Castle Keep

Castle Keep

Aerial View

Aerial View


The Castle, Newcastle, is a medieval fortification in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, built on the site of the fortress that gave the City of Newcastle its name. The most prominent remaining structures on the site are the Castle Keep, the castle's main fortified stone tower, and the Black Gate, its fortified gatehouse.

Newcastle's castle was built on the ruins of a Roman Fort called Pons Aelius. ‘Pons’ is the Latin word for ‘bridge’ while ‘Aelius’ comes from the family name of the Emperor Hadrian, so the name means something like ‘Hadrian’s Bridge’. It was named after the Roman bridge across the Tyne which it guarded, which stood where the Swing Bridge is today.

It was built in around 122AD, about the same time as Hadrian’s Wall, which it formed part of. It was built of timber, and was rebuilt in stone in around 211AD. The soldiers who garrisoned it originally were members of a tribe called the Cugerni from Germany. This regiment was later replaced by a regiment of the Cornovi – a British tribe from near Manchester. This was the only regiment of British soldiers stationed along Hadrian’s Wall.

The fort was abandoned in around 400AD when Roman rule in Britain ended. The Anglo-Saxons who came after them built on the ruins. Today, the only things which can be seen of the Roman fort are the lines of cobbles on the ground around the Keep which mark where the foundations of the buildings used to be.

We don’t know very much about Newcastle after the Romans left. The Anglo-Saxon historian Bede writes about a settlement 12 miles from the sea called ‘Ad Murum’ meaning ‘On the Wall’ which some people have suggested was on the site of modern Newcastle. Later writers say that Newcastle was known as ‘Monkchester’ in Anglo-Saxon times, although there is no evidence of a monastery here.

What we do know is that there was an Anglo-Saxon cemetery on the site of the old Roman fort, underneath the Castle Keep and the railway viaduct. Over 600 graves were excavated between the 1970s and 1990s. There are also the remains of the tower of a small church under one of the viaduct arches, but no evidence of the surrounding settlement. The church and cemetery were still in use when the Normans invaded in 1066.

In 1066 the Normans invaded and conquered England. It took them a long time to establish their rule over all of England. In 1080AD, Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror was sent north to deal with raids by the Scots, whose Kings still ruled Cumbria and claimed Northumberland. He built a wooden castle on the site of the old Roman Fort. This was called in Latin ‘Novum Castrum Super Tynam’ – the New Castle upon the Tyne.

The construction was probably a type of early Norman castle called a ‘Motte and Bailey’ castle, consisting of an artificial hill topped with a wooden tower which overlooked a wooden walled enclosure called the bailey, which housed the hall, barracks and other buildings.

The building of the ‘New Castle’ helped to secure Norman rule over the north of England and controlled the Roman bridge which was still the main crossing over the Tyne. It also formed a good defended location for people to live and trade, which soon led to the growth of the town which took its name from the Castle.

In 1095 the Castle was besieged by King William II as it had been seized by the rebel Earl of Northumberland. In the 1130s and 1140s Newcastle came into the hands of King David I of Scotland, who used it as one of his capitals.

In 1154 Henry II became King of England, and set about taking control of the country after a period of civil war which had seen a lot of Northern England taken over by Scotland. In 1168, he had the timber castle on the Tyne rebuilt in stone. The Castle Keep which stands today dates to this period, and was completed in 1178 by Maurice the Engineer (who would go on to build Dover Castle) at a cost of just over £1,144. The Castle was a royal residence, and served as a base for the Sheriff of Northumberland, the King’s representative in the area.

In 1216, King John gave Newcastle its first royal charter, allowing the merchants to elect their own mayor and to control trade on the River Tyne. The Keep (or Great Tower) was the principal strongpoint of the Castle. Its construction was fortuitous when building work was interrupted first in 1173, and again in 1174, when the Castle was besieged by the Scots – the apparent explanation behind the building’s ‘unfinished stairs’. Notable additions during the reign of King John (1207 – 1216) included the former Great Hall, which stood roughly where the Vermont Hotel is today.

On Boxing Day, 1292 it played host to John Balliol, King of Scots, who visited and reportedly paid homage to King Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’. The castle was periodically added to up until 1250, when the building of the ‘barbican’ or gatehouse was finished – today this is the building known as the Black Gate. At the end of the 1200s, a long series of wars between England and Scotland began, and Newcastle became a border fortress and a place where the King of England would gather his armies before going out to fight.

The town was also growing – by the 1300s Newcastle was the fourth richest town in England, behind London, Bristol and York. Its main exports were wool and leather, but the coal trade was also starting to become important. The merchants asked the King for the right to build a town wall to help protect the town against Scottish raids.

