- 0 Comments
- Last updated: 06/10/2023
Lying just north of the A30 trunk road, the Cornish town of Launceston can trace its origins back to the end of the 10th century AD. It remained a quiet, farming community until around 1070 when Robert, Count of Mortain, arrived with his retinue to establish a castle in the name of King William, who had granted him the privilege in return for services rendered at the Battle of Hastings only four years earlier.
This was a move in the Norman Conquest of England designed to stamp their control over William’s new kingdom. The first castle in Launceston was a motte and bailey design, with a wooden palisade with an engineered mound on which stood the keep. This affirmed Robert’s authority as the newly created Earl of Cornwall, whose dominion included the expanses of land that are today called Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor. With this security, the town grew in size and prospered even further through its thriving market.
Over the next hundred years, the site of the castle and the town changed hands several times during power struggles between nobles and princes, until 1189 when Prince John claimed it back for the crown. During this time the castle’s defences had changed and been made stronger, which also extended the ground plan. By the late 12th century, it had been rebuilt using stone to create towers, gatehouses and buildings raised for the purpose of storage and habitation. The timber walls of the bailey were also replaced. The prosperity of the area continued to grow stronger and by the 13th century, the castle dominated the surrounding area, which was now being exploited for its tin mining resources. The period of the castle’s history up to now, although unsettled, had not seen it engaged in a full-blown war.
In the 14th century, Edward, the eldest son of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, who was known through history as ‘The Black Prince’, acquired the castle and instigated a programme of repair and renovation, but still it avoided being involved in any open engagement. Even during the Wars of the Roses, the castle played no part in the conflict. There are various reasons why the site should not be attacked, the most obvious being its sheer scale, size, and apparent strength. The walls and the keep surmounting the motte would have deterred any attacker. During the English Civil War, the castle was held by a Royalist garrison but even then, it still missed playing any role in the fighting.
In February 1646, Sir Thomas Fairfax approached the site very cautiously with his force of Parliamentarian troops but found it was deserted. The Royalists had stripped the place of lead, which could have been used to cast bullets, and given all the timber to the civilians in the town for use as firewood. So completely had the Royalists stripped the place when they abandoned it that Fairfax did not bother to slight it.
Over the next 200 years, the castle was used as a prison, gaining great notoriety for its terrible conditions, and other uses, before being opened as a public garden in 1842. During WWII, the castle finally got to play a role in a war when the American army established a hospital in the grounds.
Today, the castle is in the care of English Heritage, which tends to the grounds and maintains the remains of this once-powerful location. The gates at either end of the lower ward are superb examples of Medieval architecture and these give access to a public open space. Access to the castle itself is through the ticket office, which opens into a small but very informative museum with a nice display of artefacts. It tells more of the American presence in the town, which was not always peaceful.
Leaving the museum, visitors can climb to the top of the steep motte, where they face yet another climb to ascend the stone staircase, enclosed within the walls of the great tower. The effort is well worth it because, from this vantage point, visitors are afforded a panoramic view across the area. Looking down from this lofty position, they can appreciate the steepness of the incline and height of the motte and tower and understand why it was never attacked.
The site is impressive and for anyone interested in the development of military architecture, they are in for a real treat, being surrounded by one thousand years of history. There are no scars of battle here, but that does not detract from marvelling at the engineering skills that went into creating the castle over the centuries. The modern town has encroached up to the castle through the years but there would have been a time when it would have been visible as a landmark from many miles away. Standing at the foot of the motte looking up, it is possible to see how it would have been a formidable obstacle to any attacker trying to scale it.
To find out about opening times, facilities, and details of events held at the site, visit the website and follow the link: www.english-heritage.org.uk