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 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.
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.
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