Medieval Castles


Restormel Castle viewed from the bailey. The well preserved thirteenth century shell keep is thought to have been built into an earlier ringwork. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

The first medieval castles were fortified strongholds built by Norman Lords in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These castles were powerful symbols of the feudal system and could be used as bases for troops to keep order in the surrounding countryside. Some castles underwent several phases of later modification, including the building of stone structures to replace earlier wooden ones.

The two main types of early castle were ‘motte and bailey’ castles and ringworks. ‘Motte’ is the name given to a small hill or artificial mound on which a tower or keep was built. ‘Bailey’ is the term given to an enclosed courtyard sited below the motte, containing accommodation and workshops. Ringworks also had baileys, but in this case the stronghold was defended by a circular bank and ditch rather than a mound.

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, some castles were little more than fortified houses, often surrounded by ornamental moats. These castles can be seen primarily as status symbols of their owners rather than as strategic strongholds.

Castles in Cornwall

The term ‘castle’ covers a wide range of sites, from important strongholds to status symbols of the gentry. Most of Cornwall’s castles belong to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These were uncertain times following the Norman Conquest and castles were built by Norman Lords as powerful symbols of rank and sovereignty and as strongholds against their enemies.

Trematon Castle, Saltash. This castle is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 when it was held by Reginald de Valletort from Robert of Mortain, William the Conqueror’s half brother. It was extensively modified in the thirteenth century, and later a Regency manor house was built in its bailey area. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

At the time of the Domesday Book of 1086 the most powerful Lord in Cornwall was Robert of Mortain, half-brother of William the Conqueror. He held three quarters of the manors in Cornwall and had castles at Launceston and Trematon. These castles were great strongholds and important administrative centres.

The Norman Lords used their castles as bases for their troops, to keep order in the surrounding area. They were powerful symbols of the feudal system; local landowners, merchants and tenants would be required to visit the castle to pay taxes, discuss local and national affairs, and receive directives for running their estates. The imposing structure of castles and the might of their armed forces were designed to instil fear and respect in those who had to visit.

Some castles served as the principal seats of important landholders, many of whom were major tenants of Robert, such as Richard FitzTurold, who had a castle at Cardinham. Other castles were the residences of lesser landholders, such as the Uptons who had a castle at Upton, or were the lesser residences of major landholders, such as Week St Mary which belonged to Richard FitzTurold.

The turf-covered remains of walls reveal the layout of the moated manor house at Penhallam, Jacobstow. The moat itself is visible as a ring of thick, low vegetation surrounding the ruin. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service.

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries local landholders continued to build themselves fortified houses. Permission to build a castle or fortified house had to be sought from the King and five ‘Royal Licences to Crenellate’ were granted in the fourteenth century. Little now survives of these houses except at Binhamy, Stratton, where a moat more than two metres deep surrounds the site of the building.

Few other moated houses are known in Cornwall. None had licences to crenellate but all are associated with important landowning families. The best surviving moat is that at Penhallam, Jacobstow. It is unlikely that these moated houses differed from Cornwall’s other major manor houses. The moat can be seen in these cases as an ostentatious display of status on the part of the owners.

Motte and Bailey Castles

Early defensive structures built by the conquering Norman Lords would often utilise an existing hill, or an area of suitable ground upon which an artificial mound could be built.

Launceston Castle has a very prominent motte on which a shell keep dates from the twelfth century. Within this is a stone tower which was added in the thirteenth century. Below the motte is an extensive bailey surrounded by a rampart on which a massive curtain wall was built in the thirteenth century. Photo © English Heritage. NMR24181/08

This hill or mound is known as a motte and represents the strongest, most heavily fortified area of a castle site. Mottes are usually round although a few oval and square examples are known outside Cornwall. The top of the mound would be levelled flat and a defensible building such as a tower or ‘keep’ of timber or stone built on it.

