Newcastle Castle: The Castle Keep
Occupied for nearly 2000 years the area is a naturally defensible site with steep sides overlooking and running down to the River Tyne.
From the mid 2nd century the Roman fort of Pons Aelius stood here guarding the river crossing below until the beginning of the 5th century when Roman rule collapsed. The name Pons Aelius refers to the Roman name for bridge (pons) and the Emperor Hadrian whose family name was Aelius. Parts of Hadrian’s Wall are still visible today from Wallsend in the east to Carlisle on the west coast. Some of the buildings from the fort have been marked in the paving to the north and west of the keep.
In the late 7th century right up until the construction of the Castle in 1080, there was an extensive Saxon cemetery. Even after the Castle had been built, burials continued within the area enclosed by its defences.
The ‘New Castle’ (which gave the town its name) was founded in 1080 by the eldest son of William the Conqueror, Robert Curthose and built using earth and timber. It is debateable if the original structure was of motte and bailey or ringwork design. A motte and bailey castle consists of a mound or hill which the castle would stand upon, commonly known as the motte, and the land around and in front of it known as the bailey, which was defended by a protective fence. A ringwork castle on the other hand had no mound, but had an enclosing bank, with a ditch outside it. There is evidence to argue that the castle could have been either.
Between 1168 and 1178 the castle was rebuilt in stone by Maurice the Engineer at a cost of just over £1,144. Building work was interrupted in 1173 when the castle was besieged by the Scots, and again in 1174. This rebuilding produced the Keep that we can see today. The Castle Keep had two main functions - it was the principal strongpoint of the Castle and the living space for the commander of the garrison. The Castle Keep displays many important features, including the late Norman chapel and the well, which is nearly 100 feet deep, allowing fresh water to be provided to the castle during a siege and in times of peace.
Notable additions to the castle were made in the 13th century during the reign of King John (1207 – 1216) including the Great Hall which was built within the garth, the area enclosed by the castle walls. The last improvement to the defences was the addition of a barbican, now known as the Black Gate, between 1247 and 1250.
In 1400 Newcastle became a county in its own right but the Castle Garth remained part of the County of Northumberland. The Keep became a prison for the county. The 13th century Great Hall, known as the Moot Hall (on the current site of the Vermont Hotel and the courtyard of the present Moot Hall), was used by the assizes courts (courts which sat at regular intervals in each county of England and Wales).
By the early 14th century the Castle was enclosed by the completion of the Town Wall, a fortified wall that could be defended via 6 large gates and one small one, 17 towers and some turrets, thus reducing the Castle’s role to little more than a Royal supply base.
In 1619 the Castle, with the exception of The Keep, Moot Hall and gaoler’s house, was leased by James I to Alexander Stephenson, one of the king’s courtiers. Stephenson allowed houses to be built within the Castle walls, and also sub-let parts of the Castle for workshops.
When civil war struck England in 1642, the Castle was briefly refortified and became the last stronghold of the town’s Royalist defenders, who eventually surrendered on the 19th October, 1644 to the Parliamentarians.
After the Civil War houses were rebuilt and new ones were added until, by the end of the 18th century the Castle Garth had become a distinct and densely populated community, with a theatre, public houses, lodging houses and cobbler’s shops. Clearance of these began in the early 1800s for construction of the new Moot Hall (to replace the medieval moot hall as the County Court). From 1847-1849 further clearance made way for the railway viaduct This cut off access to the Black Gate, as the line runs between the two. In between these clearances the Corporation bought the Castle Keep in 1810 for £630 and began to restore it. Conservation and maintenance continues today.