The Castle stands on a steep sided promontory overlooking the River Tyne. It is a readily defensible site which has been occupied for nearly 2000 years. Flint flakes and a stone axe head found in archaeological excavations hint at prehistoric activity.
From the mid 2nd century until the beginning of the 5th century a Roman fort – Pons Aelius – stood here, guarding the river crossing below. The site of the Roman bridge was probably where the Swing Bridge now stands. Part of the fort has been excavated and some of the buildings are now laid out in cobbled detail to the north and west of the castle keep.
From the 8th century the site of the fort was used as a Christian cemetery, presumably serving a settlement nearby.
The first castle – the New Castle upon Tyne – was founded in 1080 by Robert Curthose, eldest son of William the Conqueror. The castle was probably of motte and bailey type. Nothing can now be seen above ground.
The keep has been restored on a number of occasions, principally in 1810, 1812 and 1848, and again between the 1960s and 1980s when crumbling outside stonework was replaced and the interior cleaned. Despite these changes the keep remains one of the best examples of its type in the country.
Its function was two fold, the principal strongpoint of the castle and the dwelling of the commander of the garrison. The accommodation consisted of one large room on each floor (there are now three but may have been originally four) with subsidiary rooms, garderobes (toilets), stairs and galleries contained within the thickness of the walls. For reasons of defence it was entered on the second floor by an external stair.