Dunster Castle

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

There are masonry ruins/remnants remains

NameDunster Castle
Alternative NamesTorre; Duncaster; Dunestore
Historic CountrySomerset
Modern AuthoritySomerset
1974 AuthoritySomerset
Civil ParishDunster

Dunster Castle. Nothing now remains of the Norman Castle or of the later medieval buildings. The old gateway to the Lower Ward with the towers flanking it, and some sections of wall are probably mid 13th century. In 1420 Sir Hugh Luttrell built a new gatehouse spanning the approach from the town; this still stands, but two towers were added on its inner side in the 18th century. The existing house dates in the main from c.1571 but since then, substantial alterations have taken place culminating in those of 1867.The castle is sited on a steep sided hill. The Norman motte seems to have been formed by scarping the hill top, and it is difficult to differentiate between natural and artificial slopes. This difficulty has been further increased by later terracing of the hill, for a carriage drive and landscape gardening. Castle Hill. Built originally by William de Mohun in the 11th century. Of the Norman castle no trace remains, the oldest surviving feature is the 13th century gateway. The gatehouse was erected in 1420. The place name Dunster indicates that in the Saxon period the torre, presumably Castle Hill, belonged to a man called Dun and it is possible that the hill may have been fortified in pre-Conquest times. By 1086 a castle, probably of the motte and bailey type, was established here by the Mohun family using the strong natural defences of the hill. A stone built castle was in existence by 1138 but no masonry from this seems to survive. At about that time the castle was held by William de Mohun against Henry de Tracy and although siegeworks were erected, no structures remain. There are many medieval references to buildings and structures in both an upper and lower ward of the castle. In the Civil War it was held against the Royalists, but was taken by them in 1642. Later in 1645-6, after a six month siege, it was retaken by the Parliamentarians. In 1649 it was ordered to be dismantled, although little demolition was carried out

A view of the castle in 1733 shows the motte used as a gazebo and pleasure garden, but with much of the rest of the castle retaining medieval features. The site of the original Norman motte and bailey is difficult to discern due to three factors: the extreme topography of the hill on which the castle is sited; later landscaping and dense garden planting; later building and re-building work. The current 1:2500 depiction records the motte as an earthwork centred at SS 9910 4345, with a very level top, the result of early 18th century landscaping. The bailey was in the level area to the northeast, now occupied by the Castle. Part of a curtain wall and tower from the 13th century survive at SS 9914 4354. (Exmoor National Park HER)

The motte and bailey at Dunster Castle was constructed by adapting a naturally strongly defended and strategically placed position on high ground above a flood plain of the River Avill. The monument is known to have been in existence in Norman times and it has a rare documented reference as a castle as early as 1086. It will retain archaeological and environmental evidence relating to the construction and use of the site, the lives of the inhabitants, and the landscape in which they lived. In addition, Dunster Castle is a recognised and well visited historical site in a dramatic setting.

The monument includes part of the incorporated and adapted natural features and associated below ground remains which together formed the medieval motte and bailey of Dunster Castle. A Norman motte (steep fortified mound) is known to have been created by levelling the natural rock summit of the tor around which the town of Dunster lies. At the same time a further area below the motte was levelled for the creation of a bailey (a fortified courtyard or ward). Both the motte and the lower slopes which surround the motte and bailey complex were then scarped for added protection. The castle lies above the River Avill which flows out into the Bristol Channel and the site commands the land route along the Somerset coast north of Exmoor, with extensive views particularly to the east. The stronghold at Dunster may have Saxon origins but the erection of a castle on the site soon after 1066 is credited to William de Mohun, a supporter of Duke William of Normandy. William de Mohun was granted large estates in the West Country following the Conquest and Dunster is believed to have been his administrative centre. It is one of only two castle sites in Somerset mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 where it is referred to as 'Torre'. The castle was defended by the second William de Mohun against King Stephen in 1138 and it is described in a contemporary document (the Gesta Stephani) as being fortified by towers, walls, and a rampart, suggesting that the motte at least may have been of stone. The lower ward or bailey, which encompassed an area of about 0.7ha, may have been constructed of wood and encircled by an earthwork rampart in the earlier periods as there is a record of Reynold de Mohun (died 1254) rebuilding the lower ward in stone, providing mural towers, and replacing the rampart defences with a curtain wall. The masonry of the Norman castle, certainly at foundation level, has been incorporated or buried beneath extensive later works including a gatehouse, erected in 1420 by Sir Hugh Luttrell, and several major periods of rebuilding, including that of the 1620s under William Arnold. The castle was garrisoned for Parliament in 1642 at the outset of the Civil War and, after a brief period of Royalist occupation was held once again for Parliament. Extensive demolition took place in 1650 in order to prevent the castle being utilised in any Royalist uprising and much of the 13th century curtain walling above ground level is believed to have been lost at that time. In 1764 the level of the lower ward was considerably raised and in 1868-72 the castle buildings were extensively enlarged and remodelled by Anthony Salvin. The resulting multi-period standing building of Dunster Castle and its gatehouse is Listed Grade I. The garden, which took in much of the old castle grounds, was largely created in the mid-18th century, and is included in the Register of Parks and Gardens at Grade I. (Scheduling Report)

