It is uncertain whether the Roman bridge at Monkchester survived into Norman times but it is likely that, at the very least, the foundations remained. Like the Romans, the Normans recognised the strategic importance of this bridging point. In September 1080, Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, who was returning from a military expedition in Scotland, built a ‘castle of earth and wood’ on the site of the Roman fort overlooking the bridge.
In 1172 the ‘new castle’ as it was named, was rebuilt with a stone keep by Maurice the Engineer (Mauricius Caementarius) who was working for Henry II. Most of the stonework of the present keep dates from this period.
One factor in strengthening the fortification was that Henry had relocated the Sheriff of Northumberland from Bamburgh Castle to Newcastle. We can still see the solid square keep of Newcastle’s castle today and it is surely one of the city’s most precious monuments. It is, after all, the castle that gave the city its name.
The castle was built partly as a defence against the threat of Scottish raids but more significantly it kept the unruly locals in check. The murder of the Norman-appointed Bishop of Durham by a mob across the river at Gateshead in May 1080 was probably an important factor in the decision to build a castle on the Tyne later that year.
The castle seems to have performed its defensive role quite well up until 1095 when it was seized by Norman barons under Robert De Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland, during a rebellion against King William Rufus. The king sent north an army to quash the rebellion and the castle of Newcastle was forced to surrender.
A medieval walled town grew up around this new castle which became an important stronghold in the northern defences against the Scots. Its military importance stimulated trade and commerce and the expanding town developed into a major sea port. By 1300 Newcastle’s importance was such that it was permitted to appoint its own mayor and a century later the town became a county in its own right, independent of Northumberland, which lay outside its walls.
Rope making, shipbuilding and glass making were among the early trades to develop in Newcastle but without a doubt the most important of all the industries in the town was the mining and export of coal. The Tyneside pits were among the first to be worked in England and for centuries Newcastle was the most important exporter of coals to London. Thus we have the familiar phrase ‘to carry coals to Newcastle’ to describe a rather pointless exercise, rather like the similar phrase ‘selling sand to the Arabs’.
In 1247 a major addition to the castle was constructed to the north of the keep in the form of a gateway. Built on the orders of Henry III, this gateway is known today as the Blackgate.
This oval-shaped fortified building was converted into a house in 1618 when the roof and windows were added. In the eighteenth century it was made up of tenements when one of its residents, a Patrick Black, is said to have given his name to the building.
Sadly, in the nineteenth century, when the Victorian railway tore its way through the castle site, the Blackgate was permanently separated from the castle keep.
Newcastle Town Walls
In 1265 the burgesses of Newcastle decided to supplement the defences of the castle by building town walls to protect the town’s trade and commerce from the raids of invading Scots. A tax was introduced for funding the construction. When the walls were completed they extended for over two miles around the town. These walls were never less than 7 feet thick and were up to 25 feet high. Newcastle castle and its Black Gate were not part of the town wall but were enclosed within them and their once important status in defending the town now became secondary to the town wall.
The town wall consisted of gateways called Sand Gate, West Gate, New Gate, Pandon Gate, Pilgrim Gate, and Close Gate along with seventeen towers and a number of smaller turrets built as lookout posts situated at intervals between the towers and gates.
The most southerly of the gates was Close Gate, straddling the Close near the river, west of the old Tyne Bridge. Along the wall to the north and straddling Westgate Road near Bath Lane was West Gate and further north, the New Gate where Newgate Street and Percy Street now meet.
From here, the northerly section of the town wall more or less followed Blackett Street where another gate, the Pilgrim Gate, stood where Northumberland Street, Pilgrim Street and Blackett Street now join.
A little to the east, on a site near the Laing Art Gallery was Carliol Tower where the wall headed south towards the river. Before reaching the Tyne there were two further gates, one called Pandon Gate and then finally Sand Gate alongside the river itself. In addition to this there was an inward extension of the wall along the riverside to the old Tyne Bridge – itself protected by a gate.
During Henry VIII’s reign the King’s antiquarian John Leland described Newcastle’s walls. He observed:
“The strength and magnificence of the walling of this town far passeth all the walls of the cities of England and most of the towns of Europe.”
Today none of the major gateways remain, but remnants of seven of the wall’s nineteen towers can still be seen along with some impressive surviving sections of wall.
The most notable surviving sections are alongside Stowell Street between Westgate Road and St Andrew’s church in Gallowgate. Here part of the ditch running outside the wall can also be seen along with Durham Tower, Morden Tower and Ever Tower.
This section of wall has a minor gateway or postern, built in 1280 for the Blackfriars who gained special permission to construct their own entrance.
A second stretch of the western part of the wall exists in the Forth Street area to the rear of Central Station close to Orchard Street. There are few remains of the wall to the east of the city centre except for the isolated Plummer Tower, a little corner turret and, in Tower Street near the City Road, a tower called Wall Knoll with a minor gateway called the Sally Port. From here, defenders of Newcastle could sally forth against the enemy.