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Orford Castle

Also known as, or recorded in historical documents as;

In the civil parish of Orford.
In the historic county of Suffolk.
Modern Authority of Suffolk.
1974 county of Suffolk.
Medieval County of Suffolk.

OS Map Grid Reference: TM41934987
Latitude 52.09421° Longitude 1.53073°

Orford Castle has been described as a certain Masonry Castle.

There are major building remains.

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law.
This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law*.


Orford Castle lies at the western edge of the village of Orford, the scheduled monument encompassing an area known as Castle Green (TM 44 NW 17). Orford is the earliest castle in England for which documentary evidence of its building survives. The Pipe Rolls, record its construction by King Henry II between 1165 and 1173 to a total cost of £1414 9s 2d. Orford Castle was a symbol of the King's power, strategically placed both to uphold royal authority in a region thickly planted with castles of powerful lords and to guard the coast against invasion. The castle has a number of special claims of interest which include the unique design of the polygonal keep and the fact that it was one of the earliest castles in the country to use mural or flanking towers along the curtain wall. The keep, is the only standing structure to survive. This remains in good condition standing some 30 metres high and constructed from at least 4 different kinds of stone. Most of the walls are made of roughly-cut blocks of local septaria, a sandy coloured mudstone, together with a more robust oolithic limestone from Northamptonshire. Internally a second local stone, corraline crag was also employed as well as Caen stone from Normandy for the finer detail. At the top of the south eastern turret of the keep a reinforced concrete roof was constructed during the Second World War. This was originally intended to hold an anti-aircraft gun but instead housed a radar observation post. (PastScape)

