History of Castle Acre Castle and Bailey Gate
Castle Acre Castle was begun in the 1070s by William I de Warenne, a close associate of William the Conqueror who had fought at the Battle of Hastings. His descendants held Castle Acre until 1347 and several were major political and military figures. Within three generations the Warennes had created the castle, surrounded the town with massive ramparts and established its famous Cluniac priory.
The Warennes and the Early Castle
By 1066 there was already a settlement at Acre, together with a church and the principal house of a substantial landowner called Toki, possibly on the site of the castle. As with most of his class, Toki was soon dispossessed by the new Norman regime. His lands were briefly held by a Flemish family ennobled by William the Conqueror, and their Norfolk property descended to an heiress, Gundrada. It was through her that William I de Warenne, her husband, gained control of Castle Acre in about 1070.
Warenne’s family are known of in Normandy from the 1030s, but William had been vastly enriched after the Conquest with territories in Yorkshire and Sussex, and was later raised to the earldom of Surrey. He chose Acre as his Norfolk base, thanks to its central position within his East Anglian landholdings, and built a castle there to provide a secure residence, an administrative centre and a powerful and permanent reminder of his authority.
The castle consisted of three main earthwork enclosures, one of them containing a stone-built house. It was probably habitable by 1085, as Gundrada died at Castle Acre on 27 May. Between 1081 and 1085 Warenne brought to the castle a small community of Cluniac monks from his own foundation at Lewes (Sussex).
The Castle and its medieval owners
Warenne was succeeded in 1088 by his son William (William II de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey, also styled Earl Warenne), who enjoyed a prominent military and political career on a par with his father’s. It was his grant of a new site and increased resources that enabled the monks to begin the existing buildings of Castle Acre Priory.
William’s son, another William (William III de Warenne), inherited in 1138, during the struggle for the throne between Matilda, daughter and acknowledged successor of Henry I (r.1100–1135), and her cousin King Stephen (r.1135–54). It was in those uncertain times that William heightened the castle’s earth ramparts, crowned them with a stone wall, and began to convert the stone house into an independently defensible ‘great tower’. It was probably he too who replanned the town and surrounded it with the massive earth banks and deep ditches which largely survive. William continued the family’s military tradition, and was killed in 1148 serving on the Second Crusade.READ MORE ABOUT CASTLE ACRE PRIORY
Warenne’s heir was his daughter, Isabel, whose two husbands successively became the 4th and 5th Earls of Surrey. The second, Hamelin Plantagenet, was the half-brother of Henry II (r.1154–89); he was an important ally in Henry’s struggles with his sons, and later of Henry’s third son, King Richard (‘the Lionheart’, r.1189–99). It was probably Hamelin who built the town’s two stone gatehouses and resumed work on the unfinished great tower.
Hamelin’s son and grandson were also prominent military and political figures, entertaining both Henry III (r.1216–72) and Edward I (r.1272–1307) at Castle Acre. John, the 8th Earl and the last of the line, was succeeded in 1347 by his nephew, Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, whose descendants held Castle Acre until 1558. By then, however, as indicated in a survey of 1397, the castle was little used and perhaps derelict.
Download a plan of the castle
In 1558 the castle was sold by Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, to Thomas Gresham, and then by his widow to Thomas Cecil (son of Elizabeth I’s lord high treasurer). In 1615 it was bought by the outstanding lawyer and politician Sir Edward Coke, to whose descendants’ business the freehold belongs today.
Interestingly, given that the building had little practical use, Coke ordered some substantial repairs, including the ‘finishing up of eleven battlements and other masons’ work’. But from at least the later 17th century until the early 20th the site was used for grazing and the masonry was ruthlessly quarried for building and road-making.
The town, meanwhile, with no resident lord, nor, since 1537, its priory, had lost its late medieval prosperity. In 1582 there were 80 houses in the village, but 17 were empty, and its two guildhalls, centres of medieval commerce, were destroyed or in ruins.
Antiquarian interest and recent history
Antiquarian interest in the castle began in the 18th century. The Buck brothers published their view in the 1730s, and the castle was visited in 1734 by Norfolk’s county historian Francis Blomefield, who found much of its ‘lofty embattled wall’ intact, and made a fascinating sketch map of the castle, town and priory (above). Exploratory holes were dug in the late 18th century, and important notes and drawings were made by the local clergyman and antiquary Thomas Kerrich in 1782. Further investigations took place in the 1850s and 1930s.
Systematic archaeological study, however, began with Jonathan Coad and Anthony Streeten’s excavations of 1972–83 after the 5th Earl of Leicester had placed the castle in state guardianship in 1971.
