Castle Acre

Castle Acre fortress may have been built on a Roman site judging from the discovery of a tessellated pavement and several coins from Vespasian to Constantine as well as being on the Roman road from Thetford to Brancaster.  The current fortress commands the crossing of the Roman road called Peddars Way over the River Nar.  In Domesday Book the vill was simply recorded as Acre, although subsequently it was split into Castle Acre and West Acre.  Although these names are only recorded after Domesday it is all but certain that the castle had been established before that date.  Further, the late twentieth century excavators thought the castle was not founded on virgin ground and therefore there was Saxon material underneath the castle.

The Domesday survey also states that there was a church in the vill that held 30 acres of land.  As neither West Acre nor Castle Acre churches show any sign of being this age and nearby Newton has its own entry (without mention of a church) it seems likely that this church was Castle Acre priory.  The priory had been founded before 1088 when the earl died.

It seems likely that William Warenne (d.1088) was granted Castle Acre together with many other lands in 1067 when he was one of the 4 lords appointed to govern England during the William the Conqueror's absence in Normandy.  In Normandy Warenne was lord of the castles of Bellencombre and Mortemer, while he held Conisbrough castle in England.  During 1070 William's brother Frederick was killed ‘in his own house' by Hereward the Wake, leading to a feud between the earl and the Englishman.  In 1075 William took part in the campaign to destroy the power of the rebel earl of Norfolk.  Other than Norwich castle itself no other fortresses were mentioned in this fighting.  William's wife, Gundreda Thouars, outlived her husband, despite modern antiquarian tales to the contrary.  She was buried under a fine inscribed slab in their foundation at Lewes, although in 1444 she was alleged to have died at Castle Acre on 27 May 1085 during childbirth.  However, as contemporaries stated that she survived her husband who died at Lewes on 24 June 1088 from an arrow wound in his leg received at the siege of Pevensey castle, this seems unlikely.  Even if she had been made pregnant by her husband before his death, the child would have to have been born more than a month before 27 May 1085, so the 1444 tale should be dismissed.  In any case, between 1083 and 1085, William had fought with his king in the Maine campaign where he was wounded during the siege of Sainte-Suzanne castle.  He was made earl of Surrey only in the year of his death by William Rufus (1087-1100).  It is generally considered that this William was responsible for raising the 2 storey stone hall within the ringwork, protected by first a wooden and then an ornamental stone gatetower.

Earl William was succeeded by his eldest son, another Earl William.  He was a suitor to Edith (d.1118), the daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland (d.1093) and may have been infuriated when she was married by King Henry I in 1100.  In 1101 he joined Duke Robert of Normandy (d.1134) in the invasion of England and was consequently exiled to Normandy.   Castle Acre remained in the hands of King Henry I until 1103 when he returned it and William's other lands at Duke Robert's request.  In September 1106 William fought for Henry I against Duke Robert at the decisive battle of Tinchenbrai.  Finally the earl was attending the king at the time of his death in December 1135 and he himself died on 11 May 1138, being laid to rest at the feet of his father in Lewes priory.  Early in his lordship he had confirmed his father's foundation of Castle Acre priory and added his own gifts, noting that the first church had been built within the castle.  Yet the monks found their site too small and so began to build another monastery without the fortifications during the time of Bishop Herbert of Norwich (1091-1119).  The earl therefore granted them 2 orchards and all the cultivated ground between the orchards and the castle as well as the serf, Ulmar the stonemason, who was to work on their new church.  The new church was consecrated only between 1146, when Bishop William Turberville was consecrated and 19 January 1148 when the third earl died on Crusade after the battle of Laodicea.  William was part of King Louis' bodyguard that had recklessly charged the Turks and paid the ultimate price.  During this era from 1138 until 1148 coin evidence would suggest that the hall was converted into a keep and the first curtain constructed around the ringwork.  Presumably the bailey was fortified in stone around this same time.

Castle Acre then passed to King Stephen's son William Blois (d.1159), to whom the king married Earl William's heiress, Isabel Warenne (d.1203).  William held Castle Acre for the rest of his life, despite having to surrender both Norwich and Pevensey castles in 1157 as well as his garrisons (munitiones) in England and Normandy, although the king allowed him all the lands his father had held before becoming king.  If he retained Castle Acre it was not for long as he died 2 years later on 11 October 1159 returning from the Toulouse campaign of Henry II. 

Isabel Warenne (d.1203), the widow of Count William (d.1159), was married to Henry II's half-brother, Hamelin Plantagenet (d.1202) in April 1164.  Before that date she had held the earldom with Castle Acre in her own hands (1159-64).  Hamelin took on the surname of Warenne, but like his claimed forebears his family seem to have also made their main caput Lewes castle.  Certainly the family, following in the tradition of his wife's family, were all buried at Lewes priory.  In the late summer of 1216 Earl William Warenne (d.1240) joined the rebels against King John and thereby gave his allies firm bases for their conquest of East Anglia that year.  In April 1217 the earl returned to his fealty to John's son and East Anglia again reverted to Plantagenet rule.  The archaeology suggests that the ringwork was virtually abandoned by the end of the twelfth century, presumably with the living quarters being moved down into the bailey and the ringwork prepared more for defence.

Castle Acre was visited several times by King Henry III (1216-72) and his son, Edward I (1272-1307).  After this the fortress seems to have been neglected.  Earl John Warenne (d.1304) had added Bromfield to his domains in the Welsh war of 1282-83.  This included the old castle of Dinas Bran and John's new foundation of Holt.  The second Warenne family died out with Earl John Warenne in 1347 by which time the castle was held in chief by unknown service to the Crown.  It then passed to John's sister's son, Earl Richard Fitz Alan (d.1376).  On the execution of his son, Earl Richard of Arundel in 1397, the castle was recorded as being worthless and by implication therefore derelict.  Certainly it seems to have played no further part in history and Edward Coke (d.1634) spent £60 repairing the castle ruins - one of the first acts of archaeological conservation recorded.  This included the ‘finishing of 11 battlements'.  Presumably these are those that still grace the remnants of the ringwork curtain.

