Built in the late 12th Century by Walchelin de Ferriers (de Ferrers) Oakham Castle is one of the best preserved Norman buildings in England. De Ferrers was from a farrier family of Normandy, whose ancestor Henry de Ferrers arrived in England in 1066. Prior to the Norman conquest, much of Oakham, including the land on which the castle stands, had been dowered to Edith of Wessex on her marriage to Edward the Confessor. Following his death without an heir and the deaths of her three brothers at Hastings, the land was lost to the Wessex family, and quite possibly fell into the domain of the new crown of William I. Time Team did a dig in 2012 on the site in an attempt to find earlier Saxon remains.
As most of this side of Rutland passed into the hands of Waltheof, the last Saxon Earl and husband to Judith, Countess of Huntingdon, niece of William, it is feasible that the castle grounds may well have been under their control also. As they have a connection with the nearby village of Whissendine, which provided later bailiffs for the county with the castle being the Court of Assizes from 1229, the idea is not entirely unreasonable. The tradition of a crown court being held in the castle continues to this day, held once every two years.
By 1180. De ferrers was awarded the land, being a close favourite of Richard I and accompanying him on several of his excursions. De ferrers built the Great Hall in around 1180 to 1190, which is all that remains of a larger network of buildings, although current renovation work has almost been completed, adding a new roof, removing an old boiler to be replaced with a toilet block, and clearing the remaining curtain wall of the bailey of overgrown trees and roots, where remnants of D-Shaped towers are clearly visible. A motte is still visible to one side of the hall, and the dig uncovered existence of further buildings including what was thought to be a high status stable block and the remains of sleeping quarters to one side of the Hall. An embankment remains around what was the outer bailey wall and the Castle was guarded by gate with drawbridge affixed iron chains.
Since the days of the de Ferrers as a sort of play on the origins of their name and career as farriers, it became the custom when visiting the castle for the first time for nobles to present a shoe from their Horse to the castle. As a result, there are over 230 horseshoes some dating back several hundred years. One of the most historic being from King Edward IV following his victory at the Battle of Empingham (Losecoat Field) which took place a few miles away. The most recent addition was from HRH the Duchess of Cornwall in 2014, her husband the Prince of Wales having made his own presentation some 11 years earlier. During the renovation work on the interior, all the horse-shoes have been carefully removed, photographed and restored before being replaced on the freshly re-plastered (traditionally of course) and re-painted wall.
The castle is situated off the Market Place in Oakham town centre, at the end of Castle Lane, which is flanked by a row of period cottages, opposite the old Post Office. The gates to the castle and bailey are similar to those outside the large mansion at nearby Burley on the Hill which overlooks the town. Once owned by the 1st Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers who was rumoured to be the lover of King James I and was assassinated by an army officer with a bee in his bonnet in 1628. It is felt that the gates were erected by Buckingham. They are Grade I listed as a scheduled monument in their own right, as is the Castle Hall.
On the Market Place is also the medieval Buttercross, stocks, well and the Tudor buildings and Chapel of Oakham School. Also on the market place which dates back to the medieval period, is a 17th Century coaching inn, and on the top side, a lane leads to the 13th/14th Century All Saints parish church. Another lane leads to the outer bailey, Cutts Close, which incorporates the local park.
Following its refurbishment, with thanks to a Heritage Grant from the National Lottery, Oakham Castle will be staging a grand re-opening on May 30th, 2016 complete with Norman era medieval-centric entertainment, and activities, including tours of the building, falconry, weaving, Norman coin-striking and archery. Knights on horseback will be riding the streets, and there will be a return to the High Sheriff’s Hue and Cry traditions of prisoner apprehension assisted by the public. This will be the first step of a range of activities set to be staged at the Castle throughout the Summer. I’ll be there, please join me if you can.