CASTLE-ACRE, 4 miles N. of Swaffham, and 14 miles E. by S. of Lynn, is in Freebridge Lynn union, Swaffham county court district, Lynn bankruptcy district, Freebridge Lynn hundred and petty sessional division, Swaffham polling district, Freebridge Lynn rural deanery, and diocese and archdeaconry of Norwich.
The village is of great antiquity, and consists chiefly of two streets, one on the crown, and the other on the abrupt declivity of the north bank of the river Nar. The parish contains 1405 inhabitants, and 3249 (3014 rate-book) acres of fertile land, broken into bold and picturesque swells, and including two commons, on which the poor have pasturage for their stock. The rateable value is £5868.
At the time of the Norman conquest, Castle-Acre belonged to a wealthy English thegn, named Toche or Toka, and formed part of his fertile and richly wooded estate of Acra, which comprised several neighbouring parishes, including those of South Acre and West Acre. The Conqueror granted it, with 146 other lordships, to William, Earl of Warenne, who founded here an immense castle and a beautiful priory, the former of which was long the baronial seat of his descendents, who received in it several kingly visitors. On the death of John, the last Earl Warenne, in 1347 the estate passed into the hands of the female branch of the family, who had intermarried with the Arundels, ancestors of the Dukes of Norfolk; and after changing owners several times, was purchased in the early part of the seventeenth century by the celebrated Lord Chief Justice Coke from whom the Earl of Leicester, its present possessor is lineally descended.
The earthworks, of which considerable portions still remain, cover an area of about twenty acres, and consist of a lofty circular hill, 150 feet in diameter, an outer ballium on the south side, shaped like a horse shoe, and measuring 300 feet by 280, an irregular parallelogram to the west, 675 feet by 630 and a small earthwork at the north-east angle.
The principal entrances to the castle were from the north and south, and gave admittance to the bailiwick through double gateways flanked by circular turrets of solid flintwork, formerly machicolated and provided with a portcullis. A similar double gateway of which scarcely anything remains, gave entrance to the outer ballium or horse-shoe work, in which the principal habitable portions of the castle were situated; but only a few traces of their foundations can now be discerned, and the curtain wall which surrounded and protected them is also nearly gone.
From this enclosure the inner ballium or circular work, which is more elevated than the other, seems to have been gained by a stone stair, of which some steps are still visible on the steep slope of the bank. Here stood the keep or donjon, a lofty and massive tower of oblong form of which only the foundations remain, although the ruins of the buttressed curtain wall which encircled it are still extensive.
The ditches were evidently always dry, and had walls built across them in various places to prevent an enemy from completing the circuit of the defences, in case of attack. The small earthwork at the north-east angle of the castle appears to have never had any wall; but access to it was gained from the inner ballium by means of a small postern gate, and it was probably a feeding ground for cattle.
West of Bailey Street is an enclosure of considerable extent, commonly called the Barbican, the bank and ditch of which, on the west and south sides, are very perfect, and of noble proportions; but the north-west angle and north side have been to a great extent destroyed, though they are still easily traced. Nearly in the centre of this space is a house, now occupied as a cottage, but formerly of more imposing dimensions, with an ancient dove-house in front, one or two quaint doorways, a slender finial at the western gable, and three heraldic devices on the front, in moulded red earth. This abode appears to be of the time of Henry VII. or VIII., and was doubtless the residence of a bailiff or steward.
The earthworks have been supposed to be of Keltic formation; but the Rev. C.R. Manning has shown (Norfolk Archaeological Society) that they were of Angle or English construction, and that the great mound, with its surrounding works, was the residence of the ealdorman or leading man of the settlement. In later times, say after the reign of Edgar, the ealdorman would become a thegn, or indeed a feudal lord.
The ancient British or Roman road called Peddar's Way, which crossed the county from the neighbourhood of Thetford to the sea at Hunstanton and of which considerable portions are even yet in use, passed through the encampment at Castle-Acre in the line of the present Bailey Street.
About half a mile to the east of the castle are the interesting ruins of the Priory, occupying a pleasant situation in the valley, and enclosed by a strong outer wall, encompassing an area of 29A. 2R. 10P. It was founded by the great Earl Warenne in 1078, for Cluniac monks, subject to the Abbey of Lewes, in Sussex. In 1296 the revenues of this religious house, which had been augmented by numerous benefactions, were seized on the pretext of its being an alien priory, but were subsequently restored; and Edward II., in 1325, ordained that it should not in future be molested as foreign, it having, in his father's time, been proved indigenous, all the monks being English, subject only to the visitation of the Abbot of Cluny.
