Eye castle seems to have been founded in the initial conquest of East Anglia from 1067 to 1069, although it might have been founded as late as the early 1080s.  By the time of the Domesday survey in 1086, the market town of Eye was a prosperous settlement worth £27 8s 12d, a £12 increase from the £15 it was worth in 1066.  Somewhat surprisingly the castle, like Chepstow castle, was mentioned in the survey as a financial asset.  No other fortresses than these were mentioned as such.

The early history of the Malet family is obscure.  William Malet (d.1069/71) would seem to have fought at the battle of Hastings where later reports stated that William the Conqueror (d.1087) gave him the duty of burying King Harold's body and the battlefield as he had an English mother.  What evidence there is suggests she had held Alkborough in Lincolnshire and that William appears to have paid geld there during the reign of King Edward (1042-66).  By 1086 Alkborough was held by Ivo Taillebois (d.1094/97) of Appleby and Kendal, the husband of Lucy Bollingbroke (d.1138), who is recorded as the niece of Robert Malet (d.1106), who in turn was recorded as the son of William Malet (d.1069/71).

This William Malet witnessed a charter for the Conqueror concerning Peterborough abbey in 1067 and was with his king in London in the spring of 1068.  Before 1070 King William sent a notification to William, apparently as sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk.  Presumably this was before he was made castellan of York in 1068.  The next year he was forced to send an urgent message to his king that he would have to abandon his northern charge if William could not immediately send him massive reinforcements.  On 12 September 1069 he was captured at York and seems to have died within 2 years, being buried at Preaux abbey in Normandy.  It has been suggested that he died in the Ely campaign of 1070-71, but there is no contemporary evidence to support that assertion.

William was succeeded by his son, Robert Malet (d.1106), who was sheriff in Suffolk by January 1071.  In 1075 he was part of the archbishop of Canterbury's army which occupied Norwich castle for the king.  Despite this Roger (Bigod of Framlingham?) seems to have been made sheriff of Norfolk, while Robert continued to be sheriff of Suffolk, as they were recorded such on 2 April 1080.  Before 1087 Robert founded Eye priory as a Prior Hubert was first mentioned in the Conqueror's reign.  The priory was founded for the souls of King William and Queen Matilda as well as for those of his parents, William Malet and Hesilia.  The charter also mentioned Robert's castle at Eye as well as many of the places that belonged to the honour.  Robert seems to have fallen foul of King William Rufus (1087-1100) and by 1096 Eye was in the hands of Roger Poitou (d.1123). 

Robert Malet (d.1106) first appears during the reign of King Henry I (1100-35) as one of those who witnessed Henry's crowning in August 1100.  He was again found with the king witnessing a charter at Marlborough probably in October 1100.  As he appeared low down the list of witnesses, it is to be presumed that his lands were still held by Roger Poitou.  By 3 September 1101 Robert was again witnessing an important charter for his king and this time he appeared midway down the witness list.  It would seem likely that the English Malet lands including Eye and its castle were returned to Robert in the July to September campaign against the followers of Earl Robert Belleme in Britain.  One of these was Belleme's brother, Roger Poitou, who was stripped of his English lands.  While the king was at Hereford, probably during his campaign against Bridgnorth castle that summer, Robert Malet witnessed a royal precept ‘to Roger Bigod and Ralph Passelewe and all of Norfolk and Suffolk' concerning Thetford see.  That Robert was the only recorded witness probably indicates that he was again lord of Eye.  Robert's return to his East Anglian inheritance is confirmed when, on 25 December, either 1102, 1103 or 1104, the king wrote ‘to Bishop Herbert of Norwich, Roger Bigod and Robert Malet and all his lieges of Norfolk and Suffolk'.  Malet was with King Henry at Westminster for Christmas
1105, but by 16 April 1106 he was dead.  On that day, King Henry notified Bishop Herbert of Norwich and Ralph Beaufou and all his barons of Suffolk that he had restored to St Peter's of Eye the manor of Stoke Ash and all the lands which the monks can show ‘they held on the day when Robert Malet was alive and dead'.  The fact that the king now controlled the barony of Eye is confirmed by a precept probably of 1109 when King Henry ordered Ralph Beaufou and Hubert Montchesney to allow the monks of St Peter of Eye to have their property as they held it ‘during the time of Robert Malet'.  Obviously that time was now over and the king was looking after the affairs of Eye. 

