The Small Town of Clare

Clare before the
Norman Conquest

The Clare Lordship

The Castle

The Medieval Town

Borough and Manor

The Parish Church

The House of Austin Friars

The Woollen Industry

The Town in the
Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Early Nonconformity

Schools and Charities

Later History of the Town




The Castle

Whatever may have been the early origin of the castle it developed under the Norman lords into a strong fortification. Today we can trace the extensive earth ramparts of the north and south baileys covering about twenty acres. We still have the high mound with its ruined tower, but it is difficult to realise the strength and grandeur of the medieval castle, upon whose site the railway station now stands.

Nevertheless we know that the castle was used by the Clare lords as a place of residence, (Gilbert of Clare issued a deed there as early as 1090), and his successors doubtless added to the fortifications. It was an easily defended position to the east and south were the marshy lands along the Chilton stream and the Stour river. Of the two baileys, the northern One, nearer to the town, had earthen ramparts but no wall. South of this was a mound, one hundred feet high, surmounted by a strong stone keep. A stone wall descended the motte and was continued along the top of the earth ramparts which enclosed the inner southern bailey; a moat nearly surrounded the mound and a deep fosse separated the two baileys. On the west was a high wall, and the outer gatehouse and drawbridge were probably near the present entrance to Station Road.

Within the inner bailey were the main castle buildings. From fourteenth century accounts we know that these were extensive, as befitted a great household such as that of Elizabeth de Burgh. The accounts indeed throw light on her mode of living. She had a household of about two hundred and fifty persons, with a marshals department of several hundred horses. She entertained royalty; in 1350 she had staying with her Princess Isabella, Lady Despenser, the Countess of Ulster, and the Earls of Lancaster and Northumberland, with their retinues.

Of the castle buildings there was a main hall called “Clarette Hall“, several other rooms, a chapel served by a resident chaplain, and the usual kitchens, larder and saucery. There were outhouses for the servants, stables, malthouses, woodyard and a horsemill. The castle had a well-stocked fishpond; swans were kept on its pools; and there were several gardens and vineyards.

Sign of the Swan Inn

The castle was still used as a place of residence in the fifteenth century. The beautiful and unique sign of the present Swan Inn was probably the base of an oriel window at the castle. The sign is about ten feet long. In the centre is a swan gorged with a crown, also a crescent and star, both royal devices. On the left is a shield with the arms of Mortimer and de Burgh quartered; on the right is a shield bearing the royal arms of France and England. It has been suggested that the carving was made during the time when Henry, Prince of Wales, was guardian of Edmund Mortimer, at some date before 1413.

When the castle became a Crown possession at the end of the fifteenth century there is every likelihood that it soon fell into ruin, and that its timbers and stones were used for local building, road repair and the like. The site was finally mutilated in 1863 when the Great Eastern Railway line was built through the inner bailey, and the present station road was cut through the ramparts and the outer bailey to reach the market.

In 1955 when a sewer trench was being taken across the outer bailey, an interesting excavation was carried out for the Ministry of Works in co-operation with the Clare Rural District Council; and a report on the discoveries made was published in the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology (vol. XXVIII part 2) in 1960. Two trenches were dug, one across the northern bailey from a point east of the bailey bank, and the other running from the bailey bank on the west to the Chilton ditch on the east. Along the first trench a possible medieval entrance to the bailey was found, and several hearths produced a number of miscellaneous objects and a considerable number of sherds of twelfth and thirteenth century pottery. It is thought that at this period the ground level was about two feet below the present level, and that the hearths most probably represented the sites of small huts or barracks.

In the second trench near the Chilton stream pieces of shoe leather, soles and uppers, all of cow hide, were found. These have been identified with the turnshoe soles of c.1350 - 1450. The specimens show signs of wear and of repair, and possibly this area was used as a rubbish dump at this time. These signs of occupation certainly agree well with the contemporary historical record of life at the castle in the time of Elizabeth de Burgh and her successors.


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