THE KEEP

What better way to dispel the gloom and weariness of a long winter than visiting a 900-year-old outstanding Norman castle and its beautiful idyllic grounds on a sunny Sunday in February!?

The imposing Hedingham Castle is visible from miles around, towering above the quaint village, the stone stark edifice both daunting and majestic.

Following the Norman invasion of England, the majority of the Anglo-Saxon lands were taken over. The lands of Hedingham, North-East Essex, England were given to Aubrey de Vere I by William the Conqueror in 1080 in recognition of the knight’s fierce valour and loyalty. The family were zealous crusaders! The original castle was built of timber in the traditional motte and bailey style however Aubrey de Vere II ordered this to be torn down. It was replaced in 1140 by the building of the remarkable Norman castle and as the family were extremely rich they could afford to face the whole building in stone which was unusual for the time! As one of the great Norman castles Hedingham Castle hosted many royal visitors including Henry VII, Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I (probably en route to Gosfield Hall, read more on my post here)!

The de Vere family became powerful and influential members of the royal court, many of its ancestors holding important positions within the royal circle, including that of Lord Chamberlain to the monarch. Furthermore, they provided vital military force in their own right and became ennobled when granted the title Earl of Oxford.

Hedingham Castle, a key military stronghold, is built on a hill which gave it an excellent defensive position. A deep moat runs around the castle and in Norman times the area would have been kept clear to ensure visibility of approaching enemies from miles away. As its defensive significance waned in the eighteenth-century trees were planted to create soft woodland witnessed today on the long moat banks carpeted by snowdrops in February and these are still popular in the 2020s.

The original point of entry onto the castle grounds would have been a wooden drawbridge however this was replaced in 1496 with a Tudor bridge. On the grounds just outside this brick bridge a new owner of the castle, Sir William Ashhurst (a banker and politician) ordered the building of the Queen Anne House in 1719 and this still exists and it overlooks the lakes and landscaped gardens. The house replaced the 1498 buildings which included barns, stalls, granaries and storehouses.

The large green expanse surrounding the castle is known as the tilting lawn and here the knights would practice their fighting skills as well as hold regular jousting events. Also, archery and other battle skills were honed and displayed here. Nowadays, throughout the summer, there are mock traditional jousting festivals replicating the activities of the medieval knights – the power of the horses and the ability of the ‘knights’ are truly awe-inspiring.

In the seventeenth century, the castle became superfluous as a defensive building and it was quickly falling into a state of disrepair. As a result in 1600 the 17th Earl of Oxford demanded that the majority of the castle be pulled down and what is left today is the main keep. This keep is one of the most impressive keeps in the country; another famous one is at the Tower of London.

The keep is neck-achingly high and standing below it one can barely see the top 37 metres / 110 feet above. The walls are incredibly thick and strong at nearly 4 metres / 12 feet wide. This was a castle and keep built to keep the enemy out and its nobles, knights and families safe!

On the lowest level of the castle were the dungeon and storage. A stone staircase from outside leads onto the ground floor of the castle and here, on the garrison floor, the soldiers would have been sequestered. The small slits of windows surrounding the room let in just enough light and were wide enough for archers to shoot out at approaching enemies but small enough to make sure that no missiles entered the keep.

A garderobe (primitive toilet) is housed in one corner of the garrison floor, and is mostly a seat with a long open drop to the outside!

The beautiful mysterious staircase runs within the walls up to the other levels of the keep. The original stone steps were replaced by brick in the fifteenth century and the next floor leads to the stunning banqueting hall.

The hall is one of the finest domestic interiors still fully intact. It is a splendid room and towering across its length is an awe-inspiring breathtaking arch. The arch is the largest existing Norman one in England at 8.5 metres / 28 feet wide and 6 metres /20 feet high. The room would have been the headquarters for the Earl of Oxford; here the Earl lived with his family and from here the castle and estate were administered. The walls would have been covered by rich tapestries and rugs. The vast space would have been kept warm by the giant fireplace with its distinctive elaborate double chevron patterns renowned in Norman times – carvings seen throughout the castle.

