Caves, coifs and costumes: A trip to Nottingham

On Saturday a group of six (sometimes eight) Museum Studies students (and honorary members of the group) visited three of the most famous tourist attractions in Nottingham; the Galleries of Justice, Nottingham Castle Museum, and Brewhouse Yard Museum of Nottinghamshire Life. It would have been four if we had made it to the City of Caves attraction as well but unfortunately that had to be jettisoned in an otherwise very tightly packed schedule! After an uneventful journey by train (phew) we started our day at the Galleries of Justice. Situated in the picturesque Lace Market, the current building which has become the Galleries of Justice, the former Shire Hall, was built in 1770 on the site of much older buildings, dating back to the Middle Ages.

The mellow stone of the court house contrasts with the ultramodern 'Nottingham Contemporary' arts centre which has just opened down the road (we could not decide if it looked more like a DIY store, warehouse or a chicken shed). After buying our tickets, and admiring the statue of Robin Hood in the entrance of the Galleries, we were surprised by the entrance of a man in a dress and carrying a long sword... it turned out to be the Sheriff of Nottingham, who roundly insulted us, told us a few historical inaccuracies about the gibbet hanging from the ceiling (which is only for DEAD people not alive people as tour guides like to keep saying) and then dragged us to the court room for a sham trial involving Robin Hood and a couple of browbeaten witnesses (including yours truly who gave an impassioned speech in defence of Robin Hood). Robin Hood also unwittingly provided the first truly hysterical moment of the day when he attempted to climb up the side of the court room to escape the dastardly (but ineffectual) Sheriff and fell off. Spared execution we were nonetheless banished to prison beneath the court room where we met the 18th century Turnkey; paid no wages the turnkey basically exploited prisoners by charging them for food, blankets, buckets... even for sleeping on the floor! This was changed in the 19th century when prison reformers such as Elizabeth Fry began 'sticking their noses in' and sacked men like the turnkey, bringing in discipline, cleaner cells and salaried staff. The Shire Hall's prison was actually condemned and closed later in the 19th century which suggests it must have been absolutely horrible. After looking round the wash-house we headed downstairs to look at the 'Sheriff's dungeon', an oubliette where poor unfortunates would be thrown down and essentially 'forgotten' about. Out in the exercise (and execution) yard we met a third interpreter, a prison ward from the 19th century. Much stricter than his 18th century counterpart he had us all marching round the yard in a line in a very similar fashion to how the prisoners would have done. It was quite chilling considering that they would have done this in silence, and was not helped by the gory fact that we had been marching over the bones of executed criminals! The graffiti in the courtyard was also poignant, carved by prisoners awaiting their execution.

More cells and dark pits later, we found ourselves in the Transportation Gallery, followed by the HM Prison Services exhibition which showed examples of prisons through the ages, artwork made by prisoners, examples of costume and, most fascinating of all, items that have been swallowed by prisoners to enable them to go into hospital. This included dentures and a fork of all things. The most poignant was a room of photographs of prisoners, in contrast to a system which dehumanizes people, robs them of their identity and turns them into a number it was fascinating to see the very people we had just been 'assuming' through the interpretation process. It reminded me that beneath the sensationalism and emphasis on the barbarity of the past existed real people who had many reasons for involving themselves in criminal activity, a side which is not explored so much as the system they became a part of. Nevertheless the exhibition asks some important questions and the display about a hanging is very moving, if mostly for the factual voiceover by the 'hangman' who carried out his hanging and then went and had his breakfast.

Emerging into the sunlight was very welcoming after the oppressive surroundings of the Galleries, although they are an amazing and fascinating survival. I certainly can't think of any other courthouse/prison complexes left, although there are quite a few prisons open to visiting like Lincoln and Kilmainham in Dublin. Our curiosity further sated by the temporary Robin Hood exhibition, we went to seek lunch in the city centre. Then on to the Castle!

Nottingham castle has always been a disappointment to me, the actual real castle that took part in so many important Medieval decisions and events bulldozed down after the Civil War to make way for some effete country house for the Duke of Newcastle. Still it is an interesting venue for a museum with extensive grounds which must look much better in the Summer when there is actually some foliage. Fuelled by the Robin Hood connection, four of the group bought Merry Man hats and we had a wander around the grounds in the sun (obviously the dank and dark of the prisons were still bothering us) and looked at the beautiful views of Nottingham and the hills beyond. It is easy to forget in the city that there is countryside not too far away. Once inside the museum we poked around the galleries, looked at some textiles and tried to work out the theme of the hanging in the art gallery, which was very jumbled mixing 19th century landscapes with contemporary artworks showing the Bosnian conflict and people wandering over fields of skeletons. It was disconcerting to say the least. One of the most interesting paintings was a picture of Judith holding the head of Holofernes, the expression on Judith's face was incredibly calm which is not something I would have felt whilst carrying a severed head. The local history galleries were a brief diversion and it was hard to find anything to say about them other than they remind me of almost every single local history museum I have ever been to. It is crying out for a re-vamp to be honest.

