While travelling to see the University of Nottingham Museum’s exhibition about textile production in the medieval East Midlands (see CA 384), I also took the opportunity to visit Nottingham Castle. The last time I had been to the city (to review another exhibition at the university’s museum; see CA 358), the castle had been closed, undergoing a three-year, £33-million programme of conservation, renovation, and redevelopment. So, with the site having reopened to the public just a few months before my latest trip, I went to see what was new.
As it turned out, the answer was: rather a lot. In addition to funding roof repairs and the restoration of historic stonework and lime plaster, and landscaping the castle grounds, the project has seen every major gallery space completely refitted. The site has also gained a new visitor centre, café, and shop; an immersive space called ‘Robin Hood Adventures’, which uses interactive games and digital storytelling to explore the legends associated with Nottinghamshire’s most famous outlaw; and, for younger visitors, a large adventure playground (‘Hood’s Hideout’), which has been installed in the moat. The castle itself boasts an eventful history, which explains its unconventional appearance. The original Norman fortifications were founded in 1086 to guard a strategic crossing of the Trent, before being rebuilt in stone by Henry II (r.1154-1189). The castle was subsequently seized by supporters of the rebellious Prince John and besieged by his brother Richard I in 1194. This was also where Edward III deposed the usurper Roger Mortimer in 1330, where Richard III set out for his ill-fated last stand at the 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field, and where Charles I raised his standard in a call to arms that heralded the English Civil War. The castle was a Parliamentarian stronghold during this latter conflict, and in the aftermath its semi-derelict medieval structures were replaced by a grand mansion built by the 1st Duke of Newcastle. Although the Ducal Palace was gutted by fire in 1831, it was restored in the 1870s, with a museum opening within its walls in 1878.
Relics of rebellion
One of the main spaces within the modern museum is the ‘Rebellion’ gallery, dedicated to the castle’s turbulent past and focusing in particular on three key episodes of uprising that it witnessed: the English Civil War, the Luddite Revolt, and the 1831 Reform Bill riots. The Civil War material includes a poignant display of ranks of pike heads, each one representing 1,000 deaths, as well as musket- and cannonballs, and a graffitied stone block from one of the castle’s prison cells. Together with these more traditional displays, the gallery also features sound and lighting effects, as well as interactive information boards and video screens from which actors portraying historical figures speak to you.
One of these is Lucy Hutchinson, who was the wife of the Governor of Nottingham Castle during the Civil War. Her husband was one of the signatories of Charles I’s death warrant, and between 1664 and 1671 Lucy wrote a detailed memoir in an attempt to rehabilitate her husband’s reputation. For modern readers, her work provides a remarkable eyewitness account of this period, containing detailed descriptions of contemporary events and the appearance of the castle at this time. The physical book is included in the displays, accompanied by a digital model in which you can turn pages and explore key passages in greater depth.
Visitors also encounter the Nottingham Luddites, learning how early 19th-century textile workers were facing soaring food prices and collapsing wages, the latter exacerbated by the emergence of new technology that opened the door to lower-skilled competition. They were forbidden from joining unions or striking to improve their lot – but machine-breaking proved an effective way to protest and put pressure on employers. In the East Midlands alone, some 635 stocking frames (one example is included in the displays) and 70 silk/lace machines were destroyed between 1811 and 1816, but the penalties for such acts were severe. In Nottingham, eight convicted Luddites were hanged and 11 transported for a life of hard labour in Australian penal colonies.
A generation later, Nottingham again saw violent protest following the House of Lords’ rejection of the 1831 Reform Bill, which was intended to address certain inequalities in the electoral system. Uprisings flared in Derby and Bristol too, but in Nottingham the riots culminated in the Ducal Palace being set ablaze. Displayed fragments of tapestries, gilded leather wall-hangings, and statues that once adorned the Duke’s state rooms highlight the damage wrought during that night, as does a scale model of the burnt-out palace that was created during the Duke’s attempts to win compensation for his losses. This is accompanied by a poster advertising a £500 reward for information leading to the conviction of those responsible for the fire – a sum equivalent to some £40,000 today – but such was the local animosity to the Duke at the time, it was never claimed.
In contrast to the ‘Rebellion’ displays featuring the darker side of Nottingham’s industrial heritage, a cluster of rooms collectively called the ‘Creative Galleries’ illuminate some of the key products for which the city is known. One of the most important was lace, which until the 1760s could only be made by hand, a time-consuming process that made the material an expensive, exclusive luxury. This all changed during the Industrial Revolution, however, when innovative Nottingham lacemakers adapted the framework knitting machines more commonly used to make stockings to produce lace net – creating a flourishing industry that, by 1910, would employ as many as 100,000 people in the city.
Another room showcases medieval alabaster sculptures of religious figures – some immediately recognisable, such as Christ and the Virgin Mary, others more obscure, such as St Eloy, a patron of farriers, who is said to have removed the leg of a possessed horse in order to shoe it more easily, before miraculously reattaching the limb. Other displays within this space explore local production of 17th- and 18th-century salt-glaze pottery, with examples on show ranging from functional vessels to distinctive novelty items representing the then-popular sport of bear-baiting.
Finally, the artworks of the ‘Art Gallery’ – originally the centrepiece of the 1878 incarnation of the museum – have been redisplayed too. Rather than taking a chronological approach, here paintings, sculpture, drawings, ceramics, jewellery, and textiles, both ancient and modern, have been grouped to explore different themes. The result is a thought-provoking place to wander and consider how much Nottingham has changed over the centuries – something that could also be said for the relaunched castle as a whole.
Further information Nottingham Castle is open every day from 10am until 4pm. For more information, see www.nottinghamcastle.org.uk.