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Launceston Castle
Launceston, Cornwall, UK
associated engineer
Anon
date  circa 1067 onwards
era  Medieval  |  category  Castle  |  reference  SX330847
Launceston was known as Dunheved at the time of the Norman Conquest, and it guards the entry into northern Britain from Devon. It is the only walled town in Cornwall and it functioned as the county town until 1838. The original castle on this site was built on a large natural mound by Robert de Mortain, half brother of William the Conqueror.
Launceston (pronounced Lan-son) Castle started life as earthworks with a timber motte and bailey structure. It dated from around 1067, one year after the Conquest. The bailey enclosed an area approximately 100m east to west by 120m north to south, with the motte in the north east corner.
In the late 12th century, a rounded single-storey stone shell keep was built to replace the timber one, possibly by Reginald then Earl of Cornwall and an illegitimate son of Henry I. It has walls up to 3.8m thick, topped by a wall walk, above battered foundations with a string course, and encloses an oval courtyard 17.8m by 15.8m.
Further works and improvements to the defences were carried out in the 13th century by Richard, younger brother of Henry III and Earl of Cornwall between 1227 and 1272. A stone curtain wall replaced the timber palisade around the bailey. The north and south gatehouses were rebuilt, with solid drum towers some 5m in diameter added to either side of the portcullis at the south gateway. A central circular tower of darker stone was constructed within the keep. It has walls 3m thick and is 12m in (external) diameter, with a single chamber on each of its two storeys.
The annulus between keep and tower was later roofed over, although nothing remains of it today and the tower leans 1m from vertical. A new great hall, used for assizes, and other domestic buildings were constructed inside the southern part of the bailey.
Episodes of repair work were carried out in 1382-83, 1406-09 and 1461-64. However, by 1649 a Parliamentary Commission reported that the castle and its defences were in ruins and only the north gatehouse was habitable.
During the English Civil War the castle surrendered to Parliamentarian forces in 1644, reverted to the Royalist cause and then in March 1646 surrendered again to the Parliamentarians. In 1656, George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends (or Quakers), and two companions were imprisoned there for eight months until Oliver Cromwell arranged their release.
In 1764 stone from the north gatehouse was used to build a house outside the north gate, leaving the gatehouse partially demolished.
The last public execution at the castle was held on the green in 1821. The assizes and the county governance were moved to Bodmin in 1838 and the jail was demolished. The castle grounds were landscaped by the Duke of Northumberland as a public park, which is how they remained until 1944 when the castle was used by the US Army for a war hospital.
Launceston Castle was held by the Earls of Cornwall, and later by the Dukes of Cornwall (usually the eldest son of the monarch), although it has reverted to the Crown at intervals. Royal ceremonial visits to the castle have included George V in 1909, the Duke of Windsor in 1921 and George VI in 1937, all as Dukes of Cornwall.
The castle passed to the Ministry of Works in 1951 and is now administered by English Heritage, although the site is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. The castle is open to the public.
research: ECPK
bibliography
"Cornwall's Archaeological Heritage" by Nicholas Johnson and Peter Rose
Cornwall Archaeological Unit, Twelveheads Press, Truro, 1990
"The Castles of Devon and Cornwall" by Mike Salter
Folly Publications, Malvern, 1999
www.castlexplorer.co.uk
www.castleuk.net
www.english-heritage.org.uk
Location

Launceston Castle