Love at Norwich Castle: A Tale of Three Couples

Susie Childerhouse, Learning Assistant

Norwich, for me, has always felt like a romantic city. I moved here to get married and I love the winding streets and the beamed flint houses. It’s got its little local quirks too, like Jack Valentine, a mysterious character who sneaks around on Valentine’s day leaving gifts on people’s doorsteps. A kind of reverse trick-or-treater. Since I’ve been working at Norwich Castle, though, I’ve wondered if it’s the city’s medieval past that makes it starry-eyed – a link to the times of romance and chivalry.

Now, don’t worry. I’m not going to look at the medieval period with the Romance of Rose-Tinted Glasses. I know that chivalry in the knight-in-shining-armour sense is a construct – an idea generated by storytellers of the 12th and 13th centuries embedded in our minds by the stories they left behind. Anyway, I would hate to live as a medieval lady without the education, agency and freedoms that I enjoy. Also, my husband would make a rubbish knight. Horses make him sneeze and he’s not got the required psychopathic tendencies that seem vital to be an armoured killer of yore. And yet… I just can’t shake that idealised vision of romantic love whenever I think of medieval Norwich. Mist-covered mornings, fair maidens, brave knights… It’s all cobblers, isn’t it? But I thought I’d check and see if there’s anything in this fairy-tale concoction.  

Reconstruction of Norwich Castle and the surrounding areas in the 11th Century, by Nick Arber

There was an explosion of culture in 11th and 12th century Europe. Weather was balmy and travel was easier than ever. Life was more stable than it had been for a long time. The population could breathe out and feel safe from any ravening horde that might have haunted their coastline in the centuries before. What do people do when they have time to themselves? They sing, they dance, and they make merry.

Literacy rates, although higher than they’d been since the Romans left Britain, were still small. Most people got their information through their ears, not their eyes. Storytelling was always an important form of entertainment and a way of spreading ideas. We have evidence of stories that were shared orally for centuries before being written down. The difference between the 11th and 12th centuries and the times before was that people now had more time for stories and new skills to record them. Folk moved from place to place, taking their stories with them. One such set of travellers were the troubadours – musician-storytellers – bringing narrative songs up through France, across the seas and over to Britain. Norwich was a large city, connected via water straight to Europe. It wouldn’t have escaped the influence of these hyper-romantic tales peopled by the maidens and knights I still think of hundreds of years later.

So, I thought, Norwich Castle. The square sentinel on the hill with its 900-year-old history. It must have some romantic couples; how could it not? An iconic building that has stood through centuries must have some medieval Mills & Boone? You would think so. So, I did a bit of research, and here is what I found.

Ralph & Emma de Guader

Emma de Guader defends Norwich Castle, taken from the Norwich Friends Tapestry designed by Fiona Gowen

Couple number one: Ralph and Emma de Guader. It’s the decade after the Norman invasion and Norwich Castle is a wooden fortification. The stone keep hasn’t been built yet. Ralph, friend of King William 1st, gained an Earldom and the city of Norwich in 1071. He marries Emma in 1075. Emma was the daughter of another of William’s buddies. A medieval wedding! How lovely. Big dresses – feasting – a demure bride and a handsome groom, maybe? The Medieval Hello magazine version might have looked that way, but this wedding was very different. As with so many high-status unions of the time, it was for power, not love. Instead of an awkward first dance, the happy couple were planning rebellion against King William with Emma’s brother, Roger de Breteuil. All felt that William had denied them their true inheritance.

William wasn’t happy about these families forming an alliance through this marriage. He could see that such a powerful group of earls could be bad news. And he was right. Instead of honeymooning somewhere gorgeous, Ralph was galloping about East Anglia stoking up support. He then rushed to Denmark to find more troops, leaving the 16-year-old Emma to defend Norwich Castle against the wrath of an angry William.

Remember, William was a man who had authorised the terrible deaths of thousands of people in the Harrying of the North. He didn’t care if they’d rebelled or not. He starved them and salted their land to prevent crops growing for decades. How was a teenager expected to stand up against his legendary anger?

