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Historic England Research Records

Launceston Castle

Hob Uid: 437198
Location :
Cornwall
Launceston
Grid Ref : SX3306284597
Summary : Launceston Castle, a medieval motte and bailey castle, is situated at the crossing of the River Tamar separating Cornwall from Devon, and was the principal castle of medieval Cornwall. Excavations in 1961-83 were focussed on the motte and its approaches, the area around the North and South Gatehouses, and a large area in the south west quarter of the bailey. Sunken-floored structures were identified, some of which were later replaced with timber and eventually stone-built buildings. The castle's standing structures mostly belong to the 13th century. The original motte was constructed in the late 11th century. The Norman bailey had a defensive enclosure comprising a clay and rubble rampart with timber walling on the outer face. Within the bailey were timber buildings. These buildings and part of the defensive structure were replaced with stone in the early 12th century. In the mid-late 12th century, the motte and bailey was replaced by a circular stone shell keep castle. There were substantial modifications in the mid 13th century when the castle became the chief legal and administrative centre for Cornwall under Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Within the shell keep, and rising to twice the height, a second circular 'high tower' was built. The narrow passage between the inner tower and the shell keep was roofed over a wall-walk level, providing a fighting platform. Access to the motte was strongly defended. A stone curtain wall was built on the rampart at all sides, stone towers were erected and in the re-planned bailey included a new Great Hall, a kitchen, a courtroom and yard areas. The castle was repaired in the 14th and 15th century, but by the mid-17th century the bailey was in ruin. After the Civil War the county gaol was re-established on the east side of the bailey. This was enlarged during the 1770s, but removed in 1840. During World War Two the Air Ministry occupied huts erected on the castle green and an American Military hospital was built in the bailey.
More information : (SX 33068463) Castle (NR) (remains of) (NAT)
(SX 33028454) Castle Wall (NR) (remains of) (NAT) (1)

Description and history, see illustration card. (2)

Excavation by Saunders during DoE restoration of the castle revealed an intensive sequence of occupation within the bailey, see plan (12) and sections (3).

A 32 ft deep rock-cut ditch was exposed on the south side of the motte, its side cut into at an early date by a well. A secondary 'U'-shaped ditch cut through the bailey rampart; it was revetted on its inner lip by a mortared wall and bonded to the bailey curtain wall, being filled by the 18th century. In the centre of the bailey 15th to 17th century occupation included a small 15th century stone hall which had replaced earlier stone and timber structures. Beneath these levels lay indications of pre-Roman Iron Age activity.

Residential complexes lay in the south west quarter of the bailey. Behind the south gatehouse a substantial 13th century hall of three phases is thought by Saunders to be the assize hall recorded in 1201 (8) (for alternative siting see SX 38 SW 61).

The rampart had four construction phases preceding the 12th century stone curtain wall on its crest. On the old ground surface lay 11th century pottery with evidencer of earlier but undated occupation. (3-12)

Castle as described. The recently excavated remains have been establised and landscaped (these are mainly at SX 33028455, near the South Gate). Excavations continue to the north.
Revised at 1:2500 on PFD. (13)

Listed building. (14)

