NGR: SS 24314 11584
The mediæval castle at Kilkhampton is situated to the west of the
modern day village and stands on top of an elongated knoll of land
with steep sided valleys falling away to the north and south and
extensive views over the surrounding countryside. Castles were
introduced to Britain by the Normans and represent the seats of
important landowners within a mediæval feudal hierarchy. Most
Cornish castles date predominantly to the 11th and 12th centuries,
and although there is little documentary evidence for Kilkhampton,
20th Century excavations uncovered 12th Century pottery fragments
that support this date for the castle.
The settlement of Kilkhampton is first recorded circa 839 AD when
the land was given to the bishopric of Sherborne by the Saxon King
Egbert of Wessex. It was referred to in the Domesday Book as
“Chilchetone” which incorporates the place name elements of the
Cornish kylgh meaning “circle”, and the English tun meaning
“farmstead, estate”. What the first element of the name refers to is
not known, possibly a prehistoric feature in the area, and there is
an Iron Age/Romano-British round or defended farmstead to the
south-west of the town which forms a possible candidate.
By 1086 the estate was under the control of King William and passed
from him to the Earls of Gloucester; Robert, Earl of Gloucester was
half brother to Matilda and supported her during the civil war
against King Stephen. The castle may have belonged to King William
or been built by Robert during the time of civil conflict yet
apparently it survived the otherwise wholesale destruction of other
unlawful or “adulterine” castles following Matilda’s defeat.
Alternatively, the castle could post-date the civil war and be the
product of the successful inheritance of Kilkhampton by the
Grenville family. They developed the mediæval market town which
prospered at this time and survives so well today complete with well
defined burgage plots and strip fields that stretch from the modern
town in the direction of the castle.
Kilkhampton is a relatively small example of a Cornish castle but is
unusual in that it has a motte with two baileys. The motte would
have been accessed by a bridge leading across the ditch between the
motte and the first bailey. There would have been a tall circular
tower on the top made of wood or, later, stone; there are circular
stone foundations on the motte summit which are probably from a
stone tower. Within the baileys would have been the main domestic
and administrative buildings; the number and complexity of these
would have depended on the importance and size. At Kilkhampton the
foundations of the main hall are visible within the inner bailey.
The outer bailey appears to be devoid of any structures and may have
had either wooden buildings or a different function. High wooden
palisades may have topped the surrounding defensive earthworks
resulting in an imposing façade. A raised causeway leads from the
outer bailey eastwards through an outer series of earthworks
containing a north-south rampart..
Kilkhampton would have been quite an important mediæval town and
may even have had earlier prehistoric significance; there is a
suggestion that a Roman road may have run through the town following
the current A39. The splendid preservation of the mediæval town
layout complete with its burgage plots is due to the lack of modern
expansion and is possibly the best example of such within Cornwall.
The town’s church boasts a fine Norman doorway and the memorial of a
later member of the Grenville family, Sir Bevil Grenville of Stowe,
who died leading the Royalists to victory in the Battle of Lansdowne
Hill, near Bath, in 1643.
The castle site is under ownership of the National Trust and can be
accessed via West Street leading out of the town and then by
Preston-Jones, A, 1988. Kilkhampton Castle; Archaeology, History,
Management. Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County
Reynolds, A, 1999. Kilkhampton castle Farm, An Archaeological and
Historical Assessment. Historic Environment Service, Cornwall
Thomas, N, 1992. An Archaeological Assessment of the Kilkhampton
Area. Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County Council.
Ground & Aerial photographs