NOTTINGHAM CASTLE, Nottinghamshire

NOTTINGHAM CASTLE, Nottinghamshire

Nottingham Castle is renowned for its connections with Richard the Lionheart and his treacherous younger brother John, with Robin Hood, and with Edward III. Unfortunately, it was demolished in the 1650s and no longer stands. The site, on the top of a huge rock outcrop, is now a museum, housed in a late-17th century “castle” (actually an enormous mansion with manicured lawns).

It is a lovely mansion and museum. It cannot help but be, however, a major disappointment for the hapless medieval enthusiast who arrives hoping to revel in earlier centuries.

There are, however, still a few traces of the medieval to be found if the visitor has a strong imagination and some historical background. The museum’s exhibits on Nottingham’s long and illustrious (and occasionally blood-thirsty!) history are a good starting place.

The first Nottingham Castle was built by William the Conqueror two years after the Norman conquest of England. It was a simple wooden fortification but its position on top of Castle Rock made it almost impregnable. Henry II, the first Plantagenet, recognized the strategic importance of the site and rebuilt the castle in stone. He added a king’s bedchamber and a park, beginning the process of turning a fort into a defensible royal residence. During the reigns of his successors, Nottingham Castle was continually expanded, rebuilt, redecorated and modernized.

While Henry’s son, King Richard (“the Lionheart”), was away on crusade, his treacherous younger brother Prince John seized the castle as part of his bid for the throne. According to legend, John’s henchman the Sheriff of Nottingham and the legendary hero Robin Hood battled each other in and around the castle for years. On Richard’s return, he had to reclaim Nottingham by force of arms. It was the only time the castle was ever successfully besieged.

Nottingham Castle gained even greater notoriety early in the reign of King Edward III. Edward’s father, Edward II, had been deposed in 1327 and the teenage Edward III crowned in his stead. The real power, however, was held by Edward III’s mother Isabella, who ruled in the name of her teenage son – with her lover Roger Mortimer by her side! Neither Isabella nor Mortimer was willing to cede power to Edward as he grew to manhood. He was kept isolated and powerless. If Edward was ever to rule, he had to take bold steps.

In 1330, Mortimer, Isabella, Edward and the court were at Nottingham Castle. Edward arranged for several of his supporters to secretly enter the castle after dark through a tunnel that was usually kept locked and guarded. Cut through the heart of the rock, it led up from the base of the rock into the heart of the castle at the top. The tunnel, one of several that were used to bring supplies into the castle, was steep and narrow.

Once the small band of trusty friends had stealthily climbed to the top and joined Edward, he was able to overpower Mortimer’s guards and seize Mortimer by surprise. With Isabella neutralized, and Mortimer imprisoned (and then executed), Edward was now truly king.

The tunnels still remain and can be visited.

I visited Nottingham as part of a group, with a set itinerary and very limited time. And, due to “unforeseen circumstances,” the tunnels were not open for visitation that day. I was absolutely devastated!

A charitable museum guard, however, took pity on this very woebegone visitor.

We went out a back door to the entrance of the most famous tunnel, known inelegantly as “Mortimer’s hole.” There, an iron gate was unlocked and I was allowed several totally private moments to explore the steps inside (and down). It was more than enough – eerie, claustrophobic and very, very evocative. I could imagine myself as one of Edward’s compatriots, silently creeping up through bedrock, my hand on my sword, hoping not to be discovered and cut down, all in the interests of bringing the rightful king to power. I will forever number that museum guard among heaven’s saints!

After the visit to the museum, our group visited another Nottingham site not to be missed, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem pub. The name refers to the tradition that pilgrims and Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem would stop here on their journeys eastward. Although the claim can’t be documented, “Ye Olde Trip” may date from the late 12th century. It was originally the castle’s brewhouse and only later became an inn. The black and white timber-framed entrance buildings date to the mid 17th century.

The pub is at the base of Castle Rock and actually embedded in the side of the hill. The ceilings of several of the dining areas are unadorned rock, a point brought home to us when a small piece of ceiling rock fell directly into a bowl of soup! The appeal of Ye Olde Trip is not just its location. The soup was very good indeed.