This building served as a residence for the castle owner and their household in times of strife. Within its walls there might be a simple layout of rooms where the household could sleep, eat and meet with their entourage, but some more elaborately designed structures denote a variety of uses for different classes of occupant.

Below the motte was an enclosed courtyard called a bailey. This would house the workshops, stables, mews and accommodation for soldiers and other personnel necessary for the running of the castle. These people would include grooms, huntsmen, butchers, cooks, blacksmiths, carpenters and other craftsmen.

View of Launceston Castle showing how the town has developed around it. The castle was Cornwall’s most important administrative centre from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. The choice of its site is of strategic importance; designed to control the main land route into Cornwall. Photo © English Heritage. NMR24167/12

The way baileys were used can best be seen at Launceston where extensive excavations have revealed a well-planned layout of buildings and great density of occupation. The original garrison was housed in rows of small oval and rectangular structures with sunken floors. These were replaced in the late eleventh century by rows of closely set stone houses. Major castles such as Launceston, Trematon and Restormel contained Great Halls, and that at Launceston underwent four phases of rebuilding.

The buildings within a bailey often do not survive as well as the stronghold on the motte. They would have had some protection from the walls and ditch of the bailey so are more likely to be built of timber and their purpose was utilitarian, not defensive. They were also frequently re-built as requirements changed.

Launceston castle, originally known as Dunheved, is one of the earliest documented motte and bailey castle sites in Cornwall. It is mentioned in the 1086 Domesday Book, along with a market which was moved by Robert of Mortain to the environs of the castle from nearby St Stephen-by-Launceston where it had previously been under church control. A town grew up around the castle and it had its own wall by the thirteenth century; it was the only Cornish town to have one.

Kilkhampton Castle makes use of a natural deep-sided ridge, evident when contours are overlain on this aerial photo. Cornwall County Council Licence 2007. © Geosense 2005.

Six motte and bailey castles are known in Cornwall: at Launceston, Trematon, Cardinham, Tregony, Kilkhampton and East Leigh Berrys. There is a great variation in size among these: the motte at Launceston is twenty metres high, whereas that at Kilkhampton is less than ten metres.

Kilkhampton may be an adulterine castle of Robert of Gloucester or the Granville family. The castle is enclosed by an elongated oval earthwork containing the small motte and two baileys. It makes use of a natural deep-sided ridge. The overgrown earthworks consist of an oval enclosure containing a motte and two baileys; one inner courtyard that makes up the central rectangular area and an outer bailey that faces east towards flatter ground.


At Restormel, the positioning of the castle on a spur above the valley of the River Fowey was of strategic importance: this was a major crossing-point of the river until the building of a bridge at Lostwithiel in the late twelfth century. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

Another style of castle-building found in Cornwall is the ringwork. Ringworks consisted of an enclosed keep built on a low earth mound surrounded by a deep ditch and bank. The choice of motte or ringwork appears to have been dictated simply by personal preference on the part of the castle builder.

There are six ringwork castles known in Cornwall: Poundstock, Restormel, Week St Mary, Bossiney, Upton Castle, and Penhallam (the site of a later moated manor house probably originated as a Norman ringwork).

Restormel castle is not recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book, but it is likely that a castle was built on the present site by 1100, either by Turstin the Sheriff (who was a tenant of Robert of Mortain) or his son Baldwin Fitz Turstin. As with Launceston, the choice of site was one of strategic importance for controlling the surrounding area: at Restormel the site overlooks a major crossing of the River Fowey.

restormel_ J950171_1
A reconstruction drawing of Restormel Castle as it might have looked in the thirteenth century, showing the layout of the ringwork with its deep ditch and stone shell keep, and the bailey with its range of buildings. © English Heritage Photo Library: Drawn by Terry Ball , English Heritage Graphics Team

The early structure at Restormel was probably a wooden stronghold or keep accompanied by outer buildings that were enclosed by a bailey. The keep at Restormel, rather than being placed on a high defensive mound was enclosed by a ditch cut from the surrounding bedrock.

