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The history of Rayleigh Mount

A view up the path towards the hill at Rayleigh Mount, Essex
A view up the path towards the hill at Rayleigh Mount | © National Trust Images/Andy Williams

Rayleigh Mount is the site of a Norman motte and bailey castle – the only castle in Essex to be mentioned in the 1086 Domesday Book. Given to the National Trust in 1923 by Edward Francis, it's a scheduled ancient monument so its archaeology is specially protected. With the outer bailey now completely built over and houses encroaching on the outer rampart bank, the need to conserve the site is greater than ever.

First line of defence

As one of the Castles mentioned in the Domesday Book after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, like most early Norman castles, Rayleigh was built using timber on top of a motte (earth mound). Standing between the Rivers Crouch and Thames, the castle was the first line of defence against invading armies marching on London. Despite this, Rayleigh was never attacked in its 300 years of military use and by the 17th century was defended by little more than cattle.

The castle builder

The castle was built by the lord of the manor of Rayleigh, named Sweyne. As the fourth largest landowner in Essex, Sweyne was a vastly rich and powerful man, responsible for maintaining law and order, ensuring the King's taxes were collected. Living a privileged life, he would have enjoyed venison from his hunting park and wine from his own vineyard.

Grand designs – castle style

Rayleigh started small but soon grew to show off the power and influence of its owners. Sweyne’s grandson Henry de Essex had a huge defensive moat (ditch) and rampart (earth bank) added around the motte, creating a three-quarter-acre inner bailey (courtyard) that contained most of the castle buildings, housing soldiers and horses.

The new moat was never designed to hold water, instead the steepness of its sides prevented soldiers attacking the castle on horseback or by effective ground assault. The soil excavated during this work was used to make the motte higher. Ragstone from Kent was used to reinforce the sides of the motte but despite this the castle remained largely timber, unlike many castles that survive today.

The castle's neighbours

Saxons lived outside the castle in their own village. Living a life far removed from that of their masters, their time was spent farming wheat and barley as well as keeping sheep and pigs. Oxen were used for ploughing the land, which supplied the lord of the manor’s crops as well as their own.

A ranger strimming grass at Rayleigh Mount, Essex, in the sunshine, with areas of deep shadow beneath the trees
A ranger strimming grass at Rayleigh Mount, Essex | © National Trust Images/Jessica Rogers

Castle no more

After the disgrace of Sweyne's grandson, Henry de Essex, Rayleigh eventually fell out of use and was abandoned by the 17th century, when it became a farm located conveniently beside the village. Grazed by sheep and later cattle, which could not reach the steepest slopes, bushes and trees soon began to grow on the motte.

Today this scrub is managed by coppicing, a traditional woodland management practice where growth is cut to the ground every few years and allowed to regrow. As the village of Rayleigh has grown into a town, urban life gradually replaced farming and modern buildings now extend right up to the castle. Indeed, part of the outer rampart bank now has houses on it, and the outer bailey is completely built over.

The modern-day mount

The castle motte, now known as a mount, was given to the National Trust by its then owner Edward Belcham Francis in 1923 and is a scheduled ancient monument. Edward had carried out archaeological excavations on the site shortly after his purchase of it in 1909, and was the author of a book on the history of Rayleigh Castle.

A committee of local people, also formed in 1923, continues to help look after the site. In 1987 a special fund was created by a member to provide money for its upkeep. The fund continues to welcome donations which can be arranged by contacting us via email.

From April to September you can discover more of the mount's story by visiting the interpretation room on the first floor of Rayleigh Windmill in Bellingham Lane.

A need to conserve

The fact that modern buildings have come right up to the edge of where the castle once stood shows how important it is to conserve the motte and bailey mounds.

Although less than five acres, the mount is now a valuable open space for wildlife and a quiet retreat filled with birdsong and flowers. Trees and shrubs on the slopes provide a good habitat for birds and wild creatures, while the flowering plants attract insects such as bees and butterflies.

Please help the mount to remain special by keeping to the pathways and grass areas to avoid disturbing the wildlife and leaving the flowers for the insects.

A child in a hat looks at two twigs, Dunham Massey, Cheshire

Discover more at Rayleigh Mount

Find out how to get to Rayleigh Mount, where to park, things to see and do and more.

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