Destination Newcastle > History > NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE IN THE MIDDLE AGES

The city of Newcastle Upon Tyne was founded at the lowest place the Tyne could be easily crossed. In 1080 the Normans built a wooden fort to safeguard the crossing. They also erected a wooden bridge. (The ‘new castle’ was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century). Soon a little town grew up in the shadow of the new castle and was named after it. In the Middle Ages towns often grew up by castles because the garrisons provided a market for the townspeople’s goods.

Newcastle Upon Tyne prospered partly because of the wars between the English and the Scots. There was much traffic through Newcastle and travellers spent money there.

Newcastle Upon Tyne also became a busy port. In the Middle Ages the main export was wool. (Wool was by far Englands most important export). Hides, grindstones and lead were also exported. Newcastle also famously exported coal, from the 13th century onwards. Much of it was exported to London where it was used in many industries. Imports included alum and luxuries such as spices and wine.

Newcastle also had a shipbuilding industry in the later Middle Ages. The first record of a ship being built there was in 1294. There was also a rope making industry (ropes being essential for sailing ships). There was also a leather industry. There were skinners, tanners, saddlers.

Wool cloth was manufactured in Newcastle. First it was woven. Then it was fulled. In other words it was pounded in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. When it dried the wool was dyed. In Newcastle there were also the same craftsmen you would find in any medieval town such as butchers, bakers, brewers and smiths.

In the Middle Ages there were 2 fairs in Newcastle. Fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they would attract buyers from all over Northumberland and Durham.

In the late 13th century century walls were built around Newcastle – a sign of its growing importance. There were 7 main gates and 19 towers.

The church was very important and powerful in the Middle Ages. There were 4 churches in Newcastle. From the 13th century there were also friars. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach. In Newcastle there were Franciscan friars (known as grey friars because of their grey costumes), Dominican friars, (known as black friars), Carmelite friars (white friars), Trinitarian friars and Austin friars. There was also a Benedictine nunnery in Nun Street. There were also several ‘hospitals’ run by the church. In them monks cared for the sick and the poor as best they could.

Newcastle Upon Tyne had a mayor as early as 1216. In 1400 it was made a county in its own right separate from the rest of the county. By then Newcastle had a population of around 4,000. It would seem tiny to us but by the standards of the time it was a large town.