** – The Black Gate – **

Built between 1247 and 1250 during the reign of King Henry III, the Black Gate was the last addition to the medieval Castle defences, but today is used for quite a different purpose – to welcome visitors in. The gatehouse, consisting of an arched passage with what are thought to be guard chambers on either side, was part of the barbican: a walled, defensive entrance for the Castle’s North Gate. Mounted in vertical grooves in the walls (still visible today), it's portcullis could be raised or lowered quickly by means of chains or ropes attached to an internal winch. At the front of the gatehouse, which could be defended by overlooking soldiers, was a drawbridge with a turning bridge at the rear – both of which could be closed quickly using counterweights.

The second and third floors were added in the 17th century by Alexander Stephenson, who leased the building from King James I and turned it into a house. The present name derives from subsequent proprietor Patrick Black who, despite holding the lease, is now believed to have never actually lived there. Further remodelling can be attributed to John Pickell whose name and the date 1636 appear on a stone high up on the south side of the building, and who used part of the Black Gate as a tavern.

By the early 19th century, the building was a rabbit warren of slum dwellings and in 1856 there was a proposal to demolish it on the grounds that it was considered ‘a great nuisance’. The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne leased the Black Gate in 1883 and converted it into a museum, which it served as until 1959. The Society continued to occupy it until 2009, using the gatehouse as a meeting place and library.


Castle Keep interior

Castle Keep interior

Defensive window

Defensive window


By the early 14th century the Castle had been superseded in its task to repel Scottish invaders by the town wall, which encircled Newcastle and boasted six main gates, 17 towers and some turrets – thus reducing the Castle’s role to little more than a Royal supply base. By 1589, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the Castle was described as old and ruinous.

When civil war struck England in 1642, the Castle was briefly refortified with an artillery bastion and became the last stronghold of the town’s Royalist defenders, who eventually surrendered on the 19th October, 1644 to the Parliamentarians. During archaeological excavations, many military relics of the siege have been found, and names of two of the defenders, John Danby and Thomas Cuthbert, can still be seen scratched into one of the Keep’s chamber walls.

Following this, the Keep was used for many weird and wonderful purposes; on the ground floor there was an ice-house, and the Chapel had even became a beer cellar for the adjoining Three Bulls’ Heads public house by the 1780s. The lessee of the building in 1782, one Mr John Chrichloe Turner, did his best to complete the degradation of the Castle by advertising it to be let as a windmill!

The advertisement ran as follows:

  • "To be let, the OLD CASTLE in the Castle Garth, upon which with the greatest convenience and advantage may be erected a Wind Mill for the purpose of grinding Corn and Bolting' Flour, or making Oil, etc.
  • "There is an exceedingly good Spring of Water within the Castle, which renders it a very eligible situation for a Brewery, or any Manufactory that requires a constant supply of water. The proprietor, upon proper terms, will be at a considerable part of the expense. Enquire of Mr. Fryer, in Westgate-Street, Newcastle".

  • ‘Castle Garth’ is the name for the area once enclosed within the Castle walls – Garth being an archaic term for the modern word ‘yard’. To the rear of the Black Gate stood the Castle’s two prisons: the Great Pit and the Heron Pit, which took its name from an infamous 13th century sheriff and can still be seen today.

    In 1400 Newcastle became a county in its own right; however, the Garth, being within the Castle walls, remained part of the County of Northumberland. The Great Hall, a seperate building to the Castle Keep which became known as the ‘Old Moot Hall’ in later years, was used by the assizes courts (courts which sat at regular intervals in each county of England and Wales). The Keep, meanwhile, became a prison for the County and was used as such until the beginning of the 19th century.

    Unlicensed tradesmen took advantage of the fact that town authorities had no jurisdiction on the Garth. From the time of Charles II (1630 - 1685), the area became famous for its tailors and shoemakers, which grew in particular abundance on the footpath known as Castle Stairs. This route has at its head a Postern Gate – which has miraculously survived from the original stone fortress.

    In 1619 the Castle (with the exception of the Keep and Old Moot Hall) was leased by James I to courtier Alexander Stephenson, who allowed houses to be built within the Castle walls, and also sub-let parts of the Castle for workshops. After the Civil War, new houses were added until, by the end of the 18th century the Castle Garth had become a distinct and densely populated community, with a theatre, public houses and lodging houses.

    Clearance of these began in the early 1800s for construction of the new Moot Hall (to replace the medieval Moot Hall/ former Great Hall as the County Court). From 1847-1849 further clearance made way for the railway viaduct, thus cutting off direct access from the Castle Keep to the Black Gate.

    The first restoration came in 1810 after the Corporation of Newcastle stepped in and bought the Keep for £630. The improvements made were substantial. For over a century the Keep had been roofless so new plaster ceilings were added, as were battlements and – controversially – corner turrets, which were deemed incongruous at the time.

    Several rooms were given ‘romanticised’ names to appeal to visitors – including the Great Hall, the Garrison Room and the King’s and Queen’s chambers (despite there being, in most cases, no record of them having served such function). It was too late, sadly, to save the original Great Hall of the Castle (also known as the Old Moot Hall), which had come to be used for the keeping of assize, sessions, and gaol-delivery for the County of Northumberland and in 1808 it was decided that it was to be demolished to make way for the current Moot Hall.

