Built by Henry 11 between 1165 and 1173, The Pipe Rolls record that the castle was built at a cost of £1414 9s 2d as a symbol of the King’s power and to guard the Suffolk coast from the threat of invasion by the French. Orford is also the earliest
castle in England for which documented evidence of its building still survives.
The magnificent polygonal keep is the only standing structure to survive and, standing 30 metres high is in surprisingly good condition and is built from at least four different kinds of stone. Blocks of septaria, a local sandy coloured mudstone, and limestone from Northamptonshire; as well as Caen stone and Coralline Crag
At the time of the castle’s construction, Orford was a significant Medieval port exporting wool (an important trade in Suffolk) and lead to Europe and it seems that the castle may have had a function in the control of the trade; collecting duties and safeguarding the money. Indeed, one of the chambers in the great tower was probably a treasury and a chamber in one of the turrets was a ‘muniment’ room where records were made and stored.
Significantly, this room does not have a fireplace but was warmed by the fire in the lower hall. This would not only keep the parchment rolls dry but would also lessen the risk of fires breaking out and destroying important documents. No wonder Orford’s records have survived so well with such for-thought by its designers and builders…and hurrah and huzzah for them I say.
During the reign of Henry 11 (1154-1189) a very curious incident occurred at Orford. Some local fishermen caught what they believed to be a merman in their nets. The poor thing was naked and had a long shaggy beard and was otherwise hairless apart from a very hairy chest.
The fishermen took the creature to the castle where he was immediately thrown into the dungeons.
He was, according to Medieval chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall, happy to eat anything that was given to him, but if it was raw, the man squeezed all the juice out of it first. He did not speak even when he was hung up by his feet and tortured in an attempt to force him. This torturing of the poor soul was a regular occurrence according to Ralph.
He was allowed to exercise in the sea only when nets had been placed across the harbour entrance. But he escaped by diving beneath the nets and swimming out to sea where he proceeded to taunt his captors by rearing up again and again and then plunging back into the sea.
Then, unexpectedly, the wild man returned to his captors to resume life on land. But interest in him waned and the guards became lax and some months later he dove under the nets and was never seen again.
Legend has it that the ghost of the merman still haunts the castle of Orford, where inside you will find a model of this legendary Man of the Sea covered in hair with his long shaggy beard. Orford Castle is now managed by English Heritage.