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Thursday, April 15, 2010
At the end of a country road, with few neighbours except cattle at a dairy farm, stands the home of a once-great Norfolk family. The shell of Baconsthorpe Castle is the story of the rise and fall of the Heydons.
A family of humble origins, they came to prominence in the mid-15th century. Through determined use of the law, the buying of property and occasional ruthlessness they made themselves a force to be reckoned with. The Heydons heyday came in the Tudor age when the countrys greatest economic asset sheep confirmed their wealth, but poor political choices and growing eccentricity sealed a long, lingering doom. It was a clever, ambitious young attorney called John Heydon who begins the tale. At some time during his professional rise, he had changed his family name from Baxter (meaning baker) to the more gentrified Heydon, named after the place where his father had worked the land. We know a lot about him from his local enemies, the Paston family. The Pastons had risen in the previous two generations from yeoman farmers to property magnates. When their copious correspondence was discovered several hundred years later it proved a treasure trove of information for historians. John Heydon looms large in the Paston papers from the 1440s to the 1470s and is not shown in a good light.
The families clashed as they tried to attain property and land. At one point an armed mob by the excitation and procuring of John Heydon expelled Margaret Paston and her outnumbered retainers from the manor at Gresham at the heart of the dispute. As the Wars of the Roses went on, the two families were often on opposite sides and repeatedly clashed both in court and outside. Heydon was certainly ruthless and unscrupulous but he was a born survivor, outlasting most of his opponents and avoiding the violent deaths suffered by many contemporaries. Disreputable he may have been, but he was no coward. An old Norfolk rhyme begins: There never was a Paston poor, or a Heydon a coward. As it was the feud died out after Johns death from plague in 1479. His granddaughter Bridget married the Paston heir William a few years later. By that time the Heydons had built a suitably grand home to show off the wealth John had gathered. Baconsthorpe Castle was begun in the 1480s.
Artillery was already making old-style castles obsolete. Baconsthorpe, near the village where the family owned so much land, was more of a fortitfied manor house. Constructed from knapped flint it boasted state-of-the-art firing slots for early cannon, a moat, and Sir John is credited with building the inner gatehouse and curtain wall. Clearly he expected trouble; although the castle never had to ward off a seige it was equipped to do so. It had a drawbridge, now replaced by a wooden bridge, and you can still see the chains and counterweights that would have operated it. With so much of the building long since destroyed the exact layout is guesswork. One legend of a secret passage running under the moat has since been demolished when it turned out to be a sewer! As the threat of civil war subsided, the castle was adapted for more peaceful uses. Sir Christopher Heydon built the outergatehoue in the 1560s, by which time the castle echoed to the sound of bleating.
The wealth of England and particularly East Anglia in this period grew on the back of sheep. English woollen goods were exported to the Low Countries and the money earned paid for great houses like Baconsthorpe as well as the great churhces of the era. Not for nothing did the Lord Chancellor of England sit on a woolsack in Westminster. For families like the Heydons it brought a golden era; Christopher once feasted 30 head shepherds of his flocks at Christmas. Two long rooms against the east wall, with some 16th century windows still intact, were converted for use as a textile factory small scale no doubt by modern standards, but a formidable enterprise in its time. But the good times came to an end as the century waned.
The Heydons got badly into debt as war interrupted overseas trade, and their behaviour became more eccentric. Supporting the Earl of Essex in his abortive 1601 rising against Queen Elizabeth was certainly a bad move, as was getting into wild duels. Sir Christophers son, also Christopher, was something of an intellectual, writing treatises on astrology, but it hardly helped restore family fortunes. Soon land was being sold off, and other sources of income sought. Two brothers, William and John, joined the Army; William died on the disastrous La Rochelle expedition of 1627 while John was the general commanding Charles Is artillery throughout the Civil Wars of the 1640s. By that time the Heydons had virtually abandoned Baconsthorpe, which was starting to crumble. Victorious Parliamentarians seized the estate before Sir John was allowed to buy it back in 1657. In a desperate bid to raise cash he demolished much of the castle and sold the stone, much of which went to Felbrigg Hall, near Cromer. A London merchant bought Baconsthorpe, and later a doctor named Zurishaddair Lang lived in the gatehouse, the only inhabitable part. It was lived in until gales brought it crashing down in 1921.
Sir Charles Mott-Radclyffe gave Baconsthorpe to the Ministry of Works, now English Heritage, who began investigating its history. The Heydon family is remembered at the nearby church with brass portraits, monuments and windows.
Baconsthorpe Castle is open all year from 10am to 4pm daily. Entry is free. The village is three miles east of Holt. Access is marked with brown tourist signs. There are walks sign-posted from the castle eight miles to Holt Country Park and the Glaven Valley, or 3 miles to Hempstead.