Norwich Castle – Palace and Prison

Norwich Castle’s square keep has dominated the centre of Norwich for centuries. It has dominated my thinking, too, for at least four years since I visited it in 2016. It could almost be said that I have obsessed over, particularly, the arrangement of the interior of the castle as a section of my latest novel, The Bridled Tongue, takes place in the Norwich Castle gaol in the late 1580s. This aspect of the castle has been difficult to gain a good understanding of.

Norwich Castle was motte and bailey castle built between 1095 and 1110 as a royal palace. The keep was faced with Caen stone over a flint core at the upper level which housed the royal apartments. The lower basement level was dark flint with walls 13 feet thick. When completed the keep was 95 feet by 90 feet and 70 feet high (29m by 27m and 21m high). Towards the end of this construction period the height of the motte was increased and the surrounding ditches deepened. The formal entrance to the castle was via a staircase beginning at south-east corner of the keep and passing through two portals to a landing at the first floor level, possibly ending in a small a drawbridge, then into the Bigod Tower which was external to the keep itself. This tower is believed to have been built by Hugh Bigod, 1st Earl of Norwich. Three arches in the portico of the Bigod Tower provided a view out across Norwich and the Wensum for several miles. The main hall of the keep was entered from the Bigod Tower through a great door beneath a highly decorated archway.

Bigod Tower – late 18th century engraving
Norfolk Museums Collections

When completed the castle was surrounded by an extensive curtain wall. Two drum towers stood at the south of the inner bailey and were believed to be joined by an archway and a gated portcullis which faced a causeway over the ditches down into the town. The castle baileys were used for grazing cattle and other activities associated with the castle’s operation, including the work of blacksmiths, armourers, bow and arrow makers, saddlers and spur makers. [1]

Medieval extent of Norwich castle overlaying 1789 map
British Historic Towns Atlas

The castle building was begun by William II and continued by Henry I who is thought to have stayed at the castle on three occasions, most notably the Christmas of 1121. Eighteenth century historians believed the castle to be built on the site of a Saxon fort or to have been built eith by King Arthur or King Canute; however, excavations in the late 1970s revealed a Saxon cemetery on the site.

Conjecture of floor plan of Norwich Castle
from William Wilkins Article in Achaeologia vol. 12 1796

Perhaps the best description of the presumed internal arrangement in the early centuries comes from architect and antiquary, Arthur Bensly Whittingham (1901-1986).
‘It was a royal castle planned for a large garrison. The modern floor-level comes halfway up the storage basement. The main floor, corresponding to the two lower tiers of arcading outside, was at the level of the present gallery, and contained the soldiers’ Hall and the knights’ Chamber south of it separated by a wall in place of the modern arcade. Each is supplied on the west with a group of four latrines, separating the Kitchen, with fireplace in the north-west angle blocking an abandoned stairs, Pantry, formerly with round water tank and wooden overflow pipe, and Governor’s room, with private stairs to all levels in the south-west angle. The service stairs are in the north-east angle next the entrance doorway, whose richness can only be seen from a room in the forebuilding, once the vestibule at the head of the destroyed entrance stairs. At the east of the Chamber and overlooking these stairs were the postern door, Constable’s Room and Chapel (with a north aisle and the apse askew in the south-east angle), forming part of a four-storeyed block. Below, and in charge of the Constable, were the prisons; above were the Guard Room and chapel triforium supporting a Watch Room, with three windows and an escape door in the gable-end. The two main rooms were lit by the triforium windows, connected by the wall-passage which formed a fighting gallery all round the keep. It probably continued along the spine wall to link marshalling platforms (over the west rooms) with the postern by stairs. The Guard Room consequently had access in five directions. The Chamber has a fireplace and sink, contained the well and like the Hall had a row of arches below to carry the floor.’ [2]

In 1220 Norwich castle began its use as a prison for felons and debtors and is believed to have been used as a gaol for state prisoners during the reign of Henry III. In 1345, it became the county gaol for Norfolk when Edward III gave it up as a royal palace. As a consequence, additional buildings were constructed beside the keep. A Shire House was built in the 14th century near the third ditch to the south of the Castle, facing the area between Golden Ball Lane and Rochester’s Lane. It was here that the Quarter Sessions and Assize trials were held for the County of Norfolk. In 1579 a new Shire House was built on the north side of the keep; this had two court rooms, a grand jury chamber and a chapel.  In the 16th century, when the county Assizes were held, booths were erected near the Shire House and the castle gate to provide food and drink for those attending the court sessions. Payment for erecting these booths were a perquisite of the castle gaoler. [3 ]

