In its picture-postcard setting, Framlingham Castle was the stage for earls, dukes, kings and queens to play out roles in history.

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It was just for show then?

Dont let the fairytale castle appearance fool you. Framlingham was built for a serious purpose by an ambitious family a bit of conspicuous consumption can go a long way to furthering your political career as well as impressing friends and enemies. The castle was subjected to siege and confiscation, was the headquarters of a royal counteroffensive against a coup detat and later served a more humble purpose for poverty-stricken labourers. The story begins with 1066 and all that. One of many French knights who sailed with William of Normandy, in the hope of making a fortune, was one Robert le Bigod. His gamble paid off; he was granted lands in East Anglia. Among them was Framlingham in Suffolk.

What was there before?

There had been a Saxon settlement for at least 200 years comprising three wealthy manors. The Normans changed everything. A wooden motte and bailey castle was put up by Roger Bigod soon after 1086, local people pressed into its construction. Only the bailey survives today now the castle meadow. These fortifications went up around the country as a shock and awe tactic to intimidate the locals. It worked all too well. By 1101 the Bigods were high in the favour of King Henry I, who confirmed them in their new lands. Rogers son, Hugh, played national politics from the 1130s; after securing the title Earl of Norfolk he opposed successive kings of England with long-term results for Framlingham.

Was opposition such a good idea?

In the anarchy of King Stephens reign it brought Hugh impressive results. He was initially in favour with new king, Henry II. During the 1150s, the earl began rebuilding some of the castles buildings in stone. By now he was rich and influential, holding lands throughout East Anglia and benefiting from the trade the region enjoyed with continental Europe. Perhaps it went to his head, for in 1156 he rebelled again. Henry II was not to be trifled with; he turfed Hugh out of the castle and imposed a royal garrison for the next decade. After being forced to pay a huge fine to get his land back, the tricky earl, now nearly 80, had another go. In 1173, he supported young Prince Henry against his father. The kings patience was exhausted he had Framlingham Castle dismantled and confiscated the familys land and titles.

Surely that was a lesson to them.

Hughs son, Roger, was a faithful supporter of King Richard I. After getting Framlingham back in 1189, he began rebuilding the castle, creating the impressive structure we see today. By 1213 it was complete, as he entertained King John. Alas, it soon turned sour again; Earl Roger was among the nobles who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta and, in revenge, the king besieged Framlingham with foreign mercenaries. A depleted garrison of only 50 men held out for a miserable two days. At least this ignominious surrender saved the castle from damage. Roger had new curtain walls built with 12 towers, the walls nearly 8ft thick. Unlike many other castles, Framlingham had no central keep as a last line of defence. Instead each tower was capable of being sealed off and acting as a central point of defence against attackers penetrating the outer defences. The top of each tower contained a fighting gallery reached by a ladder from the wall-walk. Inside, the inner ward would have had plenty of buildings evidence of a chapel and a kitchen have been found, although now the interior is just a shell. Framlingham was a bustling, busy place with houses on the meadow outside the wall. The owners also made use of the mere. Originally a natural lake, it was greatly enlarged. The current mere is about a third the size it was in medieval times. Then it had two small islands, one containing a dovecote. The mere and castle were at the centre of a vast hunting park another of the concerns of the aristocracy.

And their major concern?

Framlingham continued to play a part in politics and warfare. The 13th century earls both supported and clashed with the monarchy. Fifth earl Roger Bigod successfully defied Edward I when ordered to lead an army to France, but the king had the last laugh. When the earl died childless and in debt in 1306, the king took over the land. The castle had fallen into disrepair when the money ran out, and needed refortifying. A number of tenants were in place until the Mowbray family inherited Framlingham as a main residence along with the title of dukes of Norfolk. By the late 15th century such castles were becoming obsolete due to increasing use of artillery but they remained impressive. The Howard family came into the dukedom in 1483. Keen to show off, they refurbished the castle, building new lodgings and a new bridge. Many of the ornamental chimneys on the 12 towers date from this period. Not all of them were used for fires; the dukes built them for show, implying they were so rich they could afford fuel for 12 fires!

No more sieges?

In 1553, Mary Tudor used the castle as a base to rally support against Jane Grey, who had been crowned by her powerful relatives. Loyal East Anglians flocked to her banner, and she marched triumphantly on London. It was Framlinghams finest hour, but decline soon set in. The dukes preferred more comfortable properties at Kenninghall and Norwich, and sold the dilapidated castle to lawyer Sir Robert Hitcham. His will called for a new poorhouse to be built, which happened in 1664 when Pembroke College, Cambridge, inherited the site. Despite various vicissitudes it was the centre of poor relief to unemployed labourers until 1839. In 1913 the castle came into state care.

Framlingham Castle is today managed by English Heritage and is open to the public. Telephone 01728 724189 or log on to www.english-heritage.org.uk

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