In Rayleigh, there lies a mound. Nothing spectacular about it, today it is a nature reserve with some recommended walks. At the top of the mound, which is 250m above sea level, one can see spectacular views across the Crouch valley. What most people do not realise is that the mound was man made; it was part of a defence mechanism of a castle. A type of castle called a Motte and Bailey. It was completed in 1070, was never attacked, and existed for 300 years. It is listed in the Domesday Book (the only castle listed in Essex!)
The word Rayleigh originated from the old English for wild she-goat clearing. A medieval town was set up there along with a castle due to its location on a light spur jutting from Rayleigh hills, between the River Thames and Crouch making it a good defensive position. The mound itself is 50 foot in height with an inner bailey of 260ft by 150ft. The castle had a basic layout of the keep mound and a bailey surrounded by ditches.
The first Lord of the Honour of Rayleigh, as it was known, was a man named Sweyne. He was the fourth largest landowner in Essex and was sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire. His role was to maintain law and order in the county and insuring the taxes would be collected on behalf of the king.
Rayleigh was at the centre of his estates. Sweyens manor consisted of a moat with ramparts and a 314-acre bailey. The moat was not filled with any water and was primarily there as a defence mechanism, along with a fortified gateway, a barbican and a bridge. In its development, the builders used the natural contours of the ground to assist with the defences of the castle. Sometimes this would be the reason why a specific location was chosen, which was most likely the case with Rayleigh.
To further understand Rayleigh castle we need to look at what exactly a Motte and bailey castle was. The concept of a Motte and bailey castle was a European idea, which was brought over to England by the Normans in 1066. Although the use of ditches, ramparts and stonewalls was already in use the raising of a motte was not used until the medieval period.
The great idea of a motte and bailey was the fact that they were quick to assemble especially for invader armies like William the conqueror’s in 1066. They were cheap too – constructed from timber and earth alone. The idea was basically to place a wooden keep on top of a mount of earth (usually man made) overlooking a courtyard, which would be enclosed (the bailey). Sometimes a natural mound would have been used for the motte (old French origin) but the majority of the time it would be man made by piling up earth. The steep embankment around the motte, which was a great defensive measure, was known as a Scarp.
Inside the motte would lay the Keep – a wooden building where the lord of the castle would reside along with some other rooms such as cellars, servant quarters, and granaries. This building was the last line of defence within a motte and bailey castle.
The bailey was by a wooden palisade, which would be guarded. Along the outside of the palisade would usually be a ditch, where the keep was the lord’s residence, the bailey would be the domestic centre of life in the castle. It would be here where all the other buildings to run an estate would reside such as the chapel, stores, kitchens, and stables.
Connecting the motte and bailey together there would usually be either a flying bridge or steps cut into the motte. What makes each castle different was the fact that they would be built to their surroundings and use what would provide the best defensive measures.
This style of castle would be popular in England for 200 years and many sprung up during the invasion of 1066 to gain control of the local areas as the invading party travelled further afield. The deeper the ditch and steeper the mounds, the harder it would be to attack. Almost 1,000 castles of this design were built in England, Scotland, and Wales.
Eventually this design of castle would stop and fall out of favour. For although they had many benefits and uses, as with most forms of technology in our lives their style became out of date as newer forms of technology such as flaming arrows came in. The style of a motte and bailey although great for quick construction were also not really suited for more long term builds as wood rots and so they soon became expensive to maintain. A new design came into fashion, one more practical for long-term builds, defence and more suited for luxurious living. It was now the age of the stone castles. This is what happened with Rayleigh mount. But instead of rebuilding on the same site which would sometimes happen a new castle was built elsewhere within the Honour of Rayleigh – in Hadleigh and would became Hadleigh Castle (see article the Castle on the Hill).
Sweyen died about 1087 and his son Robert who took the surname of de Essex, due to the family’s high status in the county would inherit Rayleigh mount and his other properties. Robert was also responsible for the bulling of Prittlewell Priory, which is still in existence today (see the Clunic monks of Prittlewell and after post)
Roberts’s son Henry who brought the family to the height of their fame, but also to the end of their power, was also the constable of England, which was one of the greatest offices to hold in England at that time. He would spend little time residing at Rayleigh itself but would invest heavily in the castle, which was his baronial headquarters. After all one had to show off their wealth and status so no one would forget who was in charge. Evidence points to Rayleigh being expanded and reinforced at this period in time.
