History of Castle Hedingham

Early History and the de Veres

Although there is evidence of occupation in the area from far earlier times - a Roman villa was situated on the opposite side of the Colne Valley - Castle Hedingham's "real" history begins with the Normans. The village was granted to one of William, duke of Normandy's lords, one Aubrey de Vere. Although he and his descendants built a number of castles at various locations in their extensive lands, they chose Hedingham as their primary seat; by around 1140 the third Aubrey de Vere had built the stone keep that has been superbly preserved to this day.

The keep sits atop a high earth ringwork, with an adjacent inner bailey now occupied by an 18th Century country mansion. An outer bailey extended well into the modern village, making the whole complex very large; presumably, this was abandoned as the castle's defensive value waned and the village expanded. The castle also constituted a complete infrastructure itself - the keep was but one element, and was complemented by stables, a granary, defensive walls and towers and residential accommodation for people of widely varying status.

The de Veres played a prominent part in the country's history, and fought in most of the important mediaeval battles, including Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt and Bosworth. Robert de Vere, 3rd Earl of Oxford, was a signatory to the Magna Carta; tradition has it that this resulted in the only action the castle ever saw, when King John besieged it in 1216. John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford was a loyal Lancastrian during the Wars of the Roses, and was effectively commander of Henry Tudor's army at Bosworth.

The de Veres owned Hedingham until 1592, when Edward de Vere - who some believe may have written the works of Shakespeare - sold the estate to Lord Burghley, his father in law, in an attempt to settle his debts. For more information, take a look at Michael Cook's website on Hedingham Castle, which includes information about the de Veres, Earls of Oxford.

Mediaeval and Tudor buildings

Many beautiful buildings from the mediaeval and Tudor periods survive within the village. The link between these buildings and the castle is often apparent, with the de Vere's main emblem - a star, or mullet - being carved into several. Nowhere is the link more obvious than in the C12th parish church of St. Nicholas. Despite the best efforts of assorted "restorers", a high proportion of the church has remained from the C12th - including, incredibly, three external Norman doors. Like many others in this area, the main south door is known as the "Skin Door", because the skin of a church robber is said to have been nailed to it as a warning.

Later developments

There are also a number of fine brick houses, mostly dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. A number of the older houses have also been faced with brick and fitted with sash windows, so that their age is not immediately apparent. Best of the C18th houses are the old vicarage and the mansion at the castle, which was built by the Ashurst family around 1720. The Ashursts also landscaped the castle grounds, terracing the steep slopes on one side of the inner bailey and remodelling the mediaeval fish ponds into a more formal lake.

As industrialisation loomed, so the village needed to adapt; straw weaving and hop growing became important local employers. Edward Bingham produced pottery from his workshops in what is now Pottery Lane. His work isn't always to everyone's taste, sometimes being rather gaudy, but has become extremely collectable. Bingham's work reflected his interest in history; he tried to reproduce his interpretation of classical designs and mediaeval styles.

In the past century, the village has changed relatively little superficially, but considerably in terms of "way of life". Twenty five years ago it was still possible to purchase most of your weekly shopping in the village; there was a butcher, baker, general store, post office and several shops that could best be described as "emporia"! Many of these have gone today, but we are still lucky enough to have a Post Office, a Village Shop, as well as good pubs, tea rooms and a restaurant. The village's population is also much more mobile, of course; few residents work in the village, and many choose to live here for just a few years before moving on. However, many of the names evident from the parish records of years gone by are still represented in the village today.