NORFOLK Museums Service
Norwich Castle

A History of Norwich Castle

Artists Impression of Norwich in 1121. The keep was part of a much widel castle complex.From around 1067 the Normans demolished at least 98 Saxon homes in Norwich to make way for the castle earthworks within which they built a wooden fort, surrounded by deep defensive dry ditches. Once the land had settled, work began on the stone keep in 1094 by William (Rufus) II. Following his death in 1100 it was continued by his brother Henry I and completed by 1121. Norwich Castle was designed to be a Royal Palace rather than a fortification. However, no Norman kings ever lived in it. The only time Henry I is known to have stayed at Norwich Castle was for Christmas 1121.

Norwich Castle keep was built using limestone, which was shipped from Caen in France. Originally the ground floor walls were faced in flint, in stark contrast to the white limestone of the Royal Palace on the upper level. The upper floor (now just a balcony) was divided into two sections. On the north side was the Great Hall, and on the south were the royal quarters comprising a large parlour, bedrooms and a private chapel. Within the outer walls is a walkway (fighting gallery) where soldiers could patrol the building.

From the 14th century the keep was used as a county gaol, until a new gaol, designed by Sir John Soane, was constructed both inside and around the keep in 1792-93. This, however, was too small and became quickly outdated, so the outside block was demolished between 1822 and 1827 and re-designed by William Wilkins.

Late 19th century prison staffIn 1883 the county gaol moved to Mousehold Heath in Norwich and work began on converting the building into a museum. Edward Boardman was commissioned to convert the keep and prison. His work involved ripping out Soane’s prison cell block and removing rubble from the lower two metres of the keep. To support the new roof, Boardman built two fine open arches down the centre of the keep and installed a balcony at the level of the original Norman floor. In 1894 Norwich Castle opened as a museum. It displayed the collections of the earlier Norfolk and Norwich Museum, which had occupied various sites in the city since 1825, alongside collections from benefactors.

As the county’s principal museum, the castle boasts the best collections anywhere of work by the Norwich School of Artists, Norwich silver, Lowestoft porcelain and ceramic teapots.

In 2000-01, Norwich Castle was significantly refurbished, with substantial funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The keep was completely redisplayed, galleries extended and displays created to make a museum for the 21st century, attracting visitors from all over the world.

The watercolour gallery is amazing, the colours are so fresh. For someone living in Manchester I did not realise what an extensive collection of pictures you have.

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