Travelling to London by train on the Fenchurch Street line, just after Leigh on Sea station one can look out the window. Not on the sea side but on the other side, sitting atop of a hill lays the ruins of a castle. Not much, just small portions of two of towers and some fragments of the castle walls. Yet still it is a beautiful sight to see and the views from the castle of the Benfleet marches and beyond is beautiful. The castle you can see is that of Hadleigh Castle, a castle over 750 years old (but was only actually lived in for about 300 years).
It was originally licensed to Hubert de Burgh (chief judicial officer for King John – Robin Hood and Magna Carta fame). The castle built by Hubert was completed in 1232. It had an octagonal bailey which was protected by a curtain wall with towers, surrounded on two sides by a ditch. It would have been built of Kentish regatsone, Reigate stone and flint.
The castle entrance was on the east wall and was guarded by towers. The courtyard was surrounded by a curtain wall. At its western end was a large hall with principle access for guests.
Although visited a small number of times by royalty it was not until the 14th century that Hadleigh had any royal interest. Edward II made his first visit to the castle in 1311 and stayed for around two weeks in September. Money was spent on the castle at this time, most likely in preparation for this royal visit. A chamber was constructed above the main gate with widows. The king would go on to stay again at numerous times at Hadleigh castle, usually travelling down by barge along the Thames. It is believed that the water’s edge would have came right unto the bottom of the hill rather than beyond the marshes where it is now. In May 1316 it was assigned to the chamber which was a sign that it was of habitual royal residence. There are even a number of writs issued with Hadleigh ad their location. At various times in Edwards reign various changes and repairs were made to Hadleigh.
The castle actually appears on the Gough map, one of the earliest maps of Britain. Believe to have been created around the 14thcentury
However it was not until the 1360-70s that major works were made to the castle around £2000 was spent on rebuilding the castle as part of Edward III massive rebuilding programme. A new gateway was built along with a portcullis with two new towers, lodging chambers and a chapel. The materials used for this renovation came from local sources such as wood from Thundersly and glass from Rayleigh. As was the norm at the time most of the stone would come from Kent. During 1362 Edward III, the year of his 50 birthday he actually visited Hadleigh at least 6 times to oversee the extensive building that was going on. The reason for these works – most likely so that Edward could have a comfortable residence to stay in, away from London and surrounded by hunting land and easily accessible by sea.
During the peasant’s revolt in 1381 soldiers were garrisoned at Hadleigh. In addition the body of the Duke of Gloucester was also kept at the castle for a night after his murder on the orders of Richard II. A battle would take place in Billericay on 28th June were the peasants were badly defeated. Many of the leaders involved in this battle would have been from places such as Rayleigh, Benfleet and Hadleigh.
One occupant was Aubrey de Vere (10th Earl of Oxford), he was the constable of the Castle and actually gave Hadleigh Castle as shelter to the plotters attempting to restore Richard II. It is also said that he may have died there.
Henry VIII gave it to a number of his wives but they never visited. And like many large properties in Essex at this time it would come into the hands of Richard Rich in 1551 and whatever remained of the castle (what added to its state was a number of landslides) was demolished and sod off as materials.
Hadleigh Castles main real claim to fame was it being the subject in a number of paintings by John Constable (one is on display at the Tate gallery).
“At Hadleigh there is the ruin of a castle, which, from its situation, is vastly fine. It commands a view of the Kent hills, the Nore, and the North Foreland, looking many miles to sea.” John Constable in a letter to his wife.
In 1863, the first archaeological dig was carried out.
Finally In 1891 the salvation army acquired the ruins and a lot of the surrounding land. They handed over the ruins to the Ministry of Works after WW2 and it is now managed by English Heritage.
Summers, A and Debenham, J. The Essex Hundred Histories (2015) Summersbrook:England.