Compared to the rich and luxurious carvings and wall hangings, the furniture would have been simple, with trestle tables, benches and wooden chests while rushes covered the floor.

The diet of the time was based heavily on game such as deer and pheasant while the diners were entertained from the minstrel’s gallery above.

The ever-narrowing inner staircase leads to the minstrel’s gallery, a haunting corridor tunnelled inside the thick castle walls and running all around the banqueting hall. From here the travelling musicians, jesters and magicians would perform their craft, clearly visible from below.

The Minstrel’s Gallery

The top level of the keep was the dormitory section of the castle and more simplistic in its decor and layout.

It is time to exit through the magnificent double chevron-carved arched double doors of the castle. These doors date from the 1870s and were originally from the Blue Boar, a local pub in the village.

The main double-door entrance onto the tilting lawn

After a memorable morning of exploration, one becomes fully immersed in the incredible history of Hedingham Castle. A castle which was twice successfully besieged for short periods, once by King John in 1216 and a year later by the future King Louis XV11. A castle whose owner, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is strongly rumoured to be the true writer of Shakespeare’s work (if interested read more here). A castle filled with the aura of its extraordinary past.

The dovecote which was built 1720

Stepping out into the sunshine was that the sound of battle? The voices of medieval folk on the tilting lawns? With a head full of facts and figures, with imagination over-heating on stories from the past, a refreshing stroll of the grounds beckoned. A time to stop and admire the snowdrops, the beautiful gardens and the lakes. Near one lake stands a dovecote from 1720 whose 460 nest boxes supplied meat and eggs for the family.

The twentieth century saw Hedingham Castle fall back into the fold of the de Vere family. Its new owners, the Lindsays, are part of the famous family through inheritance. Through their hard work, the castle and its grounds are once again part of the community through its open days of jousting, car shows and open-air theatre as well as being a popular place for school educational visits. Furthermore, it is a unique and memorable location for weddings!

NOTE: Post, writing and all photos ©Annika Perry, February 2023

108 thoughts on “THE KEEP

    1. Mary Ann, lovely that you could join on this virtual tour! It is wonderful to be surrounded by so much beautiful and fascinating history. Wishing you a lovely start to Spring – the daffodils and primroses here are flowering in abundance so surely the warmth can’t be too far behind!

      1. Hope springs eternal, Annika. A robin greeted me on the first day of spring even with snow on the ground. Your plants are ahead of ours. Our daffodils have pushed up but no flowers yet. Blessings. oxox

    1. Cindy, it was an wonderful visit and I’ve enjoyed sharing about the castle here! The more I learnt about its history the more I became impressed with the building and its grounds – there is definitely an atmosphere!

  1. What great pictures, Annika. I completely agree that visiting Hedingham Castle and its idyllic grounds is an excellent way to dispel the gloom of a long winter day. It’s a fascinating insight into the history and architecture of this impressive Norman castle. I especially enjoyed learning about the castle’s history, from its construction in the 12th century to its use as a defensive building in the 17th century. Your post makes me want to visit Hedingham Castle myself.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and insights! 🙌

    1. Ritish, I must admit that I’ve visited the castle many times before but it was only while compiling this post that I fully grasped its history across the centuries – even more rewarding to be aware of this. It’s great that you enjoyed learning about this as well and that it tempts you to visit the castle yourself! It was the perfect way to spend a winter’s day – and lucky that the sun came out for us all! Many thanks for your lovely comment! 🙏😀

  2. What a delightful Sunday that was which you shared with us Annika… I love old history and exploring castles and stately homes… I loved my tour and history lesson around The Keep and the grounds too were beautiful…
    Many thanks for sharing you have brightened up my own Sunday Morning.. ❤

    1. Sue, bless you for your wonderful comment! Isn’t it fantastic that there is so much history to explore here in England – we are truly spoilt for castles, old houses etc. Last week we were in Ely for a few hours and of course had to visit the Cathedral there! I’m so happy that you enjoyed the virtual visit to Hedingham Castle. The aura inside the Keep is incredible and the grounds are lovely – even more special in Spring and Summer! Wishing you a good start to the week – keep warm! The unseasonal cold is becoming rather tiresome! hugs xx ❤️

  3. They just don’t make things like they used to! There was so much character and depth back then, and I am always amazed that they built these structures with so few tools available to them compared to what we have now. These days, cookie-cutter houses are getting slapped together in 5 minutes with zero character and everything looks the same. What a strange world! Thank goodness these old castles and buildings exist, so we can marvel at their beauty and imagine the lives lived inside them. Thanks for sharing! I hope you are having a wonderful weekend, Annika!

