One of the largest, best preserved and most lavishly decorated keeps in England, Castle Rising near King’s Lynn in Norfolk, has an intriguingly chequered history. Built from 1138 onwards by William d’Albini for his new wife, the widow of Henry I, it has served as a hunting lodge, a royal residence and home to Isabella the mother of Edward III. Implicated in the murder of her husband Edward II, she was exiled here by her son, but lived luxuriously in the apartments she created to the south of the keep.
Castle Rising’s turreted keep boasts ornate Norman architecture and, in its heyday, provided residential accommodation on three levels, with a great hall that spanned both the first and second floors. Although extremely domineering in appearance, the castle is set in a pleasant rural location but hidden from view by 13 acres of massive earthworks. These are topped by curtain walls, of which some fragmented sections remain. At the northern end of the inner bailey are the foundations of an 11th-century Norman chapel and, on the eastern bank, the remains of a rectangular gatehouse.
The castle’s custodian Norman Fahy has investigated its buildings both historically and archaeologically and discovered several interesting anomalies. As it doesn’t appear to defend anything – there are no major roads, crossings or areas of strategic importance nearby (though a painting shows ships in the background, suggesting it was accessible from the sea) – he believes it was once a Romano-British farmstead before becoming a Celtic monastic enclosure.
This theory is backed up by the castle’s many church-like decorations. One of the most elegant is a beautiful decorated frieze on the stairway wall. Unlike Norman castles, it is extremely lavish and replicates the blind arcades more often found in cathedrals and churches. The Norman chevrons around the great hall’s Romanesque doorway, which are repeated on the chancel arch of the chapel and in several nearby churches, continue the theme.
There are many other notable features within the castle, especially in the great hall. The alcove where the lord and his lady sat is clearly visible as are a series of corbel stones. These decoratively carved roof supports depict male figures, one with a hand resting on his chin, the other apparently nursing toothache. Similarly, the main carving above the entrance of the Ante Chapel is a ‘tongue-poker’, a childish way of face-pulling that’s common in many churches of the period.
In the lobby, one of the windows is decorated with fine Celtic knots in the Herefordshire School style (a type of Romanesque) using Caen stone imported from Normandy. It’s also worth noting that the lobby is part of the mural passage and was created by squatters thrusting through the north wall arcade during the 16th century after the floor of the great hall collapsed.
Fahy also noticed that the building methods changed during the castle’s construction. It’s clear that while the early builders were highly skilled those that followed were less talented and were challenged by a rapidly depleting source of the local sandstone, Silver Carr. Many historians believe that the castle occupies an ancient Roman site and Fahy has found remains from this period, notably terracotta tiles, which were reused in the church. He also found pieces of Roman glass and pottery within a rabbit warren that extends beneath its grassy banks.
Don’t miss: The recurring theme of cats within the castle which may indicate a link with Felix, the first Bishop of East Anglia – the Latin for cat being felis. A roundel over the main entrance is cat-like while over the chancel is a quadripartite vault with naïve carvings. Three appear to be crowned humans, but the fourth is believed to be a cat.