Toki lost his lands when the Normans came. The new foreign aristocracy following Harold’s defeat at Hastings in 1066 swept aside Anglo-Saxon landowners, and poor Toki was one of the casualties. He was a thegn – which could mean a variety of things – but in any event a man of property in the settlement that we now know as Castle Acre in Norfolk. His hall was possibly where the Normans built their castle. I wonder what happened to Toki? Actually, I suspect he had some Danish blood, because Toki seems to be a Danish name and the old Kingdom of East Anglia came to be ruled by Danes. Early medieval England was not the straightforward Saxon land it is often made out to be. But I like to think that Toki’s genes are still floating around somewhere.
The Castle which gives Castle Acre its name was begun by William de Warenne sometime in the 1070s. William the Conqueror looked after those who had fought beside him at Hastings. De Warenne was handed lands in Sussex and Yorkshire and later became Earl of Surrey. His principle base was at Lewes, in Sussex, but he acquired Acre (the name is derived from the Saxon for ‘newly cultivated land’) through marriage to a lady called Gundrada. You don’t meet too many Gundradas, do you? Gundrada is thought by some to have been a daughter of William the Conqueror, but her father was probably a Flemish warrior, Gerbod, who had originally been granted the property forfeited by Toki.
Looking at the majestic ruins of the castle now, we see what looks like a classic Norman motte and bailey defensive structure. In fact, the first stone building that de Warenne put on the motte was, unusually for those days, more like a country house and it was probably there that Gundrada died in childbirth in 1085.
The de Warennes went on to create a medieval town at Castle Acre, the remains of which can still be seen today. The castle stands guard at the east, on a rise overlooking the River Nar. To the west are the ruins of Castle Acre Priory. In between the two is the once fortified village, these days picture-post-card-perfect.
William founded a small Cluniac community within the castle, but his son the 2nd Earl (also called William) granted lands which enabled the construction of Castle Abbey Priory just outside the town. The de Warennes were the main benefactors of the priory.
The 3rd Earl (another William) strengthened the castle, replacing wooden palisades with stone walls and turning the house into a defensible keep. These were troubled times, often known as ‘the anarchy’, with wars between two contenders for the throne, Matilda and Stephen. It was round about then that huge earthwork defences were thrown up around the town itself, into which stone gatehouses were later inserted. One of these survives and is pictured above – you drive through it when coming into the village from Swaffam and it sits quietly amongst the houses, next to Stocks Green. William was killed in 1148 on Crusade, at the Battle of Mount Cadmus in what is now Turkey.
The Earls of Surrey were amongst the movers and shakers of medieval England. The 6th Earl was prominent in the Barons’ Wars of the 13th century and features as one of Edward I’s loyal commanders during the wars for Scottish Independence.
In 1347, the male de Warenne line ended and Castle Acre passed by marriage into the hands of the Earl of Arundel. However, the castle fell out of use and was possibly derelict by the new century. The Earls of Arundel were promoted to Dukes of Norfolk and in 1588 the 4th Duke sold the castle. In 1615 it was bought by the lawyer and politician Sir Edward Coke, whose descendants apparently still own it. Coke carried out some repairs, but over the years masonry has been removed for other building work and the once great medieval fortress has been partially swallowed by the ground around it. Without its castle and, after the dissolution of then monasteries in 1537, its priory, the town declined as well.
Though most of the castle’s buildings have long gone, the main plan is clear. There’s an enormous outer bailey, inside of which you can see the lumps of former structures – possibly a hall, stables, and so on. There were three gates: south, from Cuckstool Lane (the name a reminder of medieval crime and punishment) running parallel to the river; west from the village, where the gate’s ruins include stones cut with grooves that once held a portcullis; east via an outer barbican, which today is adjacent to a small car park. The inner bailey contains the castle keep, constructed on top of the 1st Earl’s house. The stonework is harsh, flint-finished, locally mined. Even in its ruinous state, the ditches, which would once have been moats, are massive. These days they are spanned by modern wooden footbridges. Ruin or not, Castle Acre can still impress. And I’m sure, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the sounds of the once busy fortress: the hammering of metal from the smithy; the clash of staves as men at arms practice; a guard calling to his mate from the wall; a shouted command; cries of children playing; the hubbub of the community that lived there for three hundred years.
No trace of Toki has been found. Nor is there any proof in the rumours that Castle Acre was once a Roman fort. Certainly, the Romans were in the area – a Roman road (now a footpath, the Peddars Way) crosses the River Nar at Castle Acre and a delivery driver was prosecuted in 2014 for not handing in a Roman coin he had found somewhere in the parish. Traces of Bronze Age and prehistoric settlement have been discovered too. But Castle Acre, the whole thing, is a memorial to the Normans – a physical reminder of their power and of the enormous and profound impact the Norman Conquest had on England, and on Britain as a whole.
There’s a good Castle Acre village website.