A castle was supposedly built at Newark for Bishop Alexander of Lincoln (1123-48) before 1135.  The evidence that Alexander built the castle comes from Henry Huntingdon's comment on the seizing of the fortress by King Stephen (1135-54) in 1139.  This has been taken to mean that there was nothing at the site other than spring flowers before the castle was built.

The king took Bishop Alexander, who he had imprisoned at Oxford, to Newark.  There the bishop had built above the River Trent, composed in a flowery springtime place, an ornate castle.  (Ibi quidem construxerat episcopus super flumen Trente in loco amoenissimo vernantissimum florida compositione castellum.)  When he arrived there the king ordered, against the law, the bishop to be starved, affirming with an oath that he should go without all food until he surrendered the castle to him.

Quite clearly Henry attributes the building of a castle at Newark to the bishop.  However, better evidence, in the form of archaeological excavations last century, have turned up tenth century Saxon pottery and a timber palisade later utilised by the ‘Norman' castle.  It also found Bronze Age pottery and possible Roman ditches.  Quite clearly the site had been in occupation since the earliest days of civilization.  The excavators' conclusions included the fact that the castle and borough defences had probably been laid out soon after the Norman Conquest, although the castle site and centre of the present borough were apparently defended before this date.  Quite possibly the first fortifications dated back to the early tenth century when King Edward (899-924) attempted to secure control of the River Trent from Lincoln to Nottingham.  Certainly the gatehouse foundations are built right on top of the earlier Saxon cemetery and Newark has been argued to mean New Work, a term used for the place as early as 1057.

Despite speculation, the known history of the castle site only really begins with a notification of Henry I dated to July 1133.  This granted Bishop Alexander permission to build a bridge over the River Trent at his castle of Newark as long as this did not damage the royal boroughs of Nottingham or Lincoln.  All this actually shows is that the castle predated the bridge and that it belonged to Bishop Alexander.  Consequently the castle building date of c.1133 that is often banded around can be seen to be quite meaningless.  Also the idea that Henry's notification, probably of 1130, which gives Bishop Alexander permission to divert the royal highway ‘which used to pass through Newark' to make a causeway for his fishpond' appear to have nothing to do with fortifications.  This was probably linked to the September 1129 fine accounted for by the bishop's steward for their making a causeway in the highroad by trespass.  Another notification probably of July 1133 allowed Bishop Alexander to have a 5 day fair ‘at his castle of Newark' on St Mary Magdalen's day and the 4 days previous, viz 18-22 July.  Quite obviously the castle was a going concern at this time and not a new build.

With this lack of evidence for castle building comes one original source that does show that the bishop was modifying his fortifications at Newark.  At some point between 1123 and 1133 King Henry notified his lieges that he had allowed Alexander ‘the entire third of the service of his knights belonging to the bishopric of Lincoln so that he may assign them to his castle of Newark and that thenceforward they may keep guard there and do the other services which they ow to the bishop as he has disposed.  Quite plainly such an operation could well be connected with the upgrading of Newark castle by the bishop.

After 1139 King Stephen returned Newark castle to the bishops of Lincoln and, in the last year or so of his reign, granted them the right to mint coins at their vill of Newark.  This boon was soon rescinded as England returned to a state of law and order after Stephen's death in October 1154.  In 1167 King Henry II (1154-89) seized the castle on the death of Alexander's successor, Bishop Robert Chesney of Lincoln.  In 1173 the king granted the bishopric to his natural son, Geoffrey, who held the castle for some time, apparently entertaining his father there in 1180.  The next year Geoffrey surrendered Newark to the king, who retained possession until 1186 when the castle was given to the new bishop of Lincoln, St Hugh (d.1200).  King John (1199-1216) visited the castle in 1205 and between 1207 and 1213 there was no bishop of Lincoln due to the Interdict.  This meant the castle remained in the king's hands.
In 1215 King John visited Newark and ordered brattices to be made for the castle and handed it over to Philip Mark.  During the summer of 1216 John ordered Philip to return the castle to Bishop Hugh Wells (d.1235), but Hugh refused causing John to grant it instead to Robert Gaugy.  Less than 2 months later, the king, having crossed the Wash, died here of dysentery on 18 October 1216 after having lain for 3 days within the fortress.  With the cessation of the civil war the castle was restored to Bishop Hugh (d.1235) in 1218 after a week long siege using stone throwing engines and pickmen.  Even then the castle was surrendered on the terms of Robert receiving £100 for his costs in holding the castle. 

