Nottingham’s Royal Castle has often been known primarily from the stories of the legendary Robin Hood and his merry men, his connections with the castle, King John, and the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Did you know that the castle, sitting high above the city on Castle Rock, has over a thousand years of history including plots, scandals, rebellion, and fire? I will elaborate on the fascinating history later.
Operated by not-for-profit charity, Nottingham Castle Trust, is a historical landmark which has recently undergone £30m conservation, renovation, and redevelopment, including the creation of new galleries housing permanent collections of fine-art and temporary exhibitions, mixed reality games, a new Visitor Centre and an outdoor family adventure playground, Hood’s Hideout.
If you think you know what to expect from an art gallery or museum, give that idea a rethink because this castle has a whole lot more in store for you.
When our family came to the castle for a visit, we made sure to make the most of our and explored the family activities in the Robin Hood Experience and had a wonderful, hands-on go at archery through a virtual game using a Longbow, where you can score points using bows that shoot virtual arrows at the on-screen targets. We also learnt how to use Quarterstaffs, the people’s weapon.
The Rebellion gallery teaches history through historical artifacts and game screens where you transport your imagination back in time to try to save the castle from the rebels who set the castle alight.
If you feel rebellious you might like to try your hand at being a Luddite who wanted to disrupt the mill industries that were treating the workers badly and with a pittance of pay, using a game screen with multiple outcomes you chose how each plot plays out.
Nottingham Castle History
1068, the first castle was built on the site by the Normans just two years after the battle of Hastings, it provided control over a strategically important crossing point over the river Trent.
1194 the castle was seized by supporters of Prince John in an attempt to secure the crown, John’s brother Richard l besieged the castle and forced John’s supporters to surrender.
1330 Edward lll staged a coup d’état against his mother, Isabella of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. A month later Mortimer was executed at Tyburn in London.
1461 Edward lV declared himself king at Nottingham Castle.
1485 Richard lll set out from Nottingham Castle to the battle of Bosworth. It is there that he become the last English king to die in battle.
1642 Charles l raised his Royal standard at Nottingham Castle to gather troops and armaments. This marks the start of the British Civil Wars. (1642 – 51)
1651 John Hutchinson, governor of Nottingham arranged for the castle to be demolished, in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of Oliver Cromwell.
1661The castle area is purchased by William Cavendish, (Later Duke of Newcastle) to build a luxury palace.
1811 The castle became neglected by the 4th Duke of Newcastle. Nottingham witnessed the first attacks by the Luddites protesting about declining wages.
1831 Nottingham castle was set on fire by the rioters protesting against the Duke of Newcastle’s opposition to the Reform Bill. The burnt-out building was left in ruins for over 40 years.
1878 The Palace was restored and then opened up as a museum and art gallery.
Isabella and Mortimer
Isabella was the daughter of Philip IV of France. She married Edward II of England in 1308, with whom she had a son, the later Edward III, in 1312.
She was described by some as the ‘She-Wolf’ of France, she was Queen of England as the wife of King Edward ll, and regent of England from 1327 to 1330.
The marriage was not an amicable one, since Edward spent more time with his male acquaintances than with his wife. She returned to France, and fell for the dashing Roger Mortimer, a powerful lord from the Welsh borders.
In September 1326, they returned to England with an army to depose Edward II which ultimately resulted in the deposition of her king and husband, Edward II, in January 1327 – the first ever abdication of a king in England.
The people of London rose in support of the queen, and Edward fled. After roaming around for some weeks in Wales, the king was taken prisoner and was compelled to abdicate in favour of his son.
He died less than a year later in captivity – some say murdered on the orders of Isabella and Mortimer by having a red-hot poker inserted somewhere rather painful.
Young Edward was installed as king aged just 14 with his mother, Isabella and her lover, Mortimer acting as his advisers and de facto rulers of the country.
Nottingham was one of their favourite royal castles and it was here that their three-year proxy-reign came to an end, slightly ironic really, considering how Edward II was possibly dispatched, via an unguarded dark hole beneath them.
*It was in the late twelfth century that the caves were dug out below the castle for storage and access to supplies from Brewhouse yard, including the passageway we now know as ‘Mortimers Hole’.
It was during Edward’s reign that we get the earliest mention of the name Robin Hood, which appears in the poem The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland around 1377. A long ballad, Piers Plowman was a protest against the harsh conditions endured by the poor in the Fourteenth Century. It includes the line: “I do know rhymes of Robin Hood.”
