The Foxearth and District Local History Society
Clare Castle

By Andrew Clarke

Clare Castle by Hooker

Clare Castle painted by Hooker in 1797. This is the view from the bridge that leads from
 the outer bailey to the inner bailey, showing the mott and the ruins of the coronet keep.

Clare and its fort has been occupied from the early bronze age. By the time of the Norman Conquest, it was one of the top five manors of Suffolk in size and boasted both an iron-age enclosure and a fort that had once dominated the border between two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This fort was then developed into a castle that became a magnificent and spectacular residence fit for a king, that became a favourite base for hunting, used by several monarchs, and which played a strategic role in the defence of East Anglia for three hundred years. Not only that, but it also hosted the first Augustinian friary, a large and grand establishment fit for even the burial of members of the monarchy. By the seventeenth century, it was all gone; the facing stone was robbed, the walls used for road-improvements, the buildings pulled down for their timber, and the borough declining into a village. As a final catastrophe, the railway was driven through the heart of the inner bailey, destroying the archaeology and leaving us little with which to conjure up its past splendours.

The Early Years

Clare Camp

A map of the remains of Erbury Camp from the Victoria History of Suffolk. The western
 ramparts were missed, and the fort was actually larger and rectangular .

Clare, also known as Erbury (‘earth fort’) was a settlement and fort long before it became a Norman castle. One can only say for certain that it dates from the Iron age, though bronze-age remains have also been found. It became important in the iron age as a stronghold of of the Trinovantes, allies of the Iceni, as a strategically-important stronghold against the Catuvallaunii. The location shows the strong influence of the Iceni, evidenced by the number of coins found nearby. When you trace the extent of its walls and ditches, it is clear that it is vast in comparison with other forts.

Clare is in a direct straight line between the probable location Boudicca chose to start her revolt, Wardy Hill, and Colchester, her first target. As the Erbury fort at Clare existed then, it would seem a natural stopping point on the march. There are many signs in Clare of subsequent Roman settlement. As well as Erbury fort, the town was, at one time, defended by a ditch and bank, possibly topped with a layered quickthorn hedge.

Higham's view of Clare Castle

Clare Castle, drawn by Higham in about 1820. It affords us a hint of what the inner bailey
looked like before the railway destroyed it. Clare Church of Peter and Paul in background

The fort transferred at some point before the conquest from Erbury to the north of the town, to its present location, a fortified earthwork overlooking the valley, with the Abbey church of St John the Baptist within it, while the old site of the fort at Erbury became a manor. This new fort grew by stages into Clare Castle which lasted through the mediaeval era, but ceased to have any military value after 1300. It survived as a grand house through to the sixteenth century, at which point it lapsed into being the gardens of the nearby Clare Priory, then a private house, surrounded by the market town that it had spawned.

Why was Clare important?

Clare once had a strategic position on the border between two kingdoms. The town also marks the ancient limit to the navigation of the Stour, though punts designed for the haulage of bulk goods possibly reached as far as Sturmer fort upstream. This meant that it was, like Sudbury, ideal as a market and trading centre.

The OS map of 1885 shows the layout of the castle, bordered by the Pesonbrigge road and
bridge to the north and the Chilton ditch to the east.

Settlements were based on parts of the valley where gravel beds allowed flat-bottomed boats to be pulled up on the banks easily, and wagons could get to them to load or unload. These places were, in the early middle ages, called ‘Hards’ (CornHard-Cornard and FoxHard -Foxearth). It could be that the name of Clare comes from the much earlier Brythonic word for a level place. (Klaro in proto-celtic)

East Anglia had a number of forts, just as many as in other parts of the country, but they were overlooked by many antiquarians in the past because they are ‘just’ earthworks with no stone. They certainly existed as forts, but due to the lack of any suitable natural stone, used the effective, but less permanent, palisade of ‘laid’ or woven thorn hedging. We hear of the forts at Colchester, Witham and Maldon from King Edwards campaigns of 915-917. There were others outside the written record, including Othona, Sudbury, Clare and Sturmer. We know less about them because they have generally been destroyed, some such as Witham and Clare, as recently as within the past two hundred years. In both cases, railways were driven through the centre of both them. Fortunately, enough remains at Clare to confirm its general shape and extent.