    1. Tanya, thank you so much for your thoughtful and thoughtful-provoking comment! I love how you see the rich and inspirational of element of buildings like Hedingham Castle etc! I agree, it is amazing how they managed to build such momentous structures, the skill and knowledge to create the giant arch alone is phenomenal! It is spine-tingling to walk around and explore the castle, the sense of previous lives is palpable and goodness, the stories must be incredible!
      I liked how the displays and information gave a hint of detail on the everyday life, it really added to the experience.
      Cookie-cutter houses! I have to laugh and cry because this is such an apt description of today’s soulless new dwellings – they are appearing with frightening speed all around in the U.K., including two developments wheee I live in the village! Now a castle, like this would be an entirely different matter! 😀

      Thank you, I had a wonderful weekend with my son home for a few days so always very special times! Wishing you a lovely start to the week, my friend! Xx ❤️

  4. Annika, this is absolutely wonderful! Thank goodness for preservation, right? The building itself is rich in history, stories, architecture, and the life of the people. I was fascinated to learn that the walls would be decorated in rich tapestries, and the furniture would be simple. There was so much in this post! What a wonderful day for you, thank you for sharing your visit.

    1. Jennie, it was a fantastic day and it’s been wonderful to share here. I love that you found so much within my post! It is great how much is preserved regarding these historical buildings, both my private owners and also bigger organisations. Oh, I love to imagine the stories the castle could tell, they are palpable in the atmosphere of the place! I bet it was a hive of activity and life lived on so many levels from the royal visitors to the servants, all within close proximity! The contrast of the tapestries and furniture also struck me and I’m hoping to return this weekend to particularly look at them. Once home I read that the tapestries are displayed in the dungeon room – not a place I visited! I will share about them soon, in a much shorter post! Many thanks for your lovely comment and interest, Jennie! Xx

  5. Oh, this was such an interesting post, Annika. I loved the photos taken both outside and inside and particularly was impressed by the banquet menu. That was some menu! Thanks for sharing your beautiful visit at this castle. ❤

    1. Carol, thank you so much and I’ve loved sharing about Hedingham Castle! The interior is like stepping back in time and exciting to explore! Haha! 😀 The menu is impressive but not much for vegetarians like myself! The owners are great at displaying a lot of information like around the castle and one quickly gains a feel for medieval life!

    1. Jacquie, I agree, a wonderful and striking setting for a wedding – I could only see one flaw though. The toilets are located a bit away from the castle across the tilting lawn – not ideal if a rainy day! I will definitely go to a jousting event again. We went many times when my son was younger and it was awe-inspiring – the thunder of the horses hooves shaking the ground, the jousting matches incredibly realistic! We even had a go at the archery which was a lot of fun!

  6. What a stunning, regal place! It looks so beautiful and reminiscent of a different time. I love seeing how well it has withstood time and getting a peek into the interior through your photos ❤️

    1. Layla, once inside one could really imagine the royal visitors holding court in the grand banqueting hall – and it must have been warmer with the giant fireplace lit and surrounded by lots of people! It is stunning and fantastic to see how it has survived the centuries. A wonderful sensation to walk surrounded by so much history! Thank you so much for your lovely comment and interest! ❤️

  7. Beautiful castle with a documented fascinating history. I like the bit about replacing the *antiquated* draw bridge with the *modern* Tudor-style bridge. We human beings have been updating our properties from time immemorial. Didn’t know about the Edward de Vere connection to Shakespeare. Somehow I missed that along the way.