The keep of Orford Castle, which is one of five medieval royal castles in the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, is a very complete example of its type and date, displaying evidence of only minor alterations subsequent to its original construction. It is believed to be among the earliest polygonal tower keeps to have been built, departing from the square plan of most earlier castles in England, and the design is in several respects unique. The building of the castle in the third quarter of the 12th century and details of its subsequent maintenance as a royal stronghold are also very well documented historically. The manner in which it still dominates the local landscape conveys something of its original function, which was symbolic as well as military and administrative, and its various internal and external features provide good evidence for the way in which such a castle and the lives of those who occupied it were organised.
The earthworks surrounding the keep remain impressive, despite alteration by later quarrying, and will retain archaeological evidence for buried structures, including the walls and towers which formerly surrounded the keep and are known from early depictions of the castle. The presence of a well preserved contemporary quarry adjacent to the castle and believed to be the source of some of the material used in the building is also of interest. The site is open to the public and provides a valuable educational and recreational resource for townspeople and visitors alike.
Orford Castle is situated on the west side of the small town of Orford, dominating the coastal marshes and the estuary of the River Ore to the south and south east. The monument includes the 12th century tower keep of the castle which is the only masonry structure still standing above ground, together with the surrounding earthworks and buried remains of associated structures. Adjacent to the castle earthworks, and also included in the scheduling, is an old quarry from which some of the stone used in the construction of the keep is thought to have been obtained.
The castle keep, which is Listed Grade I, stands on a sub-circular platform c.50m in diameter which originally also supported a surrounding defensive wall with mural towers. Around this platform are the earthwork remains of two enclosing ditches with a bank between and, on the west and south west sides, the remains of a smaller counterscarp bank beyond. To the south west of this there are traces of further earthworks, possibly relating to the castle defences, with the quarry to the south and west. The castle and surviving related earthworks cover an area measuring c.163m north west-south east by c.202m, with the quarry extending a further 100m to the south west.
The castle was built by Henry II and the construction, beginning in 1165/1166 and completed in 1172/1173, is well documented in the Pipe Rolls (the annual records of the Exchequer). The total recorded cost over that period was 1,413 pounds, nine shillings and two pence. As a royal castle, normally held for the king by a constable - an official appointed by the crown and of high standing locally, it was intended primarily as a base for the maintenance of the king's authority in East Anglia against the power of local magnates, the most troublesome of whom was Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, who held the castles of Framlingham and Bungay and who was amongst the leaders of an unsuccessful rebellion in 1173. It also served as a coastal defence and to protect the harbour at Orford, which was a flourishing port in the medieval period, until the growth of the shingle spit of Orford Ness effectively blocked it. It remained a centre of administrative and military power throughout the later 12th and the 13th centuries, particularly in times of political unrest, during the absence of Richard I on Crusade, in the civil war at the end of King John's reign and the baronial wars in the reign of Henry III, when it changed hands several times. It declined in importance during the first half of the 14th century and in 1336 was granted by Edward III in perpetuity to Robert de Ufford, subsequently created Earl of Suffolk, after which it remained in private hands. It is now in the care of the Secretary of State.
The keep is of three principal storeys, rising above a sloping plinth to a height of c.27m. The plan of the tower is an irregular polygon externally, with three large, square projecting turrets to NNE, west and south east, and a rectangular forebuilding facing south west in the angle of the south eastern turret. Within the keep, the main body of the tower is occupied by three large, circular apartments, one above the other, connected by a newel (spiral) stair in the south eastern turret, and in the northern and south western turrets are various subsidiary chambers and domestic offices. The maximum diameter of the building, including the turrets, is c.17m, and the internal diameter of the principal apartments within the keep is c.9m. The walls, which are almost 4m thick at the base and up to 3m thick above, are built chiefly of septaria (local, nodular mudstone) with imported freestone used externally for the ashlar facing of the plinth, the battlements, quoins and three string courses, and externally and internally for the dressings of window and door openings. A small amount of corraline crag, probably obtained from the adjacent quarry, can also be seen in the internal walls, though principally in association with later alterations. The structure internally and externally is well built but functionally plain, with little ornamental detail.
The entrance to the keep is through the forebuilding at first floor level, reached by an external stone stair against the adjacent wall to the west (the existing stair is a post-medieval reconstruction). Below and to the east of the entrance can be seen the stub of the foundations of the original stair and landing and a curved protecting wall. The original door opening, below a triangular headed arch, is partly blocked, with an inserted doorway of post- medieval date. This gives onto a vestibule within the forebuilding, lit by two round headed window openings in the south eastern wall and a third in the south western wall, to the right of the entrance. Below the vestibule is a small rectangular basement chamber on the north west side of which is an angled passage leading to a recess for a garderobe (latrine), now broken through and opening on to the barrel vaulted cesspit below and behind it. The chamber is ventilated by a sloping shaft in the south wall, with an external opening just above the plinth. The entrance to this chamber, which probably served as a prison, is by ladder from an opening in the floor of the vestibule to the right of the entrance. On the east side of the vestibule is the entrance to the lower hall of the keep, opening obliquely beneath a fanned triple arch and consisting of a short, stepped passage with triangular headed arches and rebates for inner and outer doors and rectangular slots in the walls to either side to take drawbars behind the doors.
The basement, at ground level, would have been used chiefly for storage and is entered from the lower hall by way of the south western internal stair. It is lit by three deep window openings, splayed internally, which originally would have been narrow loops but have been widened by cutting into the stone jambs. At the centre is a circular, stone lined well c.13m deep, and in the east wall is a recess containing the remains of a shallow stone sink with drain to the rear. Two deep, rectangular recesses in the base of the northern and south western turrets open off the main area.
The upper and lower halls are alike in general plan and organisation, with a large fireplace and chimney in the wall which backs onto the north eastern turret, and three deep, tunnel vaulted, windowed recesses occupying the thickness of the walls between the turrets. The two windows within each recess are square headed and recessed internally and externally within round headed arches. The rooms in the turrets are reached by passages which open off the recesses on either side.