'This triple-crowned mounte, though abandoned, retayneth the forme, but not the fortune and favour of former times.' JOHN NORDEN, Description of Cornwall (1610).
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 was Robert of Mortain, who accompanied William the Conqueror was rewarded with the Earldom of Cornwall.
The site had good defensive properties: 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. The strength of the mound was probably increased by a wooden palisade and tower. There is evidence that it remained a simple earthwork castle until at least 1216. On architectural grounds the stone buildings and the curtain walls and gatehouse can be assigned in all probability to the thirteenth century. Certainly not earlier than 1175 when the castle reverted to the Crown on the death of Earl Reginald of Cornwall. The Pipe Rolls show that up to 1216 the annual expenditure on the castle was never more than £20 and usually much less. This suggests that this was only for the maintenance of existing buildings; the stone defences therefore in all likelihood belong to a later period.
There are few other references to Launceston in the twelfth century. 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 the important castle of Launceston retained its Norman defences until into the thirteenth century. The construction of a shell keep on the motte was then undertaken; the palisade was replaced by a stone wall, which provided a fighting platform on its wall-walk, and also served as an outer wall for lean-to buildings. The shell keep, if not erected until after 1216, would have been almost obsolete when it was built. The fashion was instead for the fortification of a larger area by a curtain wall with several entrances.
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. The narrow passage between the inner tower and the shell keep was roofed over a wall-walk level, providing a more spacious fighting. The access to the motte was also strongly defended - the steep stone staircase was flanked by high stone walls, with a gatehouse and a gateway.
No documentary evidence for the construction of the stone castle appears to have survived. The first reference to it is in the survey of 1337. The castle had been completed, and was already falling into disrepair. The buildings described included the hall with two cellars, kitchens, a small upstairs hall named the Earl's Chamber with a chamber and a small chapel, two chambers above the two gates, one small hall with a chamber and a cellar for the Constable, a chapel, two stables, gaol, another prison, high tower, and the deer park. The large hall "for syses and sessions" was 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. By the time of Leland and the other sixteenth-century antiquaries who visited Launceston it had apparently completely vanished. The small hall for the Constable 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. There is no trace of the deer park.
Accounts survive for repairs following the survey in 1341-43; these included the reroofing of the great hall, and the repair of the keep wall. Further repairs were made in 1353. The borough accounts, which survive from 1334 onwards, contain numerous references to the defences of both castle and town. The repairs of the 1350s were clearly inadequate and there are accounts for further work in 1382-83, which included the repair of the bridge, and for a more extensive programme in the first decade of the fifteenth century. The accounts for this work for the years 1406-09 still survive and include information on the building methods of the time, particularly the materials used. It is likely that the same materials were used for the first building of the castle. 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. The dressed stone (petrarii) for quoins, jambes, etc., came from Polyphant. Lime for the mortar came from Halton (in the parish of St Dominic, on the Tamar) while the sand came from Treculdru Bridge (probably somewhere on the Tamar, possibly Trecrogo, in the parish of South Petherwyn), and some "from the sea." Hurdles and scaffold poles came from Clymsland, and the large timber from "Heregard in the lordship of Calstock" (modern Harewood).
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, 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.
During the Civil War the town and castle held out for the King until they were finally taken by Fairfax's army in 1646, after which the defences were patched up. However, in September 1650 a report described 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). The extent of decay was such that it was not considered necessary to apply the general Parliamentarian policy of "slighting" or dismantling the castle buildings.
The castle remained the property of the Duchy of Cornwall after the end of the War, from whom it was subsequently leased by the Corporation of Launceston, the grounds being laid out as a public park. During WWII an Air Ministry office was set up in temporary huts (now demolished) on Castle Green. The castle passed, in 1951, into the guardianship of the Ministry of Works (now the Department of the Environment). (15)

Additional information. (16-21)

Launceston Castle is located in a strategic position in low hilly terrain between Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, controlling the main land route into Cornwall, with a crossing point of the River Tamar 2.5 km to the east. It was the site of a Norman motte and bailey castle and, prior to this, there is evidence for Iron Age occupation. The original motte was constructed in the late 11th century but now lies beneath a considerably enlarged structure of the 12th century. The Norman bailey occupied a sub-rectangular terrace and had a defensive enclosure comprising of a clay and rubble rampart with timber walling on the outer face. Within the bailey were timber houses, ovoid huts and a timber hall. These buildings and part of the defensive structure were replaced with stone in the early 12th century. In the mid-late 12th century, the motte and bailey was replaced by a circular stone shell keep castle. There were substantial modifications in the mid 13th century when the castle became the chief legal and administrative centre for Cornwall under Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Within the shell keep, and rising to twice the height, a second circular 'high tower' was built. A stone curtain wall was built on the rampart at all sides, stone towers were erected and a new service quarter in the re-planned bailey included a new Great Hall, a kitchen, a courtroom and yard areas. The castle was repaired in the mid 14th century and 15th century but by the mid-17th century the bailey was in ruin. The site was excavated by A. D. Saunders between 1961 and 1982. (22)

