Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

05 November 2009

Castle Rising

Seven kilometres beyond Kings Lynn*, close by the shallow waters of The Wash on Norfolk’s north western shore, lie the impressive 12th century ruins of Castle Rising on an estate of ill-defined Roman and Saxon origins covering about five hectares.
The castle was built by William d’Albini, Earl of Sussex, who married Adeliza, widow of Henry I (he who had died of eating a surfeit of lampreys).

(D’Albini, interestingly, was the son of William the Conqueror’s butler. In those days that title was not indicative of humble status. The butler was a senior officer of the royal court, often titled. Among other things he had responsibility for controlling wine supplies for the household. William had firstly given the manor of Rising to his brother-in-law, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, but Odo rebelled against him and had his fief confiscated. )

Castle Rising stands in an elevated, level, grassed depression formed by earth ramparts 20 metres high whose outer slopes plunge a further 18 metres to the bed of the encircling moat. The circumference of the main rampart is over 900 metres and even today, with the moat dry and the slopes eroded, its storming would be a daunting prospect.

Entry to the castle is by way of a stone bridge across the deep moat. At the inner end of the bridge are the ruins of the gatehouse whose crumbling arch artistically frames the finely proportioned main tower of the keep with its steeply pitched roof.

The keep, its great hall and chambers, date from 1150. Although that was eighty-four years after the Battle of Hastings, and despite the efforts of Henry I to ‘Anglo-Normanize’ the nation, it still symbolized the arrogant establishment of feudalism imposed upon the Anglo-Saxons by their Norman rulers. But the invaders came to stay and now, after over 800 years of integration, who knows who is Anglo-Saxon or Norman, and who, apart from introspective scholars, recalls the brutal, post-Conquest excursions of William of Normandy and his ill-starred son, Rufus?

On a pleasant summer’s day I found Castle Rising a pretty sight from the springy turf of the footpath on its ramparts and when I came to enter the keep it was open to exploration without petty restriction.

I thought I had the castle to myself and freely examined the eroded, fern laced stones of its lower chambers, trying to imagine life there in the twelfth century. By the time I had reached the top of the staircase with its vaulted vestibule, then inspected the elegant chapel, turrets and gallery above, and had spent time contemplating the vast sweep of surrounding countryside, a large party of senior citizens had started to arrive on the upper floor by way of the only access, a stone spiral staircase just wide enough for one chain-mailed guard with pike. I was trapped for quite some time until the last of the party, a game invader with a walking stick, had puffed her way through the time-worn doorway. One man could have defended that floor against hundreds - senior citizens, boy scouts or mediaeval dissidents - for they could only arrive one at a time. In fact, defence was not put to the test for the castle was never threatened.

All in all, Castle Rising is a well used fortress in surprisingly good repair. It has a ‘hall keep’ as distinct from a ‘tower keep’, being wider than it is high, and although roofless, the walls have suffered very little erosion and still reach their original height. The main, arched stairway is wide and stately and the hall and chambers, for all their remnant bleakness, are redolent of the grandeur and comfort that made the castle appropriate accommodation for the likes of Queen Isabella, conspiratorial widow of murdered Edward II, who made it her principal home from 1331 to 1356 and was often visited there by her son, Edward III and grandson, The Black Prince, who subsequently became its owner.

Once one of the most important strategic fortresses of East Anglia, Castle Rising now belongs to the Howard family it having been given to Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk in 1544 by Henry VIII; a logical transfer of title for Howard was a descendant, through the female line of his family, to William d’Albini, the castle’s first Norman landlord. It is today administered by English Heritage.

*Kings Lynn is 150 km north of London via the M1 motorway to Cambridge, then the A10 highway which passes through historic Ely.


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By Don Donovan