South-west view of Norwich Castle 1662
British Museum

From the 14th century on the lower baileys were increasingly used for quarrying stone for building by the townspeople of Norwich,  and the ditches filled up with refuse of all sorts. The castle slowly fell into disrepair. The towers had begun to decay by the 16th century and part of the roof of the keep had fallen in.[4] By the end of 17thcentury cracking was obvious in the upper south wall of the keep and the curtain walls had disappeared, with parts demolished during the Civil War. Quarrying in the ditch led to collapse of one of the gatehouse towers. In the early 18th century the battlements were removed to save the cost of repairing them. The material removed was used to repair great cracks in the south and eastern walls of the keep. These cracks were believed by local tradition the have been caused by the earthquake that occurred at the moment of Christ’s death on Calvary; however, the more prosaic suggestion in the 18th century was that the cracks were caused by the position of the keep on the hill and the settlement of the building.[5] Repairs were made to both the keep and the bridges across the remaining ditches in 18th century.

Norwich Castle 1738
Norfolk Museums Collections

The prison reformer John Howard (1726-1790) visited Norwich Castle a number of times between 1774 and 1782 during his investigations into the condition of prisons in England and Wales. It is from his resulting report that we get the first detailed contemporary description of the interior of the castle.
‘Norwich Castle is situated on the summit of a hill. The Upper Gaol has ten rooms for Master’s-side Debtors; and Leads for them to walk on.—The Low Gaol has several rooms for Debtors, Felons &c.—A small area in the middle of the Gaol, in which are lately made some improvements; such as a pump, a convenient bath, and some rooms over it. There is a dungeon down a ladder of eight steps, for Men-felons; in which is often an inch or two of water: and a small room for Women-felons; which keeps them always separate from the men, except when delicacy would most of all require it.[6] There are two airy rooms for the sick: so distinct from the rest of the Prison, that there is no danger of spreading any infection from thence. The Gaoler is humane, and respected by his Prisoners. These, Felons as well as Debtors, sell at the grates of their separate day-rooms, laces, purses, nets &c. of their own making. A NURSE or Matron to attend the sick; and provide for them, when the Surgeon orders it, broth, gruel, milk-pottage and extra firing.—She orders the straw, which is not farmed, but paid for per load by the County.—It is also her business to see that the Prisoners be duly served with their allowance of bread, which is remarkably good. At Lent Assize Prisoners are moved from hence to Thetford; and put into a dungeon which is described in that place. Mrs. Frances Kempe [1575-1633] formerly bequeathed certain Charities to the Poor of Norwich and Heyden; and a Stipend for preaching three Sermons a year. For Payment, she bound an estate in Heyden left her by her father John Mingay, Esq.—Among the Charities were some to Prisoners in this Castle, and in the City Gaol, These have for many years past received nothing; although the Legacies are paid to the other Objects.’[7]

Following on from Howard’s report the extra buildings in the upper bailey were demolished and a new prison designed by architect Sir John Soane built in and around the keep between 1789 and 1793. Apparently Soane’s design was not conducive to easy oversight of the prisoners so the external section of Soane’s plan was demolished and a new prison designed by Norwich architect, classical scholar and archaeologist William Wilkins was built between 1822 and 1827. The castle ended it use as a gaol in 1887, when the City of Norwich bought it and after extensive demolition and rebuilding reopened it as a museum in 1895.

Norwich Castle from afar, surrounded by the 19th century prison
British Library

Other than the structural elements of the keep, little of the original castle remains today. The curtain walls and towers and the buildings in the bailey are all gone. The Norman bridge over the inner ditch was replaced around 1825. The exterior was refaced with Bath stone and the original ornamentation faithfully replicated between 1835 and 1839.

