Gallery: James Marston discovers more about one of Suffolk’s most historic buildings - Eye Castle
13:32 21 January 2014
Turn off the busy A140 and it’s just a few miles into the countryside to the charming Suffolk town of Eye. And here, almost hidden in the ancient streets, is one of Suffolk’s most historic buildings.
Today Eye castle isn’t, perhaps, that easy to spot but if you take a moment to look for it and drive up Castle Hill it stands there still after more than a thousand years.
Dave Hughes, communities officer at Mid Suffolk District Council, knows all about the historic site.
He said: “I am interesting in history and the project over the last 18 months to restore the castle has been fascinating. The more we have done here the more we have uncovered.”
In a few weeks time, a mobile phone app will be launched to tell visitors to Eye castle its long story. The app is the latest in a £75,000 lottery funded project to improve and restore the Grade I listed historic scheduled monument.
Dave said: “There is a motte, an inner bailey and an outer bailey and Eye castle was once an important building in its day. The street plan of Eye is today still based on the castle outline.”
First built after the Norman Conquest, Eye castle was typical of other castles built across England as the Normans took control of the kingdom.
Dave said: “There was a Saxon settlement here and it seems there was a fairly peaceful take over by the Normans of the area after the conquest.
“William Malet, who was given the responsibility of burying King Harold’s body after the Battle of Hastings, was also given lands in Suffolk and was responsible for building the castle. He took over from the Saxon lord Edric of Laxfield who was the falconer to King Edward the confessor. It is possible there was also a Saxon fortification in the area but no one knows for sure.”
By the time the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, Eye was a sizeable town of the period.
Dave said: “William Malet was replaced by his son Robert who is credited with fortifying the site. It would have originally been a wooden structure but this was replaced with stone and other materials by the early 12th century.”
During the reign of Henry II, Eye castle was attacked.
Dave said: “By then the castle was in Royal hands. Henry didn’t get on very well with his family or his barons. Hugh Bigod, who controlled much of East Anglia and was based at Framlingham castle, attacked Eye castle with Flemish mercenaries in 1173. The castle was damaged but it survived.”
In 1265, the castle was again attacked during the second baron’s revolt.
Dave said: “After that the castle was never really rebuilt and it was losing its strategic importance.
“Eye means island in old English and the castle would have been surrounded by water and marshland and in a defensive position. Even today when it floods, Eye becomes surrounded by water.”
From then on Eye castle fell into disrepair being used as a prison and an animal pound and even the site of a windmill.
Dave said: “In the Tudor period, Queen Mary, who wanted England to return to Roman Catholicism, used the castle to imprison Protestants who were later burnt at the stake in Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds.”
By 1603, the castle was a ruin with much of the stone being taken away and used for building materials.
Dave added: “The Victorian period saw a revival in the castle’s fortunes. Sir Edward Kerrison gave money to build a workhouse in the inner bailey and a school was build near the motte. The school survived until the 1970s. In 1844 Kerrison built a house on the top of the castle for his batman who had saved his life at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.”
The Victorian house collapsed in the 1960s. In the 1980s new houses were built on the site of the workhouse and the castle was largely left alone until the restoration project in 2013.
Today the site has a group of friends and volunteers, who are working to tidy it up, remove trees from the 42 ft mound and increase awareness about the castle.
A number of outdoor events – including outdoor theatre - are planned.
Climbing up the 73 steps cut into the side of the motte, the views from the top are magnificent.
And although the landscape has changed in a thousand years – there are now energy creating windmills, tracts of farmland, as well as the roofs of Eye, you can still see the flood plain that made the castle strategically important and you can make out the boundary of the outer bailey in the town street plan.
Dave said: “I don’t think people know about Eye castle but it has links to some major parts of our history.
“Eye is a lovely little town and we want to encourage people to come here and visit both the town and the castle. There is a lot of history here.”