East Anglia: The history hotspots on our doorsteps

With the diamond jubilee deepening Britons’ thirst for historical knowledge, a new book from Reader’s Digest is perfectly timed. STEVEN RUSSELL enjoys reading about our royal places

THE sense of history concentrated in our relatively small island is almost tangible. We don’t have to move far before we find ourselves walking in the footsteps of the monarchs who have ruled these lands for more than 1,000 years and encountering interesting places with royal provenance: from the expected castles and stately homes to more surprising forests, caves and hidey-holes.

More than 400 of them feature in a new guidebook from Reader’s Digest, which tours the country to find locations that one way or another have woven themselves into the fabric of our past.

There are the biggies, of course – such as the Tower of London – but the most intriguing are the prosaic places and happenings lifted to prominence by fate.

The best-known of these is the oak tree in the grounds of Boscobel House in Shropshire, where the uncrowned Charles II hid from Cromwell’s men. At the other end of the scale is the Cheshire town of Knutsford, where young Victoria was in 1832 rather taken by the May Day tradition of using coloured sand to make patterns and pictures on the street.

Writer Rose Shepherd points out in the introduction that our heritage is inextricably wrapped up with the story of our rulers.

“We see everywhere the sumptuous pleasure palaces they commissioned, the formidable castles they raised, the gardens they laid out and the deer parks they enclosed. We see, too, the battlegrounds upon which some met their end and the towers in which others languished.

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“All the best and worst traits of Britain’s kings and queens, princes and princesses, found expression in what they created. Their munificence, enlightenment, playfulness and artistic vision made their mark.

“In the same way, their megalomania, greed and paranoia left a legacy. Stout fortresses and crumbling remains recall Edward I’s military adventures across borders. Magnificent ruins stand as reminders of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries – an act of such extreme vandalism that in the space of five years the British landscape was changed forever.”

The guide-cum-gazetteer-cum history book – The Most Amazing Royal Places in Britain – is divided into counties. Its journey around this isle takes in Leeds Castle in Kent, the retreat of medieval queens such as Eleanor of Castile and Anne of Bohemia. Banqueting House, at the junction of Whitehall and Horse Guards in London, was used by James I as a drinking den and by Charles II to hold lotteries. At Coombe Hill in Buckinghamshire the sons of the Celtic king Cunobelinus were killed. Bradlands in Hampshire was where the Queen and Prince Philip spent their honeymoon.

The locations and anecdotes range from the ancient – Dundrennan Abbey, in Dumfries and Galloway, where in 1568 Mary Queen of Scots spent her last night in Scotland – to the more modern: the London restaurant Maggie Jones was a favourite of the late Princess Margaret, for instance. Meanwhile, at the country house hotel Plas Dinas in Gwynedd, owned by the Armstrong-Jones family, Prince William dropped in for a lunchtime aperitif.

Our region isn’t left out. In fact, it gets an intriguing billing, with the women of the eastern counties reckoned to have left the greatest mark on East Anglia’s royal landscape – “From she-wolves to noble saints, tragic pretenders to captive queens”.

Here’s a flavour of the local highlights . . .

It doesn’t take long for a juicy controversy to arise: such as “Could Elizabeth I’s top courtier poet have written works attributed to Shakespeare?”

This is a provocative question linked to the Norman keep of Hedingham Castle, near Halstead, built in about 1140 by Aubrey de Vere II. Later, Queen Matilda, daughter of Henry I and mother of Henry II, made Aubrey III 1st Earl of Oxford.

“The Oxfords were crusaders, fighting alongside Richard the Lionheart. Robert, the 3rd Earl, was one of the barons who pressured King John to seal the Magna Carta. John, 15th Earl, accompanied Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. As Great Lord Chamberlain, he bore the crown of Anne Boleyn at her coronation.”

We’re talking well-connected, here.

“The 16th Earl accompanied Elizabeth I from Hatfield to London to be crowned; his wife became a maid of honour. When the queen visited Hedingham for a few days in 1561, she took a shine to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl, who wrote verse under the pen name of Spear-Shaker, in celebration of his talent for jousting.