    1. Haha! 😀 Ally, I agree, it is amusing to think of the Tudor period as modernising – how true that huans are always evolving their abodes and it’s wonderful to see so many eras on display in England! Hedingham Castle is now beautifully preserved and a vital part of history in the area. The rumour about connection with De Vere being Shakespeare are not well-known – I remember our teacher mentioning something at the time when I was living in Yorkshire so when moving down here the name De Vere rang a bell! There is no proof really – just a lot of coincidence!

  8. What a fabulous day, Annika, and your photos are stunning. Reading about the history is fascinating, and I would love to visit someday. I know my husband would too. And so, our bucket list is getting longer. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this fabulous day. ❤️

    1. Lauren, it is was a wonderful and heavenly to be out and about! 😀We were so lucky with the weather as well! The castle and grounds are so photogenic I think I became rather overkeen but a lot of fun to chose just some to share here. Oh, it would be amazing if you could visit some day – until then enjoy adding to your bucket list! Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Lauren! xx ❤️

  9. Hi Annika, what a fabulous visit you had. The history of this castle is fascinating, which is a general trend for British castles, and probably those of Europe too. I loved your information, thoughts and pictures.

    1. Robbie, thank you so much for your lovely comment; it means a lot that you enjoyed all the elements of the post! 😀 The visit was fantastic and awe-inspiring and although I had a vague sense of the history behind the castle I enjoyed researching this and sharing here. Yes, there are so many castles in the UK – this is just a smaller but still significant one close to home! Is there anything like this in South Africa? Obviously not so old, I imagine.

  10. What a vignette into history this building provides. It certainly looks imposing but the interior surprisingly inviting. I learnt what a dovecote is and a tilting lawn. One can imagine life here with your photos. I am really impressed with that archway! Fantastic. Thanks for showing us this fabulous piece of history.

    1. Amanda, I agree about the contrast with the exterior, rather forbidding to the more appealing interior! It always surprises. The arch is awe-inspiring -the knowledge of the architects of the time is impressive and such beauty too! I’m glad you’ve picked up some new words too. Your comment made me wonder why it is called tilting lawn – as the ground is flat and even. A search showed that tilting is ‘(in jousting) thrust at with a lance or other weapon.’ Now I’ve learnt something today! 😀 I’m so glad you enjoyed my post and that the photos brought it to life. Thank you so much!🙏

    1. A good question, Neil! According to my husband (who has an interest in the era) the keep would have been the largest building of the castle. The other buildings would have been smaller.

    1. Oh no, Jo, I forgot to mention the cake!! 🍰 While there I especially had you and your posts in mind and meant to write about the tea break! Alas we were late in the day so we ended up with the last two slice of caramel chocolate Rice Krispie slice – delicious!

      I’ve never been to Bolton Castle but now would like to visit it some time and definitely test out their cream teas! I love those! Xx

  11. You look so tiny, Annika! I’m sure you still look tiny without the backdrop of the ruins, but my what a contrast. Enjoyed your historical essay/photo travelogue on your visit. I’ve been to the Tower of London so I’m amazed at the fact there were other such buildings in the country at that time. The sheer size of those ‘compounds’ is astounding.

    1. Laura, I realised while going round that the photos didn’t show the scale of the building hence little me photo! 😀 It is a daunting facade and keep! The Tower of London is amazing and it’s fantastic you’ve been there. I recall my visit there when I was a young girl and I was awe-struck! There are castles galore in the U.K. and whenever we travel around the country we always stop by one or two. The richer families and those with patronage to the monarch had the authority and money to build the castles, and thankfully many are still standing.

    1. Balroop, I love how my post reminded you of the palaces and forts of Rajasthan! My husband has been to some there and feels those are far grander and better preserved than Hedingham Castle. The sense of history in all place like this is incredible! They must be amazing to visit. Thank you so much for tagging along here and I’m glad you enjoyed the descriptions and photos (I was afraid there were too many but this was restrained me!)

    1. Great to have you along, Anne and so glad you enjoyed the virtual visit! 😀 Hedingham Castle is not one of the main tourist areas because of its location – we are lucky to be surrounded by so much history! Where did you visit in the U.K. on your trip?

      1. We lived in Reigate and Walton on the Hill from 1980 to 1982. John worked for a shipping company that moved from New York to London, and he was part of the transition team. Those were two of the best years of my life. We all loved living there. I never went back, but oldest child Lise has visited families in both towns.

