A planned new town and a castle that was once a state-of-the-art installation. It’s all in the unassuming Norfolk village of New Buckenham. A planned town.

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Like Milton Keynes?

This was the medieval equivalent. Following the Norman invasion of 1066, French knights carved out states for themselves throughout England. One such family was the dAlbinis. Inheriting and building upon lands in Norfolk they rose by influence and marriage throughout the 11th and 12th centuries. William dAlbini was known as the Strong Hand, and became butler to King Henry I, son of the Conqueror. This was an important position, a kind of royal enforcer. DAlbini emphasised his wealth and power by putting up castles and churches. In West Norfolk he created the mighty Castle Rising; in South Norfolk the familys position was shown off by the foundation of the priory at Wymondham. A few miles to the south of Attleborough, dAlbini came into land at Buckenham.

And built a castle there?

There was an original Saxon settlement and it wasnt quite right for dAlbini. Having built a castle at what was then called Buckenham, in about 1145 he wanted something a bit grander. So he gave his old castle to some Augustinian monks and moved his castle up the road a mile or so to a better site on the Norwich to Thetford road. Along with a new castle a new town was built; hence the difference between Old and New Buckenham. Today archaeologists are excited about the unique surviving medieval street layout of the then new settlement, which they declare is the only one in England to retain its original pattern. Like Castle Acre, near Swaffham, the settlement grew to serve the castle, and was bounded by its own ditch. A market was introduced to supply produce for the castle.

What was special about the new castle?

With its raised ramparts and wide moat it must have sent out a message to dAlbinis friends and enemies this was a man of wealth and power. Medieval castles were not just about a raw expression of defensive capability. Their great height and the relative luxury in which their inhabitants lived made them status symbols. The castle comprises an inner bailey and two outer baileys, all with earth walls. The circular keep is said to be the earliest of its type, and probably the largest in diameter, in England. Its walls are 11ft thick at the foot and the total height of the flint-built keep may have been as much as 40 feet. The keep is flint-built, from local Norfolk materials. By the time it was completed in 1176 it must have formidable. The 13th century saw troubled times. The third earls lands were ravaged by King John when he deserted his side, but it is unlikely the castle was attacked. In 1263 rebel baron Sir Henry de Hastyngs, an ally of Sir Simon de Montfort in his war against King Henry III, unsuccessfully attacked the castle, held by the loyalist dAlbinis. The renegade had more success in his pillaging of Norfolk, reaching Norwich before his eventual defeat. The Chapel of St Mary once stood inside the southwest bailey (outer wall); during the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries it was converted into a barn.

What about the old castle?

The Augustinian canons used the materials to found their priory of Old Buckenham. They got the site free of charge on condition they demolished the defences to prevent them falling into the hands of the rebels confronting the monarchy during the late 12th century. Part of the church remains standing, but we need aerial photography to readily identify the outline of an establishment dissolved and demolished after 1536.

And the village?

A prosperous tanning industry grew up there. Its wealth, particularly between the 15th and 18th centuries, is illustrated by the fine buildings its citizens constructed, little changed in essence for centuries though camouflaged by Victorian additions. That fine architectural legacy has now been the subject of a project coordinated by Norfolk Historic Buildings Group. The result of its research and recording project was published in 2005 as The Historic Buildings of New Buckenham. The village common, originally used for grazing livestock, is one of the largest in the county, and has also survived for more than 800 years.

What happened to the castle?

Driving through New Buckenham today you can see no sign of it. But it is there right in the middle of the village a short way along a footpath off Castle Hill Road. It takes some finding, being obscured from the road. The castle passed through various hands. By 1461 it was held by Sir John Knyvett. In this time of civil war Yorkist King Edward IV sent officers to seize the castle. Although they got as far as the outer ward they were defied by Sir Johns wife Alice, who shouted from the top of the tower she would die defending the fortress; the royal officers retreated. The castle stood in its splendid position, occupied though having seen better days, until the 1640s. Sir Philip Knyvett, a lukewarm supporter of Parliament during the Civil War, demolished the castle in 1649, probably at the request of Parliament. A second civil war had just ended, and Charles I had been executed. The Commonwealth authorities feared Royalist diehards might fortify the redundant castle. Today only the lower portion of the keep and a few other fragments remain, but a walk around the perimeter shows that the impressive 40ft high earth ramparts and moat remain intact. Visitors to the castle can climb steps up the rampart to enjoy the view from the top of the heavily-wooded earthworks. A bridge with a modern gate leads to the castle, and you can see the remains of the medieval gatehouse.

The key is available from Castle Hill Garage there is a small admission charge. New Buckenham is 16 miles south-west of Norwich on the B1113.

WEBSITE

Norfolk Historic Buildings Group www.nhbg.fsnet.co.uk

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