There is a possibility that the castle was being upgraded in 1284 when an inquest found that Walter Newport, mason in Newark castle, fell from a certain beam in a turret and forthwith died'.

Edward II seized the castle from Bishop Henry Burghersh in 1322 and gave it to his friend, Earl Donald of Mar, the rebel nephew of King Robert Bruce (d.1329).  In 1323 Donald was ordered by Edward to guard the prisoners in the castle carefully.  In 1325 the earl was allowed that year's rent for the fortress as he had repaired the castle at his own cost.  The castle was then returned to the bishop.  The new windows and refurbishments of the main suite was effected between 1471 and 1480 under Bishop Rotherham as his coat of arms is displayed under the oriel window.  The castle was surrendered by Bishop Holbeach to Henry VIII in 1547.

The gatehouse, hall, middle and south-west towers were altered and refenestrated for the earl of Rutland in 1581.  As a royal castle Newark was held for Charles I during the Civil War and besieged in 1644 and 1646, the king finally surrendering to the Scots there ending the first Civil War.  Eighty-five years later it lay a slighted and roofless ruin, although restoration work was carried out by Anthony Salvin between 1845 and 1848.  

The original castle was an irregular rhomboid shape about 250' by 180', stretching along the marshy ground along the River Trent. above a crossing point.  It has further been suggested that the odd shape of the north-eastern corner was due to the fact that this was where William I (1066-87) constructed a great motte.  As royal Conquest mottes tended to be very large, but several known ones, like Hereford and Worcester, have disappeared, this is not impossible.  Certainly the rest of the clay ramparts of the original Conquest castle were largely thrown down when the current stone castle was constructed on its packed remains.  Surviving from this original castle are the remnants of a cobbled courtyard to the south of the ward and the revetted rampart under the south-west tower on the southern front of the curtain.  The interior ground level has been raised some 5' in the eighteenth century so that the interior is now at first floor level of the south-west tower.

As the ground dipped to north and south, the river was to the west and the town on slightly lower ground to the east, the site made a natural defensive position.  Excavation suggests that the whole area of the castle was heavily occupied from the earliest days, although mainly ditches remain of their features due to Victorian clearances of the upper stratigraphical layers of the site, although the remains of 2 Saxon buildings were found which had been demolished and then buried when the castle rampart was constructed.

Of the original early twelfth century castle only the great gatehouse and the rectangular south-west tower survive, together with some fragments of the curtain wall.  The bulk of the other surviving ruins, the polygonal north and middle towers with intervening curtain above the river, would seem to be late thirteenth or early fourteenth century extension.  All the main living accommodation, hall, solar, chapel etc were along the west wall over the river in this latter castle and possibly in the twelfth century predecessor.  The hall undercroft behind the middle tower would appear to be mid fourteenth century, while the river front oriel window seems to have been added for Bishop Thomas Rotherham (1471-1480).

The gatehouse is the pride and joy of Newark castle.  This rectangular tower stands 3 storeys high and has an ashlar front with 2 corner pilaster buttresses to the north face.  The original tower has had a further exterior extension added to it.  The interior tower is approximately 35' square and is internal to the main curtain.  This has a slightly later subsidiary chamber jutting out from it 33' wide, but only 15' in depth.  This gives the gatehouse a 15' extension to the gate passageway which lacks any portcullis or apparently a drawbridge, although there was a drawbridge pit in front of it judging by the late Victorian photographs of the site.  It has been suggested by the excavators that this moat before the gatehouse was the fishpond mentioned by Henry I (1100-35).  This may explain the lack of defences to the gatetower, it apparently only having the one gate for its entire defence.  As an ecclesiastical castle Newark bears some similarities to the Romanesque Rochester keep as well as Sherborne and Wolvesey castles.

