Hedingham Castle

Hedingham Castle Keep

Hedingham Castle in Essex, England, is a Norman motte and bailey castle with a stone keep. It may occupy a site of an earlier castle believed to have been built in the later eleventh or early twelfth century by Aubrey de Vere I, a Norman baron. Hedingham was one of the largest manors among those acquired by Aubrey I by circa 1080 and it became the head of the Vere barony by the later twelfth century.

In 1133 Aubrey de Vere II, son and heir of the first Aubrey, was created master chamberlain of England by Henry I. In 1141 his son, Aubrey de Vere III, was granted the earldom of Oxford by Empress Matilda. By that time he had been Count of Guines for several years by right of his wife's claim to that continental territory. Aubrey II or Aubrey III are candidates for initiating the construction of a major stone building at Hedingham, possibly to reflect the enhanced status of the family. Earl Aubrey was forced to surrender his castles to King Stephen in 1143, as was his brother-in-law Geoffrey de Mandeville, first earl of Essex. He recovered the castles by the later 1140s.

A large ditch was cut through a natural spur into the Colne Valley in order to form a ringwork and inner bailey, whilst an outer bailey extended south, further into the valley and into what is now the modern village of Castle Hedingham. The stone keep survives in a very good state of preservation to this day and is open to the public. The keep stands approximately 35 m high and commands the countryside around it from its elevated position atop the ringwork. It is constructed from flint rubble bound with lime mortar, but, very unusually for an Essex castle, is faced with ashlar stone, which had to be transported from Barnack in Northamptonshire.

The keep has four floors, including a fine hall known as the Great Hall or Banqueting Hall with a central archway extending two stories and a fireplace. The top floor may have been added around the 15th century, replacing an impressive pyramid-shaped roof in order to provide extra accommodation. This is a recent theory, however, and many have noted the similar plan of Hedingham Castle and Rochester Castle, which was built in the 1130s and has four floors.

Hedingham Castle - Photo ©
David Philips, august 1997

The castle was besieged twice, in 1216 and 1217, during the dispute between King John, the rebel barons, and the French prince. (In both cases the sieges were short and successful for those besieging the castle). Two of the original four corner turrets are missing, but it seems more likely that their demise was a result of an attempt to demolish the building for materials than through military action.

The keep is the only mediaeval element of the castle to have survived, the hall, drawbridge and outbuildings all having been replaced during the Tudor period by structures which—with the exception of a fine late 15th century brick bridge—have now also been lost. A country mansion was built by the Ashurst family during the early 18th century, and this survives.

The castle was held by the de Vere family until the late 16th century. Among the more famous earls are Robert de Vere, 3rd Earl of Oxford; Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford; John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford; and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

The castle and estate are now owned by the Lindsay family, who are descendants of the de Veres.


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