Orford Castle



'A quiet village of brick-and-timber buildings with the magnificent 12th century castle'


The small Suffolk town of Orford at the time of the Domesday book was only a small hamlet. Less than one hundred years later it was transformed by Henry II into a busy port with a magnificent castle to guard it. The area before the castle was built was dominated by the Bigod family from their castle at Framlingham. Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk was one of a band of dissenting Barons in the reigns of Stephen and Henry II. Henry was keen to regain his authority in the region, and the Bigods were a threat to this which needed to be countered, there was also the threat of a foreign invasion. Work begun on the castle at Orford in 1165 and Henry also drained the marshes around the area which in turn utilised the coastal geography, turning Orford into a newer sheltered port. There had been a market at Orford since 1105 and this helped to consolodate and build the local economy along with the port and castle. The building of the town church also begun at the same time as the castle. Orford's future looked suddenly secure.

Orford village and Orford Ness from the Castle Battlements.

Henry Plantagenet was born in 1133, the son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, and Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England. He grew up in Anjou, but visited England as early as 1142 to defend his mother's claim to the disputed throne of Stephen. He was educated by famous scholars and he had a true love of reading and intellectual discussion. Geoffrey of Anjou died in September 1151, leaving Normandy and Anjou to Henry. Henry's continental possessions more than doubled when he married Eleanor of Aquitane, ex-wife of King Louis VII of France. After a succession agreement between Stephen and Matilda in 1153, he was crowned Henry II in October 1154. Eleanor bore Henry five sons and three daughters between 1153 and 1167; the relationship between Henry, Eleanor and their sons Henry, Richard and John proved to be tumultuous and treacherous, a relationship which is magnificently portrayed in the Oscar winning film, 'The Lion in Winter' starring Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn.

The empire ruled by Henry and his sons was considerably larger than our lone English island - the French Angevin positions extended from Normandy southward to the Pyrennes, covering the counties of Brittany, Maine, Poitou, Touraine and Gascony, as well as Anjou, Aquitane and Normandy. Henry was extremely energetic and traveled quickly and extensively within the borders of his kingdom, he was also a Castle builder and destroyer. One of his first actions on becoming King was to order all castles that had been built in Stephen's reign to be either destroyed or handed over, this is where his confrontation with the Norfolk Bigods stems, which I shall cover on my next featured site, Framlingham Castle.

Orford Castle c1600 showing curtain wall.

Orford Castle is remarkable in two respects, it has a unique shape and planning and it is the earliest castle whose entire building accounts survive, these are held in the Public Records Office in London. Over the period from 1165 to 1173 a total of £1413 was spent on the castle, most of which was in the first two years. The royal revenue at this time was approximatly £10,000 a year and there is evidence that some costs of the building were set against local debts and taxes in cash and kind and didn't go through the usual accounting system. This was to help it being too much of a drain on the Royal income and this was supervised by local, trusted men. One of the first constables of Orford , Bartholomew de Glanville, was a local man who took up his post in 1167. By this time foodstuffs and supplies were being ordered, so the castle must have been habitable by then.


The Castle Basement and the Upper Hall, most likely Henry's apartment.

It seems that the keep was built first, followed by the curtain walls and towers, with the ditches and palisading added last. It is full of interest, not only because of the important part it played in restraining the ambitions of the over-mighty earls of Norfolk, but it was part of a royal castle policy which Henry II had made his very own. The Keep at Orford although very obviously belonging to this general class of building, has many individual and experimental features, quite approriate as Henry was a connoisseur in the construction of such towers. Orford's unique design, with forebuilding and two other projecting rectangular turrets, make it a building of unusual complexity and it was the most expensive of all his castles built. Particularly individual is the way in which the two principal residential floors of the tower are planned as distinct and self contained apartments, with the grander suite on the second floor, fully equiped, was most probably intended for use by Henry himself. It was because of this unusual shape that the interior design was given much more flexibility than with a purely conical shaped keep. The only other example of a similar keep in England is that of Conisborough in Yorkshire, which was built in the 1180's by Hamelin, half-brother of Henry II.

The only other Royal Castles between Colchester and Norwich were the small inland ones at Eye and Haugley. Henry agreed a compromise with Bigod over his estates at the start of his building at Orford, he allowed the earl to keep Framlingham and his other castle at Bungay in return for payment of a larger fine. Henry kept his castle at Walton ( up the coast near Felixstowe ) until Orford was complete and then demolished it.

Upper Hall Window seat.

In 1173, Henry's eldest son rebelled against him and was backed by a number of barons including Bigod and also a number of Flemish mercenaries who landed near Orford. The rebellion colapsed and Henry ordered the demolition of Framlingham Castle and its confiscation from Bigod. Orford at this time had been heavily reinforced with men and large quantities of foodstuffs are recorded as being purchased. Houses from the town were dismantled and re-erected within the castle walls to provide more accomodation for the growing garrison.