The gatetower's original ashlar front has been much altered with low, but powerful Victorian buttresses being added on either side, presumably to halt the cracking which is noticeable heading upwards from either side of the main gate.  The rear ashlar to the tower has been stripped off, no doubt as it was more accessible.  Three twin sixteenth century windows have been added above and the ashlar repaired or replaced with the bulk of a projecting string course being destroyed.  This can be confirmed by the remnants of triple Romanesque window embrasures remaining within the tower extension at first floor level.  This forward chamber may have been the constable's private chamber with a view of the entrance bridge and probable outer ward to the north.  A doorway led south into the main chamber which was reached via the stair turret vice.  A second exit from the ‘private' chamber now leads to mid air over the moat, although originally there would appear to have been some sort of wooden gangway leading back to a smaller doorway within the curtain wall.  As the private chamber is an addition to the gatetower it is to be presumed that this wooden walkway was added as it was otherwise impossible to reach the chambers within the curtain at this level.  As no other means of access to this chamber is apparent, it would appear that this was an early change to the tower plan, possibly caused by a planning mistake.  Within this part of the curtain was a private garderobe and beyond that a barrel vaulted square chamber with a light to the west.  This was probably the constable's bedroom set in a small turret, apparently the mirror image of the stair turret to the east.  Possibly the doorway between the constable's chamber and the private room was originally a window to allow a view of the bridge.  Certainly the private room could not have been a chapel, being equipped with a garderobe, bedroom and in the western wall a now blocked fireplace.  All in all this layout suggests an early design.

The main gatetower chamber was originally 2 storeys high, while the ‘private' chamber had a lean to roof facing north, of which traces of its crease still remain in the side walls.  At some point the roof of this chamber was raised and it was converted into 2 storeys, as was the main chamber behind.  Access to these new rooms was achieved by cutting doorways from the vice.  Also at this level was another original chamber set in the west turret, but including most of the space above the passageway to the latrine of the constable's possible bedroom below.  This room was only accessed via a corridor in the west curtain which itself was reached via a vice set in the corner of the original castle wall which came up just west of the constable's garderobe below.  Quite likely this isolated room was the bishop's treasury.  This was a somewhat similar layout to the gatetower at Ludlow.

Behind the ashlar the masonry of the rest of the tower consists of poor slabs of mudstone, although the surviving original fenestration, like the tall Romanesque arch of 2 external orders to the west, but 4 orders to the interior, is made of the same limestone as the ashlar front.  In the interior part of the tower was a large, fine Romanesque window of 3 orders to the east, which has since been blocked.  An impressive stair turret with large vice was behind the curtain junction to the east.  Towards its summit Romanesque doorways to east and west led to the curtain wallwalk and gatehouse roof respectively.  Above the possible treasury was another similar chamber, also reached via the same stairway.  This has mostly been destroyed, but there are the remains of a light cut at 40 degrees through the north corner of the inner gatetower.  That it is at this angle suggests that this was a modification to the original plan and that it was half blocked when the outer tower was added to the design suggests another change in plan.  The east stair turret continued on for another storey, no doubt as a watchtower.

Flanking the gatehouse are 2 original sections of curtain wall some 60' high.  That to the west is the most interesting.  This runs some 35' towards the river where it ends in a quoined corner which has been built onto by the later curtain which runs on to the north tower.  Within the old curtain are suites of garderobes accessed from the gatetower and indicating, as if its ornate fenestration hadn't already, that this included chambers of great sophistication.  Timber reinforcement found within the gatehouse and curtains showed that they were constructed as one.  Excavation showed that the curtain at least was set on a few rows of poor quality herringbone masonry on the rock hard clay rampart remains of the earlier castle.  Towards the north end of the west curtain there may also have been a watergate, replaced by the later one which still exits.  A barrel vaulted passage was found under the current undercroft during excavations.  This still retained mortar similar to that found in the gatehouse.

The other surviving part of the original castles is the rectangular south-west tower.  This too is of 3 stages, but has a later battered plinth.  The inner side has a reconstructed roll-moulded Romanesque doorway with shafts.  In the undercroft are the remains of a doorway to the early chapel.  Garderobes of various ages frequently grace the site as do a total of at least 5 bottle and normal prisons spread around the castle.


Copyright©2021 Paul Martin Remfry