Then came the best part of the day. I find it hard now to write about my excitement without sounding like an incredibly sad geeky person but that is the price I have to pay. As we went into the Castle I noticed that they did tours. Not just any tour but a tour into Mortimer's Hole, only one of the most important caves in Medieval history (apart from Robert the Bruce's cave where he watched the spider). For those readers who don't know who this Mortimer is - and since no-one on the tour knew I imagine there are quite a few - I better explain myself. Anyway I am pretty obsessed with medieval history and one of the most compelling stories for me has always been Edward II, the man who most historians (as well as his contemporaries) think shouldn't have been a king. Unlike his warlike father he was much more interested in swimming, thatching and giving his jewels to male favourites like Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser. The barons managed to get rid of Gaveston (executing him) but when Edward went and gave all his attention to Despenser and his father (ignoring their wiser counsel of course) he didn't only annoy his barons this time. Edward's wife Isabella often had to encounter the shame of being ignored for her husband's best friends (and rumoured lovers) and she hated Despenser especially, who treated her with contempt. Fed up, she took as her lover Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, one of the great Anglo-Welsh barons who were more or less a law unto themselves. She and Mortimer plotted to depose Edward II, which according to the history books they managed, executing the Despensers and locking Edward up in Berkerley Castle in Gloucestershire. Unable to kill him - they tried putting him in a cell next to a pit of rotting animals but his constitution was amazingly strong - they murdered him instead with a red hot poker applied to the innards so that there would be no mark on the body. Whilst historians like Paul Doherty believe that Edward actually escaped to Italy (for which there is compelling proof) the belief at the time was that he had died during his imprisonment. Isabella and Mortimer proclaimed that they would rule as regents for her eldest son, Edward III. As he got older he became fed up with Isabella and Mortimer's posturing and unpopularity, as well as the fact they murdered his father, so decided to do something about it. Edward built up his support and news soon reached the adulterous couple that he was planning to rise against them. They fled to Nottingham and secured themselves inside the castle. Paul Doherty in his book Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II (2003) London, Constable, relates how Edward was encouraged to strike against Mortimer; "It would be better to eat the dog than let the dog eat us" (160). Making use of a secret entrance through cave passages hewed out of the rock upon which the castle sits, Edward and his supporters made their way up into the castle, where Mortimer was having a meeting to discuss (ironically) the capture of the traitors against them. Doherty writes:

'The noise of the attacking force brought this council to an abrupt end... A short but very violent dagger fight broke out on the stairs. [One man] had his brains dashed out; another... was cut down. The rest surrendered. Mortimer had barred the door and was busy arming himself when the King, Montague and their party burst in. Mortimer and Beresford put up a short struggle but were arrested immediately. Henry Burghesh, Bishop of Lincoln, made a vain and inglorious attempt to escape down a privy but got stuck and was hauled out. Isabella threw herself at her son's feet, screaming 'Ayez pitie! Ayez pitie a gentil Mortimer!' (161)

Edward was all for dispatching Mortimer there and then but he was convinced to be a proper king and allow the lord to be tried by his peers. Plus that kind of tyranny had got his father into trouble. Mortimer was taken from the castle to Leicester and then to London where he was executed as a traitor at Tyburn. Isabella was kept under house arrest for the rest of her life.

Those pivotal events in British history happened right inside where the museum is now and on the tour you can go down and see what is known as 'Mortimer's Hole', the passageway which Edward's supporters sneaked up to get into the castle proper. It is not clear whether Mortimer ever made it down this hole - on the tour it is claimed that the Marcher lord was dragged down here before his journey to London - but it makes an evocative scene to imagine the proud and brutal Mortimer being dragged down the narrow passageway with Isabella screaming for her son to take pity on him.

Apparently Mortimer haunts the passageway, although I seem to remember that Isabella has also been heard, her screams echoing around. The caves themselves are certainly dramatic enough to warrant such stories. They are entirely man-made and connect the castle to a vast labyrinth of caves that have been hollowed out across the city, the soft, salt-encrusted sandstone rock - which crumbles with the softest of touches - making it relatively easy to 'dig your own hole' as some people did to live in. The tour of the caves was also interesting for getting a flavour of the turbulent history of the Castle.

As well as the aforesaid incident with Mortimer, it was one of 'bad King John's' favourite castles (from the walls of which he cruelly hung the hostage children of Welsh lords), it saw action in the Civil War before being knocked down and rebuilt as a pleasure palace by the Duke of Newcastle. His house was in turn burnt down by Nottingham citizens protesting against the Reform Bill in the early 19th century and the Duke was so incensed by this act of rebellion that he left the Castle ruined and gutted as a symbol of his displeasure. The City Council eventually bought it and restored it as the museum and art gallery we see today. What I found interesting on the tour was that there are still quite a few remnants of the Medieval castle scattered around including the site of the drawbridge, the dry moat and storage areas under the ground, which in legend was also used to hold prisoners such as King David of Scotland. As the very enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide pointed out however it was unlikely that someone of his stature would have been kept underground. Still it makes a good story. BTW this tour of the castle is a MUST SEE and proved to be the highlight of the day for most of our group.

The passage leading down from Mortimer's Hole impressed me with its length, and it seemed a long time before we emerged into the sunlight again in Brewhouse yard and our final stop, the Museum of Nottinghamshire life. This small-ish museum (for which admission is included as part of the ticket for Nottingham Castle) is housed in 17th century cottages next to the Medieval Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem pub and traces the social history of the city through a mixture of displays and reconstructed shop fronts / insides. Some of the objects were pretty horrific including a bizarre looking birthing stool and what looked like a torture device for making marcel waves in hair. The shops were the most fascinating for me, particularly an old cash register with the big metal buttons which I had to try very very hard not to press them down (although it looked like someone had not been able to resist the temptation!)

There were yet even more caves, which people used to live in and even drank tea and ate cake in. Museum and cave fatigue began to set in, besides which the museum was also closing, so it was a relatively quick visit before we went in search of some tea and cake of our own.

A successful trip to Nottingham and one that will be chiefly remembered by me for finally getting to see Mortimer's Hole, a cave that has until that day been merely a picture in a book. It reminds me of the significance that can be attached to seeing an object, a picture or a place for real, the abstract impression you get from a book no substitute for really standing on the site where history happened.


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