Hold the fort

IPSWICH has many heritage buildings - but a castle? A Suffolk author reckons three local sites could have been home to Ipswich's fortress - and Walton, Otley, and Haughley also had their own castles.

IPSWICH has many heritage buildings - but a castle?

A Suffolk author reckons three local sites could have been home to Ipswich's fortress - and Walton, Otley, and Haughley also had their own castles. Features editor Tracey Sparling finds out more.

IN the middle ages Suffolk had wealth, good employment, high-quality agricultural land and a sizeable population.

It had been subject to invasion from Vikings, and even the new Norman rulers fell out among themselves, so defence and proof of status, were very much on the minds of the ruling barons.

So they built castles, and today Framlingham and Orford remain as impressive monuments to times gone by. These castles, and many others since lost, have held an enduring interest for former teacher Peter Tryon, the organist and choirmaster at St Mary's Church, Bury St Edmunds since he came to the county in 1978.

Delving deep into the written records, and hearing stories, he has built up a picture of how Suffolk would have been defended in the past. He has also tramped many lanes, fields and ramparts to gather practical evidence, to bring together information on the 46 sites throughout Suffolk which are supposed to have had castles.

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From the glories of Framlingham and Orford, through to the mystery of the whereabouts of an Ipswich castle, he has penned a new book called The Castles of Suffolk which debates the contrasting theaories of eminent historians, in a bid to sort fact from fiction.

Peter, 50, from Drinkstone, said: “Originally I was looking for any archeological evidence but found none whatsoever. I looked at various sites.

“I started looking at castles 20 years ago, when I was teaching a lesson at school and saw Great Ashfield castle referred to. I'd never heard of the place, and curiosity got the better of me. I did some research from books, and talking to people, and found Suffolk had many more castles. Places like Mettingham near Bungay are quite fantastic, but it's the lost castles like Ashfield and Lidgate which I find fascinating. When you study the places, the people who lived there come to life.

“For me, it's more to do with the characters who lived in the castles than the architecture.”

He added: “It is important that people are aware of our area's history. It would be nice if more could be done to mark the sites, and get the general public access to castles, although I appreciate some castles like Wingfield are now privately owned, so people's privacy must be respected.”

His book offers an explanation on why some castles have survived while others can no longer be traced.

Controversy has reigned over the location of Ipswich's castle - and whether one existed at all.

Peter said: “The latter we can prove fairly convincingly. There are simply no remains to be found.

“There are three possible contenders for the castle's location, the first being Castle Hill. This theory may have come from the Suffolk Regiment's connection to the area, but it must surely have been too far from the town centre. It does contain the site of a fourth-century Roman villa, but there are no remains of a medieval castle.

“For the second site, I concur with Keith Wade who wrote the Historical Atlas of Suffolk. He says the castle stood just above the junction of Elm Street and Museum Street. This could then, by extension, make St Mary at Elms Church the site of the original chapel for the castle.

“As for the third contender, this is claimed for the site of St Mary le Tower but the motte (mound) would have had to be extremely high to see over the ramparts.”

No clues remain in the built-up town centre, as to what Ipswich's castle would have looked like.

Suffolk as a whole had more than its fair share of castles.

Peter puts that down to the fact that the East Anglia of medieval times had rich agricultural land, which were among the most densely-populated in the country.

It is also close to continental Europe, and perhaps had an unfair distribution of conquered land given by William The Conqueror to Roger Bigod - a loyal supporter of King Richard who built Framlingham Castle - for services rendered at the battle of Hastings.

Peter said many knights were given permission to build their own castles to help the king exercise his authority, others built their own castles which were then perceived as threats. The civil war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda saw yet more castle building. Castles such as Ipswich were subsequently destroyed by the royal order of King Henry II, while castles like Orford were constructed to show the royal control over estuary and hinterland.

Walton Castle began life as a shore fort, on Brackenbury Cliffs but fell into the sea in the early 18th century - some masonry is still visible at very low tides.

Otley still has 'The Mount' at Otley Bottom, half a mile from the village church. The flat summit shows where a building stood, probably a wooden shell keep which would have been a satellite castle for the de Otley family, who were tenant knights of the Honour of Eye. Peter believes this was only ever half completed, and was abandoned when Robert Mallet who built it, fell from power.

Haughley has one of the largest surviving mottes in Britain at 85ft high - coming second only to Thetford castle which was destroyed at the same time.

N The Castles of Suffolk is published by Poppyland Publishing, for £9.95.