Castle Corner: a look at Norwich Castle throughout the ages

Norwich Castle was once a county gaol in the late 1700s.

Prison guards standing by the conservatory of the prison officer’s house at Norwich Castle gaol (jail). - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

As work continues to restore Norwich Castle to its original glory through the Royal Palace Reborn Project, we take some time to peer inside the castle walls and learn how one of the city’s richest treasures has changed over the centuries.

In a series of weekly interviews, we have plundered the depths of Norfolk history, guided by Lee Warden from Norwich Castle.

This week we conclude our journey by looking at Norwich Castle’s eclectic past and embracing its bright future.

Norwich Castle: where did it all begin?

Norwich Castle’s impressive structure has dominated our skyline for almost a millennium, and through that time has been used by local residents for many things.

“We recently learnt that Norwich Castle was constructed by William the Conqueror in 1067. He ordered the castle to be built to defend the prosperous city against potential invaders,” Lee shares. 

“As it was a part of the royal holding, this meant Norwich Castle was a royal palace. For over 200 years, it was used to house and host English monarchs.”

Norwich Castle was once a prison before it became a museum.

Throughout the last 900 years, Norwich Castle has been used for many purposes and housed a variety of different people. - Credit: Andy Peters

How did Norwich Castle become a county gaol?

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By the 14th century, Norwich Castle was a relic and no longer fit for purpose. New weapons meant the old building was useless against attack, and this led King Edward III in 1354, to sign Norwich Castle over to the people of the city.

They converted the palace into a county goal (jail), to house accused criminals while they awaited trial. 

“Gaols differed from prisons, which weren’t introduced in England until the 19th century,” Lee explains. “They were not where someone went to serve a sentence, but as a temporary holding place for individuals accused of committing a crime.”

As the castle was so big and had many large rooms, it was considered the ideal place to house people before they went to court.

“Norwich Castle remained a gaol for approximately the next 600 years, meaning for most of its life, the castle has been used for a different purpose than it was intended,” Lee says.

What happened to Norwich Castle after King Edward sold it?

“When King Edward III awarded Norwich Castle to the city’s inhabitants, he stated that the building must never go into private ownership, meaning even today the building cannot be bought or sold,” Lee discloses.

“It was to be the responsibility of the people of Norwich, to care for and maintain, which is why Norwich Castle remains one of the few museums to be organised and run by a council.”

After being sold, Norwich Castle quickly fell into disrepair. The building was exposed to the elements and as gaols received little money, it was difficult to carry out the necessary repairs. During this time, much of the castle’s roof collapsed, stone archways deteriorated and the vaults, once used as royal chambers, crumbled away.

Prisoners were constantly being moved to new parts of the castle that were still somewhat intact, and some even had to stay in the underground chambers. These rooms were originally built as larders to store food and keep it fresh during medieval times, meaning they were constantly cold and extremely dark.

“The conditions were terrible, but if you couldn’t afford a nicer room, it was probably here that you slept,” Lee reveals. 

When was Norwich Castle first reconstructed?

Small reconstructions on the castle’s structure were carried out over the years to attend to some of the major damage. However, it wasn’t until the late 1700s that major restorative works began and it was all because of a man named John Howard.

Norwich Castle prison cells designed by John Soane in 1792

Horseshoe-shaped prison block designed and built within Norwich Castle by Sir John Soane in 1792. At the top, you can see the castle’s battlements. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

“He was a prison health reporter (not the first, but one of the better ones). After being captured by pirates and kept in horrendous conditions, he was determined to ensure people in gaol were housed in liveable environments,” Lee tells us.

“He began inspecting each gaol in the country, and when he arrived at Norwich Castle, was appalled and demanded that changes be made immediately to improve things."

A competition was held for architects to submit their ideas, and redevelopment plans to update Norwich goal. Sir John Soane won and in 1792, he redesigned the castle keep, fitting it with rows of cells in a horse-shoe shape where prisoners would stay.

