Nottingham Castle 1068-1100

Nottingham Castle is an important element in Walt Disney’s live-action film, ‘The Story of Robin Hood’. As Helen Phillips explains in her paper ‘Forest, Town and Road’ -for the lectures on ‘Robin Hood in Popular Culture,' -the castle, with its massive size and impregnability, gained new prominence with the advent of film, partly because of its potential for sheer visual impact and also because it offered new special theatricality through the shift to visual narrative. This is certainly the case in the Douglas Fairbanks silent version in 1922, the Michael Curtiz classic of 1938 and of course the ‘Story of Robin Hood’ in 1952.

In the planning stages for Disney’s motion picture, Ken Annakin, Carmen Dillon, Perce Pearce and other members of the production team, spent three days with the great man himself, in Sherwood Forest and Nottinghamshire. They looked over many of the sights associated with the outlaw, but Disney was disappointed, (like so many tourists) to see many of the castles of the midlands in ruins. Nottingham Castle was almost completely destroyed with gunpowder and pick, during the Civil War of 1642-1660. All that remains today for visitors to see, is an outer portion of the barbican, used as an entrance, a small portion of the walls of the outer ballium and the base of what was known as Richard’s Tower. So art director Carmen Dillon recommended the up and coming matte artist, Peter Ellenshaw to work on creating medieval Nottingham and its castle for Disney’s live-action motion picture.

So what was the real Nottingham Castle like?

During the summer of 1068, William the Conqueror (pictured above) rode north to deal with a Saxon rebellion. He stopped at Nottingham to assess its strategic value and decided to build a castle on the huge rocky red sandstone, above the meadows of the River Trent. He left William Peveril instructions for a motte and bailey type castle to be built, ‘in a style that was unknown before’, on the 130 ft high rock. The tower of which would be in an impregnable position.

Nottingham Castle is not mentioned in the Domesday Book, but this may have been due to a delay in construction because of ‘opposition from the men of Nottingham.’ When William re-visited Nottingham a year later the townsmen had been forced into subjection and were compelled to assist in building the new fortress with a handful of Norman supervisors. Peveril was rewarded for his services with a ‘fief’ known as ‘the Honour of Nottingham’ made up from lands in six shires including Sherwood Forest and the Peak.

Castles were unknown in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. But within five years of the Battle of Hastings, thirty castles were built across the country. The motte, a high mound usually constructed from the earth dug out of the deep surrounding ditch, was constructed on the highest part of the rock. On it would be wooden buildings and perhaps, a wooden watch tower or keep. Below the motte, to the north, was the bailey similarly enclosed by a wooden palisade on an earth rampart. Curling around to the south of the palisade of wooden stakes was the River Leen, which had probably been diverted as an additional form of defence, to supply the garrison with water and power the Castle’s mills.

The building would have been probably two or three storeys high and reached by an exterior stairway or wooden ladder. The first floor would have included the Great Hall, sleeping quarters and living rooms of the Lord, including the chapel. But, because the first Nottingham Castle was constructed mainly of wood, cooking would have been done outside as a
fire precaution.

The location for a castle at Nottingham, was ideal for two reasons. First because the rock provided an easily defensible site dominating the country around, including the Saxon town huddled around St. Mary’s Church in what is now the Lace market. Second, Nottingham was on the main road between London and the North and was also only a mile from the River Trent, the dividing line between the North and South of England, so it could be easily supplied and reinforced. Because of its ideal situation, Nottingham castle became the principal royal fortress in the Midlands for five centuries.

The local population would have been forced to build their Conqueror’s castle in whatever materials were available. The rock provided a natural motte or mound and the original walls enclosing the bailey’s or yards, though probably being of wood, may have been supplemented by stone dug out of the surrounding ditch. In the highest part of the Castle, the upper bailey, were rooms and a watch tower. Beyond, to the north, was another bailey, the Middle Bailey. This was enclosed by a palisade placed on the top of a rampart formed by the sand excavated from the surrounding new moat. Subjugation of the local population was completed by the building of a new Norman Town in the shadow of the castle with its own market place-the present Market Square. Land was also taken to the west of the castle to make a park, which would be stocked with deer to provide food and sport, whilst to the south, the King’s Meadow would be used for grazing.

Because the motte was natural rock it would not be necessary to wait for the ground to settle before building high stone walls and towers on its summit. If these walls were not originally built of stone they may have been by the reign of Henry I (1100-35). These great stone walls with towers rising as it were, from the very rock itself and visible for miles in every direction, must have awed the local population. Below it to the north were the palisade walls of the Middle Bailey (now the Castle Green) and beyond them to the north and east more land was enclosed to form the Outer Bailey, though exactly when this was first enclosed we do not know.

© Clement of the Glen 2008


Clement of the Glen said...

Nottingham Castle 1068-1100
William the Conquror
William Peveril

neil said...

Reading the comments ref the location trip by Walt Disney and friends to Nottingham to research Story of Robin Hood, it does say that Peter Ellenshaw's name was given to Walt by Carmen Dillon who recommended what he could do. This is from Ken Annakin's autobiography. Actually Peter had worked on Treasure Island for Walt Disney about two years before and Walt used to tell some of his colleagues that Peter saved the company thousands on location trips. Some of the Treasure Island mattes appear in Peter's book 'Ellenshaw Under Glass' - a book that,although expensive, is one of the best and most treasured film books I have ever bought.

Clement of the Glen said...

Hi Neil,

I have noticed Annakin does have a few facts mixed up. But it does seem Walt was intending to use a real midland medieval castle at the outset until he discovered 'to his anger' that 'the tops had been blown off' by cannon. Perhaps Carmen Dillon jogged his memory about Peter Ellenshaw's ability to recreate what he wanted.

neil said...

It was certainly a master stroke from the master Walt Disney. Peter Ellenshaw helped make this film with his wonderful matte shots. I far prefer them to the real thing and as Ken Annakin said 'Peter could make scenes look even realer than real'
I like Ken Annakin though. When he was not released to direct the third 'Rob Roy' it suffered and did not have the same spark somehow. Also Robin Hood was made at Denham with it's large lake at the back and frontage to the River Colne which was perfect for many scenes. Another thing I have noticed is that Rob Roy was not filmed in the spring or summer and I think that was not helpful. Robin Hood however showed the wonderful greenery of England in glorious Technicolor hues.

Mujtaba said...

hmmmm..... wht to say