In the lower hall, which would normally have been occupied by the garrison or the retainers of the lord of the castle, there is a shallow, double arched recess in the wall between the entrance from the vestibule and the entrance to the stair turret, and a narrow stone bench c.0.3m high which runs around the base of the wall. The fireplace shows evidence of alteration, including blocking in the wall of the chimney above, where it is thought there was originally a high stone hood, and in the wall on the south west side of the hall can be seen a large, blocked arch which opened originally onto a passage leading northwards to a double garderobe in the thickness of the wall. Entry to the passage is now through a later opening, cut through from a kitchen in the south western turret. This kitchen, which is entered from the window recess to the south of the turret, contains a double hearth on the south western wall, and a shallow sink recessed in the north wall, with a drain issuing externally in a stone spout. In the northern turret, behind the hall fireplace, is a barrel vaulted chamber entered from the north eastern recess, and directly above this, on a level with the upper part of the lower hall, is another chamber, entered by way of a stair off the north western window recess. In the south western turret, at the same intermediate level and above the kitchen of the lower hall, are the apartments of the castle chaplain, reached by a passage off the main stair in the south eastern turret. A door off the same passage opens onto the chapel, which is on the upper floor of the forebuilding, above the vestibule. The chapel is sub-triangular in plan, with a rectangular, arched recess at the north eastern end containing the remains of an altar. A low stone bench runs around the foot of the walls, below an arcade of plain, round arches on attached shafts with scalloped capitals which also frame windows in the south east and south west walls and the door at the western end of the north west wall. The chaplain's apartments at the end of the passage comprise a barrel vaulted chamber lit by a single window, with a short passage beyond leading to a small closet and a garderobe.
Some details of the furnishings of the upper hall, which in a keep of this type was normally used by the lord of the castle and important visitors, are slightly more elaborate than in the lower hall. The large fireplace, which like that of the lower hall below it, displays evidence of alteration, has a moulded segmental head flanked by attached shafts which probably supported an earlier overmantel. Stone corbels which project from the walls at a height of c.2.4m, with obliquely cut sockets above them, were to support the steeply raked beams of the original conical timber roof which, from outside the castle, would have been concealed by the upper walls and parapet. The hall is now covered by a post-medieval flat roof. The upper hall was served by a separate kitchen occupying the same position in the south western turret as that of the lower hall. The features and layout resemble those of the kitchen below, except that the fireplace is smaller, with a single chimney, and the sink with drain is at floor level. There is also a single garderobe to the north of the kitchen, entered by a separate passage off the north west window recess and situated directly above the garderobe of the chaplain's apartments. The chutes from these and the double garderobe of the lower hall issue externally in two adjacent pairs of arched openings in the plinth at the base of the walls below. Another passage, off the north side of the north western window recess, leads to the lower of two more chambers in the northern turret. The opening of the passage to the one above can be seen high in the wall to the west of the fireplace, at a level which would have been above the slope of the roof. On the south side of the hall, at the same level, is another opening, giving on to a passage between the stair in the south eastern turret and a small chamber above the kitchen which is believed to have been a cistern to collect rain water from the roof. Access to both would have been provided by a catwalk above the base of the roof. Opening off the recess on the north east side of the hall there are two rectangular closets. Above the upper hall, the stair in the south eastern turret opens onto a modern flat roof where originally there would have been a fighting platform protected by battlements. Above this the three turrets rise a further storey, surmounted by the remains of battlements which, on the south western turret, retain some of the sockets for the pivots of the wooden shutters which originally hung in the crenels (openings in the parapet) and shielded the defenders. The chamber in the northern turret contains a large baking oven.
At the top of the south eastern turret, above the stair, is a reinforced concrete structure which is part of a look out post built in World War II.
The outer wall of the castle, which is believed to have been contemporary with the keep, survived largely intact until at least the beginning of the 17th century when it was recorded in a survey by John Norden. This shows a small ward around the keep, enclosed by a crenellated wall with a gatehouse on the south side and at least four rectangular mural towers. A small fragment on the north side stood until 1841, and is depicted in several 18th century prints and paintings of the castle which show clearly that it was on the central platform, close to the keep. A slot in the ground surface on this side is believed to be the trench left by the removal of masonry foundations, and substantial masonry footings are still visible on the probable site of the gatehouse.
The surrounding earthworks appear somewhat irregular as a result of later quarrying and dumping, and nothing is now of visible of the bank on the north east side, but the general outline remains clear. The surviving works define an ovoid enclosure, widest to the north, with overall maximum dimensions of c.175m north west-south east by c.143m north east-south west. The inner ditch surrounding the central platform is up 20m wide and remains open to a depth of up to c.3.5m. It is crossed to the south, opposite the site of the gatehouse, by an earthen causeway, on the western side of which can be seen the masonry footings of a bridge. The outer ditch is up to c.2.5m deep and 17m wide, while the surviving part of the bank between them ranges between 10m and 27m in width. On the north east side of the castle, part of the outer ditch has been infilled and underlies a path, but it will survive as a buried feature and is included in the scheduling. The counterscarp bank to the west and south west is up to c.8m wide and c.1m in height above the ground surface to the west. Immediately to the south west of the counterscarp are further earthworks which may relate to the castle, including an elongated hollow up to 18m wide and, beyond this, a roughly triangular platform c.2m in height above the adjacent ground surface and measuring c.65m north east-south west by c.25m.
The quarry lies c.87m south west of the castle keep and comprises an irregular hollow up to c.5m deep, with maximum dimensions of c.140m north east-south west by c.50m. It includes a pattern of spoil tips, trackways and working platforms. Exposed in the north and west of the quarry is the coralline crag, a pliocene deposit of very soft, shelly sandstone which underlies Orford. The quarry is thought to have been opened to provide stone for the construction of the castle and has been little used since. (Scheduling Report)

Heslop's important 1991 paper showed the sophistication of the design of the great tower. The roof of the upper hall was probably conical, with a domed interior celling, a reference to Byzantine splendour. Perhaps, one day, English Heritage will brave enough to replace the current modern roof with one that reproduces the original design.
Often described as being built to exercise some degree of royal control over the Bigod earls of nearby Framlingham. Certainly it would seem Bigod money, raised for returning their castle to them after revolt was used to fund the building. However, Orford was a significant medieval port at this period, exporting wool and lead to Europe, and the castle would have had a function in controlling that trade, collecting duties and safeguarding that money. One of the windowless intramural chambers in the great tower was probably a treasury and one of the windowed chambers in one of the turrets was a muniment room, where records were made and stored. (The room does not have a fireplace but is warmed by the fireplace of the lower hall - this would keep parchment rolls dry and stop rot but reduce the fire risk). The VCH suggests this was the site of an earlier, non royal, stronghold.
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This record last updated 26/07/2017 09:20:06

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