Barnstaple Castle

Has been described as a Certain Timber Castle (Motte), and also as a Certain Masonry Castle

There are earthwork remains

NameBarnstaple Castle
Alternative NamesCastle Green; Barnestapl'
Historic CountryDevonshire
Modern AuthorityDevon
1974 AuthorityDevon
Civil ParishBarnstaple

Castle, at the W end of the town, between the rivers Taw and Yeo. Motte and bailey, the very large motte towards the town. The bailey, now occupied by Castle Green, is bounded by land reclaimed from the estuary in modern times. A second bailey on the town side, suggested from documentary references, has never been proven. Excavations in the 1920's showed that the defensive ditches received water direct from the estuary. On top of the motte, foundations of a circular stone tower, 65ft in diameter with walls 10ft thick, surrounded by an outer wall of lighter build. The castle existed by the early C12th, when it was associated with Judhael, formerly of Totnes created Lord of Barnstaple by Henry I. In 1136, Alfred, son of Judhael, abandoned it because it was weak. The walls may date from the time of Henry de Tracey, who was granted the castle by King Stephen. In 1228 the defensive walls were reduced to a height of 10ft on royal orders; but a hall, chamber, kitchen, and other buildings were mentioned in 1274, a chapel in 1333. The castle was in some disrepair by 1326, and in ruins by Leland's day.(PastScape–ref. Pevsner, 1989)

Although it was landscaped in the 19th century, Barnstaple Castle still retains the basic features of a medieval motte and bailey castle and its motte in particular survives in excellent condition as a well known and dominant feature in the western part of the town. The monument will retain archaeological information about the Saxon population of the town from unexcavated burials. The monument will also be instructive about Norman fortification techniques, in particular with regard to moat construction. The location of the castle on a Saxon burial site indicates something of the relationship between the Norman rulers and the population of the Saxon burh which preceded it

Artifacts and organic remains lying within the moat, some of which may survive well due to waterlogging, will shed light on the lives of the inhabitants of the castle, and their surrounding contemporary landscape. The extant motte provides a visual reminder of the steps which were necessary to establish Norman rule in England by the construction of impressive and strongly defended motte and bailey castles, in this case not only within the recognised boundaries of the Anglo-Saxon town itself, but overlying the earlier Saxon cemetery.

The monument includes Barnstaple Castle, a Norman motte and bailey, part of which overlies a Saxon cemetery. The castle, which has a surviving motte, stands on the east bank of the River Taw at its confluence with the River Yeo just upstream from where the Taw broadens out on its journey to the Bristol Channel. It thus protected the lowest point at which the Taw could be forded in medieval times. The castle was sited within the western corner of an earlier Anglo-Saxon defended town or burh and was probably under construction by the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, although it is not recorded in documents until the 12th century. Excavations conducted by Trevor Miles within the castle grounds in 1972-75 on the north west side of the motte in the area thought to encompass the bailey and its defences, revealed the presence of 105 graves forming part of a Saxon cemetery which was in use at the time of the Norman Conquest. All of the excavated burials were extended inhumations orientated east-west and all lacked grave goods. The cemetery was therefore deemed to be Christian and it may date to about 900, but would have ceased to be used as such when the moat and rampart of the Norman castle were constructed across the site. The results of the excavations were published in 1986. Further burials are expected to lie in those undisturbed areas within the castle grounds which were not subject to archaeological investigation. Barnstaple Castle itself comprises a courtyard or bailey area originally enclosed by a bank and moat, which stood on the north west side of a motte that was equipped with its own associated set of defences, thus creating a stronghold within the castle. The bailey would have held some of the working buildings of the castle constructed either in timber or in stone. The earth and stone-built motte, which stands about 14m high with a diameter of just over 60m, retains masonry fragments of a stone defensive wall and an inner circular tower known as a donjon or shell keep with wing walls descending the slopes of the motte. In plan it was roughly circular and comprised two concentric walls. Another wall, 1m thick, bounded the edge of the flat top of the motte. A document of 1274 indicates the presence of a hall, chamber, and kitchen on the motte. The structure is considered to be a shell keep with enclosed tower similar to contemporary Norman castle architecture at Launceston in Cornwall and Plympton in Devon. The rampart and ditch which defended the bailey were part-excavated in 1972-75 and from these excavations it was suggested that the bailey rampart was about 10m wide and probably revetted with vertical timbers, although its height remains unknown. It was fronted by a berm 4m-5m wide and then a ditch which, because its depth has been demonstrated to be well below the high water mark, may be more correctly termed as a moat fed by channels connected to the River Yeo. The full width of the bailey moat has not yet been established although it appears to exceed 5m. A flat-bottomed trench located between the rampart and the ditch is considered to be a robber-trench of a stone wall about 1m thick which was added to the front of the rampart in the late medieval period. As with the bailey, the motte mound was surrounded by an encircling moat found in an excavation of 1927 to be about 16m wide and 4.5m deep. The motte must have been connected to the bailey by some means, probably by a drawbridge. A moat of this size is also likely to have utilised river water by the linking of the nearby Rivers Taw and Yeo, although it was not until the 13th century that castle defences made extensive use of water-filled moats, and Barnstaple Castle appears to have been in decline by then. Although an early Norman castle might be expected at Barnstaple, as was the case at Exeter and Totnes, there is no documentary evidence of such a castle until the early 12th century. Records suggest that by the reign of Stephen, in 1136, Barnstaple Castle was abandoned as being too weak to defend, but it was rebuilt after 1139 by Henry Tracy and his descendants. In 1228 the defences were reduced in height on the orders of Henry III and the castle was in disrepair by the end of the 13th century. The whole site is recorded as utterly ruinous by the time of John Leland's visit in 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII. A mansion, known as Castle House, was built on the area of the bailey in the 19th century and the surrounding area, including the motte, was landscaped and planted with trees. A spiral path up the mound was also created in this period. The mansion was demolished in 1976. (Scheduling Report)

