A detailed look at two magnificent Norman motte-and-bailey castles in Essex: Great Canfield and Pleshey. Both were homes to some of the most powerful men in England in their time...
A Norman imprint on the land
To venture into Essex is to experience a landscape defined by the Norman Conquest. Ancient lanes twist and turn round boundaries long established, many villages bear names with a distinctive French flavour (for example, Stansted Mountfichet) and others are defined by that most Norman of social statements: the great castle mottes (or mounds), granted by William the Conqueror to his nobles.
The county contains two particularly fine mottes which are worthy of exploration. The first, at Great Canfield, was the property of the great de Vere family; the second, at Pleshey, passed through many different families but is perhaps most associated with the de Bohun earls of Hereford.
Both these mottes are of a substantial size, indicative of the power vested in their owners. Similarly, both are now a shadow of their former selves. One occupies a small hamlet (Great Canfield), the other appended to a small neighbouring village originally intended to be established as a Norman “caput” or administrative centre (Pleshey).
Great Canfield Castle
The castle at Great Canfield comprises a large motte, 48 feet high and 280 feet in diameter, to which is connected two baileys (courtyards), one of which is more accurately described as a ditched enclosure. It is possible, given the way the road bends upon reaching the village, that there was a third enclosure west of the church.
The bailey to the east is the larger of the two surviving enclosures and the most well defined, although it is on private land so is difficult to see properly. On this bailey’s eastern side, it is possible to see a double-ditch feature, not unlike that at Berkhampsted in Hertfordshire. This double ditch has disappeared to the south and west.
The ditched enclosure to the west of the motte does not have an embankment and nor does the ditch encircle it fully. It is possible that this enclosure, similar to the putative third mentioned above, was never completed.
Intriguing Norman Church
To the north west of the motte is the church.
This is discussed elsewhere but is notable for its Norman door and tympanum and for some wonderful Norse carvings; additionally, a re-used Urnes-esque grave stone is re-used inside the church to form a capital to the chancel arch.
It is likely that church and motte were established early on; the Norse elements may suggest the original church was of even greater antiquity.
A castle in the landscape
The earthworks surrounding the castle and baileys were planned as a whole and with water filling the ditches provided by diverting part of the river Roding to enable wet defences. Today, the ditches are largely dry.
The whole complex, including the church, suggest that Great Canfield was a statement castle in the landscape, dominating the local area. Its connection with the de Vere family, the Earls of Oxford, reveals its status and explains its impressive structure.
Unlike the other de Vere castle at Hedingham, elsewhere in Essex, it does not appear to have been graced by stone fortifications. Yet this is not to suggest that the castle was in any way diminished by this, as we shall see with nearby Pleshey.
Pleshey castle can almost be described as the archetypal motte-and-bailey castle. Conforming to a standard image of a mound and kidney-shaped bailey, it also (in parts) has a wet moat. It is notable too because of the well-preserved town enclosure which encompasses the current village and which has not been damaged by later accretions.
It is thought the motte, bailey and “town” were built as a piece in the 12th Century by the De Mandevilles; the current “Back Lane”, a half-moon shaped crescent street leading off the main street may, by its plan, indicate that this once marked the perimeter of another bailey to the north of the motte. We see a similar bailey-moat-cum-street at Framlingham in Suffolk.
A palace keep?
The motte is similar in size to Great Canfield at approx. 55 feet in height and 290 feet in diameter at the base. Foundations within the motte summit point to the stone walls of a keep although these were flimsy.
Unlike the astonishing hall keep buildings at Acre in Norfolk, it is likely that the keep at Pleshey was ostensibly made of timber with an outer masonry wall (Castle Studies Trust). The notion of a rich timber structure within a stone carapace brings to mind the astonishing carpentry in the keep at Windsor in Berkshire.
Pleshey is particularly famous as a home of the De Bohun lords in the fourteenth century and it seems that the keep was a luxurious building, perhaps more akin to enjoyment than military defence. Humphrey de Bohun VIII, 6th Earl of Hereford, 5th Earl of Essex, who lived here in the mid 14th Century, was known for his extensive literary tastes and probably greatly enjoyed his time here. It was he who was responsible for commissioning the mediaeval alliterative masterpiece, William of Palerne (William and the Werewolf) - a poem for those "who know no French".
Today, access to the motte is via a brick-built bridge of the highest quality which dates from the fifteenth century. Excavations have shown that the original access was by a timber bridge built into masonry piers, the lowest of which were more substantially built to brace the downward forces of the weight of the timber.
Bailey and town defences
The bailey, with its mighty ramparts, reminds the reader of those at Acre and Rising, both in Norfolk. From within the bailey, they rise 16 feet from the courtyard; from the moat they rise nearly 40 feet from the water. Clearly this was a castle built to impress the visitor to this administrative “Caput”.
It is often best to see an aerial photograph of Pleshey to understand its original layout in relation to the town and to see how perfectly it has survived as an integral whole. From the air, it is possible to see the castle, the bailey, the notional north bailey and then the remaining enclosure for the town stretching in a huge arc to the north.
The town enclosure comprised a rampart and ditch, all of which can be walked via a public footpath. At one point, Pleshey’s church was housed within these ramparts to the north west and may well have resembled the simple church extant at Great Canfield.
However, the current church, to the west of the castle (and the only part of Pleshey village built outside the ramparts), is heavily rebuilt and only the pillars of the central crossing are fourteenth century. This church was originally established along with a priest’s college at around the same time.
Great Canfield Castle and Pleshey Castle are both privately owned. However, public footpaths run near both. If you see the farmer at Great Canfield he may well let you look around the motte but you MUST ask. Pleshey is open a couple of days in the year (I believe it may be open on national Heritage weekend, according to one local I spoke with) or can be viewed by special appointment. Public footpaths let you see all the town defences.
Historic England listing for Great Canfield Castle and Moated Enclosure here
Historic England listing for Pleshey Castle and Town Enclosure here
Castle Studies Trust reports on Pleshey Castle (click links within the page for more information) here
About the author
Michael Smith read history at the University of York and is an historian, printmaker and translator of fourteenth century Middle English poetry.
His illustrated translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published by Unbound in 2018. He is currently translating (and illustrating) the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a poem written during the time of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke, which publishes in February 2021.
Michael is also crowdfunding his next book, a translation of William of Palerne (William and the Werewolf). You can support this book and have your name printed in the back as a named patron here