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Thursday, April 15, 2010
A castle once fit for a queen, Castle Rising’s story is one of conspicuous consumption, a statement of power and wealth – its decline is a warning that all such glory is fleeting.
As with so many historical buildings you have to imagine how it once was. What looks like a roofless hulk now was, in its heyday, richly-decorated and furnished and designed to impress friend and foe. Tile remains indicate the Romans were the first to settle at this West Norfolk coastal site, probably beginning the process of reclaiming land from the sea. It is close to modern Kings Lynn, but Lynn did not exist until the 11th century. An old ryhme goes: Rising was a sea-port where Lynn was but a marsh, Now Lynn is a sea-port town, and Rising fares the worse. The Romans had no military use for the area, building a small villa or farmstead. Reclaimed agricultural land was not of the best quality, but Risings coastal position made it attractive. Archaeologists think Saint Felix, the Burgundian priest who converted East Anglia to Christianity in the 7th century, preached here. He may have had a church built, although the buried church uncovered in the 19th century near the keep dates from the 1100s. Legend has it the saint was shipwrecked at Babingley, just north of Castle Acre. Rescued by beavers he is supposed to have made their leader a bishop! More prosaically, by 1066 Rising was a part of the extensive holdings of Norfolk churchman Stigand, Bishop of East Anglia and last Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury.
William the Conqueror expelled Stigand and gave his lands to brother Odo. Now Rising came into recorded history and its golden age began. The underdeveloped site passed through several hands until it came into the possession of William dAlbini. Known as Strong Hand, William was a Norman baron who was butler to King Henry I. A medieval butler was an important position effectively he was a royal enforcer. DAlbinis stock rose in the 1130s when he married Alice of Louvain, widow of King Henry. At a stroke the family was elevated several notches and needed a suitable impressive residence to underline noble status. It fell to Strong Hands son, also William, to created a lordly residence. Work on the keep began around 1140, modelled on the castle at Norwich, while the 12-acre wide bank that surrounds it is one of the largest earthworks at any castle in England.
Williams loyal tenants were drafted in to do the digging; their feelings go unrecorded. We know that stone was shipped in from Barnack at Northamptonshire, and that the decorations were the last word in modern luxury. The walls were probably whitewashed, and would have been seen from the sea, thus creating a formidable first impression for travellers. From the gatehouse to the staired entrance vestibule, still in excellent condition, visitors would be reminded of the wealth of their host, who took centre stage in his great hall. The castle contained three storeys, with extensive basement storage space, kitchen, a chapel and sleeping quarters upstairs. There was also a deer park, yet another status symbols as hunting deer was an aristocratic pursuit, and a rabbit warren rabbits, known as coneys, were at this time a luxury food. The work went on over many years, the banks being raised in the 1170s during a revolt against Henry II when danger threatened.
There is no evidence it ever saw any action. One tale says the men of Lynn attacked the castle over a customs revenue dispute, but this may have been exaggerated. Life at Rising was far from unpleasant; later inventories list tapestries, silk cushions and Turkish carpets. Even the toilet facilities were state of the art! The village also thrived, with a fine Norman church and leper hospital. All in all, by the 1330s, Rising was deemed a fit residence for a queen. By this time the dAlbini line had died out, and it had become a royal residence again. Queen Isabella, unflatteringly known as the She-Wolf of France, had been unhappily married to Edward II. After his murder, in which she was suspected of complicity, she briefly ruled with her lover, Roger Mortimer. This proved short-lived; Mortimer was executed and the new king, Edward III, was anxious to ensure his mother stayed out of trouble. In 1331 she was sent to Rising where she lived, not exactly a prisoner, until her death in 1358. This period sees the castles history best documented, as the king made frequent visits, but a slow decline set in during the next 200 years. By the 1540s it was increasingly derelict, and its transfer to the possession of the Dukes of Norfolk did it no favours. Neglected, it fell into disrepair, and Risings importance paled into insignificance compared to neighbouring Lynn.
As a defensive structure Rising had had its day, although it was fortified during the Wars of the Roses. During the reign of Elizabeth I it was almost pulled down. A survey for the queen reported: If the castle should be taken downe and sold for benefitt, it is so greatlie decaied as the same will not yeald above one hundred markes. The castle survived, although much of its material was taken away and cannibalised for local buildings. In the old unreformed House of Commons, Rising was a borough, returning the diarist Samuel Pepys and Britains first prime minister Robert Walpole and his son, Horace, as MPs.
Rising remains in the Howard family, but passed into the care of the State in 1968. Today it is looked after by English Heritage, and visitors can get a good insight into the medieval mind. Castle Rising is four miles north-east of Lynn.
Telephone: 01553 631330, website www.english-heritage.org.uk
Castle Rising by Dr Robert Liddiard.