A curious incident occured in the early life of the castle. The story, as told by Ralph of Coggeshall in about 1207, tells of an incident that occured 40 years earlier. The story of the Orford Merman is as follows;

' Men fishing in the sea caught in their nets a wild man. He was naked and was like a man in all his members, covered with hair and with a long shaggy beard. He eagerly ate whatever was brought to him, but if it was raw he pressed it between his hands until all the juice was expelled. He would not talk, even when tortured and hung up by his feet. Brought into church, he showed no signs of reverence or belief. He saught his bed at sunset and always remained there until sunrise.

He was allowed to go into the sea, strongly guarded with three lines of nets, but he dived under the nets and came up again and again. Eventually he came back of his own free will. But later on he escaped and was never seen again. '

Orford Castle from the SE.

In 1217 Orford Castle was captured by Louis, the french leader during the fighting after the death of king John. Thereafter the castle was repaired from time to time but from 1280 onwards, in the reign of Edward I, it was granted out and eventually sold. This was the begining of the end for Orford after what was to be a very short useful life. It had served as a centre of local government and been the symbol of royal authority at a busy if declining port. The Estuary soon silted up and trade soon declined giving the castle no role to perform.

Orford was a borough from 1579 to 1886 and was represented in Parliment from 1483 to 1832. An Earldom of Orford existed for a time, its most famous Earl was Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister for 21 years. In 1930 the remains of the castle were presented to Orford town trust by Sir Arthur Churchman, and in 1962 it passed into state guardianship.

It is now managed and maintained by English Heritage.

© MWC1999

Castle waste outflow

Additional Information

Orford Castle is managed by English Heritage.

Opening Hours 1st April - 1st November: daily, 10am - 6pm. 2nd November - 31st March, Wed - Sun, 10am - 4pm.

Entry - £2-30 for adults with concessions for OAP and children.

Telephone - 01394 - 450472

OS Map - No 169; Ref TM 419499

Buses - Tel; 0645 583358.

Train - Nearest Station, Wickham Market, 8 miles.

Orford Castle

Orford Castle is 20 miles NE of Ipswich on the B1084 road. At the Castle there are free children's activity sheets available and a CD Rom unit showing information on English Castles. There is plenty of parking available, but beware, the Market Parking is a Pay-and-display ticket system. Dogs are not permitted and unfortunatly access for people with disabilities is very restricted.

Of the original Castle built, only the magnificent keep remains today. It is in near perfect condition and is one of the best preserved in the country. The huge earthworks and mounds are still clearly visable and give a rough idea of the size of the original structure with its outer curtain wall. Orford is a gem, its excellent condition and warren of passageways are more than enough to keep even the most energetic busy. Throughout the Castle there is plenty of information to provide the visitor with a good understanding on the castle workings and custodians are on hand to answer any questions. I was very surprised at how much room was available inside, the main rooms are homely and very spacious, it has been very carefully thought out in its planning.

The village of Orford is just a short distance from the Castle and a few minuites spent walking around is a most enjoyable experience. The wide open Market space is sourrounded by old houses of various styles with the 12th century Church being the centre piece. Also a short walk from the castle is Orford Quay, the river had silted up by the 17th century and ships found it difficult to sail up river and this is when it prospered as a fishing community. Orford is on the estuary of the River Alde which rises near Framlingham and flows to Aldeburgh, where it is deflected by a long shingle split that now extends 10 Km and is growing 15 metres a year. The best place to get a good view of the area is the top of the Castle from the battlements, from there the whole landscape is revealed. It has changed considerably since Henry first built his wonderful castle here in the 12th Century, only man is not responsible this time, mother nature has done her work.

A visit to Orford should be done in conjunction with a visit to Framlingham Castle, some twelve miles to the NW. The history of the two castles are closely linked and I shall feature Framlingham as my next site. They are both hidden gems in the heart of the beautiful Suffolk countryside, a lovely part of our Isle.

Other sites nearby which may also be easily taken in during a visit to the area are the Abbey remains of Leiston, eight miles from Orford. This is also managed by English Heritage and admission is free, open daylight hours. Another site worth a visit in the area is the hugh Parish Church of the Holy Trinity at Blythburgh, dating from 1412. Blythburgh gained its weath from the wooltrade in the 14th & 15th centuries and much of this must have been spent on this large church.

A special thanks this month to Susan Kynaston for scanning some pictures for me.


Information on Orford Castle was obtained from;

Orford and Framlingham Castles - Derek Renn.

The Castle in Medieval England & Wales - Colin Platt.

Medieval England - Colin Platt.

Anglo-Norman Warfare - Matthew Strickland

War in the Middle Ages - Phillipe Contamine

The Crowned Lions (The early Plantaginet Kings) - Caroline Bingham.

England and its Rulers - M.T. Clanchy.

Oxford History of Medieval England - Nigel Saul.

The Domesday Book - Thomas Hinde.

The English Heritage visitors' Handbook 1999.

The Readers Digest Touring guide to Britain.


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