ORFORD CASTLE & FRAMLINGHAM CASTLE, Suffolk
What IS a castle? The standard definition gives us two essential elements. One, a secure tower, or “keep,” and, two, outer defensive walls. Suffolk is unusual in having two spectacular “castles” that, taken together, meet that definition. Orford Castle is all keep, with no walls. Framlingham Castle is all walls, with no keep.
Orford is one of the few castles built by Henry II that survives in recognizable form. (Henry built in strategic places; his castles were often dramatically expanded and updated by succeeding kings.)
All that remains of Orford today is the ninety-foot-tall keep, but that keep is not only largely intact but also memorable. It is a unique twenty-seven sided polygon that gives the impression of being round. It also has three projecting square turrets. Orford is five stories tall with each of the five stories having a large central room, with passages and stairways along the outer walls.
Henry II completed Orford in just two years, between 1165 and 1167. His intention was to assert his authority in the region and to keep the Bigod Earls of Norfolk, based at Framlingham Castle, in line. It worked!
The village of Orford, a small fishing port, was named in November 2014 by the Telegraph as one of England’s prettiest small villages. It remains picturesque and unspoiled.
The day of our visit, on a sunny Saturday in September, the castle grounds were filled with local families enjoying picnic lunches while their cheerful (but nicely behaved) children chased up and down and around the castle mound. For our lunch, we repaired to Pinney’s of Orford. We reached our table by passing through a small and nicely fresh fish market, and enjoyed a simple yet outstanding meal.
Framlingham Castle is the reverse image of Orford. All that remains are its great exterior curtain walls.
Framlingham was fortified between 1190 and 1210 by the descendants of the Bigod Earls of Norfolk (the ones Henry II had intimidated with Orford Castle). The castle and the Norfolk title (changed to a dukedom) passed, next, to the Mowbray family and finally to the Howards in 1476. In the 16th century, the castle reverted to the crown.
Even though none of Framlingham’s internal buildings survive, walking the walls is more than enough to fire the imagination.
Picture yourself in the England of 1553. The throne of England is empty and the succession is uncertain.
Henry VIII had designated the crown to go, first, to his underage son Edward and then, if Edward died without children, to his older daughter Mary. Edward, however, wrote a will of his own in which he attempted to divert the crown instead to his young cousin, Lady Jane Grey. When Edward died at age 15, on 6 July 1553, Jane’s powerful father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, led the Council in pledging fealty to Jane as England’s next ruler.
Jane Grey was young, unknown, and not a threat to anyone. Northumberland, however, had the royal treasury and he had armed troops.
And what of Henry VIII’s heir, what was Mary Tudor’s chief asset? An absolutely unassailable conviction of the rightness of her claim. She was Henry’s daughter!
When news came of Northumberland’s attempted coup, Mary moved to Framlingham, the strongest castle in Suffolk. She arrived at 8:00 pm on 12 July 1553, with some 500 armed men. Her first step was to unfurl her standard over the gate tower, publicly staking her claim. She then sent out word to her potential allies that she was prepared to fight for her throne.
Standing on the walls of Framlingham, it is easy to imagine an eager and anxious Mary, with a small clutch of advisers, dashing from one side of the ramparts to the other, leaning out to look in hope and expectation as troops of men march in from all directions. Whose men are those? Can you see a banner? How many men can we expect this particular noble friend to have in his train?
And all with ever-increasing confidence as, in one week, over 10,000 men gathered in the fields outside of Framlingham to support Mary’s cause.
At 4:00 on the afternoon of 20 July, Mary’s army assembled in ranks outside the walls of Framlingham. Mary went out to formally inspect her troops. Gifted with the Tudors’ keen sense of pageantry and drama, Mary was mounted on a white horse and dressed as magnificently as possible. The horse reared high. Mary dismounted and, on foot, spent three solid hours with her army, speaking to each and every division.
When she returned inside Framlingham’s walls, she found waiting there a delegation from London. They were the representatives of a Council that had been shaken by the depth of her support. They denounced Northumberland (whom Mary eventually executed) and proclaimed her queen. On 24 July, Mary left Framlingham for London and her coronation.
Thereafter, Framlingham went into decline. Today Framlingham is under the care of English Heritage. Part of their current interpretation program is a remarkably entertaining video that tells the castle’s fascinating story, beginning with the various Earls and Dukes of Norfolk who first held it, to Mary Tudor, and beyond. (We watched the video from start to finish three times, enjoying each and every iteration!)
All that remains today at Framlingham are the external walls, unchanged after 800 years. They are a stark reminder to visitors that Framlingham was, above all, a fortress – and a fortress that helped change England’s history.
Read about Middleham Castle here.