“He is one of a number of literary figures proposed as the true author of William Shakespeare’s plays.”

At Purleigh, four miles from Maldon, there’s something intriguing, too – one of Henry VIII’s “lost palaces”.

It was at the Palace of Beaulieu (New Hall) that the king laid plans to divorce his first wife. Ironically, it would become a Catholic girls’ school during the time of Charles I.

“The king bought New Hall from Thomas Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, father of Anne Boleyn, in 1516, and rebuilt it in brick in a manner to impress,” writes Rose Shepherd.

“He renamed it Beaulieu to reflect the beauty of it, with its eight courtyards, sweeping fa�ade and gatehouse towers. Catherine of Aragon had given birth to his first child, Mary, and no expense was spared in creating a palace for the infant princess.

“By the time the king stayed here on his summer progress in 1527, he was desperate for a male heir, and it was here that he began to scheme to have his marriage annulled.”

Later, Elizabeth I granted the estate to the Earl of Sussex. “Oliver Cromwell ‘bought’ it for five shillings in 1640 (Henry had paid �1,000 for the hall and spent �17,000 on the rebuilding).

“New Hall is still a school, retaining some of Beaulieu’s grandeur, educating boys and girls in the Catholic faith. Mary Tudor would approve.”

Up to Colchester, Britain’s oldest recorded town. It’s always fun being reminded that the castle was started in 1076 by Gandulf, Bishop of Rochester, on the orders of William the Conqueror.

“It was founded on the site of the Roman Temple of Claudius, burnt down by Boudicca and her tribe. Lacking suitable local stone, Gandulf ’s labourers used materials from Roman Colchester for their keep.” The book explains that in 1650, under Oliver Cromwell, a Parliamentary survey put the castle’s value at �5 for scrap! “An ironmonger, John Wheely, was licensed to demolish the building, but after causing ‘great devastations’ with gunpowder, he gave up.”

So what royal jewels can Suffolk boast?

Well, Newmarket’s first horse-race to be run under written rules was decreed by Charles II in 1665. It became an annual event and in 1671 he rode his own horse to victory!

“Charles’s grandfather, James I, had discovered the joys of the heathland around the ‘poor little village’ of Newmarket when hunting hares in 1605. He built a palace, with a brewery, stables and kennels, and made many ‘sporting journeys’ to what became a royal town.

“The first record of a race here is in March 1622 when Lord Salisbury pitted a horse against one owned by the Marquis of Buckingham. The race won Buckingham �100.”

Charles I found Newmarket to his liking. “The heath, said his servant Sir Thomas Herbert, ‘for good air and pleasure gives place to no other in this great island’.

“After Cromwell came to power, the palace was sold to a consortium of his men, who systematically wrecked it.”

Charles II built Palace House and started to visit twice a year, regularly riding the July Course. “Charles was also responsible for adapting another stretch of turf for racing, now known as the Rowley Mile, apparently using this when he was blinded by the sun on the July Course.

“His favourite horse was Old Rowley, a nickname that attached to the king himself.

“Samuel Pepys makes several mentions of the king’s jaunts to the races, including one on May 22, 1668, when the king romped to victory in the Town Plate. The race is still run today – the world’s oldest horse race.”

There are other Suffolk connections, of course. Framlingham has them in abundance; the story of Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, being instructive. He incurred the wrath of Henry II by taking part in the failed rebellion of 1173-4, when Henry’s wife – Eleanor of Aquitaine – and three of his sons tried to de-throne him. The monarch first confiscated Bigod’s Framlingham Castle and then partly destroyed it.

Nearly four centuries later the castle was in the hands of Mary Tudor, given it by brother Edward VI not long before he died. She was in Framlingham, ready to advance on London with her massed supporters, when she learned Lady Jane Grey’s contested reign had been ended virtually before it had begun and that she, Mary, was queen.

• The Most Amazing Royal Places in Britain: The Palaces, Battlefields and Secret Retreats of Britain’s Kings and Queens is published by Reader’s Digest at �14.99

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