The first Norman castle was a wooden structure and of a motte-and-bailey design, and was built in 1067, a year after the Battle of Hastings, on the orders of William the Conqueror. This wooden structure was replaced by a far more defensible stone castle during the reign of Henry I (1100-1135), and was imposing and of a complex architectural design.
For centuries the castle served as one of the most important in England for nobles and royalty alike. It was in a strategic position due to its location near a crossing of the River Trent; and it was also known as a place of leisure being close to the royal hunting grounds at Tideswell, which was the “Kings Larder” in the Royal Forest of the Peak, and also the royal forests of Barnsdale and Sherwood Forest.
Whilst Richard the Lionheart was away on the Third Crusade, and a great number of English noblemen were away with him, it was said that Nottingham Castle was left derelict and it was occupied by the Sheriff of Nottingham. In the legends of Robin Hood, Nottingham Castle is the scene of the final showdown between the Sheriff and the hero outlaw in many tales.
In 1194, a historic battle took place at Nottingham castle when the supporters of Prince John captured it. The castle was the site of a decisive siege when King Richard I, returned to England and besiged the castle with the siege machines he had used at Jerusalem. Richard was aided by Ranulph de Blondeville, 4th Earl of Chester, and David of Scotland, 8th Earl of Huntingdon.
Shortly before his 18th birthday, Edward III, with the help of a few trusted companions, staged a coup d'état at Nottingham castle (19 October 1330) against his mother Isabella of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March. Both were acting as Regents during Edward's minority following their murder of his father Edward II at Berkeley Castle. The young king entered the castle via a secret passageway and arrested both Isabella and Roger Mortimer. Mortimer was sent to the Tower of London, and hanged a month later. Isabella of France was forced into retirement at Castle Rising Castle. With this dramatic event, the personal reign of Edward effectively began.
The castle was expanded by many of the following monarchs until rendered obsolete in the 16th century by artillery. A short time following the break out of the English Civil War, the castle was already in a semi-ruined state after a number of skirmishes occurred on the site. Towards the end of the Civil War, Charles I chose Nottingham as the rallying point for his armies, but soon after he departed, the castle rock was made defensible and held by the parliamentarians. Commanded by John Hutchinson, they repulsed several Royalist attacks, and they were the last group to hold the castle. After the execution of Charles I in 1649, the castle was razed to prevent its re-use.
After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the present 'Ducal Mansion' was built by Henry Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Newcastle between 1674 and 1679 on the foundations of the previous structure. Despite the destruction of the keep and fortifications, some rock cut cellars and medieval pointed arches survive beneath the mansion, together with a long passage to the bottom of the rock, commonly known as Mortimer's Hole.
The mason for the Mansion was Samuel Marsh of Lincoln, who also worked for the Duke at Bolsover Castle. His designs are generally thought to have been strongly influence by Rubens's published engravings of the Palazzi di Genova. The Duke's mansion is a rare surviving example in England of Artisan Mannerist architecture.
However, it lost its appeal to the later Dukes with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, which left Nottingham with the reputation of having the worst slums in the British Empire outside India. When residents of these slums rioted in 1831, in protest against the Duke of Newcastle's opposition to the Reform Act 1832 they burned down the mansion.
The original exterior stairs on the eastern facade of the mansion were subsequently demolished to create a parade ground for the Robin Hood Rifles.
The mansion remained a derelict shell until it was restored in 1875 by Thomas Chambers Hine, and opened in 1878 by the Prince of Wales, (later King Edward VII) as Nottingham Castle Museum , the first municipal art gallery in the UK outside London. The new interiors ignored the original floor levels and fenestration to accommodate a top-lit picture gallery modeled after the Grande Galerie of the Louvre. The obtrusive new pitched roofs gave rise to adverse comment, and the walls were subsequently raised and topped by a pierced stone balustrade a few years later, changing the proportions of the facades. Behind the balustrade was a boardwalk above the leads, which originally allowed visitors to promenade around the roof to enjoy views over the city and the Trent valley.
Some tourists are disappointed to find a mansion house, expecting to see a medieval castle instead. There have been suggestions for many years to demolish the mansion house and build a replica of the original castle but there has never been any serious funding sought for such a scheme.
On Christmas Day 1996 a landslip, caused by a leaking water main, led to 80 tonnes of earth and retaining wall from the Restoration terrace next to the Mansion falling to the bottom of the Castle rock. This revealed some remains of the original castle foundations and the bedrock. After a lengthy controversy on the best conservation/restoration approach, the terrace was reinstated in 2005 with a traditional stone facade. This conceals a concrete structure, which allows the medieval masonry to remain accessible to visitors.
The mansion is still used as a museum today. In 2005, the Castle was the only venue outside the USA to host the 'Waking Dreams' touring exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art. The show attracted visitors from all over Europe and brought the Castle Museum to international attention as a gallery space.
A drawing of the Ducal Mansion appeared on millions of packets of rolling tobacco and cigarettes made by John Player & Sons, a Nottingham firm. Most packets had the phrases Nottingham Castle and Trade Mark bracketing the image of the unfortress-like structure. This led the novelist Ian Fleming to refer to "that extraordinary trademark of a dolls house swimming in chocolate fudge with Nottingham Castle written underneath." in Thunderball in the knowledge that his British readers would be familiar with the image.