Nottingham Castle stands on the summit of a precipitous rock. Although a castle was built here by William the Conqueror, the present building was erected in 1679.
The castle rock is honeycombed with tunnels, used for various purposes. The best-known of these is Mortimer’s Hole, excavated through the sandstone from the level on which the castle stands almost to the level of the River Lene flowing at its foot. It was probably created to make traffic easier between the castle and the corn mill and brewhouse on the river below.
It is said to have been so-called in remembrance of an event in the time of Edward III (r. 1327–77). According to early historians, one night in 1330, on his orders, a party of men entered the castle through a secret tunnel. They surprised Mortimer, Earl of March, the co-regent and lover of Queen Isabella, the young king’s mother, and seized him despite her impassioned pleas. He was taken to the Tower of London and there executed for betraying his country to the Scots ‘and for other mischiefs’.
The oldest description of Mortimer’s Hole is by William Camden (1551–1623), who says that on his visit to Nottingham Castle they descended ‘by many steps into a subterraneous cavern called Mortimer’s hole, from Roger Mortimer’s concealing himself in it’. Later historians argued that Camden had made a mistake, for if the tunnel was known to Mortimer it was not a secret entry. In fact, what was known to Camden as Mortimer’s Hole, and what is so-called today, is not the tunnel in the story, which was subsequently discovered by investigation, having been partly filled in.
There are modern claims that Mortimer can sometimes be heard pacing the cell in which he is supposed to have been held in the castle, and that Queen Isabella haunts Mortimer’s Hole, as she does CASTLE RISING, Norfolk, to which she was banished.