Orford Castle
A drone shot of Orford Castle taken from almost level with the top parapets; the castle has beige stone and is on a grass hump.

History of Orford Castle

Built in the 12th century for Henry II, the polygonal keep of Orford Castle is a landmark in the Suffolk landscape. Its design makes it one of England's more unusual castles, matched by its history. This site has seen drama of all kinds, from civil war to betrayal and from local legend to local lunches. Read on to find out about the curious histories of Orford Castle.

A detail of a 16th-century chart of the Suffolk coast. Orford Castle is depicted and named
A detail of a 16th-century chart of the Suffolk coast. Orford Castle is depicted and named
© British Library, London, UK/British Library Board. All rights reserved / Bridgeman Images

Setting the scene

Robert Malet was a Norman nobleman and important landowner in the late 11th century. Around 1100, he founded the town of Orford on the Suffolk coast near a projecting stretch of land now called Orford Ness. This piece of land created a naturally sheltered harbour, and Orford flourished as a port.

When Malet died in 1105 his lands in England passed to King Henry I, who in turn gave them to his nephew Stephen de Blois in 1113. Stephen declared himself king in 1135 when Henry I died and the country descended into civil war. The Earl of Suffolk, Hugh Bigod, sided with Matilda, Henry I’s only surviving legitimate child, and tried to use the war to bolster his already considerable power in East Anglia.

Stephen declared his own son, William, Earl of Suffolk and gave him land in the county including the honour of Eye (a large collection of estates) which contained Orford. Though the war ended in 1153 with Stephen remaining king but recognising Matilda’s son as his successor, the two groups in East Anglia remained at loggerheads.

A manuscript illustration (c1220–40) showing Henry II banishing Thomas Becket’s supporters
A manuscript illustration (c1220–40) showing Henry II banishing Thomas Becket’s supporters
© The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo (BL Loan MS 88 f1r)

Henry II and Orford

Henry II succeeded Stephen in 1154, just months after the civil war ended. Almost immediately he set about asserting his authority, and forced William de Blois, Stephen’s son, and Hugh Bigod to surrender their castles. William died in 1159, and his property passed to the king. Henry II gave the honour of Eye to Thomas Becket who was his chancellor and a trusted friend.

However, this relationship was not to remain so trusting. When Henry II made Becket Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 he expected his friend to be an ally in bringing the church under royal control. This was not to be, and the two fell out over the matter. Becket fled into exile in 1164.

The king confiscated the archbishop’s lands and almost immediately began to build Orford Castle in the Honour of Eye. In one move, Henry was able to curb Bigod's power in East Anglia by building a new royal castle, stamp his authority over Becket by building on his land, and guard a possible landing place in case the archbishop returned from France with an army at his back. Becket was allowed to return in 1170, but was murdered later that year.

A reconstruction drawing showing Orford Castle from the south-east in the early 13th century
A reconstruction drawing showing Orford Castle from the south-east in the early 13th century
© Historic England (illustration by Bob Marshall)

Castle Completion

The castle was nearly finished by the time Henry II’s sons rebelled against him in 1173. The country was again thrown into civil war, and Orford was made ready to defend against attack. However, the rebellion petered out the following year before Orford's garrison saw fighting.

Orford Castle stayed in royal control, passing from Henry II to Richard I when Henry died in 1189. When Richard I was captured while returning from crusade, Queen Eleanor, his mother, assembled a fleet at Orford to take the ransom for the king’s release.

King John succeeded his brother Richard I in 1199. The castle was maintained throughout this period, and when the barons rebelled in 1215 the castle was garrisoned. The barons invited the prince of France, Louis, to invade and he captured several castles – including Orford – after landing in East Anglia.

A close-up shot of the carved stone outer of a font showing a bearded figure
Orford's 'wild man' figure is even represented on the font at Orford church

Orford’s Wild Man of the Sea

A strange myth from the 13th century still pervades Orford Castle. It stems from the writings of Ralph of Coggeshall who, in 1207, reported that:

it happened that the fishermen, fishing in the sea, caught in their nets a wild man, whom in their wonder they brought to the castellan.

The ‘castellan’, or constable, went on to keep the poor ‘wild man’ in custody, probably at Orford Castle, ‘many days and nights’ and even tortured him. Our chronicler muses that ‘Whether this was a mortal man or some fish pretending to have human form, it is not easy to conclude’.

