Hadleigh's romantic landmark
PUBLISHED: 09:28 08 February 2008 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013
Given by a succession of kings as a token of affection to their wives, Hadleigh Castle is now an historic record of the town's romantic atmosphere
FEW Valentine's Day presents say, 'I love you' quite like the gift of a castle - well, at least that must have been Henry VIII's thought as he presented the dramatic Hadleigh Castle on the south Essex coast of the Thames to his wife, Catherine of Aragon. And then to Anne of Cleves. And then to Catherine Parr.
With so many wives to find favours for, it's not surprising that Henry resorted to re-wrapping an earlier gift.
But legend has it that each of Henry's wives were delighted to receive this stunning edifice, which in its heyday dominated the skyline between what are now the modern Essex towns of Benfleet and Leigh. Even the crumbled ruins, that are all that is left of the castle today, command stunning and far-reaching views of the capital and as far as Kent, across tracts of peaceful Essex countryside.
It was as a vantage point that the castle was so valued by the succession of English kings who owned it. Set on a slope overlooking the Thames Estuary, Hadleigh Castle was first built in around 1230 by one of the country's most powerful men, Hubert de Burgh, who had been Chief Justiciar to King John and was at the time acting as regent to the young King Henry III. However, Hubert managed to fall foul of Henry and by way of punishment the King confiscated Hadleigh Castle and continued the construction of the building for himself.
Fit for a king
It was left to Henry's successor though to create the impressive fortress whose ruins can be seen today. In around 1365 the castle was rebuilt and augmented by Edward III as a fortified lookout post to protect London from possible attacks by the French, who would be spotted travelling up the Thames Estuary before they could get anywhere near the capital.
However, the castle was also used as a residence and one that was traditionally gifted by the king to his wife. In Henry VIII's case of course, this meant multiple giving and he offered Hadleigh to each of his wives in turn. Only Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr ever lived in the castle, though, and at different times of course.
Perhaps illustrating Henry's growing dissatisfaction with his series of wives, towards the end of his reign he allowed the building to fall into disrepair and, by the time of the king's death, Hadleigh was crumbling. His son, Edward VI, was pleased to offload it in 1551 to the notorious Lord Rich, an important and very powerful Essex landowner. However, instead of rebuilding the castle, Rich hastened its demise by using it as a quarry.
What was left of Hadleigh Castle was mostly overlooked throughout the course of the following centuries, until John Constable immortalised it on canvas in 1829. His painting, which captures the history and romance of the castle ruins and the dramatic bleakness of the marshland setting, now hangs in the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut and is considered to be one of Constable's finest works.
This is a fitting tribute to the remains of one of the finest 14th century fortifications in the country and in fact the only one of its design still in existence.
Now jointly owned and managed by Essex County Council, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council and Castle Point Borough Council, the castle and the nearby country park are open to the public during the hours of daylight every day of the week, all year round.
A wander around the surviving stone towers is enough to conjure all sorts of images of what may have gone before in this most atmospheric of Essex locations. Although the south side of the castle is gently slipping into the estuary, the towers that still stand are strikingly impressive. Made from solid blocks of Reigate stone held together by mortar studded with cockle shells, this is a very commanding edifice, perched on a spur overlooking the estuary with magnificent views.
Day to day life
A recent architectural survey gives an insight into the use of the building not just as a fortress, but as a home. Apart from the obvious remnants of the castle's eight towers - three square and the others circular - historians have discovered evidence of day-to-day living in the castle. The foundations of kitchen buildings, the hall and the solar (the great chamber which was the lord's private apartment) and a lead-melting hearth have all been identified. Within the south-west wall there was even a medieval toilet, a 'garderobe' with chutes to the outside, and there are the foundations of residential buildings to the south.
Whether Henry VIII's queens enjoyed happy times at Hadleigh it is impossible to know. But one thing is certain, every one of the three who took up residence in the castle lived to tell the tale. Perhaps being spared the executioner's axe was Henry VIII's idea of the ultimate affectionate gesture. Certainly, the wild and windswept marshland setting of what remains of Hadleigh Castle, with its centuries of history and its royal connections, is one of the most atmospheric and romantic Essex landmarks.