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Launceston Castle

Also known as, or recorded in historical documents as;
Terabil; Terrible; Dunheved; Llan Stefan; Landstavetune

In the civil parish of Launceston.
In the historic county of Cornwall.
Modern Authority of Cornwall.
1974 county of Cornwall.

OS Map Grid Reference: SX33068463
Latitude 50.63757° Longitude -4.36144°

Launceston Castle has been described as a certain Timber Castle, and also as a certain Masonry Castle.

There are major building remains.

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law.
This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law*.


Castle was built at Launceston, possibly as early as 1067. The original Norman motte and bailey castle, with its wooden defences, guarded the main route into Cornwall, and became the administrative centre for the Earls of Cornwall. In the late C12 a circular stone keep was constructed on top of the motte. Between 1227 and 1272, extensive alterations made to the castle. A tower was built inside the keep and stone curtain walls replaced the timber palisades, with substantial gatehouses in the north and south. Ruinious by 1650. The site is scheduled and listed, the Keep and Gatehouse are Grade 1, the perimeter wall and 1739 water pump are Grade 2.

From C11 to C13, and to a lesser extent subsequently, the castle was Cornwall's most important administrative centre. The excavations have established the character and development of the defences, of which perhaps the main surprise was the identification of stone-based mural towers, probably of C12. These may provide an explanation for similar features at Restormel (Saunders, 1977, 133-4). But the outstanding feature of the programme has been the extensive excavations within the bailey, where a great density of occupation and a well planned layout has been revealed. Rows of mostly small oval and rectangular sunken floored structures associated with bar-lug pottery probably housed the initial garrison. These were replaced in the late C11 by rows of substantial, closely set stone houses, perhaps halls of the holders of knights' fees 'performing their feudal service of castle guard' (Saunders, 1977, 137; 1982; 1984, 5-6). In a major reorganisation of C13 by Richard of Cornwall the Great Hall was rebuilt (Saunders, 1980; 1981; 1982; 1984, 7, 14, 16) and the older buildings replaced by a kitchen and another hall, probably with a cruck roof (Saunders, 1970, 89; 1977, 132, 134, Fig 49; 1984, 14). The Great Hall was the fourth on its site and continued as the Assize Hall until the early C17. The defences were also rebuilt. The gate-houses were reconstructed, the bailey rampart was surmounted by a stone curtain wall, and on the motte a tower was built within C12 shell keep (Saunders, 1964; 1970; 1977; 1984). From the late C13 the castle declined in importance, with the transference of many of its administrative functions to Lostwithiel by Earl Edmund. (Preston-Jones and Rose)

The first mention of the existence of a castle at Launceston occurs in the Domesday Survey of 1086, where it is recorded "The Earl himself holds Dunhevet...the Castle of the Earl is there." The Earl referred to was Robert of Mortain, one of the band of Normans who had accompanied William the Conqueror on his English adventure, and who had been rewarded with the huge Earldom of Cornwall. He appears to have chosen Launceston, or Dunheved, as the administrative centre of his domain, a choice which had a lasting effect on the importance of the town in the local government of Cornwall; until 1840 it maintained its position as the assize town, despite an inconvenient position at the extreme eastern end of the county.

There were good reasons for his choice. In the first place there was already a township on the site. The canons of St Stephen's had a market there. Furthermore as a defensive position it has admirble possibilities: the summit of the hill commands a good all-round view, and the sides could be steepened and the top raised to form a motte or castle mould of the usual Norman pattern. The defensive strength of this mound would probably have been increased by a wooden palisade and tower round the top. Such mounds were intended only as a last strongpoint in the event of an attack, and the domestic accommodation of the castle was located in one or more adjacent courts or baileys; these were similarly protected by earthworks and palisades, and it is likely that the present outer court of the castle originated as a bailey of this type.

Such was Robert of Mortain's castle at Launceston, and there is evidence for thinking that it remained a simple earthwork castle until at least 1216. On architectural grounds the stone buildings on the motte, and the curtain walls and gatehouse can be assigned in all probability to the thirteenth century and in any case not earlier than 1175, in which year the castle reverted to the Crown on the death of Earl Reginald of Cornwall. Fairly complete accounts of expenditure on the construction and maintenance of royal castles survive in the Pipe Rolls, and it is significant that up to 1216 the entries for Launceston show that the annual expenditure on the castle was never more than £20 and usually much less. So relatively small a sum could only be for the maintenance of existing buildings, leaving little doubt that the stone defences belong to a later period.

