Vol 1 – No. 3 – May 1887 – The Norman Keep, Newcastle

Castle Keep, 1810Castle Keep, 1887The first Norman Castle at Newcastle-on-Tyne was built by Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, and was probably a mere wooden fort, raised upon an earthen mound. Robert’s brother, William Rufus, built a more substantial fortress on or about the same site, and from it the town received its present name. This latter fortress was improved upon, if not entirely rebuilt, by Henry II, who in 1172 erected the Keep, which still survives as restored in the beginning of the present century.

The history of the Keep for many years preceding this restoration is a history of dilapidation and decay. In the reign of James I (to go no further back), an inquisition which was held complained that the great square tower was full of chinks and crannies; that one-third of it was almost taken away; and that all the lead and coverings which it had of old were embezzled and carried off, so that “the prisoners of the county of Northumberland were most miserably lodged by reason of the showers of rain falling upon them. “Some repairs were made; but the Keep got gradually worse, so that when Bourne wrote his “History of Newcastle” (published in 1736) it was roofless, while all the floors had fallen in, except the 6rst floor, which formed the roof of the gaol in the basement.

In 1780, the chapel of the Castle was used as a beer cellar by the landlord of the Three Bulls’ Heads public house; in other parts of the Keep there was an ice-house, as well as a currier’s workshop; and on the top of the walls (which were thirteen feet thick) was a cabbage garden. The lessee of the building in 1782, one Mr. John Chrichloe Turner, did his best to complete the degradation of the Castle by advertising it to be let as a windmill! The advertisement ran as follows: “To be let, the OLD CASTLE in the Castle Garth, upon which with the greatest convenience and advantage may be erected a Wind Mill for the purpose of grinding Corn and Bolting’ Flour, or making Oil, &c. There is an exceeding-‘y good Spring of Water within the Castle, which renders it a very eligible situation for a Brewery, or any Manufactory that requires a constant supply of water. The proprietor, upon proper terms, will be at a considerable part of the expense. Enquire of Mr. Fryer, in Westgate Street, Newcastle.”

Our illustrations are interesting as enabling us at a glance to contrast the present aspect of this venerable Norman work with that it presented before it was restored, and when it was at its lowest point of decay. Our smaller view is from Sir Walter Scott’s “Border Antiquities,” for which work it was painted by that famous Newcastle artist, Luke Clennell, and engraved by John Greig. The “Border Antiquities” was published in 1814, and the sketch must have been made before or during 1810, as alterations in the Castle-yard were begun in the latter year. The earthen heap in the foreground of Clennell’s picture is “The Mound,” which stood about 25 yards south west of the Keep, and may have been the site of the original fort of Robert Curthose. The square mass of masonry on the left is part of the Old Baillie Gate of the Castle, which stood facing the end of the street now called Bailiff Gate. The house on the right of the picture is now removed, and the door next it, with the ladder leading up to it, is now reached by a flight of stone stairs. The lower steps of these can be seen on the left hand side of our larger illustration, which shows the Keep as it stands at present.

The old Keep was purchased by the Corporation of Newcastle for £600. It was, says Mackenzie, renovated in 1812. Alderman Forster was the moving spirit in this work. Many have found fault with him for adding the battlemented top, which is quite out of character with the architecture of the Keep; but Newcastle folks may well overlook the incongruity in gratitude for the preservation of a rare relic of antiquity from utter ruin and destruction.

R. J. 0.

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