In the village of Castle Hedingham stands one of the finest Norman Keeps in England. This majestic castle was owned by the influential, and very wealthy, de Vere family (the Earls of Oxford) for some 550 years, and during that time many royal visitors were received at Hedingham Castle.
When Aubrey de Vere began the great stone tower in 1140, he was replacing an earlier timber structure located in the inner bailey. This massive tower or Keep is remarkably well preserved, retaining all of its sturdy walls and missing only the original battlements and two of the corner turrets. Standing over 100ft (30.3m) high, this immensely strong rectangular construction was faced with ashlar masonry, a luxury in Norman castles that few nobles would have been able to afford.
It appears to have five storeys but, in fact, the great hall rose through two levels, with the upper windows providing extra light into the high, dark hall. The ground floor would have been used for storing provisions, whilst on the first floor the cooking would have been done. More importantly, this was where the garrison were housed. Proceeding upwards to the Banqueting Hall, a most magnificent example of Norman craftsmanship can be seen in the central arch that spans the Hall, as well as in the decorative window mouldings. Running around the room, some 12ft (3.6m) above floor level, a delightful minstrels gallery was tunnelled into the thickness of the walls. Another remarkable feature of Hedingham Castle is the survival of a spiral staircase in the north-west corner of the tower, originally constructed of stone but replaced with bricks in the 16th century.
The Keep was built on top of a mound or motte, encircled by a deep moat and curtain walls to provide additional defences. Access to the building has always been via the first storey entrance arch, and evidence of a portcullis can be seen here. Even today Hedingham Castle is entered at first floor level, but a forebuilding that once protected the steps has long since disappeared. Much of Hedingham Castle was rebuilt as a grand Tudor palace by the 13th Earl of Oxford, but only the beautiful red-brick bridge spanning the moat has survived as a memento to John's building programme.
Today, this peaceful site, with pleasant woodland walks and great expanses of lawn to enjoy, is still privately owned by a direct descendant of the de Veres family. Even though Hedingham Castle passed outside of the family following the 18th Earl's death in 1625, and the Earldom becoming extinct in 1703, Hedingham Castle has eventually returned to the 'old family' through a complex line of marriages.