Castle Hedingham, Essex
Click here for Castle Hedingham’s Magna Carta baron Robert de Vere
The family of de Vere of Castle Hedingham epitomised the metamorphosis of the invading Norman knight into the feudal English baron of legend. Most of these dynasties lasted a mere three generations, succumbing to war or pestilence, or simply backing the wrong side in the interminable battles for the throne of England that characterised the mediaeval period in this country. Our family of Normans turned English aristocracy whether by luck or judgement bucked the trend, and survived to sire twenty earls of Oxford over a period of almost six hundred years.
We can try to imagine the remote village of Castle Hedingham as it might have appeared in 1215, one of the most momentous years in the long history of our people. By this time, the de Veres had established an enviable pedigree and numbered among their relatives Hereward the Wake from whom the nearby village of Wakes Colne gets its name, and William FitzOates, father to the legendary Robin Hood.
Our village’s most notable landmarks in the year 1215, the parish church and the castle keep still survive, though all of the domestic houses of that period are long gone, many having been replaced by the beautiful timbered houses of the Tudor and Jacobean merchants and artisans that still grace our little village today. These people and the tenants of the surrounding farms were the source of the earl’s wealth, plus the income they derived from their other manors that formed part of the ‘Honour’ of Castle Hedingham.
Robert de Vere held his manorial court here at his sturdy stone castle overlooking the verdant valley of the River Colne. He was born in 1170, and succeeded in 1214 as the third earl of Oxford. It’s a misnomer really, as the de Veres’ title was in name only, and had nothing to do with land or property in Oxford itself. The de Veres would have liked the earldom of Essex, but that had already been taken by the de Mandevilles. Norman French remained the language of the court, together with the Latin employed for legal and ecclesiastical business. In their terminology, Castle Hedingham was called Hengham ad Castrum. The original Anglo-Saxon name of our place is lost to us.
Robert, the third earl of Oxford held his lands and titles as the gift of the reigning monarch King John. They were, in part, a surety for his good behaviour and loyalty. The King was crowned at Westminster on Ascension Day 1199, and six years later, he visited Aubrey de Vere, Robert’s brother at Hedingham on the 16th of October. This was a grand occasion that called for all the mediaeval pomp and ceremony the earl could muster. The village and its market and taverns made a tidy profit from the throngs of soldiers and court officials that accompanied the King, while the Great Hall at the castle put on lavish entertainment, supplemented by daily hunting parties in the Great Park to the east, which the King especially loved.
This amicability was not to last, for Robert became alarmed at the King’s arrogance and greed, and his feelings were shared by other Barons. They held a meeting at Stamford and determined to compel the King to agree to a charter of human rights for his subjects. The furious King was forced to attach the great seal of England to the charter (the Magna Carta) by twenty-five of his Barons in the meadow of Runnymede, June 15, 1215.
The King promptly dispossessed many of the twenty-five, and took Robert’s lands in Buckinghamshire, and gave them to Constance, Robert’s sister- in-law. In accordance with the provisions of the Magna Carta, the Barons declared war on their King, who summoned a great force and counter-attacked. One by one the rebels’ castles fell to King John, and to make matters worse, they were excommunicated by the Catholic Pope. Robert repented of his disloyalty, possibly prompted by his family and heirs who stood to lose their valuable inheritance. He renewed his pledge of loyalty, and bearing letters of safe conduct sought refuge in Colchester Castle, manned at the time by a French garrison. To be on the safe side, the King, accompanied by Robert de Vere himself took possession of Hedingham Castle, arriving according to the chronicler Ralph de Coggeshall, on Friday 20th March 1216, and leaving on the following Monday. Robert the 3rd earl of Oxford, bearing letters of safe conduct from King John, must have been a willing accomplice to the surrender and the resistance, if any, would have been perfunctory. There is no contemporary record of a siege as such. Had there been, the King would have laid waste the surrounding countryside, and quite possibly have levelled the castle to the ground.
As punishment for his betrayal, Robert was deprived of all his manors except his property at Canfield, and this so alienated him that he turned against the King once more despite the King’s efforts at a reconciliation when he re-visited Hedingham Castle on the 18th September 1216 after he had enjoyed a triumphal return to London. The throne had been offered to King Philip’s son Louis,called the ‘Dauphin’ by Shakespeare in his play King John, and in1217, the castle at Hedingham was re-captured by Louis’ forces and returned to de Vere.
Only a month after King John’s second visit to Hedingham, he died quite suddenly at Newark-on-Trent. Robert on the other hand went on to fame and fortune. He resumed the duties and financial rewards attached to his office of Lord Great Chamberlain of England, and as a member of the court of King Henry III at Westminster. Robert died in October 1221, and was buried in a tomb surmounted by his effigy at Hatfield Broad Oak. An inscription in Norman French stated:
Sir Robert de Vere the First, Third Earl of Oxford, lies here. God if He please have mercy on his soul; whosoever shall pray for his soul shall obtain forty days pardon. Pater Noster.
With acknowledgement to the Rev. Severne Ashurst Majendie in his The Earls of Oxford and of Hedingham Castle in Essex, published 1904.
Verily Anderson. Her book ‘The de Veres of Castle Hedingham’. Pub. Terence Dalton of Lavenham, Suffolk. ISBN 0-86 138-062-2