Location

Castle Acre is in fact the name of a small village in Norfolk, England which lies near the town of Swaffham and overlooking the river Nar. It has a long history, which can be seen in the ruins of the castle and priory, and in the whole layout of the place; which when it was designed exhibited typical Norman town planning.

To the east of the village lies the ruins of the castle, and to the west the ruins of a Cluniac priory; one of the best preserved in the country. The castle has less remaining stonework than the priory, but the motte earthworks it sits atop, which extend into the village are magnificent. One gate, the so called 'Bailey Gate' remains of the village's defences and spans an entire road! The initial manor house was converted to a much more substantial fortification with the addition of a stone ringwork and bailey; the house being transformed into a stone keep 80 feet square. At this time it was the largest non-royal castle in England, an indication of the power the owning de Warenne family had. A very pretty village, there's lots to see and do and you could easily spend the best part of a whole day there.

History

Other than the fact it was in the in fact owned by the Bishop of Ely, little is known about the village before the Norman Conquest of England. As it lies close to the Peddar's Way (a Roman road; and a major route to the coast), it's likely it's history stretches back into far antiquity. The records really begin when William de Warenne of Normandy was gifted the lands by William the Conqueror; for his service during the battle of Hastings, and the subsequent conquest of England. Williams primary seat of power in England was Lewis in Surrey of which he became the first Earl. Here, and in Reigate and (what was to become known as) Castle Acre he set up fortifications, to help King William gain control of the country. Initially the castle at Acre simply consisted of a fortified manor house, atop raised earthworks which a moat or ditch surrounding. In 1077 William and his wife Gundrada visited the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, and on seeing its magnificence set about making plans to build a priory of their own. St Pancreas's priory built next to their castle in Lesis, Surrey was the first of the Cluniac order in England. He then laid plans for a second Priory at Acre.

Always a supporter of the King, he helped quash the rebellions that sprang up. During one such campaign, sieging Pevensey Castle in Sussex he was wounded in the leg by an arrow, complications of this wound caused his death on June 24, 1088. He was suceeded by his eldest son, also named William, who inhierited his lands in England, leaving the land in France to his youngest son.

The second Earl kept up the building programs of his father,as well as finding the time to lead an active military and political life. Admitedly most of this went against the King, first he fought against Robert de Belleme son of a great friend of King Henry I. This coupled with his support of of Henry's brother, Robert, together with his name-calling of Henry; 'Hart's foot' (alluding to the amount of time Henry spent hunting) saw him exiled. One possible reason for his dislike was he tried to marry Edith, daughter of Malcolm III, King of the Scots, but she married Henry instead! In 1103 he apogised to Henry and was pardoned. He then became one of Henry's strongest supporters, fighting with him in many battles, even commanding one of the armies.

After his death in 1135, the lands passed to his son, William (again!), the third Earl who completed the building of the priory, and oversaw the conversion of the manor-house into the stone Norman Keep that still stands today. This was probably in part due to the civil war being fought by King Stephen at that time and the fortification probably helped keep the Bigod Earl of Norfolk under control. He joined the Crusades and was killed or captured (and then killed) fighting a rear-guard action in Laodicea, January 1148.

William's lands passed to his surviving heir, his daughter Isabella. She married a son of King Stephen, William of Blois and after his death in 1159 remarried the half-brother of King Henry II, Hamelin Plantagenet in 1163. Upon his death in 1202 the title passed to his son William the 6th Earl. (Good strong family name that!) The family still had a certain amount of political clout and it's recorded that King Henry III visited several times. Their son, John, the 7th Earl, fought for King Henry against the insurrection of Barons, and also for Henry's son, Edward I. He was part of Edwards invasion of Scotland in 1296, and was made Warden of the country until 1297, when William Wallace routed the English army from the field at the battle of Stirling Bridge. He was again in the army the next year, when Edward's forces defeated Wallace at Falkirk.

The next Earl (the 8th) was John's grandson, also coincidently enough named John! He lead what some would describe as an 'interesting' life. Although he was part of Edward II's force in Scotland, in 1312 he joined other Barons in rebellion against the King. He helped capture Piers Gaveston, a favourite of the King. Although the King pardoned him in 1316, he then fell foul of God....The Pope excommunicated him for adultery, which he took no great trouble to hide; he fathered several children with his mistress, Matilda de Nerford. He later gave the town of Castle Acre to the Earl of Pembroke, and really soon after this saw the decline of the castle, although the Priory remained vigourous. The castle passed through many owners, (including the last Warenne Earl who won it back after legal proceedings), until in 1615 the fabulously wealthy Chief Justice, Sir Edward Coke bought the land. King James expressed his concern over the growing size of Coke's lands; to which he replied :-

"But my Lord, 'tis only an Acre I have aquired!"

In one of the earliest individual acts of conservation, Coke paid 60 pounds to repair the ruined castle. The castle passed down through the families generations, and is still in their possesion, although stewardship has been passed to English Heritage. They maintain the sites, and you can visit them for most of the year. The castle has free admission, but the priory costs in the region of three pounds sterling. (At time of writing)

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