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Thursday, April 15, 2010
A castle in the middle of a town, once the lair of a rebel earl, the summerhouse of a romantic novelist – and perhaps the home of a ghostly hound.
Bungay Castle is a ruin now. But when its first owner, Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, held court in the 12th century it was a fortress to defy a king. You wouldnt believe it now to look at it, but after hundreds of years of neglect and then being hacked at by a builder with a pickaxe and a profit margin to fill nowhere would look its best. The Anglo- Saxons first noticed Bungay provided a natural fortress. On high ground sloping to the banks of the River Waveney, they created earthworks and ditches around the town. At the time of the Norman Conquest Bungay was part of the large portfolio of properties held by Stigand, last Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury. The Normans put a stop to that, and the estate, along with many in Suffolk, came to the tender mercies of the Bigod family.
Hugh was the grandson of the original Bigod who had fought with Duke William at Hastings. Boastful and restless, he was known as Hugh the Bold. Being created Earl of Norfolk seems to have gone to his head; he took up arms against two kings. After seeing off Stephen in the 1140s, and being pardoned by Henry II a decade later, he strengthened his power base by building a castle at Bungay. Having already created a formidable fortress at Framlingham to the south while the king built himself a castle at Orford on the coast, it was a statement of intent. From 1165 it went up in the shape of a giant square. The keep was 90ft high taller than neighbouring St Marys Church with walls 18ft thick. Hugh was pleased with it. In 1173 his bid to take Norwich from the king was thwarted and, with Henrys army closing in, he still possessed the arrogance to proclaim:
Were I in my Castle
Upon the River Waveney,
I wouldne give a button
For the king of Cockney.
To no avail. Hugh was forced to surrender. The king ordered his castles destroyed but, on payment of a huge fine, demolition was delayed. In a fit of pique the ageing Hugh went off on crusade, and promptly died in Syria. But his part in this story is not yet done. A second castle was created more than a century later by one of his descendants. Roger Bigod, the fifth earl, did things by the book. He politely obtained a licence from King Edward I to crenellate his house at Bungay. Roger refaced the original keep, built curtain walls around the mound and created the two-towered gate that is still visible today (a further gatehouse at the end of the outer bailey is long gone). The castle had a turning bridge which lifted up and down with the use of counterweights. Roger had little time in which to enjoy his new creation though, dying in 1297. The king inherited the estate, and it passed through his brother, Thomas de Bretherton, eventually to the Howard family. They became dukes of Norfolk in the 15th century, by which time Bungay was just one of their many estates and, neglected, it fell into ruin. In 1382 it was old, and ruinous, and worth nothing a year. Enterprising locals began cannibalising materials for their houses, and lean-to dwellings of the poorer sort grew up in the shadow of the walls. In 1766 a builder named Mickleburgh bought it as a quarry and, with orders to fulfil, began work with his pickaxe. This must be the reason the walls look as if someone has nibbled at them.
She arrived in the unlikely form of a Bungay attorneys wife. Elizabeth Bonhote was of a literary bent, and it was to her and her husband that the castle was sold. As a young woman she had verses published in the Norwich Mercury; now she turned her hand to the gothic novel. Her medieval romance, Bungay Castle, owing much to the works of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, was written in 1796. By this time she had created a summerhouse in the castle which no doubt inspired her tale of trapped heroines triumphing against the odds in a time of civil war. The dukes of Norfolk re-enter the tale at the start of the Victorian era half a century later. They bought the site back and tried to renovate the castle. The lean-to houses were demolished and local diarist JB Scott wrote: The towers now stand alone and look more majestic than heretofore. It was a shortlived revival. By 1934 town reeve Dr Leonard Cane had to raise 500 by public appeal to help save the crumbling pile. The duke gave the castle to the town in 1987, and today it is lovingly cared for by registered charity the Bungay Castle Trust.
The tale of Black Shuck is well known in Bungay. For centuries, East Anglians have told of the huge black hellhound with evil flaming eyes. One of the best stories features Bungay and Blythburgh churches, where Shuck is said to have wreaked havoc, killing two and injuring another in the summer of 1577. St Marys is overlooked by the castle, and Shuck has been spotted many times. Some have been tempted to cast the castle as his headquarters. This is where Hugh Bigod re-enters the story. Is it possible this restless man, still angry at paying that fine to Henry II, returns in the form of a devil dog? No, of course not, but dont be too surprised if you should see a giant hound by the ruined keep late at night in Bungay.