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Norwich Castle

Norwich Castle: The Square Box on the Hill

An intriguing exhibition, from February to June 2018, explores the history of Norwich’s iconic and much-loved ‘square box on the hill’.

Featuring never-before-seen archives and artefacts from Norwich Castle’s 900-year history, including a wealth of new research uncovered by the Norwich Castle: Gateway to Medieval England project to transform the Keep, the exhibition shows this majestic landmark in a fascinating new light.

Standing atop the largest man-made mound in the country, Norwich Castle has dominated the City’s skyline ever since the 12th century; but what is the story of Norwich’s iconic and much-loved square box on the hill?

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Norwich Castle James Bridges 1833

Built as a royal palace, Norwich Castle was a Norman showpiece with lavishly-decorated interiors fit for a king. By the 14th century, it had become the County Gaol confining Norfolk’s prisoners within its walls. With the opening of the new prison at the end of the 19th century, the Castle’s fate was uncertain, until its conversion into a public museum, which it remains to this day.

The Square Box on the Hill illustrates this rich history through a stunning mixture of prints, models, paintings, architectural plans and memorabilia, many of which have never been on display before. Supported by headline sponsors Brown&Co, the exhibition also showcases the latest exciting plans for the Castle’s future as part of the Norwich Castle: Gateway to Medieval England project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition leads visitors through the many changing faces of Norwich Castle, as Exhibition Curator Paris Agar explains: “Norwich Castle is a treasure of our fine city. A series of discrete sections helps to guide visitors through this complex and fascinating history, from its beginnings as a royal palace and its 500-year service as a prison, to its conversion into a public museum, finally revealing the very latest exciting plans for its future. This exhibition brings new discoveries to light, helping visitors to understand the significance of this extraordinary castle – one of the most important surviving Norman buildings in Western Europe.”

Along this fascinating journey, visitors will come across many surprises which the Castle has housed over the years – from a Japanese Samurai suit of armour to a 1970s draught bitter, from fine medieval jewellery to graffiti etched in stone.

Norwich Castle - Model of Sir John Soane's County Gaol

The opening section, Royal Palace, explores the origins of Norwich Castle from its original timber structure to the hugely impressive Caen stone edifice completed under the rule of King Henry I in 1121. Visitors will see models depicting the Castle in its heyday, beautiful archaeological finds from the medieval period and the very first evidence of a prisoner being held in the Castle Keep.

The Prison section explores the Castle’s 500-year history as the County Gaol. During that period the building underwent several different phases of modification as attitudes towards prisoners and prison reform evolved over the centuries. Original watercolours and prints capture the changing appearance of the early prison and are presented alongside a selection of Sir John Soane’s architectural drawings for the first major overhaul of the prison in the 1790s.

Within a few decades of its completion, the County Gaol was rebuilt by local architect William Wilkins whose panopticon design, featuring a central governor’s house with cell blocks radiating out from it, reflected a new emphasis on the moral regeneration of prisoners. It was during this redevelopment that the Castle’s exterior was controversially re-faced, arousing strong opinions at the time. This major change was documented in artworks by members of the Norwich School of Artists Edward T. Daniell and David Hodgson, striking examples of which are shown in this display.

Norwich Castle and Cattle Market - Charles Fouqueray 1920s

The centrality of the Castle to the City and its inhabitants is a theme which runs throughout the exhibition, with each new phase in the building’s history hotly debated in the local press. This was certainly the case during the Castle’s conversion from prison to museum, which took place when the prison was relocated to its current position on Mousehold Heath in 1883. This left the future of the Castle uncertain but the idea of a museum won over, ensuring its presence in the City for generations to come.

The Conversion section of the exhibition explores the vision and legacy of the architect of this change, Edward Boardman, including architectural plans which show the evolution of his ideas - never seen in public before. These include the unique and rather moving ‘sand plans’ he made of the Castle for the mastermind of the project, John Gurney.

Gurney contributed £5,000 of his own money, a huge sum in those days, and all the more remarkable as he would never see the fruits of his generosity, having lost his sight some years before. To enable Gurney to understand his plans, therefore, Boardman re-created their outlines using sand to produce a version which Gurney could interpret through touch. Photographs from this period show the Castle as a roofless shell and its gradual evolution into the form which we have today.

Norwich Castle Museum opening 1894

The next section, Museum, begins with the opening of the Norwich Castle Museum in 1894 and brings the experience of the building into living memory. It features tales of the many events and changes that its walls have witnessed and survived, from the Norwich Blitz of the Second World War to the building of the Castle Mall in the 1980s.

Many visitors will have personal connections to the Castle, often dating back to school days – they will literally be able to walk back in time as they enter this section through the old revolving doors which stood at the Castle entrance for many years! Items such as an early museum attendant’s uniform, the original ticket machine and a mini version of the famous 1970’s bar will bring memories flooding back.

Model of 12th century Norwich Castle

The final section brings the story up-to-date with the Norwich Castle: Gateway to Medieval England project. This £13.5m project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, will transform the Keep back to its original form as a Norman Palace by reinstating the medieval floor level. This will enable the Keep to be more accurately interpreted, with a recreation of the Norman spaces, including the Great Hall where the King would have received important visitors.

This section reveals that similar plans have been mooted before, not least by Edward Boardman whose ambition was to reinstate the original floor level, before financial reasons led to this plan being abandoned. The issue was debated again in the 1960s, and then every decade since, right up to the present day.

Now, with the help of the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, and many other generous supporters, Norfolk Museums Service will be able to make the dream a reality, enabling visitors to understand the Keep as never before, while also allowing full physical access to all five floors. The latest visuals will show visitors how the transformed Castle and surrounding areas will look, and will give a flavour of the wonderful exhibits and interpretation which this ground-breaking project will deliver.

Archaeological work will shed light on the origins of Norwich’s stone Keep, one of the most architecturally sophisticated buildings in northern Europe when it was built at the start of the twelfth century.

The project aims to transform the Keep by bringing back its original internal layout, showcasing this palatial residence of England’s Norman kings.

Excavation is necessary to understand better the historic structure that has survived, and to discover more about those parts that have been lost over the last nine hundred years. It will also allow examination of the makeup of the castle mound, which is the largest example of a ‘motte’ in Britain. 

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