Originally a timber fortress guarding a Saxon town, Castle Acre was significantly expanded in the twelfth century and its Great Hall converted into a Keep. The town itself was also re-modelled and defensive walls built along with a Priory. The site went into marked decline in the mid-fourteenth century and later suffered from the dissolution of the monasteries.
At the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, Norfolk was one of the most populated and wealthy areas of the British Isles. At Castle Acre itself there was already a Saxon settlement headed by a major landowner called Toki. In the wake of the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings, he was one of the many existing landowners who was dispossessed with the former property granted to a Flemish warrior called Gerbod and it then passed to his daughter, Gundrada. Around 1070 William de Warenne, later Earl of Surrey, married Gundrada and took control of Castle Acre and the substantial estates that surrounded it. A powerful magnate whose support for William I had seen him rewarded with lands across England, he built an earth and timber fortification on the site. In its initial configuration the castle had no Keep or Motte - instead it was a ringwork fortification. A circular Inner Bailey contained a stone built house, presumably a Great Hall, whilst the Outer Bailey was configured in a large broadly rectangular layout. The castle provided an administrative centre for management of Warenne's valuable East Anglican landholdings whilst its proximity to the Peddler's Way - a major Roman Road that was still in use throughout the medieval period - as well as the River Nar enabled Warenne to maintain effective command and control of the surrounding area. He also established a small community of Cluniac monks at Castle Acre at this time bringing them from the Priory he had founded at Lewes.
During the anarchy, the civil war between Matilda and Stephen over the English succession, the castle was significantly strengthened. In particular, around 1140, the Inner Bailey curtain wall was rebuilt in stone and the earthworks surrounding it were enhanced. The ground level of the Inner Bailey was also raised around 2.5 metres partly burying the stone house upon which it was centred. Concurrently work commenced to convert this house into a Keep; this process was seemingly stopped early in the 1140s but work later resumed, albeit on a smaller scale, and was complete by 1160. The former Saxon town was re-planned and rebuilt during this period with two stone Gatehouses constructed around 1200. Castle Acre Priory was also built formalising and enhancing the religious community founded by William de Warenne years earlier.
John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey was the last of his line and in 1347 the site passed to Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel following his marriage to Alice de Warenne. With his interests in other properties - not least Arundel itself - Castle Acre seems to have gone into sharp decline and by 1397 the castle was reported as ruinous. With the rise of the Earls of Arundel into the Dukes of Norfolk, the castle continued to see an absentee owner and accordingly was neglected but the town survived predominantly in support of the Priory. However when this was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1537 the area went into marked decline. The site was sold in 1558 by Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk ultimately coming into the hands of Frances Brydges, widow of Sir Thomas Cecil (one time Lord Treasurer to Elizabeth I). The castle was sold once more in 1615 to Sir Edward Coke, a London lawyer and politician but by this time it was little more than abandoned ruins.
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Castle Acre is a hugely impressive Norman fortification. Substantial earthworks survive and the Inner Bailey has been partly excavated to reveal the rectangular tower that was originally on the site prior to later later upgrades.
Castle Acre Configuration. The castle was not a motte-and-bailey - earthworks of equivalent size protected both the Inner and Outer Baileys and only in the mid-twelfth century was the ground level within the Inner Bailey raised.
Inner Bailey. This was enhanced circa-1140 giving it a motte-like appearance.
The substantial earthworks of Castle Acre.
The outer bailey.