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- Last updated: 10/11/2023
Britain has hundreds of castles spread out across the country, ranging from the small Lydford Castle tucked away in Devon, to the mighty castle that dominates the town of Dover, in Kent. Some have been the site of drama, such as Fotheringhay in Peterborough, where Mary Queen of Scots was executed in 1587. Despite their appearance, however, not all have been involved in wars or besieged. In fact, one such castle to escape involvement in any kind of military action is that at Okehampton in Devon.
The original castle was built over a period of 18 years between 1068 and 1086 by Baldwin FitzGilbert, who was presented with lands by King William for services rendered during the Norman Conquest in 1066. Part of his land was Okehampton, where, in 1068, a local revolt against Norman rule flared up and was repressed by FitzGilbert, who continued to exercise control over the local populace. The site chosen for his castle provided a point from which it could control the important trade route between Devon and Cornwall and dominate the crossing point over the West Okement River.
The first layout of the castle followed the typical Norman pattern known as motte and bailey, which comprised a wooden structure or keep on a mound built of earth. The area surrounding the base was enclosed by a wooden palisade known as the bailey, which incorporated a gate for access to the interior. Gradually, the wooden structure was replaced with stone to make it a more permanent site and expand in size. This development would continue over the centuries and would turn Okehampton into the largest castle in Devon.
When FitzGilbert died in 1091, his daughter, Adeliza, inherited his estate, but the family appears to have been disinterested in the inheritance. Between 1139 and 1153, the country was engulfed in a period of civil war known as ‘The Anarchy’, a war in which the castle played no part. 20 years after the war, the site was acquired by the de Courtney family in 1173, who would hold it and enjoy the estates for the next 400 years or so.
During their tenure, the de Courtneys would transform the castle and its surrounding estates, moving away from being a militaristic base and transforming it into a hunting lodge with all the comforts and luxuries. The grounds and woodlands were amply stocked with game, including hares, foxes, deer, and boar. It was, in effect, a residence where the family could entertain guests in a lavish style. However, such opulence could not last forever and during the prolonged Wars of the Roses, 1455 to 1487, the de Courtneys found their loyalties divided.
Some family members made allegiances with opposing sides and fought in battles such as Towton in 1461 and Tewkesbury in 1471. When the war ended, King Henry VII emerged victorious and the de Courtneys kept their castle, which, once again, had escaped being directly involved in the war. In 1539, King Henry VIII confiscated the castle and estate from the de Courtneys and it fell into disuse, finally being abandoned except for a part used as a bakery. It was never used during the Civil War and took no part in the fighting. It escaped being besieged and slighted.
This is a site of socio-political history rather than military history, but it is still fascinating nonetheless in the understanding of how a powerful family survived these upheavals. The castle had obvious strength in its militaristic design and its location was important but, ultimately, was a folly. Seen from a different point of view, it was a display of the de Courtney’s wealth, power, and political position, and it was they, not the castle, who engaged in war. The surrounding estate, with its abundance of food, made it almost self-sufficient to feed the occupants, which at one time numbered 135 people. Some food, such as fish, was transported from the coast, a distance of 25 miles.
Perhaps it was the very strength of the castle, making it a daunting target, which prevented it from being attacked. Certainly, its ability to provide food would have made it a valuable asset to an army, but, for whatever reason, it always managed to escape such a fate. This strength can still be seen today by visitors who come to walk among the ruins. Now in the care and maintenance of English Heritage, this is one of the true hidden gems in its portfolio of historical sites, quietly tucked away and surrounded by heavy woodland.
The entrance to the castle is through the barbican gate, which opens out onto the lower ward, and immediately the strength of the castle becomes obvious. Buildings once used for various purposes, such as the great hall, lodgings, and kitchen, flank either side. However, it is the once mighty keep, which probably stood three storeys high, standing atop the motte that dominates the site. The motte is over 100ft in height and a path and steps lead to the top, where it is possible to look out in all directions. With the aid of the on-site information boards, it is easy to imagine how it once must have looked without the trees that now almost surround the location.
The surface area of the motte measures 97ft in length and 51ft in width, with the base surrounded by a dry ditch moat, all of which were built by manual labour. Stone for the construction came from local sources, and where the walls have collapsed, their thickness is exposed. In the days before gunpowder artillery, these walls would have withstood battering by catapults hurling stone projectiles. They may have withstood a certain amount of pounding by all but the heaviest gunpowder weapons. Never having been put to the test, this is something we will never know.
As with other castles, such as nearby Launceston, Okehampton spans almost 1,000 years and demonstrates how military architecture developed during that time. This is a marvellous location to visit, and for anyone with an interest in military or social history, this is a must-visit site. Visitors will be glad that they made the detour off the A30 to find it. Directions can be found on www.english-heritage.org.uk, just follow the links to Okehampton. Alternatively, follow the signs off the A30 in the location of Okehampton or, if using Satnav, type in the postcode EX20 1JA.