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The first written evidence of the existence of the Herst settlement appears in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book which reports that one of William’s closest supporters granted tenancy of the manor at Herst to a man named ‘Wilbert’. By the end of the twelfth century, the family at the manor house at Herst had considerable status. Written accounts mention a lady called Idonea de Herst, who married a Norman nobleman named Ingelram de Monceux. Around this time, the manor began to be called the “Herst of the Monceux”, a name that eventually became Herstmonceux.
A descendant of the Monceux family, Roger Fiennes, was ultimately responsible for the construction of Herstmonceux Castle in the County of Sussex. Sir Roger was appointed Treasurer of the Household of Henry VI of England and needed a house fitting a man of his position, so construction of the castle on the site of the old manor house began in 1441. It was this position as treasurer which enabled him to afford the £3,800 construction of the original castle. The result is not a defensive structure, but a palatial residence in a self-consciously archaising castle style.
The profligacy of the 15th Baron Dacre, heir to the Fiennes family, forced him to sell in 1708 to George Naylor, a lawyer of Lincoln’s Inn in London. Naylor’s grandson followed the architect Samuel Wyatt’s advice to reduce the Castle to a picturesque ruin by demolishing the interior. Thomas Lennard, 16th Baron Dacre, was sufficiently exercised as to commission James Lamberts of Lewes to record the building. The castle was dismantled in 1777 leaving the exterior walls standing and remained a ruin until the early 20th century. Radical restoration work was undertaken by Colonel Lowther in 1913 to transform the ruined building into a residence and completed for Sir Paul Latham in 1933 by the distinguished architect, Walter Godfrey. The existing interiors largely date to this period, incorporating architectural antiques from England and France. The one major change in planning was the combination of the four internal courtyards into one large one. The restoration work, regarded as the apex of Godfrey’s architectural achievement, was described by the critic Nikolaus Pevsner as executed ‘exemplarily’.
Today it is one of the oldest significant brick buildings still standing in England; brick was a relatively unusual material for the time in Britain. The builders of Herstmonceux Castle concentrated more on grandeur and comfort than on defence to produce a truly magnificent estate.
The property passed through the hands of a number of private owners until it was sold in 1946 to the Admiralty. In 1957 the Herstmonceux Castle grounds became the home of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and remained so until 1988 when the observatory moved to Cambridge. Several of the telescopes still remain but the largest telescope (The Isaac Newton Telescope) was moved to La Palma, Canary Islands in the 1970s. The estate still provides housing for the Newton Telescope and the Equatorial Telescope Buildings, which have been converted to an interactive science centre for schoolchildren.