Launceston Castle is situated at the crossing of the River Tamar separating Cornwall from Devon, and was the principal castle of medieval Cornwall. Excavations in 1961-83 were focussed on the motte and its approaches, the area around the North and South Gatehouses, and a large area in the south west quarter of the bailey. Sunken-floored structures were identified, some of which were later replaced with timber and eventually stone-built buildings. The castle¿s standing structures mostly belong to the 13th century. The defences were rebuilt in masonry and a High Tower inserted within the shell keep. The Great Hall was rebuilt on a succession of timber halls, together with a detached kitchen. A `Lesser Hall¿ for administrative and court purposes may have replaced earlier buildings. The Great Hall ceased to be an assize hall by 1610. After the Civil War the county gaol was re-established on the east side of the bailey. This was enlarged during the 1770s, but removed in 1840. The evidence indicates some high status occupation, but the majority reflected the life of the garrison, hunting, and military population. Full details of the excavations are presented in the publication. The following periods were assigned on the basis of the archaeological and historical evidence:

Period 0: pre-castle features in south west quarter of bailey and below the bailey rampart.
Period 1: late 11th century (circa 1068-75). Initial construction of the defences and evidence of occupation within the castle enclosure.
Period 2: late 11th century (circa 1075-1104).The bailey defences substantially heightened and remodelled with a timber palisade and platform. Rampart now enclosed the north side of the bailey, and an early motte with a ditch was likely to be present. More permanent timber structures erected in the bailey; some sunken-floored buildings still in use.
Period 3: early to mid 12th century (circa 1104-75). Military activity: motte probably heightened and shell keep constructed. Creation of terrace around well dug into the side of the motte ditch. Bailey rampart heightened. Construction of 14 structures within the bailey, some with stone foundations, some reuse of earlier building positions. Timber hall replaced by stone with a chamber at western end. Stone-built South Gatehouse probably erected. Rear of rampart to west of area later occupied by North Gatehouse revetted in stone.
Period 4: late 12th to early 13th century (circa 1175-1227). First references on expenditure on the Castle's buildings in the Pipe Rolls. Bailey defences remodelled and heightened. Addition of stone 'tower' bases and other structures. Major buildings in the bailey constructed or rebuilt. Hall rebuilt on a north/south axis. Rationalisation of structures south of the hall and near the South Gatehouse.
Period 5a: early 13th century (circa 1227-50). Major remodelling of the castle: shell keep refaced, gatehouse remodelled, chemise constructed around edge of motte. Access to motte remodelled. `Secondary¿ ditch dug on the motte's south and west sides. Bailey rampart heightened, stone curtain wall added with mural towers. South Gatehouse remodelled and extended. New Great Hall and kitchen built on the site of the previous halls. Lesser Hall constructed over earlier buildings west of South Gatehouse.
Period 5b: mid 13th century (circa 1250-72). Probable insertion of the High tower within the shell keep (or in Period 6a).
Period 6a: late 13th to early 14th century (circa 1272-1337).North Gatehouse inserted into existing bailey rampart. Beginnings of a barbican in front of the South Gatehouse. Rebuilding of north east corner of Great Hall to insert a chimney and fireplace and convert to a first floor hall. Refurbishment of Lesser Hall. Well surround raised.
Period 6b: early 14th century. Demolition of Lesser Hall.
Period 7: 14th century. Repairs to Great Hall after 1337. 'Council Chamber' added. Building added to west of kitchen. Renewals to bridge across motte ditch. North Gatehouse repaired. Gatehouses provided with stone barbicans and bridges across ditch. Curtained walls heightened and repaired. Evidence for lower density occupation.
Period 8: 15th century. Continuing decline of the castle as a residence. Maintenance for judicial functions.
Period 9a: 16th century to circa 1610. Decline continued. Great Hall continued in use until early 17th century. Repairs to Council House in 1543-4, and the Great Hall in 1550-1. Council House demolished at the end of this Period.
Period 9b: circa 1610 to 1650. Demolition of Great Hall over time. Partial re-use of south end at the same time as a short-lived cob-built building possibly associated with metal working. By 1650 no buildings standing in the bailey. North Gatehouse continued in use as a prison and in one mural tower. Stone buildings constructed behind South Gatehouse. Cobbled road laid over part of the rear of the rampart. Walled yard on west side of South Gatehouse. North/south hedge line divided bailey. Last bridge pier over secondary motte ditch built, possibly linked to works during the Civil War.
Period 10: 1650 to1840s. Western motte slope adapted for vegetable plots and pigsties. A building on south west side of motte ditch. Demolition of bridge piers. 'Secondary' ditch filled and wall built across it. Approach to motte with causeway remodelled. North Gatehouse partly demolished in 1764. Landscaping and dumping on north rampart and against motte. Hedge line defined gaol area from Castle Green. County gaol constructed on eastern side of bailey in late 17th century and enlarged in 1779. Burials (probably prisoners) in south west quarter of bailey. Terrace walks constructed. Bailey curtain wall demolished on the west. Watch Tower collapsed 1834. St Thomas's Road constructed in 1831.
Period11: 1840s to 1939. Demolition of gaol buildings and robbing of stone. Conversion into urban park. Construction of custodians lodge and drains. Repairs to South Gatehouse and other structures. North Gatehouse reused as a stable.
Period 12: 1944 onwards. Levelling of bailey and construction of hospital for American forces in 1944. Guardianship in 1951. (23)


