Norwich Castle

Norwich Castle
Norwich, Norfolk
Norwich Castle keep, 2009.jpg
Norwich Castle's keep
Norwich Castle is located in Norfolk
Norwich Castle
Norwich Castle
Coordinates 52°37′43″N 1°17′47″E / 52.6286°N 1.2964°E / 52.6286; 1.2964Coordinates: 52°37′43″N 1°17′47″E / 52.6286°N 1.2964°E / 52.6286; 1.2964
Grid reference grid reference TG23190853
Type Motte-and-bailey castle
Height 70 ft (21 m)
Site information
Controlled by Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service
Open to
the public
Website Norwich Castle
Site history
Built circa 1067 onwards

Norwich Castle is a medieval royal fortification in the city of Norwich, in the English county of Norfolk. It was founded in the aftermath of the Norman conquest of England when William the Conqueror (1066–1087) ordered its construction because he wished to have a fortified place in the important city of Norwich. It proved to be his only castle in East Anglia. It is one of the Norwich 12 heritage sites. In 1894 the 'Norwich Museum' moved to Norwich Castle and it has been a museum ever since. It is now known as Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, and holds significant objects from the region, especially archaeological finds and natural history specimens.


Norwich Castle was founded by William the Conqueror some time between 1066 and 1075. It originally took the form of a motte and bailey.[1] Early in 1067, William the Conqueror embarked on a campaign to subjugate East Anglia, and according to military historian R. Allen Brown it was probably around this time that Norwich Castle was founded.[2] The castle is first mentioned in 1075 when Ralph de Gael, Earl of Norfolk, rebelled against William the Conqueror and Norwich was held by his men. A siege was undertaken, but ended when the garrison secured promises that they would not be harmed.[3]

Norwich is one of 48 castles mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086. Building a castle in a pre-existing settlement could require demolishing properties on the site. At Norwich, estimates vary that between 17 and 113 houses occupied the site of the castle.[4] Excavations in the late 1970s discovered that the castle bailey was built over a Saxon cemetery.[5] Historian Robert Liddiard remarks that "to glance at the urban landscape of Norwich, Durham or Lincoln is to be forcibly reminded of the impact of the Norman invasion".[6] Until the construction of Orford Castle in the mid-12th century under Henry II, Norwich was the only major royal castle in East Anglia.[7]

A mid-19th-century engraving of Norwich Castle from Charles Knight's Old England: A Pictorial Museum (1845).

The stone keep, which still stands today, was probably built between 1095 and 1110.[1] In about the year 1100, the motte was made higher and the surrounding ditch deepened.[8] During the Revolt of 1173–1174, in which Henry II's sons rebelled against him and started a civil war, Norwich Castle was put in a state of readiness. Hugh Bigod, 1st Earl of Norfolk was one of the more powerful earls who joined the revolt against Henry.[9] With 318 Flemish soldiers that landed in England in May 1174, and 500 of his own men, Bigod advanced on Norwich Castle. They captured the castle and took fourteen prisoners who were held for ransom. When peace was restored later that year, Norwich was returned to royal control.[10]

The Normans introduced the Jews to Norwich and they lived close to the castle. A cult was founded in Norwich in the wake of the murder of a young boy, William of Norwich, for which the Jews of the town were blamed.[11] In Lent 1190, violence against Jews erupted in East Anglia and on 6 February (Shrove Tuesday) it spread to Norwich. Some fled to the safety of the castle, but those who did not were killed in their millions.[12] The Pipe Rolls, records of royal expenditure, note that repairs were carried out at the castle in 1156–1158 and 1204–1205.[13]

The castle was used as a gaol for felons and debtors from 1220, with additional buildings constructed on the top of the motte next to the keep. The prison reformer John Howard visited it six times between 1774 and 1782.[14] These buildings were demolished and rebuilt between 1789 and 1793 by Sir John Soane, and more alterations were made in 1820. The use of the castle as a gaol ended in 1887, when it was bought by the city of Norwich to be used as a museum. The conversion was undertaken by Edward Boardman, and the museum opened in 1895.[8]

The forebuilding attached to the keep was pulled down in 1825.[15] Although the keep remains, its outer shell has been repaired repeatedly, most recently in 1835–9 by Anthony Salvin, with James Watson as mason using Bath stone. None of the inner or outer bailey buildings survive, and the original Norman bridge over the inner ditch was replaced in about the year 1825.[8] During the renovation, the keep was completely refaced based faithfully on the original ornamentation.[16]

Present day

Part of the Snettisham Hoard on display in the museum.

