Castle of the Week 11 – Castle Acre

The village of Castle Acre in Norfolk, England, adjacent to the River Nar, contains the remains of a priory (said to be the best-preserved Clunaic monastery in England) and a castle, both of which were founded shortly after the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, by William de Warenne. He became the first Earl of Surrey and his family were closely involved in affairs of state and the crown over the next two centuries.

Initially the castle was constructed in the manner of a country house, but was remodelled in the twelfth century into a more formal castle arrangement with a keep and hugely impressive earthworks, which survive to this day. These were necessary because the relatively flat Norfolk landscape offered little protection to the inhabitants of the castle. The castle finally became derelict in the 14th century.

The Lower Ward once contained all that was needed for the operation of the castle, reception and accommodation of visiting kings. This included storehouses, workshops, stables and accommodation for servants of important visitors. There was a great hall, where guests were entertained with a high table at its eastern end, and small side rooms for the pantry and buttery at the western end. Further west was the kitchen, kept separate to reduce the risk of the spread of fire.

The Upper Ward and keep contain the functions that we more usually associate with castles. The transformation from a country house involved doubling the thickness of the walls from the inside and the ground floor level was raised by almost 2 metres. The lower part of the keep lies in a circular hollow, having been surrounded with an earthwork bank, which has been raised on several occasions. What remains of the keep today is the twelfth century ground floor.

The northern half of the keep had its main living accommodation at first floor level, with storage at ground floor level. There are two wells within the keep, one of which, located in the southeast corner, is 19.8 metres deep. The second in the northeast corner is unusual in that it had a shaft constructed in the lining wall to allow access to it from the upper floors only, a precaution against siege if an enemy prevented access to the ground floor of the keep.

The Upper Ward defences date from different time periods. Originally a ditch and wooden fencing protected the building, then in the early twelfth century the bank was heightened (by deepening the moat) and a crenulated wall was added. Finally in the late twelfth century, the bank protecting the northern half of the keep was raised and a second surrounding wall of solid flint was built on top of the existing wall, together with pilaster buttresses on the outside and carried down the face of the of the first curtain wall beneath.

A small arched opening in this second wall leads to a small tower, probably a latrine. Near this are the remains of the base of set of steps leading to the walk around the walls of keep.

Archaeological excavations have revealed that the occupants had a wide variety of fish, wild and domestic animals for their diet. Large quantities of pottery were found, as well as silver coins from the time of Edward the Confessor to King Stephen. Hunting artefacts, such as spurs and horse harnesses as well as arrows indicate the sporting nature of the occupants; and dice, counters and chalk blocks carved as pieces for a ‘nine men’s morris board’, their domestic pastime activity.

Pictures by the author, Granite Q