to a cart and hastened off to the Tower of London where he was imprisoned and later executed as a traitor. Isabella was sentenced to life confinement in Castle Rising.
Throughout the remainder of the medieval period Nottingham Castle continued as a key Royal fortress. Edward III held Parliaments there and used the castle to confine important prisoners including King David II of Scotland, after his capture at the Battle of Neville's Cross in 1346, and Peter de la Mare, speaker of the House of Commons. Henry IV used the castle as the main residence for his wife, Queen Joan. In 1460 Edward of York, usurper of the throne of Henry VI, declared himself king at Nottingham Castle. Finally Richard III made the castle his main residence during his short reign as it enabled him to be closer to his northern power-base. He deployed from the castle to his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485).
A report on the castle in 1525 described the structure as ruinous but it was nevertheless garrisoned during the Pilgrimage of Grace, a major rebellion against Henry VIII over religious reforms. In 1623 it was sold to John Manners, Earl of Rutland who plundered building materials from the site. However, in 1642 the outbreak of the Civil War prompted the castle to be re-activated once more. Charles I raised his standard on Derry Mount, adjacent to the castle, on 23 August 1642 which effectively started hostilities. However, the town supported Parliament and no sooner had the King left than the castle was taken over by Parliamentarians. Several Royalist attacks were made from Newark, with Nottingham town successfully seized in January 1644, but the castle held out for the duration.
In 1651 Nottingham Castle was blown up by gunpowder to prevent any further military use. Allegedly Oliver Cromwell was particularly annoyed by this demolition which had been done without reference to him. In 1674 the site was procured by William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle who commenced construction of a Palace which was complete by 1679. This remained with his successors and in 1831 was plundered and burnt in response to the then owner's opposition to the Reform Bill. Today it serves as an Art Gallery and Museum.
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Nottingham Castle is now an art gallery and museum. Not much remains of the original medieval castle except small stretches of outer wall and parts of the gatehouse. However, the dominant position of the site can be appreciated and the tunnels through which Edward III’s companions entered the castle to capture Mortimer are assessable (by tour only). A small fragment of town wall is on display behind a window.
Nottingham Fortifications. The first fortification was the burh founded in AD 868 and modified in AD 918. The castle was added to the west on top of Castle Rock. French settlers built a new town in between the two sites.
Nottingham Town Walls. One small fragment of the Nottingham Town Walls is visible above ground. It can be found behind a window off Maid Marian Street.
Castle Rock. The castle was built on top of Castle Rock, a position with strong natural defences.
Gatehouse. The gatehouse dates from the mid-thirteenth century when the Outer Bailey defences were rebuilt in stone. It was prettified in the eighteenth century.
Mansion. The mansion occupies the site of the former castle Keep and Inner Bailey. It was built by the Duke of Newcastle in 1679.
Tunnels. Castle Rock has numerous tunnels. In 1330 supporters of Edward III sneaked through these tunnels to enter Nottingham Castle in order to capture Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. Once they had seized him he was bundled down the tunnel and rushed off to London where he was incarcerated and later executed. The tunnels are accessible via guided tour.
Nottingham Castle is a major tourist attraction and accordingly well sign-posted. There are extensive car parking facilities in immediately vicinity.
Standard Hill, NG1 6GA
Nottingham Town Wall Fragment
Maid Marian Way, NG1 6HS