An American in Nottingham: Writing Robin Hood at Nottingham Castle
On my first visit to Nottingham in 2010 I was a tourist, not a researcher. I didn’t know I would be writing a novel that would include scenes at Nottingham Castle in the late 12th century. What I knew about Nottingham and the Castle came from movies and television shows – exclusively Robin Hood in its various incarnations. We don’t have medieval castles in the United States. The closest I had come to a castle was Cinderella’s at Disney World and Biltmore House in North Carolina.
The year 2010 was a hectic time. I was on sabbatical that spring and preparing for nine weeks in the United Kingdom, planning site visits to university libraries. Nottingham was centrally located so I planned to spend three weeks there before I moved on to Edinburgh. I could not wait to see the legendary “home” of Robin Hood, but I had little time prior to departure to explore the history of Nottingham and its castle. I was ecstatic when I saw the gatehouse and excavated areas of the stone curtain wall. Disappointment hit when I walked through the gatehouse and up the stairs. (Apparently, I am not alone.) After visiting Edinburgh Castle in 2008, I had anticipated seeing stone curtain walls, a keep, towers, and battlements in Nottingham. No such luck. The ducal palace, occupying the site on what would have been part of the upper bailey of Nottingham Castle, is a beautiful building and now a museum. But it was 17th century.
The museum has a model of the castle, but I learned it is representative of the site circa 1500.
|Model of Nottingham Castle circa 1500|
I drowned my disappointment in bangers and mash and a Robin Hood ale at Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which does date back to 1189. I had my photo taken with the Robin Hood statue and was witness to the Nottingham tradition of freemen celebrating their right to herd sheep (at no cost) across the River Trent. Private Derby, the mascot of the Mercian Regiment, was in attendance, along with the Lord Mayor and other officials. Robin Hood even served me a free ale at The Trip that day.
|Private Derby with the Lord Mayor, Robin Hood and others|
Flash forward three years. I was probably halfway through writing Men of the Cross, my Third Crusade novel, when its sequel called to me. I had read a scene at my writers group featuring a couple of teenaged thieves. The group said “I hope we see those boys again,” and suddenly their names struck me. I needed to continue the story of the knights who served King Richard and the three secondary characters I had introduced: Robin (a knight) and the two camp followers named Allan and Little John, who someday will become the gang we know as the Merry Men.
In For King and Country, my fictional knights and these characters of legend would fight alongside King Richard the Lionheart at the Siege of Nottingham in March 1194. M.K. Tod’s Historical Fiction Reader Survey notes that readers’ favorite historical novels immerse the reader in the time and place. I needed to know the people, politics, weaponry, and culture, as well as “the place,” i.e., 12th century Nottingham Castle.
There are a multitude of images of the Castle online, almost all from post-1500 and similar to the model on display at the Museum. Fortunately, Trevor Foulds had published a detailed article on the siege in 1991. Buried in his end notes was a reference to a 1989 article entitled “Nottingham Castle: A Place Full Royal,” by Christoper Drage, which led me to the book of the same name, published in 1990.
I had found gold! Drage’s book is based on historical records beginning with William the Conqueror and a major project from 1976-1984, which included excavations of the middle bailey. The book provides information and illustrations about the building program at the Castle from the late 11th century through its evolution to the present day and provided me the opportunity to show what my future Robin Hood and King Richard and his knights would have seen there.
Nottingham was in a prime location to control routes from south to north and along the River Trent. It gained prominence with William the Conqueror’s castle building program, taking advantage of the natural rock outcrop. By the mid-12th century, the upper bailey of the Castle was surrounded by a timber palisade and separated from the middle bailey by a deep ditch. Henry II undertook major improvements to it to strengthen the defenses. The construction of a stone keep in the upper bailey is credited to his reign. According to the Pipe Rolls, over £1800 was spent in the 1170s and 1180s to construct the stone curtain walls of the upper and middle baileys and for other enhancements and repairs. Drage suggests that by the end of Henry’s reign, the upper bailey also contained king and queen’s apartments, a long chamber separating the two, a chapel, kitchen, as well as a few other buildings. A great hall built of stone was constructed in the middle bailey in the early 1180s.
