Known as “Castle Rock”, with cliffs 130 feet (40 m) high to the south and west, Nottingham Castle was a major royal fortress and occasional royal residence in the Middle Ages. In decline by the 16th century, it was largely demolished in 1649. The Duke of Newcastle built later a mansion on the site, which was burnt down by rioters in 1831 and left as a ruin. It was later rebuilt to house an art gallery and museum, which remain in use to this day. Little of the original castle survives, but sufficient portions remain to give an impression of the layout of the site.
For centuries the castle served as one of the most important in England for nobles and royalty alike. It was in a strategic position due to its location near a crossing of the River Trent, and it was also known as a place of leisure being close to the royal hunting grounds at Tideswell, which was the “Kings Larder” in the Royal Forest of the Peak, and also the royal forests of Barnsdale and Sherwood Forest . The castle also had its own deer park in the area immediately to the west, which is still known as The Park.
While King Richard of England (known as “Lionheart”) was away on the Third Crusade, along with a great number of English noblemen, Nottingham Castle was occupied by supporters of Prince John, including the Sheriff of Nottingham. In the legends of Robin Hood, Nottingham Castle is the scene of the final showdown between the Sheriff and the hero outlaw.
In March 1194, a historic battle took place at Nottingham castle, part of the returned King Richard’s campaign to put down the rebellion of Prince John. The castle was the site of a decisive attack when King Richard besieged the castle, after constructing some of the same types of siege machines he had used on the crusade. Richard was aided by Ranulph de Blondeville, 4th Earl of Chester, and David of Scotland, 8th Earl of Huntingdon. The castle surrendered after just a few days.
Edward III used the castle as a residence and held Parliaments. In 1346 King David II of Scotland was held prisoner. In 1365 Edward III improved the castle with a new tower on the west side of the Middle Bailey and a new prison under the High Tower. In 1376 Peter de la Mare, speaker of the House of Commons was confined in Nottingham Castle for having ‘taken unwarrantable liberties with the name of Alice Perrers, mistress of the king’
In 1387 the state council was held in the castle. Richard II held the Lord Mayor of London with Aldermen and Sheriffs in the castle in 1392, and held another state council to humble Londoners. The last visit recorded by Richard II was in 1397 when another council was held here.
From 1403 until 1437 it was the main residence of Henry IV’s queen, Joan.
After the residence of Joan maintenance was reduced. Only upon the Wars of the Roses did Nottingham Castle begin to be used again as a military stronghold. Edward IV proclaimed himself king in Nottingham, and in 1476 he ordered the construction of a new tower and Royal Apartments. This was described by John Leland in 1540 as:
‘the most beautifulest part and gallant building for lodging… a right sumptuus piece of stone work.’
During the reign of King Henry VII the castle remained a royal fortress. Henry VIII ordered new tapestries for the castle before he visited Nottingham in August in 1511. By 1536 Henry had the castle reinforced and its garrison increased from a few dozen men to a few hundred.
In 1538 the Constable, the Thomas Manners, 1st Earl of Rutland , reported on the need for maintenance. A survey in 1525 stated that there was much ‘dekay and ruyne of said castell’ and
‘part of the roof of the Great Hall is fallen down. Also the new building there is in dekay of timber, lead and glass’.