The Castles of Norfolk

Castles of Norfolk

Now, as someone born and brought up in the county of Norfolk, I was somewhat perplexed by the comparative scarcity of castles in the county. Not only was Norfolk a wealthy county with much worth defending, but also it was – and remains – a large county with many, many settlements.

My uncle, never one for reliable historical information, always reckoned that Norfolk was never properly conquered by the Normans and that was the reason – but it seems more likely if that HAD been the case that there would be many castles. I rather suspect he was getting confused with Boudicca and the Iceni!

The truth is more complex, and strikes right at the heart of one of the complex questions faced by castle historians. There are many, many, moated sites across Norfolk, the majority of which have been lost to us through being built over. These sites, clumsily referred to as fortified manorial sites in some places, may in fact be considered to be castles, although they are smaller in scale than some people would consider appropriate.

A castle has to serve multiple uses. It has a military purpose, and therefore needs to be consciously built to defend what lies inside. It has a residential purpose, and therefore needs to be a place within which the lord can stay. It has a display purpose, and therefore has to be considerably larger and more impressive than other buildings nearby. Finally it has an administrative purpose, and therefore has to be the centre of a demesne of sorts, used to collect taxes, as a seat of justice and so on.

Within Norfolk – and elsewhere – the moated sites served all these purposes, and therefore are castles, although they are smaller than the great ones built for royalty and the upper aristocracy. They usually date to the 13th or 14th century, although they continued to be built into the 16th, when the defences fell into decline, and often succeed earlier structures that may have been considered castles. By 1603, when King James I of Scotland became James VI of England, castles ceased to be built (in my opinion!), since the defensive aspect ceased to have relevance.

I have been doing the initial work on a list of sites to include for my website, and have just completed the list of moated sites for Norfolk. When added to the list of masonry castles and timber castles, there are now fifty-nine sites in Norfolk – and that does not include those where there are no earthworks or medieval fragments surviving. There will be a few more as I work through the list of palaces I have, for some of those may merit inclusion. I have as yet not added any English castles to the website as I want to make sure what is there is accurate!

However, I think fifty-nine castles is a reasonable number for Norfolk to contain. So the next time someone asks the question “Why did Norfolk not have many castles?” the answer should be, “It did.” Here’s what it looks like at the moment.

East Englandshire