The mysterious prisoner eventually made his escape back to the sea. His story is still remembered though, and his likeness is found on the font in Orford church.

A drawing of a large round castle room with brightly painted walls and furniture in reds and blues
A reconstruction drawing of the upper hall in the early 13th century
© Historic England (illustration by Bob Marshall)

Changing hands and royal visits

The royal castle was given to Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, in 1261. Bigod was loyal to Henry III and supported him in 1264 when the Second Baron's War broke out. During the civil war the castle was captured several times, and at the end of the conflict the king gave the castle to his eldest son, Prince Edward.

Edward succeeded his father as king in 1272. He frequently travelled across England, and passed through East Anglia many times on campaigns, administrative business, and even pilgrimage. He spent the night at Orford Castle on 11 April 1277, which is the only known occasion on which a reigning monarch has visited. Edward often arrived unannounced or at very short notice, so there would have been pandemonium at Orford as servants hurried to prepare the castle for the royal visit.

When the king or sheriff's household was elsewhere, however, a constable was in charge of the castle. One constable in the 1270s, Hugh of Dennington, was notorious for misusing his power. He threw a royal official in prison at the castle – perhaps in the dungeon underneath the entrance – and abused another, who died of his injuries.

A fireplace in pale orange and yellow stones, with darker small stone in the chimney
The fireplace in the upper hall was probably altered during the Uffords' ownership in the 14th and 15th centuries

Modern updates

Edward II's estrangement from his wife, Queen Isabella, ended with Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer overthrowing the king and putting his son, Edward III, on the throne in 1327.

A grandson of a past castle constable, Robert Ufford, quickly found favour with the new king and in 1330 he was given Orford Castle. Seven years later he was made Earl of Suffolk. During the 14th century the castle was modernised, with new hoods on the fireplaces and glass in the windows, though the Uffords may not have used it as their main home.

Having passed out of royal control, the castle descended through the Ufford family until 1419 when it passed to the Willoughbys through marriage.

 An illustration of Orford Castle from above, lit with warm light, showing the full outer walls and gatehouse. A drone shot of the castle remains from above, with the tower remaining on a grassy mound and the village visible behind.

Move the sliding bar to compare a reconstruction of Orford Castle from the south-east in the early 13th century with a present-day drone photograph.

This 2018 drone shot shows how far the sea is from the castle now; here, it is just visible in the background
This 2018 drone shot shows how far the sea is from the castle now; here, it is just visible in the background

Decaying grandeur

Michael Stanhope bought the castle from the Willoughby family in the 1590s. He was a royal favourite and probably began dismantling Orford’s outer walls so the stone could be used to build Sudbourne Hall nearby. Centuries of abandonment and steady decay followed. At the same time the port began to silt up, and the town shrank.

Francis Seymour-Conway bought Orford Castle along with the Sudbourne estates in 1753. The wealthy and influential Seymour-Conway was good friends with George III and went on to be made Marquess of Hertford.

Though the town of Orford was no longer a bustling port, it still occupied a useful position. In the late 18th century a signal station was installed next to the castle, and in 1804 the equipment was moved to the top of the castle. The castle's prominence in the landscape meant the signalling system was updated in 1812 when semaphore was introduced, and during the Second World War it was adapted as a radar station.

A group photographed in the upper hall of the castle around 1901
A group photographed in the upper hall of the castle around 1901
© New Orford Town Trust (photo by Douglas Atfield)

The next chapters

Seymour-Conway was succeeded by his son, the 2nd Marquess of Hertford. By this point the castle had been stripped of its outer walls and the keep stood lonely against the Orford skyline. The keep itself was nearly demolished by the Marquess but parliament intervened to safeguard its value to ships. In 1831 the floors and roof were replaced.

Richard Wallace bought the castle and its linked estates in 1872. As well as hosting shooting parties and lunches at the castle, Wallace created new buildings in the town, including a cottage for the castle caretaker.

After various sales, in 1928 Sir Arthur Churchman gave the castle to Orford Town Trust. The Ministry of Works (later replaced by English Heritage) was given guardianship of the castle in 1962. This unique piece of medieval architecture, built as a statement of royal power and authority, is now open to the public. 

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