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Fortiter Defendit Triumphans
The Castle Keep (Newcastle)
Member Name: michaelhudson
The Castle Keep (Newcastle)
Date: 15/11/02, updated on 15/11/02 (881 review reads)
Advantages: Inspiring Views, Centrally located, Inexpensive
Disadvantages: Not suitable for the elderly or disabled, Poorly explained
The Romans were the first to recognise the strategic importance of the site, building an earth and timber fort called Pons Aelius (Bridge of Aelius, which was Emperor Hadrian’s family name) to guard the bridging point on the river below. The second station on Hadrian’s Wall, the fort was abandoned to the Dark Ages and three centuries of decay when the Romans withdrew from Britain in the 4th century. The 'New Castle' of Robert Curthouse, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, was built on the Roman ruins and a later cemetery for the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Monkchester, burying 462 graves and the old frontier stronghold beneath a royal fortress that was soon caught up in the power struggle for the throne that followed. Held by the rebellious Earl of Northumberland, the castle was besieged and eventually recaptured by King William Rufus in 1096.
Refortified in stone by King Henry II seventy years later, Newcastle withstood an attack by King William the Lion of Scotland in 1173 before its stone defences were finally completed in the 13th century. For the next one hundred years the castle served as a military stronghold, housing monarchs on royal tours or campaigns against the Scots to the north, and imprisoning rebellious noblemen on their way to be executed in the south.
By 1589, however, the 'New Castle' was "old and ruinous" and its defensive ditch had become a rubbish dump, holding a dung heap that measured 98 yards long, 32 yards wide and 10 yards high. Aside from a brief period during th
e Civil War, when the dung was used to reinforce the crumbling walls and the castle was defended for the King against the Scottish Army for three days, the site was allowed to degenerate. In 1808 the Corporation of Newcastle purchased the Keep for 600 guineas and opened it to the public four years later. The remainder of the castle grounds, cluttered with residential dwellings, were effectively vandalised by the building of the railway between 1847 and 1849, leaving the Keep stranded between the river and the main line to London and Edinburgh. After narrowly avoiding destruction, the building was eventually acquired by The Society of Antiquaries, who cleared the surrounding land and added a host of Victorian touches to the Keep itself.
THE BLACK GATE
The principal gateway to the castle was constructed between 1247 and 1250 as the final addition to the medieval defences. By the mid nineteenth century, as the ruined castle fell into disrepair, the barbican had been converted into a slum tenement building housing sixty people and a public house, The Three Bulls' Heads. Restored by the Victorians in the 1880s and landscaped in the 1970s, the Black Gate, which takes its name from one of its old tenants, now stands between a railway viaduct and St Nicholas Cathedral at the top of a bank leading down to the Quayside. A reconstructed wooden bridge leads under a high, pointed arch and into the old walled passage. Bending to the right between vaulted chambers that lead to guardrooms and the Society of Antiquaries library, a second bridge continues over open excavations towards the cobbled streets under and around the railway viaduct. In a postcard perfect juxtaposition of old and new the Castle Keep suddenly appears behind overhead cables and wire netting, fronting a view across the river to the jumbled grey of a multi-storey car park squashing Gateshead’s concrete centre.
THE CASTLE KEEP
Steep stone steps lead up and left to the
small entrance room. Opposite the cramped reception booth stairs wind up to the roof and down to the high-ceilinged Garrison Room. The original function of the latter is unclear, though it is assumed that it housed a garrison of troops, but we do know that between the 16th and 18th centuries it was used as the county gaol, as evidenced by the rusting rings along the eastern wall that prisoners awaiting trial were once chained to. John Howard, a noted prison reformer, famously deplored the state of this "dirty, damp dungeon" at a time when it was completely open to the elements and thronged with visitors who paid 6d to witness the humiliation of the prisoners. More recently used as a WWII air-raid shelter, the room contains parapet figures from the Town Walls, two stone balusters from the 18th century Tyne Bridge, a large, slightly eroded Royal Arms of England, which dates from the 14th century and was once set on the front of the barbican at the Black Gate, and the arms of both the Bishop of Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The weatherbeaten arms of the city once bore the motto 'Fortiter Defendit Triumphans 1646' (She Defends Bravely and Triumphs), which was awarded by a grateful King Charles I before his defeat and execution.
Occupying the whole of the basement underneath the main staircase, the old Norman Chapel is reached by climbing two thick steps. A long room with high arches and intricate craftsmanship, the nave runs north to south with the chancel at right angles to create extra space. The chapel was extensively renovated by John Dobson in 1848, though the ornamentation around the windows and vaulted ceilings is original 12th century Norman.
From here the central staircase circles its way back up to the entrance level where a small museum documents the history of the Keep and the surrounding Castle Garth area. The informative displays include pictures of the castle, 17th century Scottish rapiers and broadswords, a scale mo
del of the Keep including floor plans and a larger conjectural model of the entire castle site made in 1852. Framed documents provide a host of useful information on the construction of the castle and its Keep, which was evidently built between 1172 and 1177 at a cost of £911. Excavated artefacts such as coins, roof tiles, pottery and implements are exhibited alongside 15th century German stoneware imported from the Rhine and 13th century decorated jugs from France. A series of wall displays detail the history of the castle from Pons Aelius, the remains of which now lie two metres below ground level, through to the present day. The Queen's Chamber, reached by a small labyrinth of narrow corridors and tiny staircases, is also on this floor, though the life size display of what appears to be a servant preparing food suffers from a lack of explanation.
Back on the staircase, and just around the next bend, a straight set of stairs branches off to the left. Both options lead up to opposite ends of the Gallery, a narrow walkway overlooking the hall via a series of openings, and ultimately the roof, while the opening at the foot of the straight staircase is one of five doorways to the Great Hall itself. The fireplace inside the hall is another Victorian reconstruction as is the vaulted ceiling, as shown by the still visible beam slots three quarters of the way up the wall that supported the original. Much of the room is empty, though there are some interesting displays devoted to World War I and the Scottish siege of the castle in 1644. Other doorways lead to the King's Chamber (now empty save for a Norman gravestone, an ornate metal trunk and an original fireplace), latrines, a well that drops 94 feet down to the riverside and a claustrophobic, dimly lit vaulted chamber that served as a post-medieval prison.
At the blustery top of the Keep, Victorian turrets frame fantastic views in all directions. The spire of St Mary's
Cathedral rises to the west alongside the curving Central Station and the International Centre for Life. Trains screech and scrape along the tight bend that cuts between the Keep and the Black Gate. To the north, the lantern tower of St Nicholas' Cathedral towers above the Black Gate. Grey's Monument soars above the splendour of Grainger Town and St James’ Park is a mass of cantilevered angles to the left of Eldon Square. South is Gateshead and the combination of rolling hills and concrete superstores on the southern side of a river spanned by the High Level and Swing Bridges. But best of all is the view to the east where the Quayside sweeps past the Tyne Bridge, curving gently around the Baltic and the Millennium Bridge before racing towards the North Sea. This is Newcastle in all its glory, and while the absence of any real text or signposting hampers recognition of some of the landmarks, the overall effect is simply inspirational.
The Castle Keep is open daily from 9.30-5.30 April to September and 9.30-4.30 October to March.
Admission costs £1.50 for adults. Concessions are 50p.
Metros and trains both arrive at the nearby Central Station. From the main entrance, turn right and continue along Neville Street past the Royal Station Hotel. Follow the road as it bends to the right and the Black Gate is straight ahead. The walk takes no more than five minutes.