Cleghorn's map from 1785 is the best clue we have about the original features of the
castle, showing details of the inner bailey and  the Crowe Gate in the outer bailey

For Clare Castle, it was the land around it that was important. It was the organisational centre of one of the large East Anglian estates in the early mediaeval times was that later known as the ‘Honour of Clare’. It was rich commercial woodland, meadow and ploughland, with the lucrative income from hunting and Falconry/hawking. This estate was Anglo-Saxon in origin, and was accumulated by Earl Withgar and his son Earl Aluric though some of the land was run on behalf of the redoubtable Queen Emma who was the power behind the reign of Aethelred, Edmund, and Cnut . These were some of Emma's ‘new men’ who between them effectively came to rule Britain. It was Aluric, the " famous Earl,", who also had the custody of the franchise of the eight hundreds and a half later known as the Liberty of St. Edmund. The Honor of Clare was composed chiefly of the great possessions of this thane in Suffolk and Essex. He gave the actual manor of Clare, though not the lands of the manor,  to an Abbey and church dedicated to St John the Baptist. This generosity to the church was, at the time, a strategic as well as a religious act, essential for any member of the ruling elite to ensure that the church was ‘onside’.

J Greig's engraving of the castle c1825

J Greig's engraving of  c 1820 shows the motte from the south walls of the southern bailey
and clearly shows the moat, the surviving stone walls, and a house rooftop beyond the motte

The large estates in the Stour Valley had previously been providing troops and supplies to the English armies that had been pushing back the Danish influence in East Anglia: Sturmer, for example, was named in the Battle of Maldon for contributing to the English army. The importance of Clare at the time, and later, was less for its defensive value, and more as a convenient base for supplies and munitions, since it had river transport and good road links.

It may be to protect the river transport links that enclosure that eventually became the inner bailey was originally created. Erbury Fort had gone out of use as a fortification. With its collegiate church it  seems to have developed to  become the town's church as well and burial ground, until the Norman-period creation of St Peter and St Paul's church.

 William confiscated Aluric’s estates , along with other large possessions, and gave them to his kinsman Richard FitzGilbert, son of Gilbert, Earl of Briant in Normandy. Richard, in turn, gave the lordship to his son Gilbert, who took the name of De Clare, and was afterwards created Earl of Hertford. It is wrong to think that any of the grand owners of Clare lived there permanently. The castle would have had a salaried ‘steward’ or ‘constable’ in charge of the castle, but certainly Clare was the favourite residence of the De Clares.  The Honour of Clare expanded greatly over the next two hundred years and took over a large part of Norfolk.

The Castle

Castle on Tithe map

The castle on the 1837 tithe map, showing the remains of the ornamental gardens, and
 showing the changes from what were visible in the 1780s. Note the market stalls.

The fort morphed gradually into a castle. The old iron-age fort became the estate farm and manor house, and the military side moved nearer the river, to the church and college. Stone castles were rare in western europe until after the breakup of the Carolingian empire in the tenth century. They were used by feudal lords to dominate a local area and set up courts, and extract taxes. They would use knights as 'enforcers' if there was any unrest. William of Normandy rewarded his followers with land and allowed them to build castles. Clare castle gets its first mention in 1090 when it is referred to as ‘castrum’. It was probably the younger Gilbert de Clare who built the Norman Castle of Clare; at least, in his time there was a castle on the, present site; for the deed giving Aluric's college to the Benedictine Abbey of St. Mary at Bec in Normandy, was tested there. It was a large castle but never the subject to an attack. It consisted of the inner and outer bailey and the keep.

We don’t yet know for certain the sequence of building, and the archaeology is so far inconclusive because so much of the site was destroyed. The inner bailey was almost certainly the site of the Saxon collegiate abbey church, ititially built of wood and subsequently of stone, with an extensive cemetary delineated by a deep ditch. This would date the bailey before Edward the Confessor’s time. The Motte seems to cut into the bailey, compromising the vallum, and could date from the ‘Anarchy’ of Stephen’s reign. The outer bailey follows the line of the Fosse or ditch of the inner bailey, which suggests that it is later. Archaeology suggests The town gradually enveloped the earthworks around the edge of the castle grounds with encroachments on the castle grounds..

Cllare Castle in the 17th century

This is a copy of an old engraving of Clare Castle. This seems to depict the castle in around 1630. It is easy to dismiss it as an artist's reconstruction but the depiction is too accurate to be discarded. The artist certainly sketched this while sitting at that spot on top of the vallum of the nothern Bailey.  The gatehouse would be date from the time that the Castle had become a house, and might be the "Maiden's Tower" mentioned in documents. The Fosse has been filled in and we know from later accounts that this location was then used as an entrance. The keep has no roof or windows. The buttresses (which are a dating enigma) aren't there.  Were they added to hold the ruined remains up?

