A tour of Launceston Castle, Cornwall


The modern-day town of Launceston is dominated by the remains of the castle that towers over it. Located close to the River Tamar, the border with Devon, Launceston’s strategic importance has meant that it played an important role in the history of Cornwall.


The first reference to the castle is made in the Domesday survey of 1086, which records that Launceston was held by Robert, Count of Mortain. Robert was a half-brother of William the Conqueror and had played an important part in the Norman Conquest of England. He was richly rewarded for his service to the new king and was granted extensive estates throughout the kingdom, particularly in Cornwall, where he was the largest landholder in the county.[1] His new castle at Launceston (at this time called Dunheved) was intended to serve as the administrative centre of his lands in the region. It took the form of a motte and bailey castle, with most of the original buildings made of wood, which were later rebuilt in stone (possibly in the late twelfth century).[2]

Count Robert of Mortain

(Robert of Mortain shown on the right)

Launceston Castle was forfeited to the Crown after the rebellion of Robert’s son and heir, William, against William Rufus in 1106. It was subsequently granted to Reginald de Dunstanville, an illegitimate son of Henry I, in 1141. After Reginald’s death in 1175 it was given by Richard I to his brother, John, but was confiscated after the latter’s rebellion in 1191. The castle remained in the possession of the Crown until 1227, when Henry III granted the earldom of Cornwall to his brother, Richard. Richard of Cornwall is believed to have been responsible for carrying out major works to the castle of Launceston, which included the building a new large great hall and the rebuilding of the two gatehouses. His most notable addition to the castle was the construction of a tall tower inside the shell keep.[3] It has been suggested that this new structure was intended to act as a viewing platform, from which to admire the extensive deer park that adjoined the castle. It also would have served as a powerful visual symbol of the earl’s authority to the people of the surrounding area.[4]


(Richard of Cornwall)

Following his death in 1272, the importance of Launceston was slightly diminished by the decision of his son and successor, Edmund, to transfer the administration of the earldom to Lostwithiel. Nevertheless, the castle remained as the judicial centre for the county (a role it maintained until 1842). After Edmund’s death in 1300 it passed into the possession of the Crown, with Edward II granting the earldom of Cornwall to his notorious favourite Piers Gaveston in 1307. This grant, together with the excessive favour that the king showed to Gaveston, prompted a backlash from the English nobility. Edward was forced to (temporarily) exile his favourite and to confiscate the earldom of Cornwall from him. Later it was given to John of Eltham, before passing into the possession of Edward of Woodstock (later known as the Black Prince), the eldest son of Edward III, who was made the first duke of Cornwall in 1337.[5]


(Edward III granting the Principality of Aquitaine to his son Edward of Woodstock)

By this time, the upkeep of the castle had clearly been neglected by its previous custodians, as is revealed by a survey undertaken by the duke’s officials in the same year:

There is a certain castle (they reported) whose walls are ruinous. And they ought to be maintained by those holding knights’ fees belonging to the honor of the same castle. And there are in the same castle a certain hall with two cellars which need re-roofing, a sufficient kitchen attached to the said hall, a small upstairs hall (parva aula de stagia) called the earl’s chamber, with a chamber and a little chapel, whose walls are of timber and plaster, and the timber thereof is almost disjointed. And two chambers above the two gates sufficiently covered with lead, one old and decayed little hall for the constable with a chamber and cellar and a small kitchen attached. There is also a chapel in good order (competens) apart from the windows, which are decayed, two stables for ten horses in good order, a gaol badly and inadequately covered with lead, and another prison called ‘the Larder’ weak and almost useless. And one passage leading from the castle up to the high tower newly covered with lead, but the steps of which are defective. And there are in the same tower two chambers whose doors and windows are of no value. And the aforesaid tower has two mantelet walls of stone of which one portion containing by estimation three perches has fallen to the ground’.[6]

This report prompted the carrying out of a programme of works to repair the castle, which included the re-roofing of the great hall with slates, the construction of a new chamber, and the rebuilding of part of the curtain wall, as well part of the wall around the ‘high tower’. Edward of Woodstock died in 1376, with his father, Edward III, dying in the following year. This meant that the former’s son, Richard of Bordeaux, was crowned king in 1377, with Launceston kept in a good state of repair during his reign.[7] As such, it played a part in the defence of the county during the invasion scare of 1385, when the kingdom faced the threat of invasion from France. On 16 June 1385, Richard II instructed the constable of Launceston, William Corby, to compel the local men of the district to garrison the castle.[8] Further repairs were periodically undertaken by Richard’s Lancastrian and Yorkist successors, but by the reign of Henry VIII, the castle was in state of decay.[9] Despite this neglect, the antiquarian John Leland was clearly impressed by the fortress when he visited Launceston in the late 1530s:

The large and auncient castelle of Launstun stondith on the knappe of the hille by south a little from the paroche chirch. Much of this castel yet stondith: and the moles that the kepe stoned(th on) is large and of a terrible higth, and the arx of it, having 3. severale wardes, is the strongest, but not the biggist, that ever I saw in any auncient worke in Englande’.[10]