On its Dissolution in 1535 its yearly income was valued, according to Speed at £324 17s 5½d, and the site was granted to Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, and was afterwards purchased, with the castle and other estates, by the Lord Chief Justice Coke. The remains of the priory, with its conventual church, form perhaps the finest and most venerable ruin in the county.
The Church (Virgin Mary) comprised nave, choir and transepts, of which the west front, the south-west tower, and the north and south transepts present the most extensive remains. The choir is almost entirely destroyed, and little more than the foundations are visible. The west front, standing to the height of 64 feet, presents a beautiful Norman facade, filled with tiers of arches and columns enriched with beautiful chevron, billet, cable, and other mouldings and tracery and formerly terminated on each side by elegant towers.
The entrance is under a highly-wrought Norman arch, and above it is the complete outline of the great west window, the arch of which is admired as one of the finest specimens of the Perpendicular style in the kingdom. With the exception of the west front, which is entirely faced in freestone, all the walls are of rubble, plastered over; even the pillars have only a facing of stone, and the piers, mouldings, and shafts, and quoinings of the external walls alone are of freestone. The upper portion of the south-west tower is of the Transition style, all the windows being pointed.
The nave was 180 feet long, and, with the two aisles, 54 feet broad. The choir was of the same breadth, but much shorter and in the east end of it was in the form of a chapel. The chapter-house was a noble vaulted chamber of fine proportions, and the thirty-six stalls which it once contained may still be clearly traced. The dormitory, approached by a flight of stone steps, adjoins the chapter-house on the south and beneath it is a vaulted room, supposed to have been the calefactory.
On the south side of the cloister was the refectory, of which but little remains, and between it and the dormitory is a small square room, which was probably the locutory. The buildings on the west side of the cloister now form part of a farmhouse and out-offices, and appear to have been so frequently altered that it is difficult to decide what was their original use. Most likely the strangers' hall and the guest chambers were situated here over the conventual cellars, but were destroyed in the Perpendicular period, and replaced by a number of lofty rooms with handsome windows, many of which still remain.
The principal entrance to the monastery was in this part of the building, through a vaulted passage, over which is a small chapel, still having a fine Norman arch spanning the altar-space at the east end, and a very beautiful sellium of the early Decorated period in the south wall, but covered by a nearly flat roof of the time of Henry VII.
Opposite the farmhouse, at a distance from the north-west angle of the priory, stands the porter's lodge, or gatehouse, in a tolerable state of preservation.
A large portion of the old wall dividing the cloisters from the prior's lodge has recently fallen in. In removing some of the rubbish from the nave, fifty years since, a small part of the tessellated pavement was bared and near it was found a complete skeleton, supposed to be the remains of the founder, who, according to some authorities was buried, at Lewes, in Sussex, near his wife Gundreda, a daughter of William the Conqueror.
The Parish CHURCH (St. James) stands on the crown of an acclivity above the priory, and is a large fabric, comprising nave with aisles and clerestory, chancel, north porch, and lofty square embattled tower with five bells. It was probably erected by one of the priors, and still possesses some fine specimens of ancient architecture. It was thoroughly restored in 1876-7, at a cost of £3000, from plans by Evan Christian, Esq.
The fine east window is of the Early English period. The priest's door, on the south side of the chancel is also a good specimen of the same style; and its mouldings are chaste, well proportioned, and sharply cut. On the north side are three windows of the flamboyant style, and on the south side is a range of good Perpendicular windows, but nearly all the others are poor. The tower, which is of three storeys, is well proportioned, and has quartefoils as sound-holes for the clock chamber, and good unglazed windows in the belfry above.
The lower part of the rood-screen remains, and is decorated with paintings of the twelve Apostles; and the pulpit, which is remarkably small, has the four doctors of the church painted upon its panels. The most attractive object is the antique font cover, a beautiful piece of wooden tabernacle work of the Perpendicular period, twenty-six feet in height, formerly richly gilt and painted, but now sadly disfigured by coarse red paint. Three of the ancient misereres, carved with quaint devices, still remain; and at the east end of each aisle is a small chapel protected by a screen.
