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Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Another castle! Surely East Anglia was full of them… Weeting in south Norfolk is not actually a castle, but a fortified manor house. It may look like a crumbling ruin, but in its time there would have been few more pleasant places to live in the county.
In the 1130s Hugh de Plais, a tenant of William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, started the construction of his family home. It was a good time to be building in Norfolk. Warennes own state-of-the-art construction at Castle Acre was well underway in these years, as was the magnificent Castle Rising, built by the powerful dAlbinis on the north-west coast of the county near Lynn. Over in Suffolk Hugh Bigod was rebuilding his familys castle at Framlingham in stone. Weeting was a less grand affair but it presents us with a rare surviving example of a 12th century manor house. Although it is now a ruin, the basic architecture can be reconstructed. This was how the lesser gentry lived, as opposed to the great magnates of state, the tenants in chief of the king.
By the mid-12th century the Norman elite who had conquered along with King William were well established in England, and stamping their authority, sense of security and growing wealth and taste on the land with a series of grand buildings.
Recent excavations have unearthed evidence of a Saxon settlement dating from at least the 10th century.
Ditches, burnt daub, post-holes and pottery and a coin have been dated from this era. This should not come as a surprise; the area had been a hive of industry since prehistoric times, with the mysterious Grimes Graves flint mines having been worked since at least 3,000BC.
Norfolk was a well settled county before the Normans came, with great East Anglian landowners like Archbishop of Canterbury Stigand owning many manors; the new feudal owners often just demolished what was there already and built on top of it. Weeting is listed in the Domesday Book, spelt Wetynge meaning wet fields.
Made of mortared flint rubble with stone dressings, it was originally designed as a free-standing, two-storeyed building, with a lesser hall and chamber above. Its design was copied essentially from Warennes Castle Acre. Later in the 1100s the halls were combined to create a more impressive aisled hall open to a timbered roof. The hall was the most important room, hosting guests and the scene for important events. Each side of the hall supported benches with a dais and table at the far end. Next to the hall was a service area, complete with pantry and buttery. On the other side of the open courtyard a free-standing kitchen was later built for preparing animal and other foodstuffs. This no doubt smelly and messy part of the house was hidden from view by a wall, so genteel visitors crossing the moat to come in to the hall wouldnt have to see it.
Historians think the moat, added in the 13th century, was less a defensive device than an ornamental status symbol. The de Plais family were living the good life in this part of Norfolk, and they wanted friends and neighbours to think well of them by displaying their wealth. The moat, which survives but is now dry, is about 2m (6ft) deep and up to 10m (30ft) wide. The family had their own private chambers beyond the hall.
Divided into three storeys, with a central fireplace, it had its own latrine block which was the last word in the luxury hygiene of its day; three cubicles drained into the room at ground level, cleaned through a small door near the moat.
During the late 14th century the house came into the possession of the Howard family. This ambitious clan eventually captured the title of the dukes of Norfolk, coming to national prominence during the rule of Henry VIII. With a great many properties making up their portfolio, Weeting had a low priority and was abandoned by about 1390. In time it was incorporated in to the grounds of the now demolished Weeting Hall, and became an ornamental, romantic ruin for the owners to show off. A domed icehouse was built during the later 18th century. These buildings were used to store ice throughout the year, before the invention of the refrigerator, and can often be found in large houses of the time, though few remain.
During the 1930s Weeting Hall was remodelled as an instructional centre by the Government, taking in young, long-term unemployed men from areas of high unemployment during the Depression and giving them a three-month crash course in heavy manual work, with mixed results. During the second world war it served as a hospital for wounded Gurkha and Indian soldiers.
It was demolished in 1954. Pepper Hill, on the edge of the village, supposedly got its name from an incident in which Oliver Cromwells soldiers used their artillery to pepper the castle. The story may be just a legend; most places in East Anglia like to boast of being knocked about by Cromwell at some stage in their history! Nineteenth century novelist Charles Kingsley portrayed Weeting Castle as the Norman headquarters in his romanticised account of the legendary fenland hero Hereward the Wake.
The site, managed by English Heritage, is free to enter. Weeting is two miles north of Brandon on the B1106, but the castle is poorly signposted. Turn right at the village school and go down a sunken lane.
Weeting Castle is next to the Church of Weeting St Marys.