Built originally around 1070 as a Norman Motte and Bailey earthwork fortress to replace a Saxon fortified manor which had existed on the site in Nottinghamshire since the 10th century. The castle developed around 1133 – 35 when Henry I granted Bishop Alexander of Lincoln - who was the Lord of the Manor of Newark - permission to build a castle this developed into a stone construction towards the end of the 12th century.
The castle is most famous as the location in which King John died of dysentery on 19 October 1216, although legend says that he was poisoned. Following John’s death, the castle was seized by Robert de Aughy, one of John’s knights who held it against Henry II for 8 days before surrendering it to Henry. The following year the castle was besieged during a bid for the throne by Dauphine Louis, after the failure of which the castle reverted to the Bishop of Lincoln.
The north curtain wall was 3 metres thick with small rooms and passages built in it. The entrance through the gatehouse led into a cobbled courtyard with a number of buildings including the kitchens and a chapel. The gatehouse was part of the original castle and was built to impress. Within the gatehouse, on the first floor, was the bishop’s private suite. The existing curtain wall was constructed in the late 13th century in order to strengthen the defences. The original one was dismantled and the new one built closer to the river. Two types of stone were used to give it a multi-coloured effect. At the same time two new multi-sided towers were added. As this side of the castle was protected by the river the windows could be large and impressive.
During medieval times goods were mainly delivered by water and the Watergate can be seen at the base of the curtain wall with its steps leading to a large cellar under the Bishop’s Hall.
In the 15th and 16th century the castle ceased to be a defensive structure and with the inclusion of large windows was converted to more of a residence. It ceased to be held by the church in the Reformation when in 1547 it was obtained by the crown and sold into private hands.
The lease eventually was obtained by Lord Burghley, who transformed it into a comfortable residence and in 1603, it provided accommodation for King James I.
During the Civil War (1642-46,) the castle held out for the King despite being besieged on 3 occasions. It eventually surrendered in 1645 on the orders of King Charles I following his capture at nearby Southwell on 5 May 1646. Following its surrender Parliament ordered that it should be destroyed but the development of the plaque in Newark meant that this never happened, although many of its stones were removed over the years to produce its current state.
Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the castle was held by Charles I’s widow Queen Henrietta Maria.
In the early 18th century the castle and site was leased to the Duchess of Newcastle and was held by her family until 1836 when all the land with the exception of the castle was sold and between 1845-8, it became the first monument to be restored at Government expense.
During the 19th century a cattle market and public baths were situated within the grounds and in 1881 a public library was constructed which is now the Gilstrap Heritage Centre. In 1889 the grounds became a public garden which was designed by Victorian landscape architect H.E. Milner to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. The gardens underwent a major refurbishment in 1998 and 2000 which took place with the support of the National Lottery Fund.
Today, only 20% of the castle still stands. The curtain wall running alongside the River Trent was rebuilt in the 14th Century and that remains today creating the imposing façade. Within the wall would have been a number of buildings including the great hall, the only evidence of which is the windows that still remain in the wall, although it does still contain two towers, both of which contained prisons.
The views from the town create a very different picture which is one of a ruin as virtually none of the wall remains. Although the three-storey gatehouse built by Bishop Alexander does remain as the most complete example of a Romanesque gatehouse to survive in England.