  12. So cool. And how fun to explore that Keep. I’m like a kid when it comes to places like that – I’d be exploring every nook and cranny. Thank you for sharing the history and those beautiful photos.

    1. Lori, I love that your like exploring every nook and cranny of old places like this! I’ve done exactly that here on visits before it became a wedding venue. Those little secret alcoves etc were now mostly out of bounds. Yet still so much to see and enjoy- wonderful sense of stepping back in time! I’m so glad you enjoyed learning about Hedingham Castle and my photos – as always a matter of whittling them down (probably still to many!😀)

        1. Quite! 😀 I agree, about the prison appearance from the outside, not helped by the small windows. But yes, inside one can really imagine the busyness of life and it must have been warm when full and the big fireplace roaring! (Not so warm inside in February!)😀

    1. Mary Jo, thank you so much! I love that I’ve managed to create a feeling of a tour here – this has me smiling! 😀 You’re right about Europe, we are steeped in history; sometimes overwhelming so! I remember after nearly a week of sightseeing in Florence my mind was buzzing with all the stunning art, architecture and views – we needed a day off for relaxation in the countryside!😀

  13. Thank you for this fabulous and fascinating tour and tidbit of history, Annika. Isn’t it amazing to see a 600-year-old structure still standing when buildings they construct today barely make it 50 years?

    1. Jan, thank you so much and I’m glad you enjoyed entering into Norman times with this virtual visit to Hedingham Castle! It does feel astonishing to walk around something so old and see so much in tact! Yes, what are we doing wrong today that buildings can’t remain standing for even half a century?!

  14. What wonderful photos, Annika. The place is so well preserved. It’s too bad that the original castle didn’t make it. The history is fascinating to me and feels like its right out of a novel. One day when I get to the UK, the theme of my trip will be castles, ruins, and old pubs (the latter for my husband’s benefit. Lol). This place will be on my list. Thanks for the fun.

    1. Diana, you will be spoilt with your options for castles and ruins to visit during you visit! This is special and I’m glad you would like to visit! There are many other full intact Norman castles to visit in other places. As Hedingham Castle is very close to our home seriously let me know when you’re coming! Also not too far away are Knights Templar Barns from 1200, which are incredibly atmospheric! As for pubs, your husband won’t be disappointed although there are more closing everyday day. A nearby village at one time boasted sixteen pubs, now there’s only two! Thank you so much for joining me of this historical exploration! 😀❤️

      1. I’m putting together a list of castles and there are tons of them! LOL. It would take a year to see a quarter of them. Thanks for the lovely invite to connect. We’re hoping for 2024, but it always depends on things like health and family obligations. We’ll get there though, eventually. 🙂

    1. Alethea, it is an amazing place and so glad you got a sense of its beauty and history from the post. I do hope you have a chance to visit sometime – and let me know as I live very close to here! ❤️😀

  15. Thank you so much for taking us along on your exploration of Hedingham Castle, Annika! I enjoyed every moment of it. (When I saw the first photo, I would hoping you would take us inside, and you did!)

    1. Liz, lovely you could tag along and glad you enjoyed the tour! 😀 Oh no, I wouldn’t be that cruel – to just feature the outside and not the amazing interior! I am kicking myself though as my husband suggested visiting the dungeon and I recalled it as just rather dark gloomy space, but later at home learned this is now the tapestry hanging room. A good excuse to return and explore more! 😀

  16. A lovely reminder of a visit I made there many years ago. A beautiful castle and grounds, and your lovely photos do it justice, Annika. Having been born and brought up in Dover I’ve always been a fan of Norman castles!

    1. Yeah! Clive, it’s great you’ve been here and that it brought back memories of your own visit. (I see you lived in Essex for some time.) I’m glad you felt my photos and post captures the castle. As we live close we’ve been here many times before, mostly for the jousting events when my son was young, so it was lovely to really explore the history of the castle and feel its aura. I’ve only been to Whitstable in Kent and loved it. One place we mean to visit is Leeds Castle. What else would you suggest in the area?