In case you didn’t know, Nottingham is known as the Rebel City. The city’s most famous rebel and champion is Robin Hood.
The city has a long tradition of opposing the establishment, inspired by Robin Hood and his band of men who’s folklore tales continue to inspire modern day people of Nottingham and those around the world who learn about his stories of opposition to social injustice.
Documents like Magna Carta also prevented Robin’s famous enemy King John – and subsequent monarchs, from doing whatever they pleased.
When the Industrial Revolution took hold, Nottingham was transformed into a darkening dystopia of poverty-ridden slums and harsh factories with very little pay.
The Luddites fought back, selectively smashing industrial machinery in the mills and factories to defend their livelihoods. In 1831, rioters caused havoc in the streets of Nottingham and finally they torched the Castle following the Duke of Newcastle’s vote against extending the right to vote.
The charred remains were left for half a century before creativity blossomed, and an art gallery rose from the ashes. The Castle was rebuilt in its current form and reopened as the first municipal art gallery outside London for all the people of Nottingham to enjoy.
Nottingham Castle Caves
The castle cave tours are suitable for all ages and school or other group bookings are available by prior arrangement.
The tours take 25 minutes and are recommended to be booked in advance with Nottingham Castle. The tour takes 15 people per tour. The ground can be uneven at times and the steps are worn with age so caution is advised.
It’s a wonderful hidden gem of Nottingham, if you’re not local to the city you may not have heard about the cave systems below the city.
These are full of history, creepy dungeons, tales of murderous plots and folklore. Soon to be added to the tour is the infamous, Mortimer’s hole.
There are caves throughout the city where people actually lived and worked many years ago.
Robin Hood Adventures in Medieval Nottingham
An interactive new feature using mixed reality games at the castle museum that is fun for the whole family, as you enter into the venue you will instantly be transferred into the streets of medieval Nottingham with the atmosphere and sounds of the city.
When reaching the main chamber you can discover everything about Robin Hood and his friends, as told by a cast of on screen actors and with accompanying visual tales on the projectors.
Set behind the screens there’s more to discover with archery games with a longbow using only virtual arrows and lessons in using a Quarterstaff.
In the adjoining room there are video gaming tables where up to four people can engage with a variety of medieval stories and activities. My family enjoyed the whole experience and joined in with all the activities available.
Hoods Hideout, gift shop and cafés
Hoods Hideout is set in the lower bailey, the dry moat of the castle where kids up to the age of 12 can play and use their imagination to relive Robin Hoods tales and maybe use up some energy outdoors, there’s lots of fun places to climb, walk along the wooden walkways above or use the swings and slides down below.
There are two cafés at the castle, you’ll see the first one as you enter via the new visitor centre, a great start to your adventure with a drink and something to fuel your visit. There’s plenty of choice, sweet or savoury foods to start your visit.
The second café is on the castle terrace overlooking the city of Nottingham. The views from the terrace are spectacular, you can see for miles in all directions as you enjoy a meal and a drink.
From the right-hand side of Castle Rock you may be able to see The Park Estate too. There’s indoor seating too if the British weather is being a little less accommodating on your visit.
A visit to the gift shop is a perfect way to finish your day at the castle. I found it difficult to choose from the array of beautiful gift ideas, everything from adult gifts such as Nottingham beers, mugs and scented gift sets to cuddly toys and games, plus Robin Hood related items. There’s books on history too so that you can do some research for yourself.
The young Gainsborough exhibition
Young Gainsborough is a touring exhibition and collaboration between Royal Collection Trust; York Art Gallery; the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin; and Nottingham Castle.
Additional works have been generously loaned by The National Gallery, London; The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester; and Colchester and Ipswich Museums and being displayed at the Nottingham Castle galleries for a limited time, from the 2nd of July through to the 13th of Nov 2022.
Rediscovered Landscape Drawings is a display of twenty-five landscape drawings from the Royal Collection along with loans from The National Gallery, York Museums Trust, and Nottingham City Museums.
Produced in the late 1740s when Gainsborough was in his early twenties, this previously unseen selection of drawings offers an intimate glimpse into the early career of this master of portraiture and landscape, highlighting his youthful enthusiasm for nature.
