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Castle Acre

Castle Acre is a village and civil parish in the English county of Norfolk. It is situated on the River Nar some 15 miles (24km) east of the town of King's Lynn and 103 miles (166km) north of London. Castle Acre is noteworthy medieval settlement and contains the remains of a castle, a Clunaic priory, and an original town gate (which was part of large defences which once surrounded the planned town). There is also a 15th-century parish church here which is still very much in use. Each of these sights are shown and described on this webpage below. In terms of its history, the location of Castle Acre was chosen as a strategic one and one where an ancient track-way, the Peddar’s Way, crossed the River Nar; goods could be transported to and from here by road and river and tolls could be imposed on travellers passing through the settlement.

Castle Acre Castle

The site here has been called “one of the finest castle earthworks in England” and excavations during the 1970’s uncovered considerable remains of an oblong keep built here by the Normans in the 11th century. The castle is maintained by English Heritage, is open during any reasonable time in daylight hours and is free to enter.

Above: Panoramic stitch of the castle and earthworks

The castle was founded shortly after the Norman Conquest by the first William de Warenne, as a combination of fortress and aristocratic residence, after being granted land in Norfolk. His son and descendants laid out the town and founded the nearby priory on its present site. The castle’s defences were greatly strengthened in the 12th-century with large ramparts and new stone walls, turning it into a “great tower” or keep. William de Warenne and his descendants stayed at the castle throughout the 13th-century. By the late Middle Ages, the castle had been abandoned and became a ruin, although its ramparts and ditches may still be seen today. On the approach to the keep, to the left may be seen the remains of the west gatehouse, which once controlled access into the castle and would have been secured by timber gates and a portcullis.

The great earthworks at the castle convey the power of this medieval fortress. In its final form, around 1200, the castle was a very strongly fortified and highly visible fortress. At its heart are two enclosures - a rectangular outer bailey and a smaller circular inner bailey to the north, set within a higher ring of banks. These two baileys and a fortified entrance (barbican) to the west were protected inside deep ditches, always dry as now, and by stone curtain walls, of which traces still remain today. The castle was never purely for military purposes; throughout its entire history, it also served as a base for the lords to oversee justice and administer their estates, to enjoy leisure pursuits such as hunting and to entertain important visitors, including King Henry III on multiple occasions.

The area shown above, south-southeast of the keep, once contained many buildings that would have supported the castle and its community during the middle ages (some outlines of them may be seen on the satellite view in Google Maps). Around 800 years ago, here in the outer bailey of the castle, there would have been a bustling area full of stables, workshops and store-houses. In the centre of this area is a large rectangular earthwork that marks the position of the Great Hall where the castle community dined and court hearings would have taken place. At the eastern end of the hall would have been a private chamber block forming part of the earl’s accommodation. Nearby would have been a separate building containing a kitchen. Another building, between the Great Hall and the inner bailey was another building which may have been the castle chapel and surrounding the whole area is an enclosure of ditches and high banks which would have at one time been capped with stone walls, remnants of which can still be seen today.

The photo above shows the inner bailey and the stone walls in the centre of the picture are what remain of the keep, or great tower of the castle. Excavations in this part of the site unexpectedly revealed that the first building finished by William de Warenne around the 1080’s was a lightly fortified grand country residence of two storeys rather than a castle. This evidence suggests it was intended to be a house more than a defensive stronghold. Inside the remains of the great tower today can still be seen the remains of a fireplace. With an impending threat of civil war during the mid-12th-century, William de Warenne’s descendants decided to enhance the defences of their home. The building became a large, stronger, and more easily defended tower with thicker walls in preparation for adding further storeys. These walls are the more substantial standing remains seen today. Whereas from around 1070, the residence was surrounded by a low circular bank inside a ditch with a stone gatehouse, by the 1140’s, work was underway to dig deeper ditches and cap the high banks with a stone wall. By around 1165, the residence had been completely transformed into a great tower, although half of the original building was deemed unnecessary and was demolished. If the building was ever finished, it would have probably been at least 62 feet (19m) high, so as to have provide a means of looking over the heightened ramparts surrounding it. The development of a country residence into a great fortress is unique in England. Some more photos of Castle Acre Castle can be seen in the thumbnail gallery below (click on an image to enlarge):

Castle Acre Priory

This Clunaic priory in the Romanesque style was inspired by Cluny Abbey in Burgundy, France, and built in the 12th century. It lies just to the southwest of the village and the castle and was set on south-facing valley slope of the River Nar. The river here today is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is rich in plant and aquatic life. Although at its peak, there were never more than thirty monks here at any given time, relics of saints held by the priory drew pilgrims from all over Europe. There were also usually three or four estate workers and servants to every monk at the priory.

Above: Composite image of the priory church and cloisters, Castle Acre

The attractive west front of the 12th-century priory church is still standing, although the nave, choir and apse are no more than piles of masonry and flint. In what remains of the cloisters and monks’ quarters, it is possible to identify the place where the wafers for mass were baked, the dormitories, latrines, infirmary, kitchen, the library and fishponds. The 16th-century prior’s lodging and chapel were converted to secular use, after the site was surrendered in 1537 (during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries), and remain more-or-less intact. To the east of the priory church and cloisters was the priory precinct. The precinct formed the hub of a large working agricultural estate and would have included a cowsheds and a dairy, piggeries, a slaughterhouse, barns, cart sheds and a granary/ There would also have been a herb garden to supply medicinal plant products for the infirmary, orchards, and a vegetable garden. Spanning seven centuries, the ruins here also include a 15th-century gatehouse which would have had a tall flint boundary wall running from it and surrounding the monastery’s precinct. The priory church and cloisters are under the care of English Heritage and open to the public during summer months. Some more photos of the priory (and its gatehouse) are shown below:


Castle Acre Bailey Gate

Shown below, this is the only building of the medieval town of Acre to survive more-or-less intact and is a 13th-century gateway, which can be seen at the east end of Stock’s Green:

St James’ Church

This 15th-century church (shown below) stands on a hilltop overlooking the village and the ruins of the priory and castle. A large amount of the medieval furniture of the church can still be seen today; the high font cover still with its colouring and gilding, a pulpit with painted panels, bench ends, misericords and parts of a rood screen are of note inside this historic building.

[Text and Photos: January 2019]


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