The stone defenses added later had a strong element of the ornamental to them, more like a palace build in the form of a castle. Inside, the residences were mostly more comfortable, many built in the East Anglian wooden tradition.


The north view of the castle, sketched by Kerrich in 1785, before the
 northern bailey was destroyed. The breach at the left was the route to
 the Pesonbrigge towards Cavendish, possibly called the 'Redgate'.
The entrance to the castle was on the right, in front of the Motte.

At its peak, it consisted of a northern Bailey, probably topped by wooden wall, and separated from a southern walled inner bailey by a deep ditch or ‘fosse’. There was a large moated earth mound topped by a circular and surprisingly slender ‘coronet’ which would seem to have replaced an earlier wooden keep. Both these bailies were level and crowded with buildings. The main gates to the northern bailey were called ‘Crowes House’ (‘Crowe’ means crooked or bent, probably referring to the curved road). Crowes House was probably sited at an extension of Nethergate street on the Western side of the outer bailey, probably via a drawbridge across a moat, long filled-in. All the ramparts here were removed over the years but in mid-victorian times, aged persons could recollect their existence. There were two other gates, one called ‘Red Gate’ (‘Road Gate?’) and the Derne Gate (meaning ‘the hidden gate’).

South view

The Castle from the south, as sketched by Kerrich in 1785, as it
 would have appeared from across the valley.  The breach of the wall
 at the right is possibly the Dearne gate. The Vallum facing the valley
is already degraded from its original height

From Crowes House, a visitor would have entered the outer bailey, which would have seemed rather like a orderly crowded farm and village with barracks for men-at-arms. Ahead, along a curved road was the entrance to the inner bailey probably defended by a barbican of two demi-bastions of earth. Probably a causeway and a drawbridge led to a corresponding opening in the enceinte of the inner bailey or court, defended by two towers, one on each side of the entrance, and protected from within by two demi-bastions, projecting inwards

Kerrich's view from the east of 1785  shows the remains of the wall on the vallum
of the inner bailey on the left, the motte near the centre and the northern bailey
still intact on the right with the gate to the bridge over the Chilton ditch.

The castle had four towers in all in addition to the keep: the Auditor’s Tower, the Constable’s tower, Oxenford’s Tower, and the Maiden’s Tower. These were, presumably, in the inner Bailey. They would seem to have been large enough to provide accommodation for the administrators who were tasked with maintaining the property and the stored munitions. Originally, the Motte with its keep was surrounded by a ditch and was separate from the inner bailey. Eventually, the inner bailey was enclosed by a wall on the summit of the earthworks. This wall, between 20 and 30 feet in height, defended by bastions and demi-bastions, was continued up the Motte on two sides to the donjon or keep. This would have severely compromised the defensibility of the keep, particularly as it meant filling in part of the fosse that originally surrounded the Motte, and it has been suggested that it was just a protective wall for the wooden staircase to the Motte. It is more likely that the wall was built after the Castle lost its military value. Until the coming of the railway, portions of this wall remained on the north and south ramparts, and on the East side of the mound; and its foundations were traceable on the South and East sides. Some fragments still remain. The wall contained second hand materials, including tiles and brick, and seems to have replaced the original wooden palisade. These walls, though of flints and rubble, were very regular in the masonry, and. well finished in small courses. The seem to have been only around five feet thick. The stone keep, 52 ft in diameter, is a late addition to the castle, and it is hard to imagine it ever to have been lived in. The walls, at six ft thick and their foundations, six ft deep, are slight. There is no trace of there ever having been a well, and the foundations betray no sign of chimneys or privies. Although old drawings show what could have been the supports for an upper floor, there is no evidence of this in the various surveys. It was, in short, an ornament used as a watchtower and probably a military store.

Kerrich recorded the remarkable state of preservation of the castle earthworks
as viewed from the West in1785: the 'town view'.  The original entrance was
roughly in the middle of the northern bailey on the left close to the later 'Station
 Road'. At the time of this sketch, the entrance was around the northern side of
the Motte

Within the Bailey was a range of buildings including a chapel, and a large main hall called ‘Clarette Hall’. There were several other buildings including servants quarters, a separate kitchen, a larder and saucery. There were a range of ornamental walled gardens and ponds, one of which was called the ‘Close Garden’. Beyond these were fish ponds and vineyards. In Elizabeth de Burgh’s household accounts are the mention of several chapels, two great halls, a barn that had been converted from the previous great hall, various private chambers, kitchens, a brew house, a bake house and various food stores, most apparently constructed of timber with flint footings and roofed with clay tiles. The outer bailey was more utilitarian, and had a malthouse, woodyard, horse-mill and stables as well as houses for servants and even a huntsman and his dogs. In times of conflict, men-at-arms would probably have been based here. The castle went right up to the causeway lane leading to Cavendish via the ‘Pesonebrigge’ over the Chilton stream, and there were several encroachments of buildings and their yards onto the outer bailey. Even when the castle was in its prime, there was a problem with encroachments over the castle land from the residents of Clare.

