The Lower Hall would have been the office of the Sheriff of Northumberland. The Sheriff would have been known as a civil servant these days and he would have been the King’s representative in the North East of England, responsible for justice, collection of taxes, defence of the region, coordinating with the barons and Lords of the region. He would also communicate with the town’s officials to make sure the King’s order were communicated and carried out into the region.
It was a very important position and he would have done his work from offices in the Lower Hall. He wouldn’t have used the Great Hall because that would have been where the King held court when he was in the region. If the Sheriff of Northumberland used those halls he’d be stepping on royal power. And so he used the Lower Hall instead to meet with local, powerful individuals, Lords and Barons. He’d make deals, knight Knights, create new Lords, give out land and take fealty. These were all very important decisions but were seen as civil rather than royal undertakings.
Today’s castle has a wonderful display of different interpretations in the Lower Hall. There’s a sergeant’s armour. Ranking lower than a Knight, he would have been a common man who had chosen a life of a professional soldier. He was equipped similarly to a Knight – he’d have a chainmail shirt, known then as mail, a shield, sword or a mace or axe, and a helmet.
At times, additional sergeants were sent to Newcastle to defend the castle against attack, especially when there was war with Scotland. Each sergeant would deliver training to the soldiers, as well as bringing their own retinue of soldiers with them.
The Lower Hall also contains a map of all the castles in England, Scottish borders and around Scotland. It shows how hard this area was fought over throughout history. It tells a story of conflict, independence and war.
There are also some crests of some of the most famous families of the North East. They’d be the important, landed families and many were well known throughout the land. The Nevilles, for example, were well known in Durham. The Scrote family and the Ogles regularly fought in Anglo-Scottish wars. The Balliols were the family of John Balliol who later became one of the Kings of Scotland.
Each family was also responsible for sending Knights to defend the castle. The Knights wouldn’t have lived in the castle but would have stayed at the bottom of what is now Westgate Road in the city.
There’s a range of exhibition cases containing finds from on-site excavations. There are items from the English civil war (the war of three kingdoms), medieval pottery and metalworking, and some earlier finds from Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Roman times.
There’s a small room off the Lower Hall, which was the Sheriff of Northumberland’s own room – a solar. In there he would sleep, eat, work and keep warm in front of the fireplace. He was also likely to have a family home in the city where he would live with his family, but this small room would have been his to use when he was working late. The room also had an ensuite with a steep drop to the bottom of his ‘toilet’. It would have been cleaned out every so often by a ‘gong farmer’.