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  • Elliott Johnson

Transcripts: Andrew on Norwich Castle

Andrew is a medievalist working as the project curator on the ongoing redevelopment of Norwich Castle. I meet him in a pub which we both frequent, one which appears often in the Norwich Remapped project in various forms. He has a whisky and then switches to local ale. The radio in the corner can be heard throughout my recording, along with clacking glasses and chatter from the front bar. Towards the end of the interview, Tom Carver joins us and he and Andrew get into a discussion about Time Team.

I joined the project about three years ago. I’m the project curator for this NLHF-funded project to refurbish the interiors of Norwich Castle’s Norman keep. Broadly, you have this wonderful 12th-century structure that has a life as a palace, that has a life as a gaol and a prison—we’ll chat about that more in a bit—and then, at the very end of the 19th century, it’s turned into a museum. However, when they do the conversion, they don’t reinstate the original interiors. And over the last century or so, it’s been fantastic, it’s gone through many evolutions, but in discussions with the public, one major issue that visitors have is that they can’t understand it as it operated, as a castle. Because you had this constructed void, so you’d think of it as this huge space. It wasn’t actually like that.

The Castle in 1775.

The project at its core is making the castle more accessible: intellectually, putting these spaces back in so you see how it would work, you understand it as this incredibly important grand palace—I mean it really is a leading structure in Europe from the 12th century. But also physical access, so there’s a lift that goes in, you’re able to get to the new levels, because of course before you’re limited by Victorian interventions in the Norman structure. So with a project like this there are many different stages you have to pull together. There’s planning and application stages, you put your funding together with a number of bids, and once (or if) that comes together, you then often develop a dedicated staff to help deliver it. 

And that’s where I came in. My role covers everything from the historic furniture development and the room panels, how these spaces are supposed to be set, down to management of the display cases, and their construction, where the objects are going, writing the labels… There’s both the physical exhibits that you’ll see, but also, with a project like this, you have an activity plan: stuff that you’re doing while your building is closed. I’ve created some popup museums, as well as a developing some volunteer groups. I’m working with a teenage group that will help curate one of the displays that’s going into the new gallery. I was doing a different, near-identical, role for a different castle that was having a museum put inside it, up in County Durham, for a couple of years. So when that was coming to completion, I came down to work on this project, and may very well end up going somewhere else after this is done to do it again somewhere else. 

Museum contracts are tough these days. I wouldn’t recommend it as a career choice if you want to make money and go on lots of holidays. But it’s a privilege to work on material and think that you’re making the largest change to an iconic structure like Norwich Castle that’s occurred in over a century. That’s a wonderful thing, but it’s not great for an early retirement. But, it’s a passion. You’re privileged in that respect.

Excavations under Castle Meadow, 1991. Photo by George Plunkett.

Our understanding of Norwich Castle and its wider bailey is derived from the workaround the Castle Mall area. It was a huge excavation project in order to put Castle Mall in there [during the 1980s and 90s, under Brian Ayers]. And I think it’s something which is hard to see these days, why Norwich Castle is so special. Very briefly: there’s Anglo-Saxon settlements, we know about Norwich existing on the north side, down Magdalen Street, we’ve got the ditches for the burghs there. At Tombland there’s an early settlement, a marketplace, there are lots of churches around there. You probably have King Street existing. You probably have St Benedicts Street existing as indicated by the old parishes and churches from pre-Domesday book. We have these from the parishes, the old identification of the churches. Following the Norman Conquest, that’s when you actually begin to see castles come into this country. 

The undertaking of the construction of Norwich Castle is extraordinary… the records document that 98 Anglo-Saxon houses are destroyed or removed in order to make space for this. You have a motte-and-bailey castle, the mound and a large bailey area, which is enclosing 23 acres. So you’re going from what’s now the Anglia TV building, across to London Street, then all the way down to the Santander bank [on Timberhill], and all of that is enclosed and ditched. The motte itself is person-made, they dig a huge ditch around it. And that’s the just initial construction, in the late 1060s.

Then, in the reign of William II, in the 1090s, it’s expanded. So the mound that you see now is actually two parts: they build it, and then they expand it again. It’s extraordinarily large. The maths on it is, it takes 200 people a year to construct that.

The ditch around it, where you walk underneath the bridge, goes down another four metres under where the pavement is now, and there are several ditches through all of this area, going all the way down to St John’s Timberhill. So you imagine walking from there, along to the Castle, Golden Ball Street: that’s the size. While we had some sense of how that might have worked, the excavations in the late Eighties, early Nineties for Castle Mall showed how that would have happened. Over the centuries, as the Castle moved from being this incredible palace, sitting in the centre, totally defining and redefining the city, there is gradual encroachment, the ditches are filled in, the buildings are stripped for their stonework. By the 18th century, the ditches have been totally filled in, and that area becomes the Cattlemarket, and then eventually a car park. And then they do the big digs. That work really showed an incredible evolution. It’s one of the best-understood early medieval castles and baileys in the country, because of the amount of excavation work, which you just don’t get in other places—because of it being built over or destroyed.

You can download the excavation report for free. I mean, it’s a thousand pages in two volumes. But the photographs are extraordinary: they’ve got these section drawings, you just think, God, the size of it! The poor people who had to write it up, it’s an enormous undertaking, but extraordinary archaeological work.

The excavations at Cattlemarket Street, 1990. Photo by George Plunkett.

