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The History of Newcastle upon Tyne

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The ancient city of Newcastle probably owes its existence to the Roman Emperor Hadrian who built the defensive Hadrian’s Wall all across England to protect it from the marauding tribes of the North. The eighty-mile wall stretches from what is now Newcastle across the Pennines to the Atlantic coast near Bowness-on-Solway. Hadrian built a fort and a bridge on the north bank of the River Tyne , and this fort grew to become the mighty city of Newcastle. The bridge, built around AD 120 would have been around 700 feet long, another amazing feat of Roman engineering. The bridge gave the settlement its original Roman name, Pons Aellius, derived from ‘pons’ for bridge and Aellius which was Hadrian’s family name.

After the Romans left around AD 450 the next settlers in the area were possibly monks, evidenced by the name of Monkchester, which was applied to the settlement in Anglo-Saxon times. There are no records of a priory in the region at the time, and it is likely to have been completely destroyed in the Viking raids of 875. The name of Monkchester was consigned to history after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The eldest son of William the Conquerer , Robert Curthose, built a wooden castle on the banks of the Tyne in 1080. The Duke of Normandy, as was Curthose’s official title, grandly called his motte-and-bailey wooden fort ‘The New Castle upon Tyne’ a name which has stuck to this day.

William the Conquerer’s great grandson Henry II decided wood wasn’t enough for the castle to dominate the landscape and resist rebellion. At great expense Henry II built a new stone keep. The cost of which, Ł1,444, was a fortune in the 12th century. The works began in 1172 with completion in 1177. A stone bailey, triangular in shape, replaced the old wooden fort. An outer gate, known as the Black Gate was added by Henry III , between 1247 and 1250. At the time, the city had no boundary wall meaning the townsfolk would have to crowd into the bailey during attacks from the Scots. Stone walls were added to protect the castle area in the late 13th century. Because the keep no longer provided the principle means of defence the castle itself fell into disrepair and was, by the time of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I , a ruin. The castle faced further ruin from the 17th century onwards when shops and houses began to be built in the castle grounds, usually built by robbing stone from the keep. More than fifty such buildings were present within the castle walls by 1800.

The castle was bought by Newcastle Corporation in 1809, only the Keep and the Black Gate survive today. The castle was bisected by the East Coast Railway, signalling the end of it as a complete castle and grounds, the line runs within feet of the walls of the Keep. The Keep is now a Grade I listed building, the Black gate is thought to have derived it’s name from a tenant, Patrick Black, who lived there in the 17th century.

Newcastle’s position relatively close the Scottish border meant the town was never far from the wars between England and Scotland. Initially it was wool that provided the backbone of Newcastle’s economy but coal was soon to play the greater part. Henry VIII ’s reformation had closed the priories and religious houses across England. The closure of the priories in Newcastle meant the Tynemouth and Durham priories no longer controlled the lucrative extraction of coal from the nearby mines. With extraction and importation of the coal now in private hands, coal exports rose dramatically. Queen Elizabeth I granted Newcastle a charter in 1600.

The Scottish problem reared its ugly head again when a Scots army occupied Newcastle in 1640 and demanded Ł200,000 a day from the corporation. Trade and commerce ground to a halt until the Scots left in 1641, but only after a pardon and being granted a Ł4,000,000 loan from the town. During the Civil War King Charles I garrisoned Newcastle, ever mindful of the value of its coal exports. Parliament blockaded the port and stifled coal exports in 1644. This led to Londoners, who relied on imports of Newcastle coal, enduring a very hard winter. The Scots were back again in 1644 with 40,000 troops and heavy artillery and once again breached the defences to occupy Newcastle. King Charles II tried take much of Newcastle’s independence away from them but died before his charter came into effect. In 1685 the crown once again attempted to meddle with Newcastle’s administration when Charles II tried to impose a charter that would allow him to appoint catholic men to the city’s ruling corporation. Upon the overthrow of King James II by William of Orange in 1689, the people of Newcastle tore down a statue of King James and tossed it into the Tyne. It was eventually salvaged and used to make the bells for All Saints Church.

The Jacobite rising of 1715 and 1745 once again put Newcastle into the front line of the Anglo-Scottish power struggle. Unlike much of the surrounding regions, Newcastle declared support for George I in 1715. It is thought that this action of support for George may have given rise to the now common nickname of ‘Geordie’.

Although Newcastle was already an important and wealthy city at the start of the Industrial Revolution , it was the coming of the industrial age that saw Newcastle in its heydays. Much of present day Newcastle was built by the Victorians , although unsympathetic development in the 1960s demolished many buildings of interest and antiquity. The coal that had so long made Newcastle prosperous was vital to the new industrial processes and most of the new industries sprung up close to the coal supply. Shipbuilding and heavy engineering developed fast and Newcastle became the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

In 1928 a new bridge was opened across the Tyne to take the strain from the older and overworked Swing Bridge and High-Level Bridge. The Tyne Bridge with its distinctive arch soon became synonymous with the image of 20th century Newcastle. The Gateshead Millenium Bridge was added in 2001 to give cycle and pedestrian access to the revitalised and redeveloped waterside areas.

The decline of the industrial age in Britain saw a similar decline in the fortunes of Newcastle. However, Geordies are hard working and resilient folk and the city has fought back with an enterprising scheme for redevelopment to ensure it remains the thriving commercial hub of England’s North East coastline.

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On this day:
The Second Battle of Lincoln - 1217, Shakespeare’s Sonnets Published - 1609, Battle of Wakefield - 1643, The Great Bexhill Waterspout and Tornado - 1729, The Last English Duel - 1845
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