    By 1847 the Keep was in danger from the development of the railways but the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne successfully campaigned against proposals. In the following year the Society was given a long lease from the Corporation on the building for a nominal rent and members celebrated the new acquisition with a Grand Antiquarian Banquet in the Great Hall.

    Famed architect John Dobson was commissioned to oversee further restoration work. Under his direction, the Keep’s Norman chapel, with its chevrons and vaulted ceiling, was embellished and protected for future generations. Conservation and maintenance continues today.

    In 1856, the Black Gate was also threatened with demolition and John Dobson, among other architects, put forward proposals to transform it into an elaborate multi-storey museum with gothic trappings. Although none of these designs were acted upon, renewed interest ensured that the Black Gate was safe for another twenty-five years – albiet remaining in the much dilapidated state it had fallen into. Eventually, the Society was able to lease it from the Cooperation in 1883 and put it into public use, notably refurbishing the upper-floor to transform it into a flat for the warden of the Castle and giving the building a new tiled roof.

    The Society of Antiquaries continued to occupy the Black Gate (which became the North of England Bagpipe Museum in the 1970s and 80s) and Castle Keep until 2009, when their collection moved to the Great North Museum: Hancock. They are still joint custodians, along with Newcastle City Council, operating as the Heart of the City Partnership. Both buildings were extensively renovated between 2012 and 2015.


    ** – Visiting – **

    Newcastle’s most historic buildings, the Castle Keep and its 13th century gatehouse the Black Gate, were once part of a much larger fortress. Given its tumultuous history, it is miraculous that so much of Newcastle’s castle has survived intact. Today you can explore the ancient passageways and chambers where Kings walked and villains were imprisoned. Find the marks left by the inhabitants through the ages and learn the fascinating story of the Castle Garth community which grew up around the ruins. The two buildings that remain were cut off from each other by the Victorian railways of the 19th century - an unfortunate side effect of the North East's trailblazing role in the Industrial Revolution.

    Exhibits guide visitors through the Castle's history over the years: from settlement in Roman times, to medieval stronghold, use as a modern day museum and everything in between. Simply purchase your ticket from the Castle's all-new Black Gate reception to begin your journey.

    The Castle consists of two buildings: the Castle Keep and Black Gate. While the Black Gate is fully accessible, the Castle Keep has many steep stairs and uneven surfaces. Those who suffer from claustrophobia, vertigo or a nervous disposition are advised to speak with a member of staff in our Black Gate reception before climbing the stairs.

    Dogs, with the exception of guide dogs, are not permitted entry. Buggies can be parked in the reception of the Black Gate, however taking these into the Castle Keep is not advised.

    Wheelchair users: The Castle Keep is a Scheduled Ancient Monument with several upper storeys which are not accessible to disabled visitors. The Black Gate, however, has been fitted with ramps and an external lift. This allows access to the upper-levels of the building, including the reception, where you can purchase tickets, and an exhibition space. The building also has an adapted accessible toilet on its first floor.

    While the Keep offers limited access, a video tour of the Castle is available on the ground floor. Concessionary ticket prices are available for disabled visitors who may not be able to experience the Castle in its entirity.

    ** – Getting There – **

    Newcastle Central Train Station is just five minutes' walk from Newcastle Castle. Visit East Coast or First TransPennine Express for ticketing and timetable information. When leaving Central Station, turn right along Neville Street. You will pass by the monument to George Stephenson, father of Robert Stephenson, as well as The Literary and Philosophical Society and the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers.

    You can then follow one of two routes: Following Collingwood Street, will bring you out to our neighbours, St Nicholas Cathedral. Alternatively, turn right down Westgate Road. This will bring you past the railway arches which stand in between the Castle Keep and Black Gate.

    Tyne and Wear Metro: The Nexus operated Metro service operates into Newcastle city centre - with several stations in close proximity to Newcastle Castle. The nearest stations are Monument Station (at the top of the Grade I-listed Grey Street) and Central Station, both less than ten minutes' walk away. If travelling from the Airport via Regent Centre, you will have to alight at Haymarket and change platforms. For more advice planning your journey, visit the Nexus website.

    Bus Services: The Q1 QuayLink bus service runs to the bottom of the Side, the medieval Quayside street which leads up to the Castle. Public buses run outside of the Black Gate into Gateshead and towards Durham and Chester-le-Street once every 15 minutes (weekdays and Saturdays).


    Location : Newcastle Castle, The Black Gate, Castle Garth, Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear NE1 1RQ

    Transport: Newcastle Central (National Rail) see above. Metro: see above. Bus: see above.

    Opening Times: Daily, 10:00 to 17:00 (last entry 16:15).

    Tickets: Adults £7.50  Senior/ Disabled (with carer)/ Student/ Unemployed £6.50  Children(5-15 years) £4.50

    Tel: 0191 230 6300