About the Author
Edward Impey is a specialist in aspects of medieval architecture and history. Formerly Director of Heritage Protection and Planning at English Heritage, he is now Master of the Royal Armouries. He is also the author of the English Heritage Red Guide to Castle Acre Priory and Castle.
1. Domesday Book (Norfolk), 8.22.
2. J Coad, A Streeten and R Warmington, ‘Excavations at Castle Acre Castle, Norfolk, 1975–82: the bridges, lime-kilns and eastern gatehouse’, Archaeological Journal, 144 (1987), 261, 284.
3. F Anderson, ‘“Uxor mea”: the first wife of the first William de Warenne’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 130 (1992), 107–8.
4. On Gundrada see Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, ed and trans M Chibnall, 6 vols (Oxford, 1969–80), vol 2, 260–61; CT Clay (ed), ‘The honour of Warenne’, Early Yorkshire Charters, Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series, Extra Series, 6 (1949), 5–6; Anderson, op cit, 107–9; L Van Houts, The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, 2013).
5. Van Houts, op cit.
6. LC Loyd, ‘The origin of the family of Warenne’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 31 (1933), 98; Clay, op cit, 2–3.
7. Orderic Vitalis, op cit, vol 4, 180; Clay, op cit, 5; Van Houts, op cit.
8. Clay, op cit, 5–6; Van Houts, op cit.
9. The traditional date for the foundation of Lewes is 1077, but this has more recently been placed in 1081: Anderson, op cit, 108, and CP Lewis, ‘Warenne, William (I) de, first earl of Surrey (d 1088)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) (accessed 1 June 2016; subscription required). The foundation of Acre can only have succeeded that of Lewes, and that this had happened by 1085 is suggested by the second charter of William II de Warenne (W Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, ed J Caley, 6 vols, London, 1817–30, vol 5, 50), which states that the initial grant of land to Lewes was made by both his parents: Gundrada died in 1085. The arrival of the monks, however, could have been a little later.
10. First charter of William II de Warenne (Dugdale, op cit, vol 5, 49–50).
11. R Liddiard, Castles in Context: Power, Symbolism and Landscape, 1066 to 1500 (Oxford, 2005), 139.
12. Clay, op cit, 13 and note 6.
13. For Henry’s visits see Calendar of Close Rolls, Henry III, vol 2: 1231–1234 (London, 1905): 1232, 4 July,82; 1234, 18 February, 379; Calendar of the Patent Rolls of Henry III Preserved in the Public Record Office(CPR), 6 vols (London, 1901–13), vol 4, 1247–58: 1251, 28 March, 91; 1256, 15 March, 466. For Edward’s visits see H Gough, Itinerary of King Edward the First Throughout his Reign, AD 1272–1307, 2 vols (Paisley, 1900), vol 2, 149–50 (accessed 1 June 2016); M Powicke, The Thirteenth Century, 1216–1307 (Oxford, 1953), 665; JH Bloom, Notices, Historical and Antiquarian, of the Castle and Priory at Castleacre (London, 1843), 53 (accessed 1 June 2016).
14. Bloom, op cit, 99.
15. J Coad and A Streeten, ‘Excavations at Castle Acre Castle, Norfolk, 1972–77’, Archaeological Journal, 139 (1982), 142 (citing Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous 1392–1399, vol 6, London, 1963, 128–9).
16. Coad and Streeten, op cit, 143, citing Holkham Archives, Miscellaneous Deeds, DM/366 and 367.
17. Ibid, p 145, citing Holkham Archives, Castle Acre Deeds, DD/Ca 76.
18. M Garry, Castle Acre: History and Village Guide (Castle Acre, 2001), 20, 22.
19. N Buck and S Buck, ‘The south view of Castle-Acre, in the County of Norfolk’, 1738, published in Buck’s Antiquities or Venerable Remains of above four hundred Castles, Monasteries, Palaces, &c. &c. in England and Wales. With one hundred views of Cities and Chief Towns, vol I (London, 1774), plate 197.
20. F Blomefield, An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, with continuation by C Parkin, 11 vols (London, 1805–10), vol 8, 376 (accessed 1 June 2016).
21. Bodleian Library, MS Gough Norfolk 5, vol K, fol 270.
22. Bloom, op cit, 111.
23. British Library, Add MSS 6735, 6753, 6755.
24. H Harrod, Gleanings among the Castle and Convents of Norfolk (Norwich, 1872), 102 (accessed 1 June 2016).
25. IO Seaman, pers. comm., 2007.
26. The guardianship deed was signed on 28 June 1971 (AR 405 21/3A).