The de Cardinham family developed the castle during the twelfth century. In the thirteenth century the castle became the property of Richard, Earl of Cornwall and it then passed to his son Edmund. During Edmund’s time as Earl the administrative centre of Cornwall was moved from Launceston to Lostwithiel, increasing the castle’s importance. It is likely that the stone keep together with its interior building range, that still survives, was built during this period.

Adulterine Castles

East Leigh Berrys, Launcells. It is possible that this is a short-lived, perhaps never completed, castle that was built during the conflict between Matilda and Stephen, of 1135 to 1154. Cornwall County Council Licence 2007. © Geosense 2005.

Permission had to be granted by the King before a castle could be built. This permission could also sometimes be given by a lord or earl who had the blessing of the king. If a castle was built without this licence it would be demolished. During times of uncertainty an unauthorised castle might stand for some time before the ruling monarch either had it pulled down or officially agreed it could stay. These unauthorised castles are known as adulterine castles and several are thought to have been built in Cornwall.

One particularly tumultuous period was in the mid twelfth century during ‘The Anarchy’, when the death in 1135 of Henry I led to a struggle between his daughter Empress Matilda and nephew Stephen of Blois. Stephen was declared King in 1135 but upon his death in 1154 Henry II, son of Matilda, succeeded the throne.

A castle built at Truro is thought be an adulterine castle put up by Richard de Lucy during Stephen’s rule, but torn down again by Henry. Another likely candidate is the earthwork at East Leigh Berrys in North Cornwall, where the remains of a motte and two baileys survive as low earthworks. The site is not a great choice strategically since there is higher ground immediately to the north, west and east.

Other Castles

Earthworks at Roundbury, Linkinhorne and Froxton Wood in North Cornwall might be further motte and bailey castles, although these may, alternatively, be prehistoric sites. The destroyed castles at Truro and Boscastel (Botreaux Castle) may have been mottes or ringworks and those recorded as having stood at Liskeard and Helston are of unknown form.

Other forms of castle are represented by Ennor castle on Scilly, and at Tintagel. Ennor castle at Old Town, St Mary’s, was built in 1244 on a rock outcrop overlooking the natural harbour of Porthenor. Little survives of the building, which is said to have been robbed of its stone in order to build the Elizabethan fort of Star Castle. Documents show that in the early fourteenth century it was held by Ranulph de Blanchminster. He kept twelve men-at-arms and paid an annual rent to the king of 300 puffins or 6s 8d. Puffins were classed as fish and could therefore be eaten during Lent, and their feathers were also valuable.

Tintagel castle. The medieval castle, probably dating from the thirteenth century, consists of an Inner Ward straddling the neck and Lower and Upper Wards on the mainland towards the bottom left of the photo. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

A different type of castle is that at Tintagel. This site had been the stronghold of the Dark Age kings of Cornwall during the period from the fifth to seventh centuries. The origin of the medieval castle here is uncertain; it is possibly Norman but the surviving remains were built in the thirteenth century by Richard, Earl of Cornwall and King of the Romans. Very probably he built here because of Tintagel’s powerful connection with the stories of Arthur and Tristan and Iseult.

Richard spent very little time in his Earldom; he was too busy in Europe pursuing his dream of becoming Holy Roman Emperor; but he did encourage a programme of castle building as well as embellishments to older sites. One of these older sites was Trematon, a motte and bailey castle overlooking the Lynher River near Saltash. First documented in the Domesday Book in 1086, it was extensively modified by Richard and then by his son Edmund.

Another island castle is the medieval fortification on the summit of St Michael’s Mount. Most of the buildings here are part of the twelfth century priory; these were protected by the castle which had two towers, both of which still survive, along with the west range. Parts of the curtain wall, which once probably enclosed the entire summit, also survive. As well as protecting the priory the main function of the castle was to secure the Mount, whose harbour was one of the busiest in west Cornwall during the medieval period.