Other references to Launceston in the twelfth century are few. The grant by Stephen of a perpetual pension in favour of "the Chaplain celebrating in the Chapel within the castle of Dunheved" throws some light on the buildings existing there. The names of two of the Castellans are recorded - Halveth Malyverer in 1139 and Walter Reynell in 1189. The castle was granted to John, Count of Mortain by Richard I, but reverted to the Crown after John's rebellion in 1191. In 1227 it was granted to Richard of Cornwall, who held it until his death in 1272, and was probably responsible for the first stone defences.


It is surprising that a castle of the importance of Launceston should have retained its primitive Norman defences until well into the thirteenth century. By this time even the familiar massive rectangular keeps favoured in the twelfth century were falling from fashion, and almost every castle of any defensive pretensions boasted a stone curtain wall with flanking towers at more or less regular intervals. Where, as at Launceston, an existing Norman earthwork castle had to be modernised, a favourite expedient was the construction of a shell keep on the motte; here the palisade was replaced by a stone wall, which provided a fighting platform on its wall-walk, and at the same time served as an outer wall for lean-to buildings affording a limited amount of accommodation in the confined space on the mound. Examples of shell keeps can be seen elsewhere in the West Country at Trematon and Restormel, and further afield at Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight, and Pickering in Yorkshire. The motte at Launceston is crowned with a specialised version of a shell keep, which is of interest in several ways. If, as has been suggested, it was not erected until after 1216, it must, from a military point of view, have been almost obsolete when it was built. The trend of military architecture in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries was swinging away from the static conception of defence; it was realised that an impregnable keep could only too often be starved into surrender. Current fashions favoured the fortification of a larger area by a curtain wall, having several entrances, which permitted a more fluid type of defence in which the besiegers could be counter-attacked. The construction of the new curtain wall at Framlingham Castle, Suffolk, in 1190-1200 set the fashion for the next century and a half.

But the new work at Launceston, while following the fashions of an early period, presents many features of interest. Within the conventional shell keep, and built somewhat later, is a second tower concentric with it and rising one storey higher; thus the limited space within the shell keep is utilised to greater advantage than would be possible with the normal lean-to buildings. Moreover, the narrow passage between the inner tower and the shell keep was roofed over a wall-walk level, providing a more spacious fighting platform than could be obtained with the more conventional arrangement. The means of access to the motte was also strongly defended - the steep stone staircase was flanked by high stone walls on either side, with a gatehouse at its foot, and a gateway at the top.

It is unfortunate that no documentary evidence for the construction of the stone castle appears to have survived. The first reference to it is in the survey drawn up by the Black Prince's officers when they took possession on his behalf, as Duke of Cornwall (5 May 1337). As one would expect, this shows that the castle had been completed, and indeed was already falling into disrepair; from it can be gleaned some information about the original buildings "...the walls of which...are ruinous and ought to be repaired...a certain hall with two cellars which require to be newly-roofed - one sufficient kitchen annexed to the same hall, a small upstairs hall which is called the Earl's Chamber; with a chamber and a small chapel, the walls of which are of timber and plank, and the timber therof almost disjointed; and two chambers above the two gates, sufficiently covered with lead; one old and feeble small hall with a chamber and a cellar, convenient for the Constable, and one little new kitchen annexed. There is also one chapel in good order, except the windows which are weak; two stables sufficient for ten horses; one gaol, badly and weakly covered with lead; and one other prison, called the Larder, weak and almost useless; and one passage leading from the castle even to the high tower recently covered with lead, nevertheless the steps of the same are deficient; and there are in the same tower two chambers of which the doors and windows are of no value; and the tower has two mantelet walls of which one part containing by estimation three perches has fallen to the ground.... There is a certain park there, adjoining to the aforesaid castle, containing in circuit one league in which are found at present 15 deer...."

