The Dramatic and Bloody History of Nottingham Castle
Nottingham Castle in the East Midlands of England has seen nearly 1,000 years of battles, revolts and scandals, but it is perhaps best known for its connection with the legendary English outlaw Robin Hood. According to the traditional tales, one of Robin’s greatest adversaries was the Sheriff of Nottingham, a supporter of Prince John, and Nottingham Castle was his stronghold. Whilst the story of Robin Hood has Nottingham Castle as part of its backdrop, it is only a small part (perhaps even a fictional one) of the castle’s long and colorful history.
A view of Nottingham Castle today. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
One Thousand Year History
The original Nottingham Castle is believed to have been built in 1067, a year after the Normans emerged victorious at the Battle of Hastings. The new King of England, William the Conqueror, is said to have ordered a castle, which was of the motte-and-bailey design, to be built in Nottingham. The site that was chosen is known as ‘Castle Rock’, a rock promontory overlooking the city of Nottingham.
The castle from The History and Antiquities of Nottingham by James Orange, 1840. (Public Domain)
Bloody Revolt Leads to Surrender
About a century later, during the reign of Henry II, the castle was extensively rebuilt with stone, thus strengthening it. Not long after Henry’s death, in 1194, a historic battle took place at Nottingham Castle. At that time, the castle was occupied by the supporters of Prince John, who had revolted against his brother, King Richard the Lionheart, whilst the latter was on a crusade in the Holy Land. Despite having been extensively fortified by Henry II, the castle surrendered after just a few days.
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Effigy of Richard I of England in the church of Fontevraud Abbey. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Trial of Isabella and Roger
The next important event that took place at Nottingham Castle occurred in 1330. Four years prior to that, the King of England, Edward II, was deposed by his wife, Isabella of France, and died in Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire in the following year. As Edward’s son, Edward III, was a minor, Isabella ruled the kingdom as regent, alongside her lover, Roger Mortimer. In October 1330, Edward and a few of his trusted companions staged a coup d’état against his mother and her lover. Using a secret tower to enter Nottingham Castle, Edward had Isabella and Roger captured. Roger was subsequently put on trial, and executed. Isabella, however, was spared, and died many years later in 1358.
15th-century manuscript illustration of Isabella of France with Roger Mortimer. (Public Domain)
Robin Hood, the Heroic Outlaw of Nottingham
Robin Hood was a legendary heroic outlaw in English folklore, who is best known for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
“In popular culture Robin Hood is typically seen as a supporter of the late 12th century King Richard the Lionheart, Robin being driven to being an outlaw during the misrule of Richard’s brother John (who owned Nottingham Castle), while Richard was away on Crusade,” reports the Nottingham Castle website.
Some historians question whether Robin Hood actually existed, but if the accounts are true, it is believed Robin was held captive in Nottingham Castle after being captured by his adversary, the Sheriff of Nottingham. According to popular stories, Robin Hood escaped from the castle through the caves and tunnels below, many of which still remain today, and took shelter in the nearby Sherwood Forest.
Prisoner of a King
In 1346, Nottingham Castle served as a temporary prison for King David II of Scotland. The king had been defeated by the English at the Battle of Neville’s Cross on the 17th of October of that year, and was being transported as a prisoner to London. During that journey, he was held at Nottingham Castle for a period of time. Nottingham Castle was also the place where King Richard III set forth in 1485 for the Battle of Bosworth Field, where the king lost his life.
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In 1642, Nottingham Castle was besieged by King Charles I during the English Civil War. The castle was held by the Parliamentarians under the command of John Hutchinson, and successfully repulsed several Royalist assaults. The Royalists were eventually defeated, and the king executed in 1649. Hutchinson proposed to have the castle demolished so as to prevent it from being used again in war. Thus, in 1651, the remains of Nottingham Castle were destroyed. Nevertheless, subterranean structures of the medieval castle were preserved.
Reconstruction of the likely appearance of the castle in the late medieval period. (Public Domain)
It was in 1678 that the present ‘Ducal Palace’ was built by Henry Cavendish, the 2nd Duke of Newcastle. About two centuries later, in 1831, the palace was burnt down by rioters. As a result of the conflagration, only the external structure of the palace remained. The castle was then neglected for over 40 years, before being let to the Corporation of Nottingham in 1875 on a 500 years lease. Renovations were carried out, and three years later, it was reopened to the public as a museum of fine art. Tourists visiting Nottingham in the hopes of seeing the medieval castle associated with the tale of Robin Hood would probably be disappointed at the sight of this relatively recent structure. Nevertheless, the museum authorities have made an effort to link the present structure to the famous folk hero by introducing a brand new exhibition called ‘The Robin Hood Gallery’. It is expected that this attraction will be in full swing by the year 2020.
Top image: Illustration of Nottingham Castle in the past (Nottinghamcastle.org.uk)
By Wu Mingren
Brown, C., 1896. A History of Nottinghamshire. [Online]
Available at: http://www.nottshistory.org.uk/Brown1896/nottingham2.htm
Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery, 2016. A Brief History of Nottingham Castle. [Online]
Available at: http://www.nottinghamcastle.org.uk/explore/history
Pritchard, J., 2016. Robin Hood is coming back to Nottingham Castle as part of £24m revamp. [Online]
Available at: http://www.nottinghampost.com/Robin-Hood-coming-Nottingham-Castle-24m-revamp/story-29115867-detail/story.html
Shoker, S., 2014. Robin Hood: What happened to Nottingham castle?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-24725569
www.worldatlas.com, 2016. Nottingham Castle, England: Unique Places In The World To Visit. [Online]
Available at: http://www.worldatlas.com/articles/nottingham-castle-england-unique-places-in-the-world-to-visit.html