We know that during this time within the bailey a number of new buildings were erected in the north west corner including a new great hall, also in the north east kitchens were built and a smithy. Henry would fall from power when he was accused of cowardice at the battle of Consyth in Wales and all his land was fortified to the crown, including Rayleigh.
Sweyen and both his son and grandson would both inherit the Honour of Rayleigh which gave them rights and land which they could do with as they wished (within reason). What is the Honour of Rayleigh? An honour in medieval England consisted of a number of rights that a wealthy man could hold. It would usually include a great lordship, in this case Rayleigh, and also dozens or hundreds of manors and the land that came with them. They would usually all stay as a unit with the title passing from one lord to the next, but at times the units would be split with the title be granted to one and a manor or even a number of them be granted elsewhere.
The many manors and land which was granted to the lord would also be spread across a vast area mixed with other lords who held different honours to prevent one lord becoming too powerful in one set area. The head of the honour, in our case Rayleigh, would usually be the primary residence or figurehead of the lord and be where he was granted permission to build a castle or live in one if one existed. It would also be the administrative headquarters of their honour. The term would eventually fall out of use with the development of the peerage hierarchy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Under the monarchs control Rayleigh would undergo some repairs and improvements in 1172 due to unrest and eventually a baronial uprising. King John would visit Rayleigh in 1214 and would grant the castle and Honour to Hugbert de Burgh. He would be the one responsible for building Hadleigh Castle and mark the end of Rayleigh being a castle and status of power.
On the death of his son, Rayleigh would once again revert into the crowns possession. King Edward I would grant the castle to his wife Eleanor of Castile who would establish a stud farm there. We are not sure how much of the castle was still in use at this time as accommodation. What the evidence does show us is that in 1362-3 Queen Phillipa (wife of Edward III) instructed a chamber to be removed from the castle and reconstructed in Rayleigh Park.
We cannot be sure exactly when Rayleigh ceased to be lived in, but what the records do show is that 1394 Richard II gave permission for people in Rayleigh to quarry stone from the castle. Later in 1631, there was a reference to the site being a ‘ruined castle’, however there is no official record, which states the deconstruction of the castle itself.
In the 19th century, Mr E. Francis who excavated large areas of the mound. It enabled historians and archaeologist to gain an understanding of the castles development in its history. Finds include arrowheads, crossbow bolts, cooking pots and a flute. There is even a miniature dog, which can be found at Southend Central museum. All these items have allowed us to build a picture of what life was like at Rayleigh Castle. It was through these excavations that have allowed us to identify that there were two main phases of building the castle along with 6 periods of other developments.
In 1923, Francis gave the site to the National Trust who manages it today. It was given the status of Ancient monument and in 1987 a special fund was set up to look after the mound by Frank Todmin. For opening times visit:
More information about Rayleigh’s can be found at Rayleigh museum and at Southend Central Library. More information on both museums can be found on their websites below:
Helliwell, L and Macloed D.G (1965) Rayleigh Mount. Canvey Island: Rayleigh mount local committee of the National Trust (
Anon (nd) Honour (feudal barony) Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honour_(feudal_barony) [Accessed 12/01/2019]
Anon (2017) Rayleigh Mount. Available from: http://www.gatehouse-gazetteer.info/English%20sites/1162.html [Accessed 11/01/2019]
Dandridge, R (2018) Rayleigh Castle and the de Essex family. Available from:https://southendmuseum.wordpress.com/2018/08/02/objects-in-focus-rayleigh-castle-and-the-de-essex-family/[Accessed 11/01/2019]
Ghidrai, G (nd) Motte and Bailey Castles, the original design. Available from: https://www.castlesworld.com/tools/motte-and-bailey-castles.php [accessed 12/01/2019]
National Trust (nd) The castle at Rayleigh Mount. Available from: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/rayleigh-mount/features/the-castle-at-rayleigh-mount [Accessed 10/01/2019]