From this it is evident that the daily life of the castle was centred upon the buildings in the bailey: the rooms in the 'high tower' are disused, and the whole structure is falling into decay. It is interesting to note that the staircase to the keep was roofed over. In the bailey there appear to have been three separate halls; this was probably because of the volume and importance of administrative functions carried on within the castle. The one first mentioned was probably the large hall "for syses and sessions" noted by Leland when he visited the castle in 1539; its use for this purpose ensured that it was kept in better repair than most of the other buildings. The second, timber, hall, with its ancillary apartments, evidently formed a suite of rooms for the Earl. Its use became increasingly infrequent as the Earls of Cornwall acquired interests elsewhere - for example, Earl Richard (1209-72) became King of the Romans in 1257, and spent the rest of his life either on the Continent trying to secure his disputed inheritance or supporting his brother, Henry III, in the Barons' war. So it is hardly surprising that the "Earl's Hall" was one of the first of the castle buildings to fall into decay; by the time of Leland and the other sixteenth-century antiquaries who visited Launceston it had apparently completely vanished. The small hall, "convenient for the Constable", was in greater demand, and apparently survived until the seventeenth century, as did the chapel. The two prisons cannot be identified: one of them may be the small room opening off the north gate, later known as the Doomsdale Tower, in which George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, was imprisoned. Of the deer park which, in addition to its main function, provided a useful source of timber for repair work to the castle, no trace remains.

The general picture of decay which the survey of 1337 presents, surprising when it is remembered that the castle as it then stood could have been little more than a hundred years old, persists for the rest of the century. Accounts survive for repairs which were put in hand following this survey, in 1341-43; these included the reroofing of the great hall, and the repair of the keep wall. The Black Prince's Register contains several further entries authorising repairs, in one case specifying that this shall be done at "as moderate a cost as possible" (12 January 1353). The gaunt spectre of enconomy in public expenditure evidently made itself felt then as now. In 1361 the bridge "towards the park" - that is, outside the south gate - is described as being in great need of repair. Another entry (1353) throws some light on the difficulties which must have become very common at this time in those places where a thriving township had grown up around a decaying castle; the mayor and bailiffs of Launceston are ordered to put a stop to the depredations of the swine of the town, which have been trampling down the moat round the castle "so that the walls...are seriously weakened and in parts are on the point of falling". Their foundations must have been in a parlous condition if a few pigs could bring them to the point of collapse.

The town itself, which had no doubt been growing steadily since the administrative centre of the Earldom was established there, begins to assume some inportance at this period. By the end of the thirteenth century it had acquired walls and gates, of which the Eastgate and a few lengths of wall still survive. The borough accounts, which survive from 1334 onwards, contain numerous references to the defences of both castle and town; the latter were maintained in reasonable condition long after the former had been allowed to fall into disrepair, and Leland could still say: "The wall of Dunhevet is high, large and strong, and defensibly set." In 1709 the Westgate is described as being "sore in decay," and it probably disappeared soon afterwards; the Northgate was destroyed in 1832.

The repairs of the 1350s could have been little more than "make do and mend," as one would expect from the injunction that they should be done cheaply, for there are accounts for further work in 1382-83, which included the repair of the bridge, and for a rather more extensive programme in the first decade of the fifteenth century. The accounts for this work for the years 1406-09 still survive; they throw interesting light on the building methods of the time, and as no documents relating to the original construction of the castle survive, are worth mentioning in greater detail than the importance of the work to which they relate might otherwise justify.

In the accounts the sources of all the building materials used in the work are given; it is more than likely that these were the same as the ones used when the castle was built. The rough stone (lapidi) used for the walling came from Landron - probably Landrends in the borough of Launceston, although it may be Landrean in the parish of North Hill nearby - while the dressed stone (petrarii) for quoins, jambes, etc., came from Polyphant. Polyphant was certainly the source of the dressed stone used in the original work. Lime for the mortar came from Halton (in the parish of St Dominic, on the Tamar) while the sand came from Treculdru Bridge, with the exception of six loads which were brought, for some reason not apparent, "from the sea." Treculdru Bridge cannot be identified with certainty - it is likely to have been somewhere on the Tamar, and may have been Trecrogo, in the parish of South Petherwyn; other possibilities are Trecarrel, Trekellearn and Trekenner. Hurdles and scaffold poles came from Clymsland, and the large timber from "Heregard in the lordship of Calstock" - the modern Harewood.

