Objects that tell the story of iconic Norwich Castle
PUBLISHED: 10:10 10 March 2018 | UPDATED: 14:14 18 April 2018
As the exhibition The Square Box on the Hill continues at Norwich Castle Museum, Trevor Heaton looks at ten key objects which tell the story of the keep’s 900-year history.
It’s hard to visualise just how vast a time period 900 years is. To have one building standing from this time would be remarkable; to have two - as oh-so-lucky Norwich does - is nothing short of a marvel.
But while the Priory-then-Cathedral has been concerning itself throughout with the spiritual wellbeing of our souls, Norwich Castle has undergone several changes in role. The fascinating exhibition The Square Box on the Hill, now running at the castle museum, is drawn from a rich treasure-trove of artifacts and documents - many never previously put on show - which reflect this varied history.
As a taster to its riches, here’s ten of its exhibits which show the castle’s very different faces:
1 Norwich Castle was built as an expression of Norman military might and royal power, created on the largest man-made mound in the country and - literally - flattening dozens of Anglo-Saxon houses in the process. Work started on it just a few months after the Battle of Hastings. Within a generation or two, its timber first phase had been replaced by an even more formidable stone version. This model show the castle (then a royal palace) and its elaborate defences and boundaries as they appeared in the 12th century.
2 This exquisite medieval gold finger ring, excavated from the Castle Keep, opens a window on the privileged lifestyle of the elite. But by the middle of the 14th century the castle began to fall on hard times, beginning its next incarnation: as the county gaol.
3 Ten years before this 1795 watercolour by - it’s believed - William Wilkins senior, the castle had been declared unfit to house prisoners. The keep, by then a roofless shell, was clearly inadequate for its task. Wilkins and fellow architect John Soane (he would be knighted in 1831) would end up clashing over the improvements. But, for now, Soane’s plan won the day.
4 This model shows John Soane’s new-look county gaol, which completely gutted the keep, destroyed the exterior Norman staircase and built a freestanding U-shaped block next door. Wilkins senior branded Soane’s design a “heterogeneous and discordant mass” with the Castle “bereaved of its ancient beauty”. Ironically it was to be Wilkins’ son - also called William - whose design replaced Soane’s in 1822-27. Controversially, the crumbling keep was refaced in Bath stone from 1834.
5 By the late 19th century the castle was obsolete as a jail, and in 1887 prisoners were transferred to new premises on Mousehold Heath. Once again, the future of the keep looked insecure. But architect Edward Boardman and banker John Gurney headed an influential group which won support to convert it to the county museum. Boardman added a sandpaper surface to his plans so the blind Gurney could visualise them by touch.
6 And now - the hard work. This 1889 photograph shows the keep during its conversion.It was officially opend in October 1894 by the Duke and Duchess of York, the future King George V and Queen Mary.
7 An attendant’s hat in blue twill, worn before 1974. Remember seeing them on school trips, perhaps?
8 And finally.... when Norwich Brewery was looking for a name for its premier bitter in the 1970s it just had to be the city’s most famous emblem, didn’t it? And now let’s all raise a glass to the castle’s next incarnation - its multi-million-pound Gateway to Medieval England project.
The Square Box on the Hill, main sponsors Brown and Co, runs at Norwich Castle Museum to
June 3. Complementing the exhibition is a series of occasional Tuesday talks. The next is on March 20 (12.30-1pm) when Dr Nick Arber will talk about Serving Time in the Castle: Prisoners and their Gaolers.
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