Hedlingham was granted to Aubrey de Vere shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066. He was related to William I through marriage to the King's half sister, Beatrice, and the gift of this land in the valuable eastern territories of England showed his importance within the Norman regime. Displacing the former Saxon owner, recorded in the Domesday Book (1086) as Ulwine, Aubrey immediately sought to cement his control over the area by constructing an earth and timber ringwork fortification complete with two baileys. His son, Aubrey de Vere II, made Hedingham his main residence. He supported the cause of Matilda during the Anarchy - the civil war between the daughter of Henry I and her cousin, Stephen, over the right of succession to the English throne. However, whilst in 1141 Matilda almost succeeded in her attempts to oust Stephen, she failed to win over the residents of London and was forced to flee the city. Aubrey de Vere II was lynched by the same the mob and was succeeded by his son, also called Aubrey, who decided to support Stephen.
At some point during the first half of the twelfth century, the large stone Keep was constructed. Dated between 1125 to 1160, it is now generally assumed to have been built by Aubrey de Vere III to celebrate his elevation to Earl of Oxford in 1142. The four storey structure was seemingly built to impress rather than serve as a practical residence. The upper level was simply roof space with its windows merely serving a decorational function whilst the levels below, which were expensively and elaborately decorated, had no provision for accommodation and were simply reception rooms. The tower was clearly intended as a statement of the Lord's power and for dispensing administrative functions although undoubtedly it could have served as a safe refuge in times of siege. Little is known about the rest of the castle at this time although a plan drawn in the late sixteenth century shows a stone gatehouse, hall and various support buildings many of which would probably have evolved from the foundation of the castle. Footings of a Norman stone curtain wall were discovered during archaeological investigations in 2014.
Over the subsequent years the family was closely involved in the key events of the Plantagenet monarchs including participation in the Third Crusade alongside King Richard I. Robert de Vere however incurred the wrath of King John and was one of the Barons who forced him into sealing Magna Carta. When that charter failed to secure peace, Robert joined the rebel forces during the first Barons War (1215-17) resulting in Hedingham Castle being besieged in 1216 - the only known military action at the site. The castle quickly fell to the vast Royal army, which was swelled with mercenaries recruited from the continent. However the Barons, including Robert, had invited Prince Louis of France to invade England and take the throne. Hedingham was retaken and restored to the de Vere family. The timely death of King John in October 1216 helped defuse the war and Robert was ultimately reconciled with the regime of Henry III. Over the subsequent years his descendants took part in many of the Royal campaigns including notable fighting roles at the Battles of Crecy (1346), Poiters (1356) and Agincourt (1415).
During the Wars of the Roses the family remained loyal to Henry VI and the Lancastrian cause. Following that faction's defeat at the Battle of Towton by Edward IV, both the then Earl and his son were executed at Tower Hill in 1461. Their successor, John de Vere, also remained loyal to the Lancastrians and was made Lord Chancellor of England during the short restoration of Henry VI in 1470. However the displaced Edward IV returned with an army and engaged the Lancastrians at the Battle of Barnet (1471). John de Vere commanded the Lancastrian right wing during that engagement but was defeated and fled to Scotland and then France. His lands were confiscated and over the subsequent years he made several failed attempts to restore Lancastrian fortunes including an unsuccessful landing in Essex in May 1473 and the seizure of St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall later in the same year. Following this last action however he was forced to surrender and was imprisoned at Hammes Castle, Calais where he was held until 1484 at which time he persuaded the castle’s Captain to defect to the Lancastrian cause. Finally he returned at the head of Henry Tudor's army that defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth (1485) ending Yorkist rule forever. Hedingham, along with his other estates and titles, was returned at this time. The castle was substantially upgraded in the subsequent decades with a brick built bridge being added around 1496 and construction of a Great Brick Tower as well as a new Gatehouse.
In 1561 the then owner of the castle - John de Vere, Earl of Oxford - hosted a visit by Elizabeth I. John died the following year and was followed by his son, Edward de Vere, who is sometimes credited as the 'true' author of plays attributed to William Shakespeare. Edward was recorded having "committed great waste upon the castle hill, and, by warrant from him, most of the buildings, except the Keep, were razed to the ground". Little is known about the detail to this but the family continued to live at the castle and when Edward died in 1604, it passed to his son, Henry. He was killed at the Battle of the Hague (1625) leaving no direct heir and Hedingham Castle was inherited by the Trentham family. Some demolition work was undertaken in 1666 to prevent the castle being commandeered to house Dutch prisoners of war.
The Trentham family sold Hedingham Castle in 1713 to Sir William Ashhurst MP, Lord Mayor of London. In 1719 he built the fine country mansion that stands near the Keep and landscaped the gardens with the remains of the Norman castle becoming a feature of the garden. In the late eighteenth century it passed to the Majendie family who owned it for 250 years despite unsuccessful attempts to sell on numerous occasions. The site was taken over by the military during the First World War and used as a training camp during which time a fire gutted the Keep. It remains in private ownership.
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The supporting buildings and outer defences at Hedingham Castle have gone but the impressive medieval Keep survives and is well worth the visit. The Tudor bridge and landscaped gardens are also accessible.
Keep. It is possible the Keep was originally a three storey structure with a pyramidal roof and was later heightened to give the impression of being taller (the upper windows were purely for decoration). A fore building also existed in front of the main entrance.
Hedingham Castle was built by Aubrey de Vere following the Norman invasion. The family was at the forefront of medieval English politics supporting Queen Matilda during the Anarchy, taking part in the Third Crusade and fighting in the Barons War against King John. One of their number would later lead the forces of Henry Tudor to victory against Richard III.
Hedingham Castle is located in the small village of Castle Hedingham. The site is well sign-posted and dedicated car parking facilities are available.