The number of men employed on the work fluctuates according to the time of year, ranging from a solitary mason in the depth of winter, to a maximum of eighteen men, comprising masons, labourers, tilers, plumbers, carpenters in varying proportions according to the work in hand, together with quarrymen cutting stone at the quarries. Their wages varied, the maximum being the 5d a day paid to one of the masons, although his colleagues received only 4d.

The large proportion of masons and labourers and quarrymen among the men employed, and the large number of payments for stone show that the basic fabric of the castle needed a great deal of repair, although details are lacking. One payment for 78ft (24m) of cresting (battlements) incidentally provides our only information as to the finish of the wall tops, although it is not clear if this refers to the shell keep or the curtain wall of the bailey. Roofs and floors, doors and windows also were in bad condition, necessitating the employment of tilers, plumbers and carpenters, and the purchase of large quantities of lathnails, leadnails and boardnails.

Scattered entries in the accounts throw further light on the nature of the repairs and other points of interest. In the autumn of 1408 two payments are recorded for making glazing bars, "twists" and staples for the rekil (dormer?) windows of the chamber (which one is not clear), and a further payment for making a key for the door of the chamber over the east gate (in these accounts references to the east gate apparently indicate the gateway at the south end of the bailey). The walls of the castle were so overgrown that in the following spring it was necessary to make two iron hooks to pull down the ivy. In the summer of 1409 the wooden decking of the bridge across the moat outside the south gate was repaired, while at the same time a start was made on reflooring and reroofing the tower at the foot of the staircase to the shell keep. In the winter of that year the labour force gradually dwindled to one mason, who, shortly before Christmas, was paid for 3 lb of candles "bought from him for night work in the months of November and December." Only minor repairs were necessary to the great hall, which had been kept in constant use, and the accounts break off in the summer of 1410 with repairs to the masonry of the castle still in full swing.

More work was carried out in 1461-64, but it was not long before the castle again fell into disuse and neglect. Leland, visiting in 1539, makes specific reference to the chapel and the hall "for syses and sessions", implying that these were in reasonable order, but does not comment on the condition of the rest of the castle. When Norden described it in 1584, the chapel had become "decayed," but the hall, which he describes as "very spacious," and the Constable's dwelling house were still in use, as they were when Carew visited the castle in 1602.

A very different picture is presented at the end of the Civil War. Town and castle had held out for the King until they were finally taken by Fairfax's army on 25 February 1646, after which a hasty attempt was made to patch up the defences. An entry in the town records for April 1646 refers to "4 days work" on making up the castle wall and other work on the town wall. However, in September 1650 the report of the commissioners appointed to inquire into the revenues of the castle describes it as "much out of repair; the hall and chapel quite level with the ground." The prison had been stripped of its lead by the soldiery during the war, and the only part of the castle remaining habitable was the gatehouse (south gate?) containing two rooms in which the Constable lived. The report mentions that there are "divers houses and gardens" in the ditch separating the castle from the town, showing that this particular feature of the defences had long been abandoned. The extent of the decay is perhaps most strongly emphasised by the fact that it was not considered necessary to apply the general Parliamentarian policy of "slighting" or dismantling the castle buildings.

With the end of the Civil War the history of the castle virtually ceases. It remained the property of the Duchy of Cornwall, from whom it was subsequently leased by the Corporation of Launceston, the grounds being laid out as a public park. During the 1939-45 War an Air Ministry office was set up in temporary huts erected (now demolished) on Castle Green. The castle passed, in 1951, into the guardianship of the Ministry of Works (now the Department of the Environment).


The principal approach to the castle from the town is through the south gate; originally this was reached by means of a bridge across the moat which protected the south and east sides of the castle. Hooper's view of the castle in 1787 shows this bridge apparently complete, crossing the ditch on arches. Its outer end probably lay somewhere on the site cccupied by the present Guildhall on the south side of Western Road. The construction of St Thomas' Road in 1834, as a more easily graded alternative entrance to the town from the north to that afforded by St Thomas' Hill, destroyed the moat and all but the inner end of the bridge; as a result visitors today climb a short slope between the bridge abutments to reach the level of the original gate passage.