The castle remains a museum and art gallery today and still contains many of its first exhibits, as well as many more recent ones. Two galleries feature the museum's decorative art collections, including costume, textiles, jewellery, glass, ceramics and silverware, and a large display of ceramic teapots. Other gallery themes include Anglo-Saxons (including the Harford Farm Brooch [17]) and Vikings, Queen Boudica and the Iceni tribe, Ancient Egypt, and natural history.

Norwich Castle and cattle market at the end of the 19th century

The fine art galleries include works from the 17th to 20th centuries, and include English watercolour paintings, Dutch landscapes and modern British paintings. The Castle also houses a good collection of the work of the Flemish artist Peter Tillemans.[18] Two galleries feature changing exhibits of modern art, history and culture.

Norwich Castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I listed building.[1] Visitors can tour the castle keep and learn about the castle through interactive displays. Separate tours are also available of the dungeon and the battlements. Although not permanently on display, one of the largest collections it holds is the butterfly collection of Margaret Fountaine. An unusual artefact is the needlework done by Lorina Bulwer at the turn of the twentieth century whilst she was confined in a workhouse. The work has featured on the BBC.[19]


G. T. Clark, a 19th-century antiquary and engineer, described Norwich's great tower as "the most highly ornamented keep in England".[20] It was faced with Caen stone over a flint core. The keep is some 95 ft (29 m) by 90 ft (27 m) and 70 ft (21 m) high, and is of the hall-keep type, entered at first floor level through an external structure called the Bigod Tower. The exterior is decorated with blank arcading. Castle Rising is the only other comparable keep in this respect.[8] Internally, the keep has been gutted so that nothing remains of its medieval layout. The uncertainty surrounding the keep's arrangement has led to scholarly debate. What is agreed on is that it had a complex domestic arrangement, with a kitchen, chapel, a two-storey high hall, and 16 latrines.[21]

Highlights of the Castle

The Castle Museum holds a wide range of objects from archeological finds and animal specimens, to Norman and Vikings collections, to 17th century onwards Dutch and British paintings. Here are some highlights of the collections.

The Paston Treasure

The painting was commissioned presumably around 1663 either by Sir William Paston (1610-1663), or by his son Robert Paston (1631-1683). The identity of the artist is also unknown, however it is likely that it was a Dutch artist working in a studio at Oxnead Hall.[22]

The Paston Treasure c.1663 oil on canvas 165 x 246.5 cm

The artwork can be placed within the mid-seventeenth century Dutch still-life tradition, with elements that conform to the genre of vanitas. Still-life paintings usually feature one or two objects which are artists' stock items, included only for their symbolism. On the other hand, the majority of the objects represented in The Paston Treasure were all real, as they correspond to an existing item in the inventories of the Pastons'. Therefore, not only it was commissioned as a memento mori, but also as a record for the family's wealth and own collections. It was also meant to be commemorative of the death of a family member, probably William Paston.[23]

The painting debuted in America with an exhibition held at the Yale Center For British Art. Now it is currently in display at the Castle, in The Paston Treasure Riches & Rarities of the Known World exhibition curated by Francesca Vanke, which reunites for the first time in 350 years the painting with some of the objects depicted.

The Happisburgh Handaxe

The Happisburgh Handaxe. Flint. 12.2 x 7.8 cm. Norwich Castle Museum

The handaxe is made out of flint, and measures 12.2 cm x 7.8 cm.[24]

The discovery of this Lower Palaeolithic handaxe in 2000 in Happisburgh, Norfolk, transformed our understanding of early human occupation in Britain.[25] Dated and shown to be from 550,000 to 700,000, it is now the oldest human-made object in North Europe, doubling the known duration of human occupation in Britain.[26] Analysis of pollen in the silt allowed the archeologists to build a picture of temperate woodland with pine, alder, oak, elm and hornbeam in evidence at the time the handaxe was made.[27]

Cavalry Parade Helmet and Visor

Found in the River Wensum at Worthing in 1947 (helmet) and 1950 (visor), these two Roman objects are dated back to the first half of the 3rd Century AD.[28] They are an important testimony of the presence of Roman army personnel in central Norfolk during the later years of Roman Britain.[29]

The helmet is made from a single sheet of gilded bronze, highly decorated as to represent a feathered eagle's head on the crest, foliate-tailed beasts on either side and a plain triangular front panel with feather borders on either side at the top, with the lower ends terminating in birds' heads.[30]

The visor mask compliments the helmet by carrying similar repousse decoration, depicting Mars on one side and Victory on the other.[31]

Interestingly, these two objects are not a fitting pair, although they can be considered together as each would have originally had been coupled with a similar complementary object.[32]

Spong Man

Spong Man. AD 500-600. Height 14.0 cm. Norwich Castle Museum.