“It was an intelligent design as it enabled one guard to monitor every cell from one vantage point. This meant the prison could run safely without the need to hire too many staff,” Lee says.   

Despite these changes, England’s adapting legal system soon outdated Soane’s design. The introduction of prisons meant gaols now needed to be bigger and capable of housing residents long-term. By the 1820s, Norwich Castle simply did not have enough space and was too difficult to patrol.

When did Norwich Castle become a prison?

In 1822, a local architect, William Wilkins, was hired to once again redesign the castle. He demolished the outside block and removed much of Soane’s initial work. He transformed areas in the castle’s mound into liveable prison cells, installed treadmills and prison yards, and built day rooms to give convicts something to do during their incarceration.

He also took care to restore some of the castle’s original features, including the Norwich Pillar bases that can be found in the castle’s keep today.

Illustration of Norwich Castle as a prison in 1822

An illustrated diagram of Norwich Castle gaol, designed by local architect William Wilkins in 1822. - Credit: Nick Arber

In 1834, another architect, Anthony Salvin, started renovations on the castle’s exterior, which had become worn from years of neglect. He stayed true to the castle’s original design and replicated much of the intricately decorated Norman stonework, trying to preserve as much of the castle as he could.

Much of Norwich Castle’s current layout came from the renovations Salvin carried out. He created the rooms where prisoners lived, that today are museum galleries. He also built the jailer’s house, which was once the centre of the prison, but now makes up the heart of the museum.

The head jailer, his wife and children lived in the house full time surrounded by prisoners. Though it was an odd environment to raise children in, it was a common concept in many 18th century prisons. The idea was that by watching a regular family interact and go about their routine, criminals would be deterred from committing more crimes and instead aim to start their own family and live a better life.

“Salvin’s work is the reason Norwich Castle’s exterior still looks so new – the stone on the outside of the castle is only 200 years old,” Lee says. “If it wasn’t for these extensive repairs, much of the castle would be in ruin by now.”

How did Norwich Castle become a museum?

Norwich Castle remained a prison until the 1870s, but increasing numbers of prisoners meant the building was simply too small to house them all, and there was no space to expand. Work began on Mousehold Heath prison, and between 1870 and 1890 the prisoners were gradually moved out of Norwich Castle into the new prison that still operates today.

“It was then that construction began to convert Norwich Castle into one of the Victorian’s favourite things – a museum,” Lee says.

“The goal was to transform the Castle from a building that was feared, into one that was celebrated and commemorated for the incredible and historic piece of architecture it truly was.”

In 1896, Norwich Castle Museum was opened to the public to share and celebrate East Anglia’s rich heritage and tell the tale of how Norwich city came to be. Over time, the museum has expanded, its collections and exhibits have grown, and now, in 2021, the museum is entering the next phase of its life.

Norwich Castle's exciting Royal Palace Reborn project

Norwich Castle's exciting Royal Palace Reborn project is making great progress. - Credit: Norwich Castle

What is happening at Norwich Castle in 2021?

Through the Royal Palace Reborn Project, work is underway at Norwich Castle to restore the building to its original Norman glory. Once finished, all five levels of the original keep will be open for people to explore and discover the full breadth of Norwich Castle’s amazing history.

“Norwich is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the country and Norwich Castle is living proof of this,” Lee says. “We want to ensure this stunning building’s history is preserved and shared with as many people as possible.”

Norwich Castle Royal Palace Reborn Project is supported by local businesses

Local businesses, trusts and supporters of the Royal Palace Reborn Project. - Credit: Heritage Fund / Norwich Castle

As well as extensive building work, the project will also see the launch of an activity programme, offering new ways to get involved with the city’s complex and fascinating past.

Lee says: “We’re helping to bring local history to life so people can explore it, learn from it and be inspired by it."

To discover more about Norwich Castle visit  

For the latest project news, follow Norwich Castle on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram #CastleReborn.

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