Sources :
Source Number : 1
Source : Ordnance Survey Map (Scale / Date)
Source details : OS 1:2500 1954
Page(s) :
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) :
Source Number : 2
Source : VIRTUAL CATALOGUE ENTRY TO SUPPORT NAR MIGRATION
Source details : Launceston Castle DOE Official Guide 1975 (T L Jones)
Page(s) :
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) :
Source Number : 11
Source : VIRTUAL CATALOGUE ENTRY TO SUPPORT NAR MIGRATION
Source details : The Book of Launceston 1976 site plan by A D Saunders (A B Venning)
Page(s) : 28
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) :
Source Number : 12
Source : Cornish archaeology
Source details : (A D Saunders)
Page(s) : 129-37
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 16, 1977
Source Number : 13
Source : Field Investigators Comments
Source details : F1 NJA 15-JUN-79
Page(s) :
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) :
Source Number : 14
Source : List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest
Source details : North Cornwall, 07-JUN-1993
Page(s) : 153-4
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 660-1
Source Number : 15
Source : VIRTUAL CATALOGUE ENTRY TO SUPPORT NAR MIGRATION
Source details : Robbins A F (1888) Launceston, Past and Present
Page(s) : 330
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) :
Source Number : 16
Source : Archaeological excavations
Source details : (A Saunders)
Page(s) : 97-8
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 19, 1980
Source Number : 17
Source : Archaeological excavations
Source details : (A Saunders)
Page(s) : 220-1
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 20, 1981
Source Number : 18
Source : Archaeological excavations
Source details : (A Saunders)
Page(s) : 187-8
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 21, 1982
Source Number : 19
Source : Archaeological excavations
Source details : ff (Anne Preston-Jones, Peter Rose)
Page(s) : 135
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 25, 1986
Source Number : 20
Source : The English Heritage visitors' handbook 1998-99
Source details :
Page(s) : 79
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) :
Source Number : 3
Source : Cornish archaeology
Source details : plan & sections (A D Saunders)
Page(s) : 63-9
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 3, 1964
Source Number : 21
Source : The history of the King's Works, volume 2 : the Middle Ages
Source details :
Page(s) : 693-4
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) :
Source Number : 22
Source : Scheduled Monument Notification
Source details : 13-Jul-92
Page(s) :
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) :
Source Number : 23
Source : Excavations at Launceston Castle, Cornwall
Source details : The Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 24
Page(s) :
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) :
Source Number : 4
Source : VIRTUAL CATALOGUE ENTRY TO SUPPORT NAR MIGRATION
Source details : Antiquities of Cornwall 1769 illust (W Borlase)
Page(s) :
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) :
Source Number : 5
Source : The Archaeological Journal
Source details : plan (A D Saunders)
Page(s) : 251-4
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 130, 1973
Source Number : 6
Source : Cornish archaeology
Source details : plan (A D Saunders)
Page(s) : 83-92
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 9, 170
Source Number : 7
Source : Cornish archaeology
Source details : (A D Saunders)
Page(s) : 79
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 6, 1967
Source Number : 8
Source : Archaeological excavations
Source details : (A D Saunders)
Page(s) : 19
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 1975
Source Number : 9
Source : Archaeological excavations
Source details : (A D Saunders)
Page(s) : 24-May
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 1976
Source Number : 10
Source : Medieval archaeology : journal of the Society for Medieval Archaeology
Source details : (A D Saunders)
Page(s) : 195
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 18, 1974

