Newark upon Trent

Newark market place in the mid-19th century.
Newark market place in the mid-19th century.
The early 12th century gatehouse at Newark Castle,
The early 12th century gatehouse at Newark Castle, built by Bishop Alexander. (A. Nicholson, 1995).

No town in Nottinghamshire can exceed in historical importance the ancient borough of Newark, or, as it is more picturesquely described, 'The Key of the North'—a figure of speech well calculated to convey to the stranger a vivid idea of its strategical position when civil war ravaged the land. We will not attempt to penetrate the mists of antiquity stretching back to the Roman occupation, when the town of Newark is said to have arisen, but content ourselves with sketching its rise from the erection of the castle by Alexander the Magnificent in the twelfth century.

Alexander was a Norman, and by birth a son of the brother of Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, who had risen from the position of a parish priest to be Chancellor and Justiciar—the most powerful man in the realm. Having been brought up by his uncle, he was, through his influence, made Bishop of Lincoln on the sudden death of Robert Bloet.

The author of the 'Gesta Stephani' gives us an insight into the character of the great prelate. 'Neglecting the pure and simple way of life belonging to the Christian religion,' says the writer, 'he gave himself up to military affairs and secular pomp, taking, whenever he appeared at Court, so vast a band of followers that all men marvelled. He emulated his uncle (celebrated as the greatest builder of his age), and erected the castles at Newark, Sleaford, and Banbury, on the plea that such fortresses were absolutely necessary in a time of lawlessness and violence for the protection and dignity of his see.

There was no wonder that a subject so powerful should excite the suspicious attentions of a monarch like Stephen, insecurely seated upon the throne. A rumour reached the King's ears that the Bishops of Lincoln and Salisbury were carrying on a treasonable correspondence with the Empress, and he summoned them to appear at Court. At Midsummer, 1139, the Bishops and the King met at Oxford. Seizing the Bishops, Stephen threw them into prison at Devizes, and kept them in until they had surrendered their fortresses to the Crown.

The church of St Mary Magdalene, Newark-on-Trent (c.1905).The church of St Mary Magdalene, Newark-on-Trent (c.1905).

In 1215 Newark Castle again changed hands when it was seized and held by the Barons under Gilbert de Gaunt. At this period it was a very formidable stronghold, as a glance at the ruins which still remain overhanging the waters of the navigation will clearly indicate. It was made still stronger early in this, the thirteenth century, for the greater portion of it was rebuilt in a more substantial manner. The fact is, the masons who have enriched our country with many beautiful specimens of architecture were very active in Newark at this time, for the lower part of the tower of the noble Parish Church, with its beautifully moulded arches and dog-tooth ornament, is attributed to 1230, when the Early English style was at the height of its perfection.

A few years passed by, and Newark was visited by King John, who breathed his last within the portals of the castle. The monarch was on his way to meet the Barons when he sustained that loss of baggage and treasure which proved the forerunner of more serious trouble. While travelling from Swineshead he was seized with dysentery at Sleaford, and carried on a litter to Newark, where, after suffering two or three days, he died on October 18, 1216. A tower at one extremity of the ruins is still standing in which the King is traditionally affirmed to have expired, and the legend is kept alive by its denomination of 'King John's Tower.'

In Henry III.'s reign the castle narrowly escaped demolition, but the order was revoked, and it passed into the hands of Robert de Gaugy. He was commanded to surrender it in 1218 to the Bishop of Lincoln; but on his refusal the King, with a large army, proceeded to Newark to compel the submission of the haughty Baron. A stout resistance ensued, and in a siege of eight days the stronghold sustained the heavy damage which necessitated its reconstruction. Eventually, De Gaugy was allowed to retain possession by paying the Bishop a hundred pounds.

The late 15th century front of the Old White Hart in Newark Market PlaceThe late 15th century front of the Old White Hart in Newark Market Place (A. Nicholson, 1995).

This settlement concluded the first period in which Newark was the scene of turbulence and war. A time of repose set in, and the establishment of religious houses marked an important era in the history of the town. Already Alexander the Magnificent had founded a hospital, which he dedicated to St. Leonard, and after Pope Innocent IV. had given power to the Friars to journey into every country in the world, some of them, of the Order of St Augustine, wandered to Newark, and, tarrying there, took up their abode at the Friary in Appletongate, now the pleasant residence of Mr. Henry Branston, J.P., one of the foremost of Newark's citizens.