      1. Yes, I’ve lived in Essex since I got married, way back in 1975. I am now divorced but still live in the area. Have you visited Kentwell Hall, near Long Melford? I can recommend their re-creation of Tudor times, which they put on over the May Day bank holiday weekend. Leeds Castle is great, and you could also try Chartwell if you’re in the area, Churchill’s family home. Dover Castle is another must visit, and you could also try going to Hythe, and taking a trip on a mini railway down to new Romney, best to do that on a dry day though!

        1. Wow, thanks Clive! Lots of great suggestions and I’m going to note them all down! They all sound fantastic and I like the idea of a mini railway trip. A long weekend in Kent beckons! Yes, I’ve been to Kentwell Hall a few times and it is very impressive! Yes, once for the re-enactment days – they’re so realistic!

          1. Hope you can get there. I’m biased, as it is my home county, but there is a lot to see and do there. Some lovely countryside and nice seaside resorts – Broadstairs and Deal are favourites of mine. We took our girls to Kentwell a couple of times when they were little. They loved it!

  17. An extremely well-preserved slice of history and you have presented it so well. A very interesting read and it looks like you had great weather. I used to spend a lot of time in UK but hadn’t heard of this castle before. Cheers.

    1. Lynette, it is in a great condition now but wasn’t always so! During World War One there was a major roof fire which caused the floors to collapse. The only saving grace was that the horse drawn fire engine could not make it up the hill – if they had poured water on the flames they would have forever damaged the stones!

      Thank you, It means a lot that you liked my presentation of Hedingham Castle – it is unique and I wanted to do it justice! The castle is not on the main tourist trail but as in the U.K., there are so many old buildings and castles still in existence.

      Yes, the weather was beautiful and gave that wonderful hint of Spring – which materialised at the weekend with such warm temperatures it was possible to eat out in short sleeves!

  18. Thanks Annika for sharing this tour. Do they still use the dovecote? I remember reading a piece of fiction that centered on a dovecote in the Holy Lands. Definitely a good setting for a story.

    1. What a unique location as a centre for a story! I’m intrigued! Bernadette, I doubt this dovecote is still in use as there were only a few doves around – a pretty building nonetheless and even though three hundred years old it still looks almost new!

  19. I’m always amazed at the ages of these structures. The oldest buildings are are little over 200 years old. It is intriguing to think of the stories the walls and floors could tell.

    1. Norah, it is amazing to be surrounded by so much history and many of the ordinary houses date from 1600 and are prettily thatched! Oh, the stories of these buildings would be incredible- there is definitely a palpable and tingling aura of past events and people!

      1. I agree with you. I felt in the buildings when I was there too – they were buzzing with past lives. I’ve only lived in new homes or those that have been home to a few other families. They don’t have too many stories to tell.

    1. Darlene, it was a wonderful day and luckily there are so many beautiful and fascinating historical places nearby. One is a selection of Knights Templar Barns from the 1200 which I hope to post about later! Hedingham Castle is very close to our home and as so often happens, not one we visit often! Glad to have rectified that! 😀

    1. Georgina, I’m smiling at your comment! 😀😀Just so! It was a glorious and sunny day – the best day in the year and I love that hint of Spring! Since then it’s been sixteen degrees which felt wonderful and healing!

          1. Annika, this post is magic – both pictorially and verbally.
            You have presented the Keep at the Castle with beauty and vividness. The first picture is daunting in its size and prescense but also beautiful in the soft hue, no doubt helped by the sun. If we forget about battles and guns, the whole place is one of beauty. Showing what can be done with imagination and help. …and yes, money.
            Magic.
            Not to to forget the Snowdrops for which there is the snowdrop walk every early spring.
            Congratulations to another beautiful post and also for imparting the history of it. Should make the people of Castle Headingham proud to read.❣️🙏

            Miriam

            1. Miriam, bless you for your poetic vision and comment! I’m smiling at how you see both the formidable of the castle walls yet also softeness and beauty – once one forgets the battles and guns!

              Snowdrops always herald Spring where I live and it is special to visit various gardens and nature areas to see these delicate yet hardy flowers peeking through! Thank you so much for your warm and generous comment! xx ❤️

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