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Barnstaple Castle

Also known as, or recorded in historical documents as;
Castle Green; Barnestapl'

In the civil parish of Barnstaple.
In the historic county of Devonshire.
Modern Authority of Devon.
1974 county of Devon.
Medieval County of Devon.

OS Map Grid Reference: SS55553333
Latitude 51.08083° Longitude -4.06289°

Barnstaple Castle has been described as a certain Timber Castle, and also as a certain Masonry Castle.

There are earthwork remains.

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law.


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)
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This record last updated 26/07/2017 09:22:04

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