Orford Castle

Orford Castle


Orford Castle is a castle in the village of Orford, Suffolk, located 12 miles northeast of Ipswich, with views over the Orford Ness. Prior to the building of Orford Castle, Suffolk was dominated by the Bigod family, who held the title of the Earl of Norfolk and owned key castles at Framlingham, Bungay, Walton and Thetford. Hugh Bigod had been one of a group of dissenting barons during the Anarchy in the reign of King Stephen, and Henry II wished to re-establish royal influence across the region. Henry confiscated the four castles from Hugh, but returned Framlingham and Bungay to Hugh in 1165. Henry then decided to build his own royal castle at Orford, near Framlingham, and construction work began in 1165, concluding in 1173. The Orford site was around two miles from the sea, lying on flat ground with swampy terrain slowly stretching away down to the river Ore, about half a mile.


The design of the keep was unique, and has been termed "one of the most remarkable keeps in England". The 90-foot high central tower was circular in cross-section with three rectangular, clasping towers built out from the 49-foot wide structure. The tower was based on a precise set of proportions, its various dimensions following the one to the root of two ratio found in many English churches of the period. Much of the interior is built with high-quality ashlar stonework, with broad, 5 foot 6 inch wide staircases. The best chambers were designed to catch the early morning sun, whilst the various parts of the keep were draught-proofed with doors and carefully designed windows. Originally the roof of the keep, above the upper hall, would have formed a domed effect, with a tall steeple above that. The keep was surrounded by a curtain wall with probably four flanking towers and a fortified gatehouse protecting a relatively small bailey; these outer defences, rather than the keep, probably represented the main defences of the castle. The marshes nearby were drained turning the village of Orford into a sheltered port. The castle, including the surrounding ditch, palisade and stone bridge, cost £1,413 to build, with the work possibly being conducted by the master mason Alnoth. Some of the timbers were brought from as far away as Scarborough, and the detailed stonework being carved from limestone from Caen in Normandy, the remainder of the stone being variously from local mudstone and coralline, as well as limestone from Northamptonshire.


By the start of the 13th century, royal authority over Suffolk had been firmly established, after Henry II crushed the Bigods in the revolt of 1173–1174, Orford being heavily garrisoned during the conflict, with 20 knights being based there. Upon the collapse of the rebellion, Henry ordered the permanent confiscation of Framlingham Castle. The political importance of Orford Castle diminished after Henry's death in 1189, although the port of Orford grew in importance, however, handling more trade than the more famous port of Ipswich by the beginning of the century. The castle was captured by Prince Louis of France who invaded England in 1216 at the invitation of the English barons who were disillusioned with King John. John Fitz-Robert became the governor of the royal castle under the young Henry III, followed by Hubert de Burgh. Under Edward I governorship of the castle was given to the de Valoines family, and it passed by marriage to Robert de Ufford, the 1st Earl of Suffolk, who was granted it in perpetuity by Edward III in 1336.


No longer a royal castle, Orford was passed on through the Willoughby, Stanhope and Devereux families, whilst the surrounding economy of Orford went into decline. The estuary of the River Ore silted up and the Orford Ness spit increased, making the harbour access more difficult, resulting in a decline in trade, reducing the importance of the castle as the centre of local government. The castle and surrounding lands were bought by the Seymour-Conway family in 1754. By the late-18th century only the north wall of the bailey survived and the roof and upper floors of the keep had badly decayed, and Francis Seymour-Conway, the 2nd Marquess of Hertford, proposed destroying the building in 1805. He was prevented from doing so by the government, on the grounds that the keep formed a valuable landmark for ships approaching from Holland, wishing to avoid the nearby sandbanks. Francis' son, also called Francis, undertook conservation efforts in 1831, installing a new, relatively flat, lead roof and a replacement upper floor was installed. Francis furnished the top of the keep for use as an apartment by guests. By the 1840s, however, all of the surrounding bailey wall and mural towers had almost vanished, having been quarried for stone, and the foundations could only just be seen.


Orford Castle is associated with the legend of the Wild Man of Orford. According to the chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall, a naked wild man, covered in hair, was caught in the nets of local fishermen around 1167. The man was brought back to the castle where he was held for six months, being questioned or tortured; he said nothing, and behaved in a feral fashion throughout. The wild man finally escaped from the castle. Later accounts described the captive as a merman, and the incident appears to have encouraged the growth in "wild men" carvings on local baptismal fonts - around twenty such fonts from the later medieval period exist in coastal areas of Suffolk and Norfolk, near Orford.


In the basement visitors can see the well which supplied water for the castle. There are 91 steep stairs to the top of the Keep. This is not suitable for wheelchair users. There is a undulating pathway leading up to the castle from the car park. The grassed areas surrounding the castle are uneven and sloped. Assistance dogs are welcome and there is braille signage. There are no accessible toilets on site.


Location : Orford, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 2ND

Transport: Wickham Market (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : PF Travel service 71 stops nearby.

Opening Times : Daily 10:00 to 18:00

Tickets: Adults £6.90;  Concessions £6.10;  Children £4.10

Tel: 0370 333 1181