It is sited on the northern slope of the valley of the River Colne and to the east of the Colchester to Cambridge route. There was a Saxon settlement of some size there by the end of the Saxon period. However, it owes its development as a town to the presence of Hedingham Castle and the subsequent patronage by the de Veres, Earls of Oxford, who were the lords of the manor.
Hedingham was granted to Aubrey de Vere in 1066, and he probably erected a ringwork shortly after being confirmed in his new lands. The ringwork had two baileys, a small inner one on the north-eastern side and a larger outer bailey on the south-western side. In 1142 Aubrey de Vere III was made Earl of Oxford by the Empress Matilda; the building of the castle keep within the ringwork may mark this event. The keep has been dated stylistically to c.1125-1160 (Brown, 1995). In about 1496 the thirteenth Earl undertook a major rebuilding programme. A plan by Israel Armyse dated to 1592 and an early seventeenth century survey show the results of this rebuilding. Within the old ringwork stood the keep, a stone gatehouse, the Great Brick Tower, a brick turret, chapel, hall and pantries, kitchens, stone lodgings and a well. There was a curtain wall on two sides of the mound. The inner bailey contained stables, a brewhouse, barns, a granary and a tennis court and archery butts.
Castle Hedingham is a typical castle town, lying below the castle of the de Veres, rather then being more conveniently placed beside the Colchester/Cambridge route. It was possibly deliberately founded by the de Veres, in the same manner as the de Mandevilles founded Saffron Walden and Pleshey and the de Lucys founded Chipping Ongar.
The medieval town of Castle Hedingham is sited on the south-western side of the outer bailey. It was roughly hemispherical in plan, with the outer bailey forming the limit of the town on one side and the town defensive ditch on the other sides. In the centre was the church with a triangular market-place immediately to the east of it. There is no town charter, but a market was however in existence by 1216. In the later medieval period the town extended into the bailey area, which was presumably no longer needed as a defence for the castle and the northern limits of the town became Bayley Street and the Sudbury Road. The growth of Halstead in the late thirteenth century at a better placed routeway junction probably led to the decline of Castle Hedingham as a town. This is indicated by the de Veres’ attempt to suppress Halstead’s market.
Notable medieval buildings within the town include the twelfth century church , ‘The Old Moot Hall’ which is fifteenth century in date and a probable public building to the rear of the Hedingham House. There also used to be a Benedictine Nunnery to the north of the town and a hospital ‘at the gates of the castle’ (Eddy and Petchey, 1983). The latter may have been sited on the current playing field immediately to the south of the town, where St James’ Well was also located.
The important mid-twelfth to fourteenth century Hedingham pottery industry may have been founded by the de Veres of Castle Hedingham (Terry Pearson pers. comm.). The production sites which have been found have however all been to the south of Castle Hedingham, mostly in a roughly triangular area around Sible Hedingham, Gosfield and Halstead.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the castle buildings, with the exception of the keep, were systematically demolished. Hedingham Castle House was constructed in the eighteenth century in the inner bailey and the castle and its grounds made into a landscape park.
The post-medieval cartographic evidence shows that the morphology of post-medieval town. differed little from that of the medieval town. However, neither the town defensive ditches or the outer bailey ditch were functional, and the nunnery and hospital were no longer extant, presumably being casualties of the Reformation.
There is little in the way of industrial archaeology at Castle Hedingham. There was once a water mill on the River Colne immediately to the west of the site of the nunnery and a wind mill on the south side of the Sudbury Road, approximately half a kilometre to the east of the town limits, but neither of these is extant. In 1837 there was an attempted revival of the Hedingham pottery industry.