Nottingham’s proud symbol
This one–time royal castle, arsenal and prison played its part in much of England’s history as Brian Spencer discovered when he went there recently.
First and foremost, the building standing proud on top of a high crag above the centre of Nottingham is not a true castle, but a ducal palace standing on the site of a historic castle. This early building was a typical motte and bailey structure built by William the Conqueror in 1067. Initially it was a mainly stone-built tower where the nobility lived (the motte), surrounded by a wooden palisade (the bailey) to house servants and livestock. Gradually this structure became stronger when stone replaced timber and towers were added to complete the stronghold.
Throughout the following centuries Nottingham castle became the royal stronghold in the north Midlands. Each succeeding monarch who followed the Norman conquerors used it as a base in order to control the often unruly peasants north of the River Trent. Whether or not Robin Hood existed is doubtful, but it is nice to imagine him standing where his statue aims occasionally stolen arrows, pointing at an imaginary cruel Sheriff of Nottingham. Genuine or not we can imagine strife and struggle for control of the castle going on from time to time, for this certainly happened.
Plantagenet Edward I, Hammer of the Scots used the castle during his forays across the border, but much of his gains were lost by his son at the Battle of Bannockburn. Basically a weak and unpopular king, Edward II was taken from Nottingham to Berkeley Castle where he was murdered in a particularly painful and cruel way. His son Edward III was then only 15 and his scheming mother Queen Isabella managed to rule the country alongside her lover Roger Mortimer. A couple of years later Edward fearing he might end up like his father, decided to regain his birthright. Under cover of darkness he and just 24 men at arms made their way to one of the tunnels, a secret entrance, or sally-port into the castle. Making their way quietly into the upper bailey they disturbed the Queen and Mortimer in conference with their officials. An attempt to support them was quickly put down and Mortimer was captured – traditionally he was held in part of the secret passage known as Mortimer’s Hole. True or not he was soon taken to London where he was tried and executed for treason. Claiming his rightful crown, Edward set about strengthening the castle, turning it into a royal palace, one of the most powerful fortresses in his kingdom.
Such was its importance that Edward held three Parliaments at Nottingham Castle, where at one of them, in 1337, in order to protect English weavers’ trade, the wearing of foreign cloth was banned for anyone other than by the Royal Family.
Other kings have passed through the gatehouse which still stands as the only major relic of a once powerful castle. Scots King David II was imprisoned in one of its towers on his way south to the Tower of London. Using its impregnability, the castle was frequently used as a prison. In 1374 the Speaker of the House of Commons was held here and then in 1392, Richard II imprisoned the Mayor, Aldermen and Sheriffs of the City of London over some spat or other.
It seems as though King Richard used Nottingham Castle as his summer retreat, holding a Great Council there in 1388 and a Parliament in 1399. His successor King Henry IV magnanimously gave the castle to Richard’s widow Queen Joan and she lived there until her death in 1437.
Neither of the following two kings, Henry V and Henry VI had much interest in Nottingham, but it regained its strategic importance during the Wars of the Roses when Edward IV spent £3000 between 1476 and 1480, creating a palace which he used as his main base in the long struggle for supremacy. It is quite possible that Richard III spent time there before his ill-fated march down to Bosworth where not only did he lose his horse, but also his crown and his life on the 19th August 1485. Although the victor of the Battle of Bosworth Field, Tudor King Henry VII, spent money on repairing the castle, he didn’t spend a great deal of time there and when his son, Henry VIII came to the throne, it was considered to be in Dekay and Ruyne. A man who appreciated luxuries, Henry VIII ordered new tapestries and generally improved its amenities, but he only visited it once, in August 1511, the last time a reigning monarch actually stayed at the castle.
Cost of repairs seems to have been a constant drain on royal finances and even during the reign of Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I the place was in desperate need of repairs. Following the report from one of the queen’s surveyors, he found himself struggling against Civil Service intransigence when a request for funds was answered by being told that the money would be forthcoming ‘from tyme to tyme’. A couple of times during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Nottingham Castle was tidied up for her proposed visit, on one occasion when she was supposed to meet Mary, Queen of Scots, but nothing ever came of it. It was during one of the most momentous events to take place in British history that the castle had its final and dramatic part to play in its hitherto six hundred year existence.
On 22nd August 1642 King Charles I in his quarrel with Parliament raised his standard on Derry Mount just outside the castle walls and so began the English Civil War. By choosing the castle as his rallying point he was emulating Richard III, and like him it eventually led to his death, not on the battlefield, but on the scaffold in Whitehall, the seat of English democracy.
The castle was used by both Royalist and Parliamentarian forces during the Civil War, each besieging the other as fortunes waxed and waned. With the eventual surrender of King Charles after the last long drawn out battle around Newark, the castle was ‘slighted’, completely demolished in order to prevent its further military use. So it lay, ruined and neglected, providing easy building material for the surrounding area, until the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 returned King Charles II to the throne, ending England’s first and only attempt to become a republic.
In 1663 Charles Cavendish, soon to become the 1st Duke of Newcastle, one of indomitable Bess of Hardwick’s descendants, bought the ruined castle from the Duke of Buckingham. First sweeping away the rubble from the ruined castle, he set about building the ducal palace Renaissance-style building which dominates the top of the castle mount overlooking the central commercial part of the City of Nottingham. Despite his plans, work on his palace was incomplete by the time of his death around 1679 and it was left to his heirs to complete what he began by spending £14,000. The result was truly magnificent, evoking the splendour of the previous Royal Castle, providing comfortable accommodation for one last monarch-to-be This was when the then Princess Anne later to become Queen, stayed briefly before her coronation in 1702; great balls were held and visiting dignitaries entertained. However, even in comparatively modern times the castle was not to be allowed to continue its peaceful existence.
In 1831during the progress of the Reform Bill through the House of Lords (it was an attempt to give the vote to a wider range of the population), the citizens of Nottingham were horrified to learn that the current duke was opposed to such a move. Incensed by such an attack on their liberties, a large mob marched up to the palace on the night of 10th October 1831. As it was unoccupied at the time the mob managed to break down its outer defences and in full view of the impotent Mayor and Town Constables, wrecked many of the valuable contents and set the place alight. By their action, almost copying actions during the French Revolution, the Reform Act was passed the following year, eventually allowing all of us the right to vote.
Today the only evidence of the riot is the ruined equestrian statue of the Duke standing above the east doorway, but the house stood a blackened ruin for another forty years. Various suggestions were made over its use, ranging from housing to a law-court with prison attached. The best suggestion was to restore the building and turn it into a museum, which eventually it became. Today it houses one of the best art galleries outside London, together with the history of the Sherwood Foresters along with the amazing number of Victoria Crosses its members have won throughout recent wars.
Nottingham Castle is open daily throughout the year (except Christmas). Guided trips down Mortimer’s Hole Cave come out in Brewhouse Yard conveniently near the Trip to Jerusalem pub.