Hadleigh Castle is known throughout Essex; it’s an ever-present feature of the coastline, it’s a regular landmark for every commuter travelling towards London from Southend every day, and it was once held in high regard as one of many royal residences on offer to one of England’s most celebrated Monarchs: Edward III – the second longest ruling medieval monarch of England and King during such events as the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death. Many items on display in Southend Central Museum have survived through the years of Medieval England, however not many can claim to have been standing throughout the years that document the rise and fall of Hadleigh Castle. One such item is one of Hadleigh Castle’s surviving gateposts:
The earliest paper records indicate that in 1215 King John gave the area Hadleigh Castle now stands on and its surrounding lands, known as the manor of Hadleigh, along with many other gifts, to Hubert de Burgh, his chief minister or justiciar. Hubert was a loyal and trusted follower of the king, and was given the role of custodian for two important royal castles at Windsor and Dover. At Dover he was soon to prove his great military skill by successfully defending the castle during a fierce siege in 1216. Effectively ruler of England due to Henry III’s young age at his ascension to the throne, Hubert built a large turreted castle as a statement of his power; Hadleigh Castle. His successful career came to an end after falling out of favour with the king, whereby he was stripped of all lands in his possession, which were ceded back to the king; including the area of Hadleigh in 1239.
The castle remained in possession of the crown, but it was not until the time of Edward II, nearly 100 years later, that the king began to use the castle as a royal residence. Unlike his father however, Edward III was the first king to see the strategic importance of Hadleigh Castle – it was ideally situated as a base for defending the Thames estuary against French raids during the Hundred Years War; any potential attackers could be spotted for miles and any oncoming attacks would have to traverse the castle’s steep natural hillside to even reach the castle walls.
Edward’s claim to the French throne had led to war with France. The need for a more systematic defence of the Thames estuary led the king to refurbish and extend Hadleigh Castle and to build Queenborough Castle on the opposite Kent shore. In time, Hadleigh became a favourite retreat for the ageing king. There are excavated foundations of the most important part of the castle – the great hall. It had a serving room at the end and beyond it a private withdrawing room, or solar. These indicate the expansion of what was solely a defensive fortification into a more homely abode; with space to dine, entertain guests and retreat to an isolated space at the end of the day. These additions date between 1360-1370, when Hadleigh Castle saw a major rebuilding, which incorporated all of these added features. The foundations of these extensions are still visible to this day and can be seen on the following picture:
Sadly, these were to be the last glorious years of the castle as a joint royal retreat and defensive position. After the death of Edward III in 1377, subsequent successors took little interest in the castle as a residence. After being leased to a succession of tenants over a period of almost two hundred years, the castle was sold to Lord Riche in 1551, who sold it off as building materials. During the demolition, a tiled hearth was built into the floor of the hall in order to melt down the valuable window leads. Lord Riche directly benefitted from the buying and selling of crown lands after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1536, having bought several former monastic and clerical buildings, in order to loot and sell all of its worth before selling the lands on.
As such, the story of Hadleigh Castle ends, like many buildings in our history, being passed through Henry VIII and Lord Richard Riche, in ruins. However, through archaeological excavation and the preservation of local land records and multiple tenancies, dating all the way through to the famous Domesday Book, we are able to look upon a splintered and shattered wooden post; sad in the notches cutting into its sides, much of its wood lost to decay and reclaimed by the soil of Hadleigh. And yet it stands just as proudly as it once had, telling of a story of England’s military might. It stands as a reminder to the fortification of Hadleigh Castle, as it now stands in Southend Central Museum to all who care to revisit it’s story.
Tom Kanani – Museum Officer