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

Not Listed

Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSS555333
Latitude51.0808296203613
Longitude-4.06289005279541
Eastings255550
Northings133330
HyperLink HyperLink HyperLink
Copyright Martyn Davies and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.

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Books

  • Higham, Robert A., 1999, 'Castles, Fortified Houses and Fortified Towns in the Middle Ages' in Kain, R. and Ravenhill, W., Historical Atlas of South-West England (University of Exeter Press) p. 136-43
  • Salter, Mike, 1999, The Castles of Devon and Cornwall (Malvern: Folly Publications) p. 48
  • Pettifer, A., 1995, English Castles, A guide by counties (Woodbridge: Boydell Press) p. 53
  • Higham, R. and Barker, P., 1992, Timber Castles (Batsford) p. 21, 134, 355
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus and Cherry, Bridget, 1989, Buildings of England: Devon (Harmondsworth) p. 152-3
  • Drage, C., 1987, 'Urban castles' in Schofield, J. and Leech, R. (eds) Urban Archaeology in Britain (CBA Research Report 61) p. 117-32 online copy
  • Mildren, James, 1987, Castles of Devon (Bossiney Books) p. 48-51
  • King, D.J.C., 1983, Castellarium Anglicanum (London: Kraus) Vol. 1 p. 115
  • Fry, P.S., 1980, Castles of the British Isles (David and Charles) p. 184
  • Renn, D.F., 1973 (2 edn.), Norman Castles of Britain (London: John Baker) p. 102
  • Oman, Charles W.C., 1926, Castles (1978 edn Beetham House: New York) p. 89
  • Armitage, Ella, 1912, The Early Norman Castles of the British Isles (London: John Murray) p. 102 online copy
  • Harvey, Alfred, 1911, Castles and Walled Towns of England (London: Methuen and Co)
  • Wall, C., 1906, in Page, Wm (ed), 'Ancient Earthworks' VCH Devon Vol. 1 p. 613-4
  • Mackenzie, J.D., 1896, Castles of England; their story and structure (New York: Macmillan) Vol. 2 p. 22 online copy

Antiquarian

  • Camden, Wm, 1607, Britannia hypertext critical edition by Dana F. Sutton (2004)
  • Chandler, John, 1993, John Leland's Itinerary: travels in Tudor England  (Sutton Publishing) p. 105
  • Toulmin-Smith, Lucy (ed), 1907, The itinerary of John Leland in or about the years 1535-1543 (London: Bell and Sons) Vol. 1 p. 169 online copy

