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Old Norwich - Norwich Castle

For many centuries Norwich has been dominated by its great castle, a symbol of military and political control founded by the Normans between 1066 and 1075 to help keep their newly acquired kingdom in subjection.

Norwich Castle seen from Norwich Union buildings on Westlegate

The conquered Saxons were forced to raise a mound, some twenty-one metres high and surrounded by a dry ditch, at the end of a prominent ridge of land. A wooden palisade protected the timber buildings on top of the mound, while to the south and east of the mound were yards or baileys that protected by banks and ditches. The castle was built at the King's expense and was held for him by Earl Ralf of East Anglia. In 1075 Ralf, with two other earls, plotted against William I. The King was told of this, and Ralf fled to Brittany, leaving his wife Emma to hold Norwich Castle against the King's army. After three months she surrendered, but in recognition of her bravery was allowed to join her husband.

Modern day lift providing access to the Castle Museum

About 1100, when the mound had settled, masons began to build the stone keep - it took about twenty years. Entry to the keep, which is some twenty-seven metres square by twenty-one metres high, was up a flight of stairs to a vestibule at first-floor level and through the grand entrance into the great hall. This large room, where most of the garrison lived and slept, took up much of the northern half of the keep. Beyond it were a pantry, a small private kitchen and latrines. The garrison's food was cooked in a separate kitchen outside the keep. The southern half of the keep was divided into a number of smaller rooms, including a chapel, the great chamber, with a large fireplace, used by the governor and a private room for the King to use when he visited. Most of the ground floor was used for storage, but at one end under the chapel were dungeons reached only by holes in the first floor. Two sets of spiral stairs led from the ground floor to the first floor, then to the wall gallery and finally to the battlements. The outside walls of the keep, which is one of the largest Norman keeps in this country, were decorated with arcading, a most unusual feature and used perhaps because it was built as a king's palace.

In 1200 a great stone gatehouse was built at the top of the bridge that spanned the dry ditch. The stone bridge was probably built at the same time, with a great drawbridge pit, about nine metres across, at its upper end.

Norwich Castle has been besieged several times. At the beginning of the reign of Henry III it was captured by Louis, the Dauphin, or heir to the King of France, who had been invited by a group of English barons to take the English throne. Louis also captured several other castles, but was eventually paid a large sum of money to give them up and return to France.

View from bus stops below castle on Castle Meadow

After this the military importance of the castle declined and in 1345 the King gave the two baileys to the city of Norwich. The keep, on its mound, and the Shirehouse remained under the control of the Sheriff of Norfolk, for by this date the castle had become the county gaol. The first gaol was built in 1165-6, when the prisoners were probably housed in wooden buildings. Later they were moved into the keep, which remained as the county gaol until 1887.

By the seventeenth century the keep was reported to be 'decayed' and between 1707 and 1709 over £1, 300 were spent on repairs, as the justices of the Peace, who were responsible for the gaol, said the castle was 'not fitting to detaining prisoners in' ' Most of the prisoners at this time were in fact kept in appalling conditions in the remains of the ground floor rooms. The keep roof had long gone and part of the first floor had been demolished so that the prisoners could see daylight - twenty-one metres above them. Debtors whose friends or family could afford to pay the gaoler's fees lived in rooms built on the remains of the first floor. In 1729 a debtor who had a bed to himself paid the gaoler 2 shillings (10p) a week, if he shared the bed with another person, they each paid Is. 6d. (71/2 p), while if three people shared they only paid 6d. (21/2 p) each. Unless food was brought in, prisoners had to exist on a small amount of bread and water.

At the end of the eighteenth century a new prison was built, with cell blocks inside the shell of the keep. This prison was soon too small and was rebuilt in 1824 to house more prisoners. By this time the stone facing of the keep was in a bad state of repair and the task of restoration was given to Anthony Salvin. Between 1834 and 1839 he refaced the whole of the keep's exterior with Bath stone, but although the elaborate patterns of blank arcading were faithfully reproduced, they lost some of their original texture. Parts of the original flint and Caen stone walling can still be seen inside the keep, however. At the time of this restoration, the thirteen battlements on each side were reduced to nine.

In 1887 Norwich Corporation bought the castle, carried out still more repairs and, after stripping the interior of the keep and inserting a gallery, converted the keep and most of the prison buildings into a museum and art gallery, which was opened by the Duke and Duchess of York (later to become King George V and Queen Mary) on 23 October 1894. Since then the museum has been considerably altered and extended, with additions such as the Colman Galleries (1951), the Modern Art Gallery (1965) and the central Rotunda (1969), where visitors can relax at the coffee bar. Changes are still being made: the Twining Teapot Gallery has opened (September 1989) and the Shirehall, linked to the Castle Museum by the passage used to take prisoners from their cells to the courtroom, will become the new Norfolk Regimental Museum (midsummer 1990).

Probably the most important exhibit in the Castle Museum is the keep itself. Traces of the Norman rooms can still be made out, including the apse of the chapel and the fireplace in the great chamber, while the great well, thirt-six metres deep, remains intact and can be seen through a grille in the existing floor. Sometimes there are conducted tours of the dungeons and the battlements - the view from the battlements is quite magnificent, encompassing much of Norwich. Visitors to the dungeons can see chains and shackles used on prisoners in the castle, a pair of stocks, a scold's bridle, a gibbet iron and death masks of some of the murderers hanged in Norwich Castle.

The castle's surounding dry moat has now been planted with a mass of trees and colourful shrubs to make a pleasant public garden. Here too is the small open-air Whiffler Theatre.


Did you know... Norwich was granted city status in 1194.