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24 September 2014
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Nottingham Castle's cave network
Nottingham Castle's cave network

Mortimer's Hole

Richard Rutherford-Moore
Nottingham’s ancient names ‘Speluncaram’ and ‘Tigguocobauc’ - ‘city of caves’ - reflect the fact that beneath the city remain over four hundred man-made caves.


Visitors to Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery are offered a guided tour of the medieval tunnels and caves beneath the Ducal Palace building, including the two most famous of these being “King David’s Dungeon” and “Mortimer’s Hole”.

audio Listen to Richard talk about Mortimer's Hole >
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Both these man-made caves gained their names through a traditional association with actual historical events. I was attracted to “Mortimer’s Hole” as it seemed to offer a good adventure story in principal but seeming to lack plausibility on the practical side.

Local historian Richard Rutherford-Moore
Local historian Richard Rutherford-Moore

The ‘hole’ itself is actually a vertical shaft dropping vertically into a tunnel over a 150 metres long descending from the top of the castle rock through several turns to reach the bottom of the rock near Castle Boulevard.

The ‘hole’ remains a popular tourist spot due to the connection in October 1330 with the abduction by Edward III of a powerful rebel named Roger Mortimer, Earl of March.

Secret Tunnel

The traditional story has the castle commander letting slip to a friend of Edward III that a ‘secret way’ existed leading to an abduction party entering the castle at dead of night using this ‘secret’ tunnel, killing the guard, surprising the rebel and carrying him off to London for trial and execution (though no mention is ever made of exactly how the abduction party got through a locked and bolted trapdoor).

The tunnel is mentioned in antiquity by several historians who noted the existence of all the tunnels at the Castle from the 16th to the 19th century in terms of exploration, seeking for a carved ‘Passion of Christ’ on a cavern wall. The origins of these tunnels and most accounts are pretty vague, as they were expanded from the start but no real records ever kept of any development.

The top of the ‘hole’ is shown on the sketch made by Smithson in 1617, which in itself is the only plan of Nottingham Castle available to posterity, though archaeology has shown the castle was extensively rebuilt, re-designed and expanded from it’s beginnings in 1068.

The Hole

The remains of the medieval castle itself were largely destroyed after a deliberate ‘slighting’ in 1651 and the creation of the Ducal Palace in 1679 when the upper bailey or upper court of the medieval castle was literally sliced off to make room for the ground plan of the palace ; the ‘hole’ lost around twenty feet of it’s depth in this way.

When the ‘hole’ was originally dug isn’t known; only a vague note from the time of Richard I hints at the creation of the tunnel but that the tunnel was there in 1330 isn’t doubted, and a ‘top secret’ known only to a few people with both entrances covered or camouflaged (to then guard a camouflaged secret tunnel would be a bit odd as people would obviously suspect what the sentries were doing).

The top entrance - very likely covered by a locked or bolted trapdoor and probably within a building - descended thirty feet by a vertical shaft into which was fitted a spiral stair to the narrow tunnel (calculated to be between three and four feet wide and just over six feet high).

During the occupation of the castle by Parliamentary soldiers in 1642-44, the tunnel was used as a ‘sally-port’ and supply route and said to have been both widened and heightened; an indication of by how much can be ascertained by the difference in floor levels of an access tunnel created in 1642 leading to a gun platform, a difference of around three feet in depth.

The remains of the Ducal Palace - which was a hollow shell for forty years after the great fire of 1831, with Mortimer’s Hole seen in the 1860’s filled with debris, stone and earth - were leased to Nottingham Corporation and became a Museum in 1879.

Abduction

Tours of the tunnels were soon introduced and became popular, most of the names of the underground places visited given from a blend of historical notes and hearsay, adding to speculation and differences of opinion since the most recent explorations there in 1863. Evidence suggests that as the largest tunnels were accessible, they became known as the places where the historical events they commemorate occurred (though they didn’t always have the names they have today).

Caves outside Nottingham Castle
Caves outside Nottingham Castle

An alternative explanation of the abduction in 1330 also exists, and it was this one that I considered the more plausible and practical of the two for several reasons. Proving the abduction party could have gained access to the castle by a far easier route and not having to depend on an ‘inside job’ led to me looking for the ‘postern gate’ of this account - a difficult job as the castle walls were completely rebuilt in 1908.

After studying the archaeological report of 1975, I noted the remains of a collapsed tunnel but which had not been excavated. More research led to a simple calculation in August 2005 involving a compass bearing and a weighted piece of string thrown over the castle wall led to me finding the entrance to this tunnel in a back garden exactly where I expected it to be, and of a size to fit the bill. This made the alternative to the traditional account of the abduction much more acceptable. 

The alternative account given is that the castle commander was forced to give information getting the abduction party into the castle by using passwords to get through a ‘postern gate’.

Mortimer

The abduction party met in the Park, but some members got lost in the dark. The abduction still went ahead, getting into the castle by using the passwords and creeping up to the upper court where they were recognised by one of Mortimer’s men, who was killed before he could raise the alarm.

Mortimer was then captured but the escape route was cut-off by the men who had got lost in the dark attacking the main gate in an attempt to get into the castle. It was at that point as panic almost set in amongst the abduction party - who may have planned to kill Mortimer at that point - that the castle commander told the abduction party about the ‘secret tunnel’ which they unlocked and they used to escape down, away from the castle.

The ‘legend’ of the abduction was almost lost during the black plague of 1348 (which killed almost 50% of the people in England). Because of the ‘betrayal’ (in one form or another) of the castle commander, the possibility of a Scots or French invasion and the alleged involvement of his mother - Queen Isabella - in the murder of her husband, Edward II, his father I believe Edward III ‘hushed up’, changed or even suppressed the story of the abduction.

He did a year later publicly forgive the members of the abduction party of any charge of murder. The three men ‘fingered’ for the actual murder of his father Edward II were arrested but never charged.

audio Listen to Richard talk about Mortimer's Hole >
Audio and Video links on this page require Realplayer

Due to the length and greater detail, Richard’s main article containing all his research, reasoning and historical sources on this topic couldn’t be used here. Richard offers a talk on The History of Mortimer’s Hole and a guided tour to interested parties.

last updated: 31/01/06
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