This unique Anglo-Saxon ceramic figurine was found in 1979 in Spong Hill, North Elmham, Norfolk.[33]

The figure is shown sat on a chair decorated with incised panelling and is leaning forwards with head in hands wearing a round flat hat. It is likely to have once sat on the lid of a pagan funerary urn and is a unique object in North Western Europe.[34] Although it is labeled 'man', it is unclear whether it represents a man or a woman, as there are no distinctive anatomic details.[35]

Exactly why this figurine was created is still a mystery, being the earliest Anglo-Saxon three-dimensional figure ever found. It may be a representation of a deity whose identity is now lost, but it is still a great artifact that reminds us how little we know about religion in this early migration period across northern Europe.[36]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Historic England, "Norwich Castle (132268)", PastScape, retrieved 2010-12-29 
  2. ^ Allen Brown 1976, p. 31
  3. ^ Cathcart King 1983, pp. 308, 312
  4. ^ Harfield 1991, pp. 373, 384
  5. ^ Webster & Cherry 1980, pp. 228–229
  6. ^ Liddiard 2005, p. 36
  7. ^ Campbell 2004, p. 164
  8. ^ a b c d Pevsner 1997, pp. 256–260
  9. ^ Warren 1973, p. 135
  10. ^ Wareham 1994, p. 241
  11. ^ Rawcliffe & Wilson 2006, p. 42
  12. ^ Skinner 2006, p. 30
  13. ^ Renn 1968, p. 262
  14. ^ Howard, The State of the Prisons, 4th edition, 1784, p293.
  15. ^ Renn 1968, p. 259
  16. ^ Renn 1968, p. 259, plate XXXII
  17. ^ "Anglo Saxons and Vikings at Norwich Castle Gallery". A Sense Of Place. BBC. 21 May 2004. Retrieved 3 October 2012. 
  18. ^ Norfolk Museums Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum Art Gallery): Peter Tillemans, BBC, 2011, retrieved 2011-09-06 
  19. ^ BBC Documentary 2015 - Antiques Roadshow Detectives 2 Lorina Bulwer, BBC, retrieved 11 April 2015
  20. ^ Clark 1881, p. 268
  21. ^ Goodall 2011, p. 112
  22. ^ Vanke 2018, p.8
  23. ^ Vanke 2018, p.8-9
  24. ^ Davis; Pestell. 2015. p.25
  25. ^ Norfolk Museums Collection Online Catalogue
  26. ^ Davis; Pestell. 2015. p.25
  27. ^ Norfolk Museums Collection Online Catalogue
  28. ^ Davis; Pestell. 2015. p.51
  29. ^ Davis; Pestell. 2015. p.51
  30. ^ Norfolk Museums Collection Online Catalogue
  31. ^ Davis; Pestell. 2015. p.51
  32. ^ Davis; Pestell. 2015. p.51
  33. ^ Norfolk Museums Collection Online Catalogue
  34. ^ Norfolk Museums Collection Online Catalogue
  35. ^ Norfolk Museums Collection Online Catalogue
  36. ^ Davis; Pestell. 2015. p.62

Further reading

  • Heslop, T. A. (1994), Norwich Castle Keep: Romanesque Architecture and Social Context, Norwich: Centre for East Anglian Studies, ISBN 978-0-906219-38-6 
  • Shepherd Popescu, Elizabeth (1997), Guy De Boe and Frans Verhaeghe, eds., "Recent Excavations at Norwich Castle", Military Studies in Medieval Europe – Papers of the 'Medieval Europe Brugge 1997' Conference, 11: 187–191, archived from the original on 17 December 2011 
  • Shepherd, Elizabeth (2000), "Norwich Castle", Current Archaeology, 170: 52–59 

External links

Norwich Castle

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