His comments about the strength of the arx (tower) are particularly striking, which suggests that Launceston was still considered to have some military value, despite its considerable age. Leland’s description clearly implies that much of the castle remained intact, although it is likely that many of the interior buildings were in a ruinous condition. Yet as the quarter sessions continued to be held there, efforts were made to maintain some of the structures in the castle, with over £40 spent on repairs to the shire hall and other ‘houses’ in 1562-3.[11] One of the prisoners held at the fortress in this period was a Catholic priest, Cuthbert Mayne. In the previous year, Mayne had entered the service of the Catholic Cornish gentleman Francis Tregian and became his chaplain. The latter’s protection meant that he was able to openly celebrate mass throughout the extensive Tregian family estates in the region. He was finally apprehended on 8 June 1577, when the sheriff of Cornwall, Richard Grenville, with a force of 100 men seized him at Golden Manor, near to Truro. Mayne was taken to Launceston and imprisoned at the castle, before being put on trial at the assizes and was executed in November 1577.[12] Later in 1584, John Norden in his Survey of Cornwall, provided another description of the castle:

Dunhevet is an auntient Castle seated upong a verie steepe mounte nere unto the towne and Borow of Launceston, and hath bene, in former times, of greater importance and regarde…It belongeth now unto the Prince, as parcel of his Highnes’ Dukedom of Cornwall, and it is now, in steede of the prince’s Courte, and honorable resorte, become the common prison and gayle of the prouince. It standeth, as it were, in the towne of Launceston, but sequestered in jurisdiction. The base (keep) courte compriseth a decay’d chappell, a verie spatious hall wherein the assizes for the whole Shyre are helde, and in the same Courte the Constable of the Castle lyeth, whoe hath also the charge of the gayle’.[13]

John Norden 1584

(John Norden, 1584)

John speed 1611

(John Speed, 1611)

Launceston was put on a war footing in the 1640s due to the advent of the First English Civil War. The castle was initially held by the Parliamentarians at the outbreak of hostilities in 1642 but was soon abandoned to the Royalists. Thereafter it was held by the latter for most of the conflict, before eventually being captured by the Parliamentary army of Sir Thomas Fairfax on 25 February. An eyewitness account of the event was provided by a chaplain in the Parliamentarian army, who states that the town was taken by storm, with two Royalists killed and 100 taken prisoner. On the following day he records that ‘The General (Fairfax) viewed the ancient Castle of Launceston, scituated upon a mount, raised very high, but not fortified’. No attempt had been made by the defenders to hold the castle, the fabric of which had suffered badly during the period of Royalist occupation. Fairfax later related in a letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons, that royalist soldiers had stripped lead from the roofs of its buildings, so that it was now ‘all unleaded’, as well as plundering its stocks of weaponry and provisions. Limited measures were subsequently undertaken to repair the defences of Launceston, with the borough accounts recording on 14 April that four days work were spent on repairing the wall of the castle.[14] However, a survey undertaken by Parliamentary commissioners four years later, on 10 September 1650, reveals that the castle was now in a state of extreme decay:

The sd Castle is built of lime and stone, but much out of repaire; ye hall and chappell quite level wth ye ground: There is onely now standing one old Tower in reasonable good repaire, ye same being soe kept by the County for a prison. Ye lead that covered it was taken by the soldiers in ye time of Warr. Besides the said prison or tower, there is no pte of ye Castle but ye Gatehouse remaining habitable, in wch one John Sorrell ye psent Constable of ye Castle liveth, wch said house conteynes Two Roomes in reasonable good repaire. The Cortes of the said Castle, and ye Ruines thereof wthin ye walls conteyne about three acres. The scite of ye said Castle without ye walls, viz., ye castle ditches, conteyneth one acre and a halfe, in pte of which Ditches towards ye Towne, are divs Houses and gardens wth other necessary houses wch are in the possession of divs persons, who hold the same, and dureing their naturall life’.[15]

Therefore, the only habitable parts of the castle consisted of the ‘Old Tower’, which was used as the county prison, although it only lacked a roof, as well as the gatehouse, where the constable resided. The ‘verie spatious hall’ and ‘decay’d chappell’ as described by John Norden in 1584, were now both levelled to the ground. Furthermore, the ditches of the castle were now occupied by the houses and gardens of the townspeople. The ruinous condition of Launceston meant that the victorious Parliamentarians made no attempt to ‘slight’ or demolish the remnants of the castle, doubtlessly as it was considered unnecessary due to its delipidated state. Over the following years the condition of the ruins deteriorated further, with some of the remaining structures demolished, such as the constable’s lodgings above the North Gatehouse in 1764. It continued to be used as the county prison until 1842, when the jail was demolished, and the assizes were moved to Bodmin. During the Second World War huts for a US army hospital were built in the bailey, with the castle passing into the guardship of the Ministry of Works in 1951. The site is now managed by English Heritage and is open to the public.[16]


(Hendrik Frans de Cort, c. 1770-90)

