“I have only bought an Acre”, joked Norfolk lawyer Sir Edward Coke. This appalling pun was intended (and failed) to put King James I’s mind at rest about the extent of his Lord Chief Justice’s growing East Anglian estates. Yet at its peak Castle Acre was far more than that – it dominated this part of Norfolk.

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A pretty village, popular with walkers...

It was always popular with travellers, although in the Middle Ages they came with more than re-creation in mind. The Peddars Way route, Roman in origin, has been used by traders and pilgrims for centuries and it runs right by the site overlooked by the ruins of the castle at Acre. We know little of the settlements early origins. Areas of high ground overlooking a trade route with access to a river (the Nar) navigable to the Wash are all too rare in mid-Norfolk, so someone would surely have exploited the position. It only enters written history after the Norman Conquest. The Warenne earls of Surrey had accompanied fellow Norman William the Conqueror on his invasion of England, and reaped the rewards with vast lands. Their main estates were in Surrey hence the title but their Norfolk inheritance was by no means negligible. By 1086 William of Warenne, who divided his time between England and Normandy, was in the process of founding a monastery at Castle Acre as well as a stone house for his family. His wife, Gundrada, was living there; she died at their new country house in 1085 during childbirth.

A country house rather than a castle?

The architectural evidence at Castle Acre tells a story of changing development to fit the times. It seems the original house was built more for comfort than defence where the upper keep now stands; it was only in the troubled 1140s when civil war threatened that more formidable battlements were created, the site hugely enlarged and the character of the place changed. Even then, given that several kings of England visited, there was still an emphasis on putting on a show and allowing inhabitants to live in something approaching luxury. From the original house, begun during the 1070s, a tall keep grew up the last bastion of defence. Although Castle Acres development differed from most fortresses built by the Normans, it had the usual wood and earth motte and bailey, later replaced by a more elaborate stone affair. By the later 1140s the castle compared in size and importance to other East Anglian sites such as Framlingham in Suffolk and Rising near Lynn. It would have made an intimidating presence towering over the countryside. Along with the nearby monastery, it controlled trade and travel.

From where did the threat come?

French invasion was on the horizon King Louis seized Norwich in 1216 but the period of anarchy during the reign of Stephen and revolts against Henry II, John and Henry III meant magnates such as the Warennes never felt totally secure. By the early 13th century the castle could boast extensive walls built on raised earthworks in the lower ward below the keep, as well as a west and east gate, protected by an outer defence known as a barbican. The bailey gate still survives, the former north gateway to the planned walled town newly created outside the fortress. The Warennes were supporters of the crown, unlike the Bigod earls of Norfolk who were often at loggerheads with the monarchy. The first earl died on campaign in 1088, while his son was a trusted servant of Henry I. After another earl died on crusade in 1138 his daughter, Isabel, inherited and tied the family closer to the crown by marrying King Stephens brother, William of Blois.

Was the castle ever attacked?

The defences were never truly tested, but they were only part of the picture. For wealthy aristocrats of the time impressing friend and foe alike with the grandeur of your castle was vital. As at Rising, Castle Acre was built to a high standard. The buildings which would have filled the lower ward are long gone, but there would have been a thriving, self-contained world within the walls. By the 1200s it seems likely the keep was no longer lived in, and the lower ward was the centre of habitation. Excavations have unearthed a number of silver coins from the time of Edward the Confessor onwards as well as fine pottery and the bones of a variety of animals and fish, which indicate a healthy diet. Guests such as Edward I and Henry III made use of the hospitality, probably while en route to the great pilgrimage site at Walsingham. The Warenne earls may have spent little time in Norfolk, preoccupied with national politics and their southern lands, but they maintained a staff and garrison at Castle Acre.

When did the decline set in?

The last of the Warennes succeeded to the title in 1304. Plagued by marital and financial difficulties he was excommunicated by the pope for maintaining a mistress in Norfolk Earl John had to give up Castle Acre. Following a series of legal wrangles the estate went through several owners, including absentee landlords who neglected it. The age of fortified castles was fast waning, and as early as 1397 it was reported as derelict. The usual process of decay and cannibalism of the stone structure for local buildings set in. Financier Sir Thomas Gresham held Castle Acre for a while, but in 1615 the manor and dissolved monastery were bought for 8,000 by Sir Edward Coke. So large was the estate that he had to reassure the worried king that it was only an acre. Coke was the first to try to conserve the ruins, and it stayed within his family until the Earl of Leicester placed it in the guardianship of the Department of the Environment in 1971.

Today the site, five miles north of Swaffham, is maintained by English Heritage. Nearby are the extensive remains of Castle Acre Priory. Telephone 01760 755394 or log on to www.english-heritage.org.uk


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