|Line drawing of Nottingham Castle in the 12th century castle|
The Pipe Rolls report approximately £70 were expended during King Richard’s reign. The Siege of Nottingham lasted three days and apparently the castle suffered very little damage, assuming the Pipe Rolls reflect all costs associated with repairs. King John spent several hundred pounds on enhancements and repairs. On the north and east (which faces the town), the large outer bailey was surrounded by a timber palisade and a wooden gate until the middle of the 13th century when John’s son and successor Henry III replaced the timber gate in the 1250s with the stone gatehouse visitors see now as they enter the castle grounds.
One of the Castle’s most famous incidents was the capture of Roger Mortimer, lover of Queen Isabella (wife of Edward II, mother of Edward III) in 1330. Mortimer and the queen ruled in her son’s name after overthrowing Edward II. Concerned with Mortimer’s influence, seventeen-year old Edward III, ordered the arrest of Mortimer. There are several accounts of his capture, but one relates that Edward’s men infiltrated the Castle through a secret passage, which has come to be known as Mortimer’s Hole. The passage likely existed earlier as caves and cellars are known to have been built in the area earlier than the Conquest. Some versions of the capture note the passageway opened into the middle bailey; others, the upper bailey. But the route led to the base of the castle rock in the Brewhouse Yard and near the River Leen. The passageway may have been used to retrieve stores and water rather than what we tend to think of the romantic secret escape route, and though no written records of 12th century escapades exist, I employed the writer’s creative license to take advantage of the tunnels.
My quest for information for For King and Country could have ended with the 12th and 13th centuries, but understanding what happened to Nottingham Castle was important to me. Continued improvements to the Castle are recorded through the late 15th century, but a survey in 1525 reported numerous problems and neglect. A proposed meeting between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I in 1562 prompted some £500 of repairs and additional work was also completed during the last 20 years of the 16th century. Unfortunately, the once gem of a royal castle continued to fall into disrepair. It was little more than a shell by the time of the English Civil War in the 1640s, uninhabitable according to one biography by a man appointed governor of the Castle in 1643 though it was strengthened at the time to accommodate troops. As the Civil War ended, the Castle was ordered to be demolished in 1651.One drawing dated 1660 shows ruined walls and towers without roofs. William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, purchased the site in 1661. The remaining ruins were cleared for the construction of the current ducal palace in 1674.
|Nottingham Castle (2002)|
Cinderella’s Castle - by Matt H. Wade (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30601374 via Wikipedia
Biltmore House – by JcPollock - Self-published work by JcPollock, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1220643
Model of Nottingham Castle circa 1500 – photo by Cathy Young. Used with permission.
Private Derby with the Lord Mayor, Robin Hood and others – author’s photo, CC BY-SA.
Line drawing of Nottingham Castle in the 12th century castle. In Nottingham Castle: A Place Full Royal, Thoroton Society of Nottingham, c1990. Used with permission.
Nottingham Gatehouse – author’s photo, CC BY-SA.
Nottingham Castle (2002) by Patrick A Griffin, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9131196
Drage, C. (1989). Nottingham Castle: a Place Full Royal. Nottingham: The Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire.
Foulds, T. (1991). “The Siege of Nottingham Castle in 1194” in Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire, volume 95.
About the Author
Charlene Newcomb is the author of Men of the Cross and For King and Country, two historical adventures set during the reign of King Richard I, the Lionheart, though her writing roots are in a galaxy far, far away. She has published 10 short stories in the Star Wars universe and written one contemporary novel. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and a contributor and blog editor for English Historical Fiction Authors.
Charlene lives, works, and writes in Kansas. She is an academic librarian by trade, a former U.S. Navy veteran, and has three grown children. When not working at the library, she is still surrounded by books and trying to fill her head with all things medieval. She loves to travel, and enjoys quiet places in the mountains or on rocky coasts. But even in Kansas she can let her imagination soar. Connect with Char: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Amazon
Written content of this post copyright © Char Newcomb, 2016.