NGR: SS 24314 1158
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 castles in Cornwall 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 footpath.
Preston-Jones, A, 1988. Kilkhampton Castle; Archaeology, History, Management. Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County Council.
Reynolds, A, 1999. Kilkhampton castle Farm, An Archaeological and Historical Assessment. Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County Council.
Thomas, N, 1992. An Archaeological Assessment of the Kilkhampton Area. Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County Council.