Monument Types:
Components and Objects:
Related Records from other datasets:
External Cross Reference Source : Scheduled Monument Legacy (County No.)
External Cross Reference Number : CO 374
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : Scheduled Monument Legacy (National No.)
External Cross Reference Number : 15005
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : Listed Building List Entry Legacy Uid
External Cross Reference Number : 370141
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : Listed Building List Entry Legacy Uid
External Cross Reference Number : 370142
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : Listed Building List Entry Legacy Uid
External Cross Reference Number : 370143
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : Listed Building List Entry Legacy Uid
External Cross Reference Number : 370144
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : EH Property Number
External Cross Reference Number : 279
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : ViewFinder
External Cross Reference Number : HAW 9401/20
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : SMR Number (Cornwall)
External Cross Reference Number : 2753
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : ViewFinder
External Cross Reference Number : HAW 9401/17
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : ViewFinder
External Cross Reference Number : HAW 9401/18
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : ViewFinder
External Cross Reference Number : HAW 9401/19
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : ViewFinder
External Cross Reference Number : HAW 9401/21
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : ViewFinder
External Cross Reference Number : PC09191
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : National Monuments Record Number
External Cross Reference Number : SX 38 SW 54
External Cross Reference Notes :

Related Warden Records :
Associated Monuments : 437212
Relationship type :
Associated Monuments : 437216
Relationship type :
Associated Monuments : 437214
Relationship type :

Related Activities :
Associated Activities : Primary, FIELD OBSERVATION ON SX 38 SW 53
Activity type : FIELD OBSERVATION (VISUAL ASSESSMENT)
Start Date : 1979-06-15
End Date : 1979-06-15
Associated Activities : Primary, LAUNCESTON CASTLE
Activity type : DENDROCHRONOLOGICAL SURVEY
Start Date : 1987-01-01
End Date : 1987-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, SHELL KEEP AND HIGH TOWER, LAUNCESTON CASTLE
Activity type : MEASURED SURVEY
Start Date : 1991-01-01
End Date : 1994-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, EAGLE HOUSE HOTEL
Activity type : EVALUATION
Start Date : 1995-01-01
End Date : 1995-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, EAGLE HOUSE HOTEL
Activity type : WATCHING BRIEF
Start Date : 1998-01-01
End Date : 1998-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, LAUNCESTON CASTLE
Activity type : WATCHING BRIEF
Start Date : 1998-01-01
End Date : 1998-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, LAUNCESTON CASTLE KEEP
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1999-01-01
End Date : 2000-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, LAUNCESTON CASTLE: HIGH TOWER ENTRANCE
Activity type : WATCHING BRIEF
Start Date : 1999-01-01
End Date : 1999-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, LAUNCESTON CASTLE
Activity type : WATCHING BRIEF
Start Date : 2005-01-01
End Date : 2008-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, LAND AT LAUNCESTON CASTLE
Activity type : WATCHING BRIEF
Start Date : 2016-01-01
End Date : 2016-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, LAUNCESTON CASTLE FENCING
Activity type : WATCHING BRIEF
Start Date : 2016-01-01
End Date : 2016-12-31