Review – The Square Box on the Hill

5 mins read
Construction started on Norwich’s stone ‘square box’ keep towards the end of the 11th century, under William Rufus. (PHOTO: Robert Powell/Wikimedia Commons [CC by SA 3.0])
Norwich Castle’s life as a royal fortification was short-lived, and it served much more time as a county gaol. Lucia Marchini pays a visit to an exhibition that charts the changes to the structure over the centuries.

Beneath the ground floor of Norwich Castle’s distinctively boxy keep, excavation is under way as part of a project set to return the Norman structure to its 12th-century form. The first castle, made of timber, appeared shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066, but after a few decades it was replaced by a building of Caen stone, imported from Normandy. The stone castle was started under William Rufus before the end of the 11th century and completed in 1121 under Henry I.

A medieval finger-ring excavated from the keep.(IMAGES: Norfolk Museums Service [Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery]; L Marchini)
The landmark still stands. It is a striking sight on its high mound, even though it has been much altered. Today the keep’s interior, dominated by two large Victorian arches, is anachronistically lofty, with two storeys of height in one room – a balcony running around the sides of this space marks where the main Norman floor level once was. Medieval graffiti can be seen in situ on some of the walls, offering an insight into the minds of those who spent time within the keep, while, on the modern floor level, cases display artefacts relating to medieval life, including earthenware, and oyster shells used as palettes for illuminating manuscripts, as well as local Portable Antiquities Scheme finds, and grim objects like a gibbet that bears witness to the castle’s place in the world of crime and punishment.

That a castle should become a museum may seem like an obvious outcome, but the development of Norwich Castle Museum is a more circuitous story. The site served as a county gaol for some 500 years, from the 14th to the 19th century, and the rather formidable layout of cell blocks radiating out from the governor’s house, as arranged by William Wilkins, is still in place today. These blocks now house the museum’s collections, including Iron Age torcs from the Snettisham Treasure, Roman slave shackles, and ‘Spong Man’ – the distinctive pottery lid of an Anglo-Saxon cremation urn that is fashioned in the three-dimensional form of a human figure.

Stonework from the keep with a later medieval carving of two figures possibly kneeling in prayer. (IMAGES: Norfolk Museums Service [Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery]; L Marchini)
While the ‘Norwich Castle: gateway to medieval England’ project plans to reinstate the Norman floor level in the keep (which, it is planned, will be closed for construction work in 2019, to reopen in 2020), making alterations to the structure’s form is not a new idea, as an exhibition charting changes to the castle over the centuries shows.


In the medieval masonry, some of which was removed from the keep in the 19th century, we can see the marks left by those imprisoned at the castle. The earliest material evidence of prisoners held in the keep comes from a piece of Caen stone with a poignant 14th-century Norman French inscription, in which an individual called Bartholomew laments: ‘Truly wrongfully, and without reason I am shut in this prison’. Christian imagery also appears: another stone carries an image of the Crucifixion, which curators think was carved by a 14th- or 15th-century prisoner, while two figures in a third, probably contemporaneous, carving – one holding a fleur-de-lis and the other a scroll with an unfinished inscription starting ‘MIS’ – are shown kneeling, perhaps in prayer.

It was in the 14th century that Edward III transferred the land south of the mound to the city of Norwich. From this point on the castle buildings slipped into decline, and paintings in the exhibition illustrate the various transformations of the deteriorating complex. By the early 1700s, the keep was roofless and prisoners were continually escaping. Reform was clearly needed. Repairs and alterations were made, extensions were added, but despite these measures, which impressed reformer John Howard in 1777, just a few years later, in 1785, the gaol was declared unfit for prisoners.

Edward Boardman prepared plans using sand for John Gurney, who had lost his sight. (IMAGE: Norfolk Museums Service [Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery])
At this point, one of the country’s finest architects, Sir John Soane, entered the picture and oversaw the first major overhaul of the gaol. Drawings by his office from the 1790s showcase his design, which was ultimately short-lived, as subsequent prison reforms soon made the Soane structure unsuitable. Between 1822 and 1827, William Wilkins developed an up-to-date complex that would accommodate 16 different types of prisoner, according to the latest reforms. His work highlighted the troubling state of the external fabric of the keep, and in the 1830s the Caen stone was controversially replaced with Bath stone.


Although Wilkins’ design has left us with the cell-block museum galleries that stand today, his prison did not see the end of the 19th century. Again, reforms called for bigger and better facilities, and with no more room left for expansion on top of the mound, the county gaol moved to new premises on Mousehold Heath in 1887.

It was time for a radical change of purpose for the historical monument. In the 1880s, a committee worked on transforming the abandoned gaol into a museum, and they chose Edward Boardman as the man for the job. As plans on display show, his original proposals included reinstating the keep’s medieval floor level. One set of plans was specially prepared with sand for the banker John Gurney, who had lost his eyesight in a riding accident and who would have been able to follow the designs through the representation’s rough texture.

The distinctive keep features in branding for local products, such as this display for Norwich Castle Bitter (c.1978-1989). (IMAGE: Norfolk Museums Service [Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery])
Although the change in floor level was abandoned, work on the museum went ahead and it opened with great fanfare in 1894. Photography documenting the construction work in progress and memorabilia from the royal opening are on display, as well as staff uniforms and a ticket machine, and the revolving doors that would have been a familiar sight to visitors to the museum until 2000.

The castle remained a popular landmark throughout the 20th century and, as paintings highlight, formed a key part of the Norwich cityscape during major events. Its influence even extends into brewery branding. As well as boasting its own bar in the 1970s, the castle has lent its image to advertising for Norwich Castle Bitter.

One important thread that runs through the exhibition is how repeated episodes of demolition and reconstruction have uncovered illuminating archaeology, such as a medieval gold finger-ring, a 13th-century seal matrix with a winged hippocamp, and a 15th-century pewter jug. What will new finds from the latest stage in development of the castle reveal about its past?

Further information

The Square Box on the Hill runs until 3 June at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery. Tickets cost £9.50 for adults (concessions are available). Visit for more information.

This review appeared in CA 339.

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