According to a record of 1212, King William I (d.1087) had granted the honour of Eye to Robert Malet (d.1106), who held it through the reigns of the Conqueror and Rufus (d.1100).  Afterwards the honour came into the hands of Henry I (1100-35) who held it for 7 years (1106-1113) before he granted it to Stephen Blois (d.1154), his nephew who held it for 22 years as count and king [1113-35 - this calculation misses the 19 years while Stephen was king (1135-54)].  King Stephen was certainly found of Eye and made several charters while staying there.  It also seems likely that Stephen granted custody of the honour to William Ypres of Orford (d.1164) early in his reign and then Earl Hervey of Wiltshire in 1139, before resuming the lordship in 1141 after Hervey abandoned Devizes castle to the Angevins.  After Stephen the honour was held by his son Count William Warenne (d.1159) for 3 years (1154-57) who died in the Toulouse campaign (1159), after which King Henry II (1154-89) held it for 30 years (1159-89).  After Henry's death King Richard (1189-99) gave the honour to the duke of Lorraine (dux Lohereng) with Count William's niece as the nearest heirs.  He therefore held the honour in right of his wife for the service of 80 knights.  As can be seen by the dates in brackets the years given by the inquest were pretty accurate, although the last sentence has several problems.  Certainly King Richard gave the honour to Godfrey Louvain (d.1226) whose elder half-brother was duke of Lower Lorraine until 1222.  However, Godfrey's wife was Alice, the only daughter and heiress of Robert Hastings (d.1195) of Little Easton.  The Hastings had no known link to the Warennes or the house of Blois.  Godfrey was recorded as lord of Eye castle on 26 March 1208.  At his death in 1226 the castle probably reverted to the Crown, certainly it was not in the possession of his son, Matthew Louvain, when he died in 1261. 

Of the castle itself during the later part of the twelfth century little of interest occurred.  In the first few months of 1153 the young Duke Henry of Normandy, soon to be King Henry II of England (d.1189), granted and confirmed to Earl Ralph of Chester (d.1153) Count Roger of Poitou's honour of Blyth and all the honour of Eye just as Robert Malet, the uncle of Ralph's mother (Lucy Bollingbroke, d.1138), held it.  As Ralph died the same year the grant proved abortive and Count William of Boulogne, Warenne and Mortain remained in occupation.  This ownership of Earl William of Boulogne is confirmed by his confirmation of the land in Occold (Acolt) and Stoke just as his father (King Stephen) had confirmed them to Eye.  Soon after King Henry II had resumed the castle from William in 1157 he granted it to Archbishop Thomas Becket (d.1170) who confirmed the ancient donations of Robert Malet as authorised by Bishop Herbert of Norwich.  Becket's tenure did not last long for he went into voluntary exile in 1164 and the castle, together with Berkhamsted which had been granted with Eye, were resumed by the Crown.  In 1173 the castle was sacked by Earl Hugh Bigod of Norfolk. 

After Godfrey Louvain's death in 1226, King Henry III granted the honour to his younger brother, Earl Richard of Cornwall (d.1272).  In 1265 the castle was sacked during the Barons revolt, nearly 100 years after its first sacking.  On the death of Richard's son, Earl Edmund of Cornwall in 1300, the castle again reverted to the Crown.  In 1337 the estate was granted to the Robert Ufford (d.1369), when he was made earl of Suffolk.  From them it passed in 1382 to the de la Poles, although at the death of Earl Robert in 1369 the castle had been assessed as worthless.
The castle site has been much encroached and built upon.  The remaining earthworks show that it consisted of a large motte (40' high, with a 55' diameter summit and 180' basal diameter) to the east and an elongated D shaped bailey to the west (350' east to west by 270' north to south).  The ward was constructed on a natural hillock that had been scarped and had a rampart raised around the periphery which was up to 10' high.  The scarp varies from 15' to the north and west to only 6' to the south. 

The bailey remains have been almost obliterated by later buildings, but parts of the curtain wall are visible along the north-eastern side of the bailey raising up to the motte.  This survives in 3 discontinuous sections built largely of mortared flint rubble with some squared blocks of clunch.  The 90' longest section has a rectangular tower at the western end with 3 narrow chambers in line adjoining it.  This structure only projects 3' beyond the curtain to the north in a manner which is generally considered to be an early, pre 1100 style, ie. before the science of flanking was considered necessary.  Similar barely projecting towers exist at Lewes, Lydney, Old Sarum and Oxford.  The chamber within the tower at Eye is 9' by 8' with walls only 5' thick, although they are still standing in places up to 10' high.  The small chambers are only 6' wide, but 16', 9' and 12' long respectively and walls only 4' thick.  No apertures remain in these buildings, so probably they are all simply basements, with their superstructures now lost.

East of the chambers at the base of the motte stand the remnants of another rectangular tower with internal dimensions of 6' by 5' with walls some 6' thick.  An excavation in 1987-88 found evidence for a further chamber south of the tower.  Moving up the motte to the east, near the summit, where the curtain wall probably abutted the keep, are the remains of yet another narrow chamber, 12' long by 5' wide and with walls only 5' thick.  There is a similar chamber in the lower keep wall at Wigmore castle.  The inner walls in this Eye chamber do not appear to be bonded to the outer ones.  Excavations suggested that the masonry fortress was demolished in the fourteenth century.

The keep has long gone while an 1840s folly which collapsed in 1979 stands on its site.  This mimics a nonagonal shell keep which had been replaced by a windmill by 1562.  An excavation in 1990 suggested that the folly was built on the foundations of the shell keep.  If this is correct the square tower to the west might be on the foundations of an earlier structure.  The shell keeps at Tamworth and Tretower had a somewhat similar design, while Durham, Oxford and Tickhill, although lacking the towers were similarly polygonal.


Copyright©2021 Paul Martin Remfry