Built to protect England’s east coast, Orford Castle fulfilled the role for its royal creator – and repeated it 800 years later.

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So it was built to ward off invasion?

The threat came primarily from within when Henry II began building the castle in 1165. Constructed in an experimental style, with as much of an eye towards comfort as to security, its greatest enemies turned out to be time, harsh weather and neglect. Its once-imposing outer walls have long disappeared, but the keep survives intact. For more than 150 years it was an important royal fortress, its fortunes mirroring those of the port which once thrived at Orford before nature took a hand. It might have been demolished in the 1800s, but changing attitudes towards heritage and a switch to public ownership in the 20th century saved it.

Who were Henry IIs internal enemies?

Powerful and energetic monarch that he was, Henry faced a number of uprisings. East Anglian barons such as the Bigod earls of Norfollk had stood against him in the 1150s. Although Henry had destroyed or confiscated Hugh Bigods castles at Framlingham and Bungay, he was far from finished. With this in mind, Henry began building up his own power base in Suffolk. The busy port of Orford was the ideal place to counter the threat of Flemish mercenaries Hugh hired to do his fighting, as well as lay down a marker about royal power and prestige. We think the builder was a man called Alnoth Ingeniator (engineer), and, thanks to Henrys bureaucratic records, we know it cost 1,413 to build. Yearly expenditure was recorded on Pipe Rolls, so called because they were rolled up for storage, and those kept in London record the building of the castle. At a time when the kings revenue was 18,000 a year it was a huge sum. Orford was innovative in its defensive design cylindrical inside, polygonal outside, it was meant to cut out vulnerable corners. Work was just about finished by 1173 when the castle received its baptism of fire. Hugh Bigod joined a rebellion by Henrys son and Orford was mobilised for war, with a 70-strong garrison including knights and sergeants. Bigods Flemish mercenaries landed at Felixstowe, but failed to capture it, while Hugh declined to attack the new castle at Orford. The rebellion was soon defeated. Round one to the king.

What was the castle like inside?

Great care was lavished on the interior. From the state-of-the-art, walled-off latrines (they flushed directly outside the castle walls so hygienic) to the internal apartments, some of which had en-suite facilities (your own personal urinal), Orford was every inch a royal residence. Tapestries on the walls and rushes on the floor would have made life quite bearable, particularly for important guests with their own room. There were two great halls on two separate floors which could be used for public and private functions. Private apartments, kitchen and chapel could all be found in the turrets leading off from the halls. Down in the basement a 45ft deep well drew up salty water, vital if the keep was beseiged, and food could be stored. The spiralling staircase was built so that defenders coming down the steps would have the advantage of greater space to use their weapons providing they were right-handed of course!

Did the castle ever fall?

Prince Louis of France took it in 1216 fighting against King John, while Hugh Bigods descendants held it twice, albeit briefly, during the Barons War of the 1260s against Henry III. Edward I was the only king recorded as visiting it, in 1277, although a century earlier Queen Eleanor, mother of Richard I, had mobilised a fleet there to carry his ransom when he was imprisoned in Germany. By the early 1300s the port was beginning to decline. Siltation and the growth of the long spit meant the harbour was no longer navigable by larger ships, and the castles decay went hand in hand. The crown leased it to private owners, Edward III selling it to the Earl of Suffolk in 1336. In the 16th century it was used primarily as a prison and as a landmark for ships at sea there was probably a beacon on the roof. It was this aspect that saved the castle in 1805. The Earl of Hertford, its owner, wanted it demolished, but it was saved as a navigational aid to mariners negotiating treacherous sandbanks. The outer walls, subject of much recent research and speculation by archaeologists, fell down over the centuries; the last fragment collapsed in 1841. It is surprising therefore the keep is in such good condition; today it stands it splendid isolation having weathered centuries of inclement coastal weather.

Any good legends?

In 1207 fishermen caught a wild man in the sea. He was naked and covered in hair with a long shaggy beard and it was presumed he was a merman. Brought into church he showed no signs of reverence or belief wrote shocked chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall. He was imprisoned in the castle basement, but he would not talk, although oft times hung up by his feet and harshly tortured. Eventually, this mysterious figure escaped to sea, never to return.

Not surprising, with that sort of treatment. What about the modern day?

During the second world war, Orford once again defended the coast when a radar observation post was deployed on the roof. Orford was important in the development of radar, with experiments carried out on the Ness. From the roof here is a sensational panoramic view of the estuary and coastline. The area is an Area of Oustanding Natural Beauty, with an RSPB site on nearby Havergate Island. In 1928 the castle was give to Orford Town Trust, and opened to the public two years later. It is now in the care of English Heritage. Orford Castle, 20 miles north-east of Ipswich, is open to the public.
Telephone 01394 450472.
You can also visit the Bigods rival castle at Framlingham, where the outer walls have survived.

WEBSITE

www.english-heritage.org.uk

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