Ipswich Icons: So, where did the Baron build his Ipswich Castle?

Mountfitchet Castle, a similar structure to the one in Ipswich, 1,000 years ago

Mountfitchet Castle, a similar structure to the one in Ipswich, 1,000 years ago - Credit: Archant

This week’s column carries a little conjecture, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

Hayhill Castle is a block of flats by Crest Nicholson on their Hayhill Allotments development (Braml

Hayhill Castle is a block of flats by Crest Nicholson on their Hayhill Allotments development (Bramley Hill) a possible site for the towns castle - Credit: Archant

I don’t know, and as far as I am aware nobody knows, where Ipswich Castle was situated. There is speculation of course, and documentary evidence of a castle in Ipswich but no firm location.

Two key facts provide both a start and end to the story. There is evidence in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles that a castle was built (without royal sanction) by the Baron – Hugh Bigod (Bigot) soon after 1107, possibly the same castle that was destroyed by Henry II in 1176.

We know the castle was not at Castle Hill which was the site of a Roman villa. That area probably carries the name as Ipswich castle could be seen from the south facing slope on which the villa was built. Alternatively Norman Scarfe speculates that it was off Henley Road (perhaps in the Arboretum) but this is unlikely. This site is elevated with a clear view of the town, although it is not the highest point hereabouts. If it had been situated here it would have commanded an overview of the roads coming into town from both Essex and West Suffolk, but was too far away to be of use in defence.

Harry Simpson made a case for the location to be at the top of Woodbridge Road hill based on the geographical layout of the ground. He suggests it was possibly just into Belle View Road, or perhaps at the top of what is now Bramley Hill overlooking not only the town, quays and river but also the valley that is Cemetery Road. A lookout here would be able to see down the river as far as the Ostrich, and up the Gipping valley as far as Sproughton. Provisions could be obtained from the farms around Cauldwell Hall and there was abundant water flowing down Water Lane (Warwick Road), Spring Road and from the Belvedere Brook through what became Hayhill allotments.

The military significance of the site was confirmed in the preparations for the Napoleonic wars when a military camp was established on the level ground (Albion Mill) with the officers’ quarters in Harmony Square opposite the Duke of York public house.

On the ground however, nothing, no evidence, no buried artefacts and no written history, simply speculation based on the site being in a ‘good position’. Both of these possibilities are outside the town’s defence ditches, and too far from the river to defend the town from water-borne attack.

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Robert Malster in his book ‘A History of Ipswich’ (Phillimore, 2000) suggests the over-riding factors are that it should fulfil the main requirements of fortification. That is, it should control the river crossing and the main road entrances into the town.

Former county archaeologist, Keith Wade suggested that the most likely place for the castle was on the ‘Mount’, a name used until Civic Drive was cut through for the area behind Elm Street police station. The Mount, from mound or motte, reflecting the Motte-and-Bailey style of the former defences. Such a caste would have been part of the ramparts sitting between Lady Lane (just outside the walls) and Black Horse Lane, just inside. It is most likely that the castle was built of timber on top of a man-made hill which explains the lack of any archaeological evidence.

A similar form of construction was used for the town ‘walls’, a lack of building stone in East Anglia led to a simple ditch and bank topped with a palisade or timber fence.

A further indicator of a structure at this location is the line of Elm Street running from the administrative centre (the Town Hall) to Handford Road Bridge a mile to the west. Elm Street makes a sweeping curve around the south side of the Mount before continuing as Handford Road rather than taking the more obvious straight line due west.

The West Gate, a somewhat more substantial structure, was a few yards north of the Mount, close to the junction of Westgate and St Matthew’s Street (Hyde Park Corner), again the gate would have been between the inner and outer streets that followed the line of the rampart.

The site of the former Civic Centre and Police Station is currently derelict and awaiting redevelopment, this gives us a wonderful opportunity to rebuild the castle and provide a substantial visitor attraction of some importance.

Ipswich is, it is said, the country’s oldest continually inhabited town; a castle would enable visitors to visually substantiate that claim.

The Society provides the local organisation for Heritage Open Days which is held in early September. Members of the public can see inside interesting local buildings which are not normally open. A restored Ipswich Transport bus is often available for free rides between attractions.

To join the Society, just send either £15 for family membership or £10 (individual) to the Membership Secretary, 11 Dalton Road, Ipswich, IP1 2HT with your name and address. The subscription qualifies for Gift Aid (which enhances your subscription by 25% at no cost to yourself). If you are a UK taxpayer, please write ‘Gift Aid’ on your joining letter.

Chairman, John Norman, 6 Tolworth Road, Ipswich, IP4 5AU.

For more information, see their websiteSee more from The Ipswich Society here

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