Norwich Castle: Castle reflects military might

A square keep, trapped in the middle of Norwich’s bustling city, is all that remains of a huge castle complex built in 1094 that eventually expanded over a 23 acre site.

It is a familiar story and one that screams at a beaten nation: ”Look up to us in awe because we have ultimate power and ruthless military might.” It was a grim message that the victorious William the Conqueror, who beat the English king, Harold, in 1066 on a hill in Sussex, wanted to spread across his new nation.

He knew the English could be troublesome if he didn’t make them cower in fear so he built mighty castles in important trading and administrative centres like London, Durham, Norwich, and others, to get a firm grip on any possible uprisings.

You might ask why Norwich? Set in the backwaters of East Anglia it was, you would have thought, of no consequence. But, in fact, it was one of the most important commercial centres, and densely populated areas, in England during the 11th century, living prosperously off trade with the Low Countries.

The massive keep we see today started out as no more than a defensive wooden palisade, thrown up in haste, to keep out the rebellious locals. But plans were drawn up to build a much grander castle and to make space for it around 100 homes were demolished to create clear ground for the Norman grand design.

Thousands of tonnes of earth were moved to construct a giant mound or motte, one of the largest constructions of its type in the country. Once the giant mound of soil had compacted William II set about building the stone keep, which was to be built out of limestone shipped across the English Channel from Caen in France in around 1094.

The cost must have been monumental because once the stone had arrived off the mouth of the River Yar it had to be transhipped around 25 miles inland by barge to the construction site. There is no doubt that Norman masons, architects and builders were masters of their craft, and the rapidly expanding building area must have been an impressive sight as the stone was unloaded, worked and then manoeuvred to the high mound using a system of pulleys and ropes driven by giant treadmills.

William never saw the keep completed, he died six years after work started, but his brother Henry I carried on with the project, which was finished around 1121. Of course, in the grand Norman scheme of things, the castle was to be a huge self-sufficient stronghold that eventually covered an area of 23 acres.

The castle, which was really a defensive royal palace, was the hub of a stronghold within a city. A series of deep dry ditches linked by defensive towers and bridges protected those who lived and worked inside the castle.

Livestock grazed within the baileys, open ground between the walls and ditches, while the buildings inside the walls housed the key workers, like carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, armourers, bakers and cooks who kept the machinery of castle life turning.

Walking round the castle today you will see that the lower walls up to first floor height are faced with flint, which sits like a dark band around the clean white limestone above. It appears to ‘lift’ the castle even higher on its motte base.

Like all ancient buildings Norwich castle has suffered from erosion over the nine centuries it has been standing, and by 1834 it was decided to reface the castle using Bath limestone, which has been cut to give the impression that it has joints.

Of special architectural note is the richly carved Bigod Arch, which was originally the main entrance to the castles’ upper floor. This huge area was divided in two, one side being the Great Hall, with the royal quarters on the opposite south side.

One of the most interesting features of a tour of the ground floor is a tableau showing Norman masons at work. Dressed much like monks, one mason dresses a large stone block, a labourer mixes mortar, and what is probably a master mason, uses a plumb line to check if the work being carried out is straight! Nobody really knows what the scene might have looked like all those centuries ago but it does give an insight into how the work site might have been.

Despite the grandeur and powerful message the royal palace gave to the people no Norman kings lived in Norwich. It was the home of the king’s constable and his soldiers as well as being the region’s most important administrative centre.

Mel Russ