Hedingham, or Hengham (as more commonly rendered in medieval documents), was a manor and parish within the hundred of Hinckford also rendered as Hengford and Hedingford the largest hundred within Essex. Domesday records a fairly large population on Hedingham manor by the Late Saxon period, but we cannot be certain they were all gathered in one village situated on the northern slope of the Colne Valley, for some may have been at what later was differentiated as Sible Hedingham (by 1230), and still later treated as a separate manor. Just west of the assumed village at Castle Hedingham, on the far side of the river, which was flanked by marshy land, ran the road connecting Cambridge and Colchester; this passed through Halstead, which became the closest rival market to that at Hedingham, almost four miles to the south-east. That road was reached from Castle Hedingham by one heading south-west from the marketplace to a crossing of the river; although its slope was fairly gentle, it may not have been a route that particularly enticed travelling merchants away from the main road, despite the castle keep providing a visible signpost of a potential client population. A branch off this route connected to the near side of Sible Hedingham, a less compact settlement, most of which lay on the other side of the Colne and on the Cambridge-Colchester road; there is no record of any market there. The main approach road to Castle Hedingham seems to have been that from the borough of Sudbury (Suff.), to the north-east, which, arriving at the eastern edge of Hedingham, forked, with one branch leading to the castle's outer bailey and the other to the marketplace. The town could also be accessed from the west, across a ford on the Colne, via what was later known as Nunnery Street; that this terminated at the castle bailey rather than the marketplace may indicate it was not an ancient route of any great importance.
Hedingham was granted to Aubrey I de Vere at the Conquest and it is thought that, after taking possession, it was he who put up a ringwork fortification on a spur of land overlooking the valley; it comprised a small inner bailey and a larger outer one on the south-western side, perhaps extending around towards the north-east. This castle would become the principal seat of the de Vere family, although the church preferred as the family burial-place was that of Colne Priory. The surviving stone keep seems to date, stylistically, to around the lordship of Aubrey II de Vere (1113-41) and/or Aubrey III de Vere (1141-94), who was made Earl of Oxford in 1142, possibly through intercession with Matilda of his brother-in-law, Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex. It has been suggested that the castle's large tower was not intended as a defensive structure, nor even a permanent residence, but as a venue for occasional entertainment, associated with Aubrey III's elevation to the earldom [Eric Fernie, The Architecture of Norman England, Oxford University Press,2002, p.82]. Fluctuations in the civil war made it advisable for the nobility to assure themselves bases that were strong and well supplied. The castle underwent major redevelopment in 1496 by the thirteenth earl, but most buildings were then demolished in the post-medieval period. The family held a second Essex castle at Great Canfield in style similar to that at Hedingham, so the builder was likely Aubrey I or II but it does not seem to have functioned as a regular family residence and no market is associated with the location.
Domesday indicates that the persons belonging to Hedingham manor in 1086 included 15 burgesses, but they were said to be residents of Sudbury. This makes it the more uncertain whether Aubrey I de Vere would have introduced a small urban component at Hedingham, or converted part of the village to burgage tenure to service a market that quite possibly pre-existed the Conquest. Had there been any indication the town originated within the outer bailey of the castle, we could suspect Aubrey I as founder; but there is none. A local, though perhaps not ancient, tradition [Castle Hedingham Village Design Statement, Braintree District Council, 2008, p.8] has it that the market of the Saxon settlement was held on Crouch Green just across the ford that gave onto Nunnery Street; this would appear to be on the grounds that the name of the green (also rendered as Crouchford Green) derived from the presence of a cross, and the fact that livestock fairs were held there in the post-medieval period. However, the name embodying Crouch does not seem to be documented before the eighteenth century, and there is no clear evidence to show Nunnery Street pre-existed the nunnery (though it is likely enough there was some track there) nor to associate Crouch Green with a market; that it might have been an ancient public gathering place is indicated by mentions of a mootstow in 1262 and 1489 although this suggests the meeting place of the hundred, rather than a market and the alternate name of Mustoe Green is heard of in the sixteenth century. If that area of Hedingham near the ford was of importance in the Saxon period, the focus of population and commerce shifted after the castle was built.
