The delightful village of Castle Acre boasts an extraordinary wealth of history and is a very rare and complete survival of a Norman planned settlement, including a castle, town, parish church and associated monastery. All this is the work of a great Norman baronial family, the Warennes, mainly during the 11th and 12th centuries.
Castle Acre Castle was begun in the 1070s by William I de Warenne, a close associate of William the Conqueror who had fought at the Battle of Hastings. His descendants held Castle Acre until 1347 and several were major political and military figures. Within three generations the Warennes had created the castle, surrounded the town with massive ramparts and established its famous Cluniac priory. Remarkably, all three survive in recognisable form, and together give an unrivalled impression of the physical, social and religious impact of the Norman Conquest. The castle itself is particularly important for the form and development of its defences and of the stone building in the inner bailey.
By 1066 there was already a settlement at Acre, together with a church and the principal house of a substantial landowner called Toki, possibly on the site of the castle. As with most of his class, Toki was soon dispossessed. His lands were briefly held by a Flemish family ennobled by William the Conqueror and their Norfolk property descended to an heiress, Gundrada. It was through her that William I de Warenne, her husband, gained control of Castle Acre in about 1070.
Warenne’s family are known of in Normandy from the 1030s, but William had been vastly enriched after the Conquest with territories in Yorkshire and Sussex, and was later raised to the earldom of Surrey. He chose Acre as his Norfolk base, thanks to its central position within his East Anglian landholdings, and built a castle there to provide a secure residence, an administrative centre and a powerful and permanent reminder of his authority.
The castle consisted of three main earthwork enclosures, one of them containing a stone-built house. It was probably habitable by 1085, as Gundrada died at Castle Acre on 27 May. Between 1081 and 1085 Warenne brought to the castle a small community of Cluniac monks from his own foundation at Lewes (Sussex).
Warenne was succeeded in 1088 by his son William (William II de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey, also styled Earl Warenne), who enjoyed a prominent military and political career on a par with his father’s. It was his grant of a new site and increased resources that enabled the monks to begin the existing buildings of Castle Acre Priory.
William’s son, another William (William III de Warenne), inherited in 1138, during the struggle for the throne between Matilda, daughter and acknowledged successor of Henry I (r.1100–1135), and her cousin King Stephen (r.1135–54). It was in those uncertain times that William heightened the castle’s earth ramparts, crowned them with a stone wall, and began to convert the stone house into an independently defensible ‘great tower’. It was probably he too who replanned the town and surrounded it with the massive earth banks and deep ditches which largely survive. William continued the family’s military tradition, and was killed in 1148 serving on the Second Crusade.
Warenne’s heir was his daughter, Isabel, whose two husbands successively became the 4th and 5th Earls of Surrey. The second, Hamelin Plantagenet, was the half-brother of Henry II (r.1154–89); he was an important ally in Henry’s struggles with his sons, and later of Henry’s third son, King Richard (‘the Lionheart’, r.1189–99). It was probably Hamelin who built the town’s two stone gatehouses and resumed work on the unfinished great tower.
Hamelin’s son and grandson were also prominent military and political figures, entertaining both Henry III (r.1216–72) and Edward I (r.1272–1307) at Castle Acre. His nephew, Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, whose descendants held Castle Acre until 1558, succeeded John, the 8th Earl and the last of the line, in 1347. By then, however, as indicated in a survey of 1397, the castle was little used and perhaps derelict.
In 1558 Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, sold the castle to Thomas Gresham, and then by his widow to Thomas Cecil (son of Elizabeth I’s lord high treasurer). In 1615 the outstanding lawyer and politician Sir Edward Coke, to whose descendants’ business the freehold belongs today, bought it.
Interestingly, given that the building had little practical use, Coke ordered some substantial repairs, including the ‘finishing up of eleven battlements and other masons’ work’. But from at least the later 17th century until the early 20th the site was used for grazing and the masonry was ruthlessly quarried for building and road making.