Previously the drawings were thought to be by the painter Sir Edwin Landseer and were acquired by Queen Victoria from his studio in 1874.
It wasn’t until 2013 that historian, Lindsey Stainton identified one of the drawings as a study for Gainsborough’s most celebrated landscape painting, ‘Cornard Wood’ 1748. leading to the reattribution of the drawings to Gainsborough.
The study of Cornard Wood, is displayed alongside the finished landscape painting, newly conserved and loaned by The National Gallery, London, uniting the painting with its preparatory drawing for the first time since they were last together in Gainsborough’s studio.
Thomas Gainsborough (1727−88) was born in Sudbury in Suffolk, the son of a family of cloth merchants. As a young man, Gainsborough showed promise as an artist and began to travel regularly between London and Suffolk, to train under French painter and illustrator, Hubert-François Gravelot (1699–1773).
Although he was later to become a dazzling portrait painter, in these early years Gainsborough’s real passion and interest was landscape, drawings of the Suffolk countryside, inspired by Dutch 17th century landscape paintings that were fashionable on the London art market.
‘Nature was his teacher and the woods of Suffolk his academy; here he would pass in solitude his mornings, in making a sketch of an antiquated tree, a marshy brook, a few cattle, a shepherd and his flock, and any other accidental objects that were presented.’The Morning Herald 4th August 1788
Personal experience at the Gainsborough exhibition
I found this gallery exhibition fascinating, I especially enjoyed the landscape sketches where the sunlit trees are highlighted with white chalk, and the uncomplicated form of the scenes portraying a goat herder with a goat and a cow for example.
The detailing is beautiful, and the scenes feel completely natural. I’m no art buff but I enjoyed it, nonetheless. Nature is always something I find inspiring and Gainsborough captured it so beautifully.
Illuminating The Wilderness
Nottingham Castle is also showcasing Illuminating the Wilderness, a film production by Turner Prize 2021-nominated Project Art Works, conceived and directed by Kate Adams and Tim Corrigan and filmed on location with Ben Rivers, Margaret Salmon and neurodivergent artists and makers, families and carers.
The 40-minute film follows the exploration of a remote Scottish Glen over several days during October 2018 and reveals the pleasures, challenges, and shared experience of neurodivergent responses to nature.
Illuminating the Wilderness displays a touching, joyful connection to nature, showing how a simple encounter with the natural world can benefit individuals who are neurodivergent or have special educational and complex learning needs.
By contrasting these two exhibitions, it is clear how nature is and continues to be, our teacher: Gainsborough reflects the (romantic) past, in a fabricated yet idyllic creation of the perfect landscape, whereas Project Art Works shows us the beauty of neurodivergency and how vital and healing nature can be.
Within the gallery there’s a room for expressions of nature through drawing and writing surrounded by a wild ‘forest’ of illustrations on the walls. Such a lovely place for all ages.
Location and opening hours
The opening hours are seasonal
6 June – 4 September 2022
10am – 6pm
5 September – 30 October 2022
10am – 5pm
31 October 2022 – 26 March 2023
10am – 4pm
The last admission is one hour before closing time.
Address for planning your arrival
There are some parking spaces available nearby using parking meters but I would advise using public transport whenever possible.
The castle is close to Maid Marian Way, Nottingham. Close to the transport links, Net Trams, Trent Barton Busses, Nottingham City Transport busses.
The newly renovated Nottingham Castle site with its interactive exhibitions and dual reality games, is a wonderful place to explore.
I would say that a day trip hardly covers the whole experience available. Even the gallery displays have interactive screens where you can create your own virtual salt glazed pot or alabaster feature which you can have delivered to your email address to keep for free as a special memento.
There’s a whole lot of child friendly areas where your child will learn a lot about the local heritage and history whilst having an exciting day out.
My youngest two adult children came along with my husband and I to explore and discover the new and improved castle, and we are all extremely impressed by it all.
The volunteer staff were absolutely fantastic, they are extremely knowledgeable in the history and heritage of the site and on a couple of occasions have been absolutely invaluable during our trip, they really made us feel very welcome.
One person in particular who we met talked us through the history and pointed out a whole new depth of history that we had no idea about until meeting him. Thank you David. I wish I could have fitted all the history into my article, there is way more than I have written about here at this time.
We can’t wait to return again soon, our next trip will include a cave tour and we’ll bring along our young grandson too.