The character of the town (addressed below) suggests it was closely associated with the castle, and the inquisition post mortem (1263) on Earl Hugh de Vere, grandson of Aubrey III, refers to a borough at Castle Hedingham, yielding revenue of 12s. in rents, which suggests no more than two dozen burgages, perhaps fewer. It is conceivable the borough might have been introduced when Aubrey III, who did not succeed his father until 1141, was made earl, for the unstable political and military environment during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda an episode in which Aubrey was too closely involved for comfort would have made a strong castle-town a valuable asset, while also making it advisable for the burgesses and their market to be close to the supervision and safety of the castle. Aubrey was clearly intent on developing the seat of his earldom; the building, or rebuilding, of the parish church may be attributable to his early years, as the nunnery (see below) was to his later years. Instituting a market town would fit into the same agenda.
If a village market had long been in existence, this would explain why no market licence was required once the castle-town had been established. It has been speculated that a twelfth century cross-shaft found in the Falcon Inn's cellar could have been the market cross [Maria Medlycott, Castle Hedingham - Historic Towns Assessment Report, Essex County Council,1999, p.11]. The market is mentioned in 1216, in March of which year Castle Hedingham was seized by King John from the rebellious third earl, who did not regain possession until the following year. We hear again of the market in 1254, when Hugh de Vere complained that it was being damaged by that at Halstead, licensed in 1250; but he reached a settlement with the latter's owner, whereby Hugh accepted the Halstead market in return for an annual payment. It perhaps proved a bad deal in the long-term, for the growth of commerce at better-sited Halstead contributed to Castle Hedingham's decline. The absence of any fair licence for Hedingham suggests that its site was not likely to attract heavy commerce and the market may have been primarily intended to serve the castle and the residents of Hedingham and its hinterland. The reference to the market in connection with Earl Hugh has led some to assume it was he who acquired royal grant of a market; there seems no solid reason to suppose this, although Hugh certainly showed some interest in his hometown, founding a hospital at Castle Hedingham around 1250. The presence of a pottery-making industry in the area, from mid-twelfth to fourteenth centuries its wares mainly distributed over northern Essex, south-west Suffolk, and southern Cambridgeshire might conceivably have been an effort fostered by the de Veres to bolster their market, but the sixteen production sites so far identified were south or south-west of Castle Hedingham and their products may just as easily have been sold at Halstead's market.
Aubrey I de Vere is of obscure origins and it is not even clear he was a Norman. For his service in assisting with the Conquest, he and his wife Beatrice were rewarded with lands in nine counties, and he held the post of chamberlain to the queen, and perhaps later to Henry I, as well as serving as a royal justice in Berkshire and Northamptonshire; he was not among the top rank of the Norman nobility. In 1111 he founded a Benedictine priory at Earls Colne, retired into its community, and died ca.1113. Under his son Aubrey II the post of chamberlain became hereditary by royal grant, and Aubrey II served as a co-sheriff of Essex and other counties in 1139 (though this just might have been Aubrey III, born ca.1115). Although Aubrey I received, or appropriated under questionable circumstances, numerous manors in Essex, and held others of Count Alan of Brittany, the only ones at which the de Veres had markets were Castle Hedingham and Earls Colne, the latter licensed by Hugh de Vere (1250). Earl Hugh was the only member of the family prolific in the creation of commercial institutions; he established markets in several other counties (see Earls Colne). By contrast, his grandson Robert, the sixth earl, merely changed the date of a fair at Lavenham. A junior line of the family, in the person of Baldwin de Vere, in 1205 licensed a market at his manor of Thrapston (Northamptonshire), he or his father having established a castle-town there by that date, augmenting an existing village situated at the point where the Huntingdon-Leicester road crossed the River Nene; Baldwin added a fair in 1226. Unlike Castle Hedingham, Thrapston prospered, despite showing no signs of any significant industry; it had perhaps long been serving as a local centre for redistribution of hinterland produce.