The later mediaeval Castle

Newton Grose's view of Clare Castle, 1787

Clare became the administrative centre of the increasingly prosperous ‘De Clare’ estates, called ‘The Honour of Clare’. It continued the strong monastic link, but alongside farming and commercial forestry also became a centre for wine-production, hunting and later, weaving. The De Clare family considered the manor and castle of Clare to be their usual residence. It was kept in good repair until at least 1400.

Several kings stayed at Clare, attracted to the superb forests in the region, over which they hunted. To the north were the lands of Bury St Edmunds Abbey, laid out in strips of woodland and meadow (ley) for the production of oak timber, but ideal also for hunting. This area remained emparked until around 1575. There were also the De Vere estates to the south for hunting and falconry. We know for certain that Henry III and Edward I stayed regularly at Clare from documentary evidence, but it seems that other kings used the castle as a base for hunting. Occasionally the whole Stour Valley ‘From Clare to Catewade bridge’, almost its entire length downstream from Clare, was used by the court for the sport of hawking. Because of this, the bridges were all kept in good repair. One didn’t argue with the monarch.

IIn 1090, Gilbert De Clare gave Aluric’s Abbey that lay within the castle to the monks of Bec, and granted it lands to provide it some income ‘Haec donatio facta est apud castrum quod vocatur Clara.’ (This donation was made at the Castle, which is called Clara). In 1124, Richard De Clare moved the Collegiate Abbey of St John the Baptist from its previous location within the castle, to nearby Stoke ‘"de castello Clara" and provided the wherewithal for the monks to found at Stoke a church of St. John, and to dwell there with all the rents, privileges, &c., and prebends, which the church of St. John, situated " in castello Clara," possessed. In 1248, Richard, the seventh Earl, reintroduced a different sect of friars, the Augustines, into England and Clare became their most important base, further away from the castle than the monks of John the Baptist’s abbey.

In 1307, Edward 2nd, and most of the Nobility of England, were present at the funeral of Joanna of Acre,daughter of Edward 1st, buried in the church of the Priory.

It has been said that the castle never saw military action such as a siege. Certainly no document has been found that suggests it. However, on June 3rd 1908, while excavating at Clare for foundations for business premises in Malting Lane, workmen came upon  some fifty skulls, many in a fair state of preservation, discovered under 2ft 6in of soil. Some other bones were also found. The owner of the Priory at the time objected to the bones being displayed irreverently by the workmen, so they were delivered to the priory house. Presumably, they were re-buried there. The finding of fifty skulls so near the Mott, but outside the bailey need some sort of explanation! This probably wasn't a consequence of war. When criminals were executed, their heads were displayed prominently in order to concentrate the minds of local people on the consequences of breaking the law. The bodies were buried immediately after execution.

The high point for the castle came when it was owned and sometimes occupied by Elizabeth De Burgh. The ornamental gardens included pathways of flint, bordered with rods and rails, a glass chamber in the ‘house of the pheasants’ (camera vitrea in domo feysants), a house for deer, a ‘tomb’ and a ‘sepulchre’ folly made by her carpenter and possibly modelled on the exotic architecture of the holy sepulchre, a 'fonteyne' and a pool.


Buttress uncovered in early victorian excavations at the
south-west side of the entrance into the inner Bailey.

Eventually the ownership of the castle passed to the Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, whose grandson, on coming of age, in 1412, found it in good repair, and well stocked with rich furniture. The castle eventually passed to Henry VII’s queen. They became crown possessions, included in the Dutchy of Lancaster. At the start of the seventeenth century, the castle and lands went into private ownership.


At the time, a Suffolk Traveller, Robert Reyce, noted that the castle was in, ‘lamentable ruins upon a most beautiful situation’ and it seems that the town had only six-hundred inhabitants.

The railway station occupying the castle bailey, destroying much of the  remains. The level
was raised to create the goodsyard so there are undisturbed archaelogical levels underneath
 that would clear up some of the remaining mysteries.