Following on from expanding the mound, William II begins the construction of a stone keep. The faced, ashlar stonework is imported from Caen with local flint used for wall interiors and the lower courses. You think about all of that being dragged up there. They build the mound, and then they have to drag the material up the hill. And of course the associated redefinition of the city through the erection of the castle. The old boundary used to be the Great Cockey. That’s the river that now runs under the Royal Arcade. You follow it, it sort of snakes by the back of the gym [on Little London Street], you see how it kind of runs down towards St Andrews. You watch the undulations of the land, it’s there. You think about where the churches are: you’ve got all the ones running Maddermarket, Pottergate way, down St Benedicts Street. And then you go south of that, you’ve got St Giles, St Peter Mancroft and St Stephen’s. That was the Normans, the new ‘French borough’, as it was called. I find it absolutely extraordinary, that singular moment of the building of this castle totally redefined the way the city works, and now it’s almost sort of hidden. You don’t realise how dominant it would have been. Even going through the Waterstones or Boots, on the two levels, because it’s built on the outer rampart of the ditch! It would have been just totally awe-inspiring. 

It’s also incredibly unnecessary as an undertaking. There’s no need to create a mound that big from a defensive perspective. It doesn’t give you any advantage. Norwich is rather exceptional in the fact that it’s a castle that’s besieged several times. It’s besieged in the 1070s, the Rebellion of the Earls, when it was a wooden castle. The Earl of Norfolk, Ralph de Guader, actually flees when the armies come. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, who’s leading the army, he says he besieges it ‘with all machines of war’, which is a great historical reference. It’s a three-month siege. Ralph’s wife Emma is commanding the forces. Eventually they come to a stalemate agreement, the Bretons are allowed to return back across the seas, and she’s allowed to leave as well. All this within the first decade of the Conquest. I think it’s reflective of the initial uncertainty across the country after William’s conquest of 1066.  And then it’s besieged again in 1173, the Rebellion of the Young King, and it falls. And later it falls again in 1216. So it doesn’t do very well as a defensive castle. It’s an expression of power, physically manifest, of the new regime and the imperial ambitions of Henry I, William II’s brother who completes the stone keep. He’s thinking a lot of himself, he’s seeing himself on an imperial scale. And that’s reflected in the architecture and the style of the castle. 

Castles are a multi-faceted structures, reflecting a multi-faceted society. That arcading on Norwich castle keep is just the most extraordinary expression of status. It looks like something you’d see in Italy or France. Why? Because it’s reflecting the style you see in other buildings that have such ambition, like Norwich cathedral, like buildings on the Continent itself. It’s basically all latest artistic styles in stone. It’s the third stone castle in the country: there’s the White Tower in London, Colchester is the second, and Norwich is the third. But nowhere else has that level of exterior arcading, based on very intricate mathematics.

Later, the Keep is given over to the city, as the gaol, but that’s still an expression of royal power through law and justice. When you see things like the seals of Norwich City, they have the Castle on them, because that’s an expression of their power through the judiciary. But over time the conditions become deplorable. It’s only when the prison moves to Mousehold that you see a change of association with the keep, but it remains a symbol of civic pride and status. Which is part of the reason why it’s taken up as a museum: this building reflects the prominence of Norwich as a city, no longer a prison, but a vessel containing our great heritage.

The question of how you interpret and present the stories of any structure, especially iconic ones like Norwich Castle, is the privilege and the curse of working on these types of projects. You have so many different stories, how do you choose which ones to tell in the limited space of a museum display? Which people do you choose to highlight? How do you share all that information with visitors who want to know? The conversations I have as someone who’s moved to Norwich to work on the project are always interesting: people’s reactions are, oh yes, I’ve lived in Norwich my whole life, and I’ve been to the castle twice! You think, ah, there’s so much! Why is that? I suppose that’s the nature of living in a place, it becomes part of your furniture, you don’t necessarily see it as an asset. You want to be engaging with it all the time. As some one who works in museums and heritage you want to have visitors and members of the community engaging with the material all of the time.

One thing that you’re constantly addressing is that the popular title is Norwich Castle, but the full name is Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery. It has a whole range of collections, art historical, natural history, and archaeological. We have only been speaking about the later medieval material, let alone the Roman material, let alone the early medieval and Anglo-Saxon collections in East Anglia, some of the premier archaeological collections that you’ll ever see in the country. Norfolk is the richest metal-detecting county by leaps and bounds, without question. And the amount of treasure and small finds that comes into the collection at the museum is envious. The collection is so, so rich and at the same time it’s dominated by this overwhelming historical feature. You could spend the whole day in the museum, never go into the Keep itself, and still not see everything. Without a doubt.

This ties in with an interesting concept about how people tend to link history with value. Places that have very prominent histories and identities often seem to project a value, and people coming from those places often take pride in that, and can be unconsciously empowered through association I think it reflects an underlying idea: places that are historically important or physically beautiful feel very engaging and unconsciously we think ‘I like being associated with this place. I like being from here.’ This can work conversely as well with communities not feeling pride in their hometowns when they are unaware of its historical significance and value.

If you think nothing important is coming from a place, then you can be a little bit down about it. But actually, it’s all about that information being presented appropriately and in an accessible way, and highlighting it for local communities and visitors and encouraging their engagement with it. This, I think, can be a major underpinning issue within our present social relations.

I think with Norwich, one thing that’s so extraordinary about it, is that there is such a high survival rate of a variety of different structures and periods, that means the history is very present and visible. So you can’t walk through the city without feeling and understanding the impact of the buildings, of that history. Part is due to the lack of heavy industrialisation in the 19th century, and then also, due to the bombing that happened in the war [World War II], which meant that expansion was able to happen without encroaching too much on historical quarters. Now, having said that, there was still huge slum removal in the beginning of the 20th century and many historical features of Norwich have been swept away. But the importance and wealth of the city, particularly from the 16th and 17th century, is still very apparent, with the standing structures from that period remaining dominant and inspiring across the cityscape. This prominence means that many people know about the history rather than it being hidden and the project of refurbishing the keep works to increase the awareness and engagement with these historical narratives and their importance to the public.

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