The urban component at Castle Hedingham was situated just below the castle, around the south-western side of the outer bailey, in a hemispherical shape, with the bailey ditch marking one side of it and the town's own defensive ditch encircling the other. The church, probably built in the first half of the twelfth century (though most fabric dates from ca. 1180 and later), stood in the centre of this town, with a triangular marketplace just east of it; the churchyard formed the base of the triangle. The church is dedicated to St. Nicholas, a dedication which might have significance in regard to its marketside location; there is some question as to whether this was its original dedication [Thomas Wright, The History and Topography of the County of Essex, vol.1, London, 1831, pp.508, 521], but this seems to stem from confusion of the church and a chapel (see below). The castle entrance was at the east end of the marketplace. The marketplace had been largely infilled by the sixteenth century, by two blocks of buildings separated by a narrow lane; present-day Falcon Square is a remnant, still triangular, but much smaller than the original marketplace. The Falcon Inn was originally fronted by a series of medieval shopfronts, facing into the marketplace, though most were later removed to make room for the inn's carriageway. What is known as 'The Old Moot Hall' is a fifteenth-century building that stood in the marketplace, though whether indeed a courthouse or administrative building, as its name suggests, or a market house, is unknown; it may have started the ball rolling for the marketplace to be infilled.
Castle Hedingham has the look of a typical castle-town of the early period of Norman foundations, in that the town was closely associated with the castle, as opposed to the river and the through-road, though this appearance may be deceptive, Petchey warned ["The archaeology of medieval Essex towns," in Archaeology in Essex to AD 1500, Council for British Archaeology Research Report no.34 (1980) p.116]. As often happened at such early castle-towns, as the castle's military importance declined, the town expanded into the now-redundant outer bailey (as far as what is now Bayley Street) and beyond its own ditch, which was being infilled certainly this was happening before the close of the sixteenth century; there was little further expansion in the later post-medieval period, however. A small hospital for the poor and infirm, with chapel dedicated to St. James and containing a chantry for the founder and his family, was built in the first half of the thirteenth century by Hugh de Vere, near the gates of the castle; the nearby St. James' Well acquired a reputation for its water having healing properties, which attracted some pilgrims. A small Benedictine nunnery had been founded by the first earl and his wife prior to 1191 when their son added Hedingham's church to the endowments just north-west of the town, near a ford across the Colne. Neither of these foundations seems to have survived the Dissolution.
Despite its inability to out-compete Halstead's market, that at Castle Hedingham continued to be held each Monday in the post-medieval period, albeit in a shrinking space. The manor and castle remained the ancestral seat of the De Vere family down into the seventeenth century, although by the fifteenth all the manorial offices were being farmed out or granted for life. A guildhall put up by the sixteenth earl, near the moothall, provided a public building in which cloth traders and local growers of hops could transact business, while local agriculture and sheep-farming continued to fuel commerce; in 1353 there is reference to a woolmonger resident at Sible Hedingham. We have no evidence to show how closely this economy may have resembled that during the Middle Ages. It may have been that local industry was then concentrated more at Sible Hedingham, which was also under De Vere lordship, though not as far back as 1086; it is thought to have been named for the widowed Countess of Oxford, Isabel de Bolebec who, having obtained at great expense the wardship of her son, Hugh de Vere (who succeeded to the earldom as a minor in 1221), and the comital estates, was in a position to assign herself dower properties. Its riverside location favoured some industrial activities, such as tanning (the fourteenth century soldier of fortune, Sir John Hawkwood, was the son of a Sible Hedingham tanner) and perhaps pottery Potterstrete being heard of there in 1444 and a tile-kiln in 1548. Some of the products of such industries were likely marketed at Castle Hedingham. This is not to suggest that artisans were absent from Castle Hedingham, but that they may have been those whose skills were of most immediate use to the castle community; at different times we hear, for example, of a smith, a carpenter, and a cobbler associated with the place. It may be useful to think of Hedingham as a bifocal settlement, similar to Braintree/Bocking, with 'heavier' industry focused in the non-urban component.