Newark Castle is positioned on the conjunction of the River Trent with the Fosse Way, an important old Roman/medieval road running between Exeter and Lincoln. Lying in Nottinghamshire, the Norman/Angevin structure was known as the ‘key to the north,’ and had huge ramifications on the course of English history…
Saxons to Stone
The first fortifications at Newark were recorded in 829 when King Edgbert constructed a fortress in order to check the advance of the Danes – unsuccessfully, as by the end of the century the land was under the Danelaw. A fortified Saxon manor house was established there by the eleventh century, owned by King Edward the Elder.
After the Norman conquest in 1066, a mott-and-bailey structure enclosed the manor house behind a defensive line, securing the crucial network at a time of significant uncertainty and regime change. The stone fortification of the castle was constructed by Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, probably completed by 1139 after Henry I’s charter in 1135 gave permission for work to begin. The castle was most likely of timber construction initially, progressively rebuilt in stone throughout the rest of the century in true Anglo-Norman style.
Barons and Bad Kings
Newark Castle’s history is best enshrined by the presence and rapid deterioration from life of one of England’s most infamous monarchs, ‘Bad’ King John. After his feigned offensive to relieve Windsor Castle, John contracted dysentery most probably at Lynn, which would prove to be fatal. On his return West, John is said to have lost a significant portion of his baggage train, with Roger of Wendover suggesting that the English Crown Jewels were lost to a quagmire of quicksand and whirlpools in the Wash. John approached Newark Castle and his appointed custodian Robert de Gaughy, in October 1216 – as his illness grew worse.
The king was in no condition to travel, allegedly screaming in agony whilst a storm raged outside the walls, dying on either the 18th or 19th of October – though many accounts suggested he was killed by poisoned plums or peaches! John was transported to Worcester Cathedral to be buried in front of the altar of St Wulfstan – though a new sarcophagus and effigy were constructed in 1232, which remain to this day.
John’s son Henry of Winchester took the throne as King Henry III of England, Lord of Ireland and Duke of Aquitaine as a minor, under the tutelage of the legendary ‘greatest knight’ William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. De Gaughy refused to concede the castle to the newly unified Royal army, the mercenary’s final contract being to the coin that the late king had employed him with.
De Gaughy was eventually compelled by the army to give up control of Newark Castle, paying a fine of £100 worth of silver, which ended its involvement in the First Barons’ War – albeit with a short but significant cameo in 1221, when the castle was captured by William de Forz during his rebellion against Henry III after his excommunication at the beginning of the year.
An Early Retirement
Newark Castle, and the surrounding town was given a facelift in the early 14th century with its town walls being rebuilt, potentially due to the freezing over of relations with Scotland, and a need to secure England’s Northern frontier. However, this seems to have ensured Newark Castle was pressed into early retirement – the old citadel less important as a fortification, and more important for beautification reasons. Yet once more in 1323, a king, threatened by barons, took refuge in the Castle.
Edward II was said to have visited the castle, whilst it was under Donald, Earl of Marr, asking him to guard his prisoners and the castle carefully. Donald, nephew to Robert the Bruce, was one such custodian that made improvements; hence the west wall facing the river gained the towers that remain as a late medieval addition to this day. The Castle was soon handed back to its historical owners, the Bishops of Lincoln.
After this, Newark was turned over to Crown control following the English reformation, passing through several private owners from 1547; Sir Francis Leeke and Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, to name but a few. Cecil and Burghley were responsible for transforming Newark Castle into a fortified Tudor residence – which more royalty, of Stuart rather than Plantagenet descent, stayed in. James I and Charles I both were resident within the castle in significant comfort, however the retirement of this old Angevin structure was not to last through Charles’ watch as king…
The English Civil War
King Charles I raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham on the 22nd August 1642 – indicating the beginning of the English Civil War. Newark Castle, as ‘key to the North’ was a strategic military installation, and came to the royalist side – being besieged 3 times throughout the war, February 1643, February 1644 and also after the crushing victory for Parliament at Naseby on June 14th 1645.
The Parliamentarian army gave up the first siege without a fight, giving up in a matter of days – though the second siege was decidedly more intense. Prince Rupert, Charles’ handsome and courageous German nephew defended against an army 6,000 men strong, led by John Meldrum, successfully holding the line and eventually defeating the Parliamentarians for the cavalier cause. Though the siege was won, the ancient weaknesses from Newark Castle’s history were exposed – as the Kings and Queens Sconces were built, giant earthwork forts to stifle the ability of hostile artillery to attack the walls of the Norman structure.
The third and final siege would come from November 1645, and last 7 months – with Parliamentary and Scottish armies pinning the fortification down from both sides. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Royalist commander, John Bellasye, refused to succumb to the hostile armies. Bellasye had his men engage in skirmishes using pikes and muskets, whilst civilians subsisted on horses and dogs, whilst typhus ran rampant throughout both sides’ camps.
The siege came to an end in May 1646, as Charles I, ousted from Oxford by Parliamentarians, came to hand himself to David Leslie, commander of the Scottish army – in order to avoid being at the mercy of parliament. It is said Bellasye wept when ordered to stand down by the king, he had fought 16,000 soldiers, but was compelled to surrender. So, at Newark Castle ended the initial phase of the English Civil War.
After this loss, Newark Castle was intentionally damaged in 1648 (slighted, to reduce its value as a military asset to the royalist faction) – and left derelict. The walls of the castle still bear the blackening marks of gunpower and cannon fire to this day.
Post Civil-War, Newark Castle was a shadow of its former self, occupied by squatters and even at one stage used as a cattle market. The town walls were demolished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the East Gate remaining standing until 1762. However, between 1845 and 1848, the architect Anthony Salvin took on the castle as a passion project, spending £650 to restore it to its former glory. By 1889, the castle had been handed over to the Corporation of Newark, who opened a landscaped public garden in the old courtyard of the castle, for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of 1887.
So there opened Newark Castle and Gardens for the general public to enjoy, with around 140 elaborately carved stones having been uncovered from the early twelfth century and stored in the undercroft of the Castle for safekeeping. The Castle is a wonderful sight to visit, for an ice cream or a family day out – you can find more information about Newark Castle and Gardens here.
You may enjoy reading our other articles on English castles.