From then on, Clare castle became a romantic ruin on the garden of Clare Abbey, then a private house. Most of the castle wall was removed in around 1720 for the double purpose of employing the poor and repairing the roads. in September 1848, a pathway was created to the top of the mound as a promenade for the residents of Clare.

In 1865, the inner bailey was destroyed to provide Clare with a railway station. A few relics were discovered but there was no attempt at any archaeology. The station road was driven through the outer bailey and through the bastions between the inner and outer bailey. The occasion was marked by a pageant where the residents dressed up in mediaeval costumes and cheered.

Clare Castle and the Mills

The Stour flows to the south of the Priory. Some of the flow was artificially diverted in a small channel before the Norman Conquest for the requirements of a watermill that was based at the bottom of Mill Lane. This would have been a relatively small building with a mill that spun horizontally like a giant spinning-top. This was a small headrace because the horizontal wheel requires less water and the system is difficult to scale up. The tailrace is still visible.  There was a separate diversion of the Stour to supply the ponds and moats around the Priory. The Chilton stream was entirely diverted from its original course into the Chilton Ditch around the castle, though its water was used for the moats. The cut-off stream across the meadows can still be seen and originally also took the water from the tailrace of the original mill .

This means that the headrace, or mill leat, did not run across the southern wall of the inner bailey as it does now.  The castle would have had unspoiled meadowland in front of it down to the river, which would have then been wider and deeper. The mediaeval main road from Sudbury, now a bridleway in places, then went across Essex past Bechamp st Pauls, and would have afforded mediaeval travellers a magnificent view of the Castle as it curved round, as it does now, towards the river bridge.

In the mid-fourteenth century, vertical watermills were introduced. They could drive up to four stones rather than just one, and were easily expanded. At Clare, the old mill was removed and a 'New Cut' made to a vertical mill downstream. Because a vertical wheel takes more water to drive it, this necessitated a much larger headrace with a sluice gate, and it meant blocking the Chilton Ditch at the site of the current sluice gates. So much water was diverted that the old Stour became much smaller. It also meant the end of river traffic, because all the mills downstream did the same thing.

Clare and Claret.

The whole British Isles had been Christian for at the very least four hundred years by the time of the conquest. The Communion required wine, there was little general demand because the British were resolutely beer drinkers. This was unsurprising because grapes could only be grown in the sunniest, driest, parts of Britain: This realistically meant East Anglia and parts of Kent and Sussex. The best location for vineyards was on the chalklands of East Anglia.

 We don’t know when the wine trade started after the end of the Roman period, but it seems that vineyards were never abandoned. Wine-making is mentioned by Tacitus, and Bede reports that it was drunk in Britain for pleasure as well as the eucharist  in 'wine-houses'. Wine was originally produced  in East Anglia in the early Middle Ages times mainly for ecclesiastical use. The commercial production of wine was boosted by the Norman invasion. As well as requiring wine for the communion, the Normans were resolute wine-drinkers, having caught the habit from the French. Before the conquest, a large part of north Essex and Suffolk was within a parcel of land known as 'The Honour of Clare', which was given by William 1st to the de Clares. It isn't known how much wine was produced before the conquest, but the doomsday book mentions the presence of a vineyard at Clare, quoting its acreage in a French unit, the 'arpent'. the implication being that it was fairly new. It seems that the De Clares and the De Veres both were keen to set up vineyards, the latter choosing Belchamp Walter. There were three vineyards mentioned in Suffolk, and several in Essex (e.g. Great Rayleigh, Hedingham, Great Waltham) . This wine business seems to have been successful for a couple of hundred years or so before the increasingly effective transport links with France after Henry II's time made the home-grown wine uncompetitive. We know that Essex wine was drunk during the sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215, and we know that in 1130 the larger vineyards of Essex were shipping barrels of wine directly to London.

The term ‘Claret’ is middle english, not french, (the first literary refereces are 14c)  and seems to have referred originally to the very light red wines shipped to London from the Honour of Clare, and later from the De Clare and De Vere estates. The term 'Claret' seems to refer originally to any wine from the vast area of the Honour of Clare, which encompassed most of the wine-growing region. Although It was produced in relatively small quantities from vineyards that each seldom reached more that four acres, it was traded from Clare to London  in large-enough  quantities  for church use throughout England. It gained aristocratic connotations and so, when Bordeau wines became more common, they were given by the English the name ‘Claret’.

There is still an Essex grape, said to be ‘wild to East Anglia’, that is an old horticultural variety, robustly hardy and which produces a Claret.