But she did.

She held the castle against his forces and even brokered a deal to get safe passage for herself and her supporters. They lost their land but left with their lives. Thank goodness she wasn’t a lady from the stories of courtly love. She would have been slaughtered in her slippers. Emma de Guader deserves her Rosie’s Plaque.

Henry I and Queen Adeliza

OK. Couple number two: Henry 1st and Queen Adeliza. It’s 1121, and the couple spend their first Christmas at the newly completed Norwich Castle. On paper, this one ticks a lot of boxes for a fairy-tale. An older, widowed king, ravaged by grief after the loss of his son and heir in a shipwreck the year before; a young and beautiful princess 18 years of age…  It sounds like the stuff of an animated movie. Agnes Strickland, in Lives of the Queens of England, from 1845, describes Adeliza’s ‘distinguished beauty and fine talents’, which mainly seem to be embroidery. Ho hum. We don’t know much about her. Could this be because they had no children? This was the real measure of a successful medieval marriage, not love, respect and happiness. Children bought security for powerful families and the potential for fruitful alliances when you marry them off. Henry, in losing his only male heir, ensured the country 19 years of unrest whilst his daughter, Matilda, and his nephew, Stephen, wrangled for the throne. For Henry, a legitimate child would have been a relief rather than a symbol of love.  He had at least twenty-four illegitimate children with mistresses, and Adeliza went on to marry after Henry’s death and had seven. We don’t know why they never had any themselves. I don’t see much in the way of romance in this marriage. Realistically, the union was to secure an heir, not to mend a broken heart. And the age difference was 35 years. Relationships with age gaps can be romantic, but medieval ones might have more prosaic motives.

So I thought that was it. No romances in Norwich Castle.

But then I remembered a truly romantic story. One of love that broke boundaries and has a legacy that is with us still today. Not only was it directly linked with Norwich Castle, but, without that location, it would never have happened! This is the story of…

Henry and Susannah Kable

Henry Kable and Susannah Holmes are listed as convicted prisoners awaiting transportation on this 1784 document. Original documents from the time sometimes use the spelling ‘Cabel’ but the family eventually settled on Kable.

Couple number three: Henry and Susannah Kable. 1784. The royal palace is now a gaol. Henry Kable and Susannah Holmes, still teenagers, meet and fall desperately and wonderfully in love at Norwich Castle Gaol. Both had been found guilty of their crimes, and initially both were sentenced to death. Their sentences were commuted to transportation to a prison colony. Gaols were a very different place from our prison system today: women and men could, at that time, mix. As a result, in February 1786, we see the birth of their son, Henry Junior, born in the gaol itself.

In 1787, Susannah was due to go on the now famous First Fleet – the first prisoners sent to the new penal colony at Botany Bay, Australia. The Captain refused to take Henry and their son, as neither names were on his list. I can’t imagine the terror of losing your family in such a helpless way. The young couple must have been devastated. As prisoners, their lives, their families, their futures were not their own. Fortunately, it wasn’t only me, 200-odd years later, who could see this. People with power heard their story, heartstrings were pulled, and the decision was made for the couple and their young son to all go together onboard the Friendship to Australia. In February of 1788, they were married. It was a group wedding and the first ceremony of its kind in the new colony.

Lithograph of the First Fleet entering Port Jackson, 26 January 1788, by Edmund Le Bihan (from Wikipedia)

Their story doesn’t end there. But this blog must. Henry and Susannah really deserve their own Netflix series about their tale. It is moving, fun, poignant and, most of all, it is human. They were the start of a dynasty of proud Kables who still take the pilgrimage across the world to lay hands on the crumbling keep walls where it all began. I’m pleased that we’re a part of their story. It really is romantic. Yes, I know it’s got nothing to do with medieval knights, but it seems right that the real love stories of Norwich Castle aren’t the ones with the kings, but with the rascals.

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