While most histories of the castle provide detail of the early period and presumed arrangement of the interior, the later period up to the 1770s is glided over. Perhaps the situation is best summed up by William Wilkins, who wrote in 1796, ‘The inside of the castle has been so much altered, from having been long used as a county gaol, that little can be said, or even conjectured, of the original plan, and the various uses of the rooms.’[8] I have taken this as licence to do what most writers of historical fiction do when research fails and filled in the gaps with a, hopefully, informed imagination.

The earliest description I could find of the arrangement of prisoners before the 18th century was in Notes Concerning Norwich Castle by John Kirkpatrick (1687-1728), the Norwich antiquary. While Kirkpatrick’s notes give an interesting overall history of the castle and an idea of the range of views current in the early 18th century about its origins, they do not describe the inner arrangement of the castle. Kirkpatrick does mention speaking with an elderly woman, Mrs Burrows , an ‘old inhabitant of St. John’s Timberhill parish’ whose father ‘kept the county gaol for several years, and dwelt in the house called the Golden ball, where the better sort of prisoners who had money, lodged then, and not in the Castle (as had before been used in the house which is on the other side of the lane, opposite to the Ball, which was therefore called the old gaol)’.[9] It is quite conceivable that this was the situation in the 16th century as well. I cannot imagine the Tudors, with their strong sense of a God-given hierarchy, being content with wealthy, well-born prisoners being consigned to dilapidated cells with the common sort, no matter what their crime.

Modern skyline of beautiful Norwich

Excitingly, the Castle is now to be refurbished in an attempt to reproduce its medieval glory. For me, as good a reason as any to take another trip nearly half-way around the world.


[1] ‘Norwich castle’ by Elizabeth Popescy Ch 1 pp3-29 in Castles and the Anglo-Norman World by John A Davies, Angela Riley, Jean Marie Levesque, Charlotte Lapiche
[2] Whittingham, A.B ‘Norwich : origins, castle, and public and domestic buildings and antiquities being the substance of his [AB Whittingham’s] lecture of July 22nd. Archeological Journal v.CVI for 1949. pp74-84
[3] Kirkpatrick, John Notes Concerning Norwich Castle, From a Manuscript Volume of the Collections of Mr. John Kirkpatrick, in the Possession of William Herring, Esq 1847 pp.95-7
[4] I am indebted to Steve Arber of the Norfolk Museums Service for this information and for kindly answering what I thought were unanswerable questions about Norwich Castle in the 16th century.
[5] Howard, John State of the Prisons in England and Wales, 1777 p.255
[6] I presume this to mean that they shared the latrines!
[7] Kirkpatrick op cit. pp.95-6
[8] Wilkins, William ‘Mr Wilkins essay towards a history of the Venta Icenorum of the Romans and of Norwich Castle’ in Archaeologia: Or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity v12, 1796 p.152
[9] Kirkpatrick, John op cit. pp.95-6

Other references
Beecheno, F R Notes on Norwich Castle 1888
Green, Barbara Norwich Castle: A Fortress for Centuries 1970
Woodward, S B The history and antiquities of Norwich Castle.  By … S. W. Edited by his son 1847
King, Edward ‘Mr Kings Observations on Ancient Castles’ in Archaeologia: Or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity Vol 4, 1777 pp396-405

History of Norwich Castle
Norwich Castle

8 thoughts on “Norwich Castle – Palace and Prison

    • The cathedral is impressive. The museum buildings are on two sides of the keep and all the taller modern buildings take away from it a bit. It will certainly be worth visiting when it has been done up. Did you visit Stranger’s Hall? That is definitely worth visiting too. Mainly 16th century but some rooms are decorated in the style of later centuries.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: The Bridled Tongue – My new novel | Catherine Meyrick

  2. Pingback: The Bridled Tongue – Some Background | Catherine Meyrick

  3. Really good, well-researched, piece. I visited the castle as a boy (in fact, somewhere I’m sure I have the same postcard/etching of 1738 you show), but can remember little about it. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention! I need to go back – of course!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought it was a fascinating place. In fact, I loved all of Norwich, even stayed at the Maid’s Head hotel. It will be brilliant when they finish doing it up. Well worth the nearly 24 hour flight – if we ever get to travel again.


  4. Pingback: A Glimpse of Elizabethan Norwich | Catherine Meyrick

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.