Description of the castle

Plan of Launceston Castle

(Plan of the castle: A – North Gatehouse; B – Motte and shell keep; C – Gatehouse to motte; D – Bailey; E – Great Hall; F – Administrative Hall; G – South Gatehouse)

The main entrance to the castle is via the South Gate, which is on the corner of Western Road and St Thomas Road. Originally this gate led to the deer park that adjoined the castle, but nowadays leads directly into the centre of the modern-day town of Launceston. Inside the bailey are the excavated remains of several buildings, including the thirteenth century Great Hall, which had been levelled by the time of the survey of 1650. The wall of the bailey is mostly missing, although a substantial segment survives in the south-west corner, as well as a smaller section on the east side. Little survives of the north side of the bailey except for the North Gate, although the constable’s lodgings, which were located above the gate, were demolished in the eighteenth century. The most impressive feature of the castle is the shell keep located on top of the motte. This is accessed via a modern bridge that spans a thirteenth century ditch, leading to the remnants of a tower. From there, a steep set of steps leads to the shell keep and the tall tower, from where you can obtain fine views of the surrounding area.


(South Gate)


(Remnants of the Administrative Hall in the bailey)


(From the inner bailey looking to the east)


(North Gate)


(Bridge over the ditch leading to the shell keep)


(Steps to the shell keep)


(View of the bailey from the shell keep)


(View of the town from the shell keep)

Dogs on lead are permitted at the castle, although the steep ascent to the shell keep is tricky if you happen to have a dog (like Daisy) who does not like climbing stairs!


(Daisy outside the Visitor Centre)

A small part of the town wall of Launceston also survives, which principally consists of the South Gate.


(The South Gate of Launceston)


(View of the castle from the town)


M. Colvin, ed., The History of the King’s Works, volume 2 (London: H. M. S. O, 1963), pp. 693-4

Oliver H. Creighton, Designs Upon the Land: Elite Landscapes of the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2009)

Brian Golding, ‘Robert, count of Mortain’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-19339]

Richard Peter and Otho Bathurst Peter, The Histories of Launceston and Dunheved, in the County of Cornwall (Plymouth:  Brendon & Son, 1885)

A. D. Saunders, Launceston Castle (London: English Heritage: 2015)

Lucy Toulmin Smith, ed., The Itinerary of John Leland In Or About the Years 1535–1543. Parts I to III (London: George Bell and Sons, 1907), pp. 174-5

Raymond Francis Trudgian, ‘Mayne, Cuthbert (St Cuthbert Mayne)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-18440?rskey=MI8Iud&result=1]

Image credits

1 – The motte and shell keep of Launceston Castle, photograph taken by Dan Spencer

2 – Robert of Mortain. From Wikipedia: Bayeux Tapestry scene 44, photographer: Myrabella

3 – Richard of Cornwall. From Wikipedia: Otto Posse

4 – Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince). From Wikipedia: British Library, Cotton MS Nero D VI, f. 31r

5 – John Norden, 1584. From Richard Peter and Otho Bathurst Peter, The Histories of Launceston and Dunheved, in the County of Cornwall (Plymouth: Brendon & Son, 1885), p. 256

6 – John Speed, 1611. From Wikipedia: John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1611)

7 – Hendrik Frans de Cort. From Wikipedia: Hendrik Frans de Cort, ‘Launceston Castle, Cornwall’ (c.1770-90)

8 – Plan of Launceston Castle. From Wikipedia: T. L. Jones, Launceston Castle (H. M. S. O, 1959)

9-19 – Photographs of Launceston Castle taken by Dan Spencer


[1] Brian Golding, ‘Robert, count of Mortain’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-19339].

[2] A. D. Saunders, Launceston Castle (London: English Heritage: 2015), pp. 11-13.

[3] Ibid, pp. 13-14.

[4] Oliver H. Creighton, Designs Upon the Land: Elite Landscapes of the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2009), pp. 170-1.

[5] Saunders, Launceston Castle, pp. 16-17.

[6] H. M. Colvin, ed., The History of the King’s Works, volume 2 (London: H. M. S. O, 1963), pp. 693-4.

[7] Ibid, p. 694.

[8] Calendar of the Patent Rolls Richard II 1385–1389 (London: H. M. S. O., 1895), p. 600.

[9] Colvin, The History of the King’s Works, volume 2, p. 694.

[10] Lucy Toulmin Smith, ed., The Itinerary of John Leland In Or About the Years 1535–1543. Parts I to III (London: George Bell and Sons, 1907), pp. 174-5.

[11] Colvin, The History of the King’s Works, volume 2, p. 694.

[12] Raymond Francis Trudgian, ‘Mayne, Cuthbert (St Cuthbert Mayne)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-18440?rskey=MI8Iud&result=1].

[13] Richard Peter and Otho Bathurst Peter, The Histories of Launceston and Dunheved, in the County of Cornwall (Plymouth:  Brendon & Son, 1885), pp. 255-6.

[14] Ibid, pp. 260-79.

[15] Peter and Peter, The Histories of Launceston and Dunheved, pp. 283-4.

[16] Saunders, Launceston Castle, pp. 18-20.

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