Built originally by William de Mohun in the 11th century. Of the Norman castle no trace remains, the oldest surviving feature is the 13th century Gateway flanked on either side by a semi-circular tower with a vaulted chamber at ground floor level lit by arrow loops. Adjoining the gateway is the Gatehouse erected in 1420 by Sir Hugh Luttrell, the first of the family to live at the Castle. The heraldic panel over the entrance was set up in the 16th century. Two buttresses were added to the east wall in 1428. In 1764 the level of the lower ward was raised, submerging the first two storeys, the upper part was enlarged by the addition of two battle- mented polygonal turrets on the west side, pierced by arrow loops. The present castle buildings were thoroughly reconstructed from circa 1617 onwards from designs probably by William Arnold, refurnished in the 18th century and extensively enlarged and remodelled in 1869-72 by Anthony Salvin. Red sandstone walling dressed and coursed on the west wing and porch tower elsewhere random rubble. Window surrounds in dressed Doulting stone. Mainly three storeys, H-shaped plan of Jacobean building altered in 19th century to roughly L-shaped. Main elevation to north-west comprises embattled centre block, single square headed mullioned and transomed windows either side of porch tower. 4-centred entrance doorway with wood mould terminated with label stops bearing initials of members of Luttrell family. Large coat of arms above. West wing with three window front and staircase tower in return angle. East wing has prominent octagonal staircase tower with conical roof and arrow loops. Good interior features of 17th and 18th centuries including oak staircases, ornate plaster ceilings and overmantles, panelling, etc. (Listed Building Report)

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law

Historic England Scheduled Monument Number
Historic England Listed Building number(s)
Images Of England
Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSS991434
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Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved

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  • Maxwell Lyte, 1882, Dunster and its Lords (Exeter) (originally published in The Archaeological Journals Vol. 37 & 38)
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  • Camden, Wm, 1607, Britannia hypertext critical edition by Dana F. Sutton (2004)
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  • Burton, Peter, 2010-11, 'Original castle gates and doors – A Survey' Castle Studies Group Journal Vol. 24 p. 246-59 online copy
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  • 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)
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  • Lyte, H.C.Maxwell, 1880, 'Dunster and its lords' The Archaeological Journal Vol. 37 p. 57-93, 155-79, 271-93, 386-404 online copy
  • Green, E., 1880, 'The siege and surrender of Dunster Castle' The Archaeological Journal Vol. 37 p. 386-94 (history only) online copy
  • Clark, G.T., 1879, 'Dunster Castle' The Archaeological Journal Vol. 36 p. 309-20, 400-1 (reprinted in MMA) (plan) online copy

Guide Books

  • {Oliver Garnett}, 2003. Dunster Castle, Somerset (London: National Trust)
  • Binding, Hilary, 1990, Discovering Dunster: a history and guide (Exmoor Press)
  • Dodd, Dudley, 1978, Dunster Castle (National Trust)
  • Fedden, Robin and Joekes, Rosemary, 1977, Dunster Castle Guide Book (National Trust)
  • Bryant, 1946, (Dunster)
  • Musgrave, EI. and Luttrell, W., n.d., Dunster Castle (Derby)

Primary Sources

  • 1086, Domesday Book online copy
  • Arnold, Thomas (ed), 1879, Henrici Archidiaconi Huntendunensis Historia Anglorum (London: Rolls series 74) p. 261 online copy
  • Sewell, R.C. (ed), 1846, Gesta Stephani, Regis Anglorum et Ducis Normannorum p. 54 online copy (The newer edition and translation by Potter, K.R. (ed), 1976 (2edn), Gesta Stephani (Oxford University Press) should be consulted for serious study. See also Speight, S., 2000, 'Castle Warfare in the Gesta Stephani' , Château Gaillard Vol. 19 [see online transcription >])
  • Stubbs, W. (ed), 1880, The Minor Works comprising the Gesta regum with its continuation, the Actus pontificum, and the Mappa mundi, by Gervase, the Monk of Canterbury (London: Longman Rolls series 73) Vol. 2 p. 424 (in Devon) 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. 427-8


  • Prior, Stuart, 2004, "Winning Strategies" An Archaeological Study of Norman Castles in the Landscapes of Somerset, Monmouthshire and County Meath, 1066-1186 (PhD thesis; University of Bristol) Vol. 2 p. 131 Download via EThOS
  • Gathercole, C., 2002, An Archaeological Assessment of Dunster (English Heritage Extensive Urban Survey) online copy