This level is shown by the offsets in the walls of the bridge, just below the loops. The bridge in its present form is a later addition to the gate: it partly masks the bases of the drum towers of the gatehouse proper, and does not tooth in with the masonry of the towers. The entrance would no doubt originally have had a similar, though less elaborate, bridge possibly of wood. Two blocked openings are the only remains of the arches which carried the bridge across the moat. The carriageway itself must have been a wooden one supported on the offsets mentioned above. In the walls of the bridge are two small square-headed openings with flat pointed rear arches; their obviously defensive function and the strength of the flanking walls would justify describing the bridge as a barbican.

There is no evidence by which this barbican can be closely dated. It is later than the gatehouse proper, which probably belongs to the original stone fortification of the castle in the thirteenth century, but is unlikely to be of later date than the middle of the fourteenth century, when evidence begins to appear that the castle was falling into decay.

The gatehouse proper consists of a single two-centred outer arch flanked by two drum towers of shallow projection, having battered bases below a string course of Polyphant stone. Above the gate passage was a chamber with a pointed window in the outer face; from here the portcullis was worked, the remains of the portcullis groove being still visible behind the inner face of the arch on the east side. The rear of the gatehouse has entirely gone, as has all the dressed stone which might have allowed it to be accurately dated. The masonry of the drum towers and the Polyphant stone string course suggest that it is contemporary with the keep.

Within the south gate lies the bailey of the castle, the level portion of which is known as Castle Green. This was the site of the principal domestic buildings. The west side of the bailey was protected by a precipitous slope and a curtain wall, of which a length of about 50m remains west of the south gate. At the opposite end of the bailey the north gate of the castle survives in a much more complete state than the south gate. It is rectangular, with a pointed, ribbed vault to the gate passage. The inner gate arch is flanked by buttresses and was protected by a portcullis, the groove for which can still be seen. The outer arch is a modern rebuild, as is the surviving fragment of the room above.

A pointed arch with a plain chamfered head in the west wall of the gate passage opens into the rectangular room known as the Doomsdale Tower. This has two small square-headed windows and the remains of a third. Only the one in the west wall is unblocked. A small cupboard is in the east wall adjacent to the door. The gatehouse appears to be a later insertion in the curtain wall, the mouldings suggesting a date in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. East of this gate, the curtain wall has gone and it is uncertain whether it climbed the west slope of the motte or encircled the base of the motte to join up with the remaining section of wall on the east side of the bailey. The latter is probably more lilkely, and is apparently the arrangement shown in Norden's drawing of the castle made in 1584. The best preserved section of the curtain wall is on the east side, and contains the north-east corner of a projecting square tower. Formerly this side of the castle was protected by a ditch, which has now been filled in and built over. Its line survives in the alley called Castle Dyke.

A staircase up the south side of the motte, the steep, partly natural mound in the north-east corner of the site, leads to the keep. This staircase was originally roofed over, and is defended by high walls on either side and a gatehouse at the foot. The gate arch has gone but the lower part of the D-shaped tower which flanked it remains. The rubble masonry and string course of Polyphant stone closely resemble the work of the south gate. There is a round-headed window on the ground floor; a staircase now vanished gave access to the first floor, and from there probably over the gate arch to the wall-walk of the curtain wall. At the foot of the motte on the west side of the staircase is a terrace containing a large well. The terrace was revetted by a wall contemporary with the gatehouse. The keep consists of the shell keep and the later internal tower, the latter being of two storeys. The flanking walls of the staircase originally extended right up to the shell keep, as is shown by the toothing on either side of the gate arch. This shell keep, with its battered base below a string course, is of similar build to the towers of the south gate and that at the foot of the motte. A path round its outer side is formed by revetting the top few feet of the sides of the motte, producing the effect of a third concentric wall noted in many of the earliest descriptions of the castle and of which fragments survive. (PastScape–ref. Listing description of 1993)
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This record last updated on Wednesday, July 2, 2014

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