The remains of Castle Acre lie just north of the River Nar and consist of a roughly circular ringwork with an adjoining bailey to the south, reinforced by a triangular barbican to the east.  The ringwork is approximately 180' in summit diameter and surrounded by a ditch which varies from 10' to 15' in depth and marks the 300' basal diameter of the ringwork.  The bailey is almost 300' square from curtain to curtain.

The first stonework on the site would appear to be a rectangular hall, about 80' by 75' with walls 6' thick, built in the centre of the original, low ringwork.  This had a bank some 10' high to the north, but only 6' to the south.  The hall originally had at least 2 storeys and was divided by an internal east to west cross wall.  At some point the house was converted into a keep by blocking the ground floor openings and doubling the thickness of the walls with additional interior walls.  Similar actions were taken at Portchester castle keep, while Harlech castle too had its enceinte wall thickness doubled to make the works more defensible.  No attempt was made to integrate the wall joints at Castle Acre, presumably as they would never be seen and the purpose of the new inner walls was to give stability to the structure raised above the old hall to convert it into a tall tower keep.  The simultaneous raising of the ringwork bank seems also to have necessitated the raising of the tower interior.  Consequently a new ground level was made by dumping 5' of material on the old floor.  At some 80' square the tower keep was 10' larger than Rochester keep, although it was probably never more than 50' high - enough to dominate the raised ringwork curtain.  This would have made it similar in height to nearby Castle Rising.  Later again the keep was fundamentally altered, possibly before it was even completed.  Then the southern half was demolished, the spine wall being strengthened and refaced to form a hall-shaped keep, while the curtain was raised in height again.  The shrinking of the keep may have been done to enable the tower to be raised in height to over 60', the height that was probably needed to overshadow the newly raised ringwork curtain.

Entrance to the initial ringwork was via a wooden gatetower to the south whose plan was partially recovered by excavation.  Later this was replaced by the present projecting stone gatetower.  This is largely down to its foundations now, although one arch springer survives on its west side.  At a later date the gateway was modified with the raising of the threshold due to the raising of the ringwork interior and the partial blocking of the gate passageway to make entrance more restricted.  Possibly the gatetower was built at the same time as the curtain wall was constructed.  Later the ringwork bank was raised in height again by another 6' and another flint curtain wall, some 7' thick, was built on top of the earlier one, possibly at the same time as the keep had its southern half demolished.  This left the top of the ringwork bank some 30' above original ground level and raised the interior of the ringwork to the first floor of the keep.  To the north the last curtain wall still stands to parapet height and is decorated externally by pilaster buttresses.  Such buttresses tend to be early, so this would suggest that the building and halving of the keep happened over a relatively short period.  To the north-east of the ringwork is a small rectangular buttress pierced by a vaulted passage.  Possibly this was a postern.  Excavation showed that the ringwork curtain to the north and west were lined with timber framed buildings, similarly to what would be expected in a shell keep, viz. Restormal.  Judging from engravings, by the eighteenth century all trace of he keep had disappeared raising the possibility that it was demolished, rather than just left to decay.

The bailey would appear to have been walled at an early stage, as evidenced by the curtain to the south as well as the east and west gatehouses on current ground level.  Like the ringwork the enceinte to the east and west has been later raised, presumably to enhance their defensive power.  Similarly it would appear that a new curtain was built on top of the older ones when they were buried under the new ramparts.  The southern curtain is externally faced with coursed flint and includes a rectangular opening which probably marks a south gate.  Excavation has shown that there was once a southern moat to the bailey before the River Nar, but that this has been infilled.

An eastern and western gatehouse provided entry to the outer bailey at ground floor level, both being commanded by the ringwork to the north.  The western gatehouse had 2 D shaped towers on the outer face which made it similar to the surviving northern town gate in style and possibly also in age.  Internally parts of the lower jambs of the gateway survive with some ashlar facing.  Within this are the grooves of a portcullis.  Just north of the gatehouse is the base of a garderobe which once served the upper floor.  The eastern gatehouse was much inferior to its town counterpart, which suggests that the barbican was once a powerful structure.  This was reached via a wooden bridge and its great bank still suggests traces of a medieval curtain wall.

There remains the powerful foundations of 3 buildings in the centre of the outer bailey.  These are thought to have been a great hall with a solar at the east end, a small, square, detached kitchen and possibly a chapel to the north.  It has been logically suggested that the hall replaced the house in the inner bailey, after its conversion into a keep in the mid twelfth century.  Presumably this too was abandoned by the fourteenth century.

The planned town, which presumably did not exist as a part of West Acre in the Domesday Book, occupied a rectangular area some 750' north to south by 600' east to west and lay immediately west of the castle.  It was enclosed by a wall set on a bank 10' high and protected by a 50' wide and 10' deep ditch.  This enclosure had gates on the north and south sides.  Where there are natural defences, ie towards the river to the south and a scarp to the west, the defences are much less strong.  Unfortunately only the bank and ditch on the west side and along much of the south side survive as substantial earthworks now called Dyke Hills.  The north gate has survived remarkably intact as a gatetower with twin projecting solid round turrets protecting a portcullis.  Otherwise little remains standing of the town wall except for at the eastern end of the south side, where some fragments remain blocking the castle ditch.


Copyright©2021 Paul Martin Remfry