Journals

  • Dix, B., 2000, 'North Devon and Exmoor: Report and Proceedings of the Royal Archaeological Institute, 2000' Archaeological Journal vol. 157 p. 407-466 Harfield, C.G., 1991, 'A Hand-list of Castles Recorded in the Domesday Book' English Historical Review Vol. 106 p. 371-392 view online copy (subscription required)
  • Youngs, S.M. et al, 1988 'Medieval Britain and Ireland in 1987' Medieval Archaeology Vol. 32 p. 238 download copy
  • Higham, R.A., 1988, 'Devon Castles: an annotated list' Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society Vol. 46 p. 142-9
  • Youngs, S.M., Clark, J. and Barry, T.B., 1987, 'Medieval Britain and Ireland in 1986' Medieval Archaeology Vol. 31 p. 120 download copy
  • Thompson, M.W., 1986, 'Associated monasteries and castles in the Middle Ages: a tentative list' The Archaeological Journal Vol. 143 p. 311
  • Miles, T.J., 1986, 'The Excavation of a Saxon Cemetery and part of a Norman Castle at North Walk, Barnstaple' Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society Vol. 46 p. 59-84
  • Higham, R.A., 1986 'The Origins and Documention of Barnstaple Castle' in Miles, T.J., ibid p. 74-81
  • Higham, R.A., 1984, 'Barnstaple Castle' Devon Archaeology Vol. 2 p. 7-9
  • Higham, R.A., 1982, 'Early Castles in Devon' Château Gaillard Vol. 9-10 p. 101-116
  • Webster, L.E. and Cherry, J., 1980, 'Medieval Britain in 1979' Medieval Archaeology Vol. 23 p. 250 download copy
  • Markuson, K.W., 1980, 'Excavations on the Green Lane access site, Barnstaple, 1979' Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society Vol. 38 p. 67-90
  • Markuson, K.W., 1980, 'Barnstaple' Archaeology in Devon Vol. 3 p. 19
  • Wood, M., 1980, 'Barnstaple, North Gate, east abutment' Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society Vol. 38 p. 123-4
  • King, D.J.Cathcart, 1972, 'The Field Archaeology of mottes; Eine kurze übersicht' Château Gaillard Vol. 5 p. 101-112
  • Brown, R. Allen, 1959, 'A List of Castles, 1154–1216' English Historical Review Vol. 74 p. 249-280 (Reprinted in Brown, R. Allen, 1989, Castles, conquest and charters: collected papers (Woodbridge: Boydell Press) p. 90-121) view online copy (subscription required)
  • Alexander, J., 1941, 'Early Barons of Torrington and Barnstaple' Transactions of the Devonshire Association Vol. 73 p. 153-79
  • Benson, J., 1934-1935, 'Barnstaple' Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries No. 18 p. 217-218
  • Oliver, B., 1928, 'The Castle of Barnstaple' Transactions of the Devonshire Association Vol. 60 p. 215-23
  • Whitely, H.M., 1917, 'Proceedings at the 56th Annual Meeting' Transactions of the Devonshire Association Vol. 49 p. 18 (mention) online copy
  • Wainwright, 1901, Barnstaple Records Vol. 2 p. 261-2
  • Clark, G.T., 1889, 'Contribution towards a complete list of moated mounds or burhs' The Archaeological Journal Vol. 46 p. 197-217 esp. 202 online copy

Primary Sources

  • Stenton, D.M. (ed.), 1948, The Great Roll of the Pipe for the eleventh year of the reign of King John, Michaelmas 1209 (Pipe Roll 55) (Pipe Roll Society Publications 62) p. 91
  • Hardy, T.D. (ed), 1835, Rotuli Litterarum Patentium in Turri Londinensi Asservati (1201-16) (Record Commission) p. 157b view online copy
  • Maxwell Lyte, H.C. (ed), 1906, Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem Vol. 2 p. 56 No. 76 online copy
  • Dugdale, William (Caley, J., Ellis, H. and Bandinel, B. (eds)), 1817-30 (originally pub. 1655-73), Monasticon Anglicanum (London) Vol. 5 p. 197
  • Round, J.H. (ed), 1964, Feudal England p. 369n4 (Quoting Hermannuss II, 17)
  • Oliver, G. (ed), 1846, Monasticon Dioecesis Exoniensis p. 198b online copy
  • Rickard, John, 2002, The Castle Community. The Personnel of English and Welsh Castles, 1272-1422 (Boydell Press) (lists sources for 1272-1422) p. 171

Other

  • English Heritage, 2014, Heritage at Risk Register 2014 South West (London: English Heritage) p. 94 online copy
  • English Heritage, 2013, Heritage at Risk Register 2013 South West (London: English Heritage) p. 94 online copy
  • Fradley, Michael, 2011, The Old in the New: Urban Castle Imposition in Anglo-Norman England, AD1050-1150 (University of Exeter PhD Thesis) available via EThOS
  • Exeter Archaeology, 2003, Barnstaple Castle Car Park Scheme: Phase 1: Archaeological Assessment (Report - Assessment)
  • Higham, R.A., 1979, The Castles of Medieval Devon (University of Exeter PhD Thesis) Downloadable from EThOS