Newark Castle tour sheds light on its medieval past
Standing on a ladder, I peered into the ominous-looking dungeon below. As I made my way down, I began to imagine the unspeakable horrors these walls had seen. Inside this dungeon you are so far underground that you feel completely cut off from the outside world.
I was finding out what it was like to be a medieval prisoner during a tour of Newark Castle led by park ranger and historian René Mouraille. These dungeons were the final destination for all sorts of unfortunate criminals, from murderers and thieves to those who had not paid their tithes (taxes). They housed as many as 80 people, many of whom were suffering from terrible diseases such as cholera, typhus and dysentery – and René told me they were ‘lucky’ if they survived for more than five days.
The prison cells were also used for political prisoners including members of the Knights Templar, a Christian order which was linked to the Crusades. Knowing their end was imminent, they etched religious symbols into the walls to assure other prisoners that they would be reunited and this mythical graffiti can still be seen today.
My tour of Newark Castle had started just inside its ruined walls, which bear the scars of the fierce battles fought during the English Civil War. I discovered that the site was valued for its strategic position centuries before the existing castle was built. The land was formed during the Ice Age and resulted in high vantage points surrounded by boggy marshland and this proved to be ideal for stopping enemies in their tracks.
René told me: “Not only did you have a fantastic ridge that leads down to the river, you had also got marsh land by the river and these were formed from Ice Age deposits.
“In addition there was the Great Northern Way which connected Scotland to London. From here you could control the major roads and river systems in one go.”
The stone castle was commissioned by Bishop Alexander III of Lincoln in the 12th century, replacing a timber castle built by the Normans in 1068.
René said: “Bishop Alexander was a rich man and he thought that a timber castle was not good enough for him. e wanted something more substantial so he applied to Henry I to build the first stone castle at Newark.”
Our tour then took us up a narrow staircase of the gatehouse, which is the only part of the original castle that still exists today and it was here that King John, who appears in the legend of Robin Hood, died of dysentery in 1216. The tower itself was used as an observatory to look out for approaching enemies.
Down in the cellar I was given a glimpse into how the castle’s inhabitants lived during medieval times, including the food they ate. A typical diet would include bread and meat such as pork, lamb and beef and this would have been transported by river and taken through this room. The water at this time would have been full of disease so the preferred drink for both adults and children would have been ale.
“Here in the castle you would have had a brewery because it wasn’t worth boiling water to clean in,” explained René.
“Beer was the main drink; the adults would have a table beer which was about five per cent and there would be a children’s beer which would be two to three percent.”
Guided tours of Newark Castle take place every week and can be booked via the Newark Tourist Information Centre. For further details or to book call (01636) 655765 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, visit Newark and Sherwood District Council’s website.