Here to return to
CASTLE RISING stands in one of the most remote parts of England — in the flat lands of northern Norfolk, two or three miles from the eastern shore of the Wash. Even in our day, although the village of Rising is one of the beauty spots of East Anglia, it is not easy of access; but in the Middle Ages, before drainage and tillage reclaimed so much of the coast lands, the castle must have been inaccessible from all directions except the southern. It is a local tradition that Rising was once a flourishing harbour, and the villagers defy their neighbours of King’s Lynn with the old saying that “Rising was a seaport town when Lynn was but a marsh.” There are, however, no evidences of former prosperity. The church, a small one of Norman origin, has been tactfully restored in recent times. In the village is the Bede House, founded in 1614 by Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, for the reception of twelve poor spinsters, with the careful proviso that any one of them found guilty of “atheism, heresy, blasphemy, faction in the hospital, injury, or disgracing the assistants,” should be instantly expelled. What a caricature on the enthusiastic Shelley it seems; an impoverished spinster ejected from an almshouse for atheism! But metaphysical questionings and bickerings over dogma have passed them by. They may be seen on Sundays in prim procession to the parish church, clad in red cloaks and black steeple hats of the sixteenth century, for all the world like witches intercepted by the churchwardens. For the rest, it is proof sufficient of Rising’s stagnation that it was a pocket borough before the Reform Act.
The earthworks of the castle stand out upon slightly higher ground from the level country surrounding them, and they are all the more striking because the curtain walls which formerly crowned them have disappeared. An oval, almost round, en closure formed by high earthen banks has smaller oblong courts flanking its longer sides to east and west. The rectangular shape of the whole has induced some to suppose a Roman origin which cannot be confirmed by archæological or documentary evidence; and the theory presupposes that the Romans found a British oval encampment, which they converted into the rectangular form. More probably the earthworks were built in Anglo-Saxon times, and as in so many other cases utilized, perhaps extended, by the Normans. It is an indication of their size that the oval rampart stands about 30 ft. above the floor of the exterior buildings. The area of the whole is 18 acres.
It is remarkable how completely the buildings have been destroyed. Nothing remains in the flanking courtyards. The approach to the enclosure is by a gap in the east side of the rampart across a ruined bridge and through a Norman gatehouse. The gatehouse, of which two arches and the lower story remain, was of a rectangular type, containing a passage-way 13 feet long between stone walls. Within the enclosure the foundations of some domestic buildings can be traced. They are probably of Tudor date. On the north side is a Norman chapel in a ruinous condition. It consisted of nave, choir, and apse, divided by transverse arches, and it was probably the garrison church. For some time its existence was unknown, until it was found buried in earth which had fallen down from the ramparts. A few short lengths of curtain wall that remain were built in the reign of Henry VII. If there were any Norman walls they have entirely disappeared.
But the most striking object to be seen through the arch of the gatehouse is the Norman keep, which is a compensation for so much that has been destroyed. The keep is low and massive, like those of Norwich and Colchester. In fact, the height is less than either the length or the breadth, and the effect is intensified by the loss of the battlements. Otherwise the exterior is well enough preserved. The side facing the gatehouse is covered by a forebuilding. While the rest of the keep is built of flint rubble with ashlar facings on the pilasters and corner buttresses, the forebuilding is entirely cased in ashlar with many ornamentations, the most striking being a continuous arcade and above it a line of circles containing carved heads, which are to be seen at best advantage on the south side over the entrance arch way. This gives entrance to a fine flight of stone stairs leading up to the vestibule tower, which is twice the width of the rest of the forebuilding. The stairs were protected by gates under Norman arches at the bottom, at a landing half-way up, and at the entrance to the vestibule. Below the vestibule, on the basement level of the tower, was a prison entered from above only, and over the vestibule was another floor. Originally the forebuilding had three roofs. The arch on the landing within, and a pilaster buttress without, divided the stairway into two sections of different heights externally, and the vestibule tower was built to the level of the rest of the keep. Within, the stairway was commanded by a meurtrière and a loop for archers.
The keep was divided by an interior cross-wall and had only one floor over the basement. The entrance to the basement was by spiral stairs in the north-east and south-west angles of the keep, but there is also a door just inside the entrance archway of the staircase. For many years the basement was filled with rubbish which had dropped from the floor above as the keep fell into ruins. In 1822, when the enclosure was cleared and the Norman chapel discovered, this rubbish was removed. The bases of some columns were found, and a well 63 ft. in depth. The walls are looped for archers.
The vestibule at the top of the stairs contains a beautiful Norman arch, the entrance into the great hall, but at some period this was blocked up and converted into a fireplace. The interior is dilapidated. It possessed living rooms, a hall, chapel, and ante-chapel, and a mural arcade. It seems strange that the keep at Castle Rising should be distinguished among its fellows by the possession of a kitchen and still room. Kitchens are rare in Nor man keeps — there is one also at Norwich, not far away — for it was evidently the custom to cook in the buildings outside and bring the dishes to the keep in various degrees of tepidity.
The manor of Snettisham, which embraced the village of Rising, belonged to Archbishop Stigand and was granted at the Conquest to the ubiquitous Odo of Bayeux, Earl of Kent. When Odo rebelled William Rufus gave the manor to William de Albini, the father of the William de Albini who became Lord of Arundel by his marriage with Queen Adela, widow of Henry I. This second William is supposed to have built the keep. He was one of the most chivalrous knights of Europe. He rejected the amorous attentions of the Queen of France because of his love for Adela, and it is said that, when the rejected lady thrust him into a lion’s den, William put his hand into the lion’s mouth and extracted its tongue. In similar circumstances, during his captivity in Austria, Richard I went even further: he pulled out the lion’s heart. In William’s case, however, the less drastic operation was sufficient to save his life. The Albini arms bore in commemoration a placid but tongueless lion, and the husband of Adela is known to history as William of the Strong Arm.
In the reign of Edward III Castle Rising belonged to the Crown and was for twenty-seven years the principal dwelling of Isabella “the She-Wolf of France.” Although she had betrayed her husband, Edward II, for Mortimer, who was slain by the orders of her son, she had by no means a troubled end, possessing as she did many manors and being treated with unbroken respect. She devoted her considerable energies to the collecting of relics, and falconry, with an occasional pilgrimage to Walsingham, or a sojourn at one of her other manors. Edward III frequently visited her in state at Castle Rising. There is a record that the Borough of King’s Lynn sent to “Isabell the old Queen “presents of wine, flesh meats, swans, lampreys, turbot, sturgeon, herrings, and oats for her horses.
She died at Hertford full of years and honour,
clothed in the habit of Saint Clare, and was buried in the Franciscan church at
Newgate in London. On the tomb of her son, John of Eltham, at Westminster,
there is a statue of Isabella, but of the halls and rooms of state at Castle
Rising little enough remains.