The discharged vicarage, valued in the King's Book at £6 6s. 8d., and possessing only about two acres of glebe, was augmented with £200 of Queen Anne's Bounty in 1796 and a Parliamentary grant of £400 in 1813. The Earl of Leicester is appropriator of the great tithes and patron of the vicarage, which is in the incumbency of the Rev, Daniel Collyer, B.A. In 1840 the rectorial tithes were commuted for £900, and the vicarial for £168 per annum. A new vicarage house has been built by the patron, who also defrayed the cost of the restoration of the church.
The Wesleyan chapel dates from 1830, and is supplied from East Dereham. The Baptist Chapel, built in 1841 and enlarged in 1872, will accommodate 250 persons, A new Primitive Methodist Chapel was erected in 1878.
The poor have £2 2s per annum, left in the seventeenth century by Mr. Coney and William Lee, out of land at South Acre and East Lexham.
The National School, built in 1839 at a cost of £180, was enlarged in 1874 to accommodate 300 children. The average attendance is 190. The school district includes the four parishes of Castle Acre, South Acre, West Lexham and Newton. The Working Men's Institute, Reading Room and Library contains about 500 volumes.
POST and MONEY ORDER OFFICE, SAVINGS BANK and TELEGRAPH OFFICE at Mrs. E. Nicholds's. Letters arrive at 4.55 a.m. and are dispatched at 7.45 p.m. via Swaffham.
Addison Robert parish clerk Archer James baker and shopkeeper Arnstein Miss Frances The Lower House Baker Amos grocer, draper and baker Banks Miss Charlotte stationer and shopkeeper Banner John Leigh carpenter and joiner Banner Mr Thomas Ivy Cottage Barrett William earthenware dealer and hawker Belsham Michael beerhouse Benstead Benjamin butcher and vict. Rising Sun Bitten Wm. miller and baker Bloom Mrs Frances The Grove Bowers John wheelwright Bunfield Thomas herbalist Clark James coal and general dealer Cann Charles basket meker Collyer Rev Daniel, B.A. vicar, The Vicarage Elvin Henry engineer, iron and brass founder, agricultural implement manufacturer and agent, and threshing machine proprietor. Everington William Devas farmer, Lodge farm. Franklyn John Bolton draper, grocer, boot and shoe dealer, and patent medicine vendor, Norfolk house. Fuller Robert shoemaker Gage John farmer Garner Isaac hawker Gostling Edward butcher Gounds Henry police officer Greeves George saddler Hardy Alfred vict, Red Lion Harrison Wm pig dealer and beerhs High Alfred builder and contractor Hook Mrs Elizabeth beerhouse Howard Walter coal dealer Howard Thomas shoemaker Hudson Thomas Moore farmer Hudson Misses Edith, Maria, & Helen Marian Jennings Thomas vict. Dun Cow Leaman Robt. and master and mistress of Natnl. School Mrs Jane Eliz Leeds Robert Beverley farmer Lowe Edward Thomas shopkeeper and beer retailer Love Joshua surgeon Manning Frank butcher Manning Mr George Manning Mrs Susannah Cookstool Mason Frederick pig dealer Mason John carrier to Lynn Moy Richd baker, corn, and offall dealr Neave John horsebreaker Nicholds Mrs Eliz. butcher and postmistress. M.O. & Telegraph Office Nicholls David carrier to Swaffham Nicholls William cowkeeper Potter Chas. shopkeeper and fishmonger Rose Thomas saddler, and agent to British Empire Mutual Life Ins. Co Simmons Wm. earthenware dealer Spencer Jas. shoeing & general smith Taylor Mrs Annie dressmaker Taylor Geo. bakr. grocr. & assist. oversr Taylor Henry grocer, draper, newsagent, and patent medicine vendor Taylor Richd. tanner and fellmonger Taylor Richard shopkeeper Taylor Mrs Susan baker Taylor Wm. coal dealer and farmer Tipple George chimney sweeper Turner Israel coal dealer and carrier Waller George bricklayer Ward William grocer and draper Watling Mrs Fanny dressmaker Watling Thos. cabinet mkr. & carpntr Whiskerd Hy. farmer and shopkeeper Whiskerd Jas. Hy. Walter butcher Whiskerd Mrs Lucy grocer and draper Whiskerd Samuel bricklayer and farmer Wright Michael parish constable Yallop Isaac marine store dealer Young Misses Elizabeth and FannyWorking Men's Institute, Reading Room and Library
David Nicholls & Israel Turner to Swaffham daily;
John Mason and James Eagle (from Newton) to Lynn on Tues and Sat.
Copyright © Pat Newby.