From The Neolithic To The Sea: A Journey From The Past To The Present

Lydford Castle

50° 38′ 34.08″ N 4° 6′ 41.4″ W
9th Century

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Lydford Castle is a medieval castle site, located in the town of Lydford, Devon, England.

Lydford, also known as Llidan, is documented as one of four important burhs in Devon during the 9th century, with its streets laid out in a grid pattern which is still evident in the village today, where modern hedges and footpaths fossilise the courses of earlier streets.

In 10th century the town had its own mint. Its prosperity is thought to have been founded on profits from the tin trade as the town it paid as much in taxes to the King as Totnes or Barnstaple.

It occupied a position of great natural strength, a triangular promontory protected on two sides by deep river valleys. The third side was defended by an earthen rampart, the remains of which can be seen as you enter the village from the north-east on either side of the road, near the village hall. An attack by the Vikings in 997 was repelled.

The first castle at Lydford was built in the aftermath of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. In 1068 William the Conqueror intervened in South-West England to put down widespread Anglo-Saxon revolts against Norman rule and set about pacifying the region. In the former centres of Anglo-Saxon power he constructed castles, in Devon, these were built at Exeter, Totnes, possibly Barnstaple and in the town of Lydford.

The castle was built on the isolated south-west corner of the burh, soon after 1068. It had a ringwork design and was only 180 ft by 200 ft in size, protected in part by the existing defences. A similar pattern of castle building within existing Anglo-Saxon burhs can be seen at Wallingford and Bedford castles. Most of the interior of the castle was used to store grain in large timber and earth buildings.

This first castle was used only briefly and seems to have been abandoned by the middle of the 12th century. The grain stores were destroyed by fire, although by this time, the town of Lydford as a whole was also in serious economic decline.

In the late 12th century, King Richard I's attempted to promote the growth of Lydford, but in 1195, widespread problems with law and order across England and the South-West, a fortification was built for holding royal prisoners in Lydford, further along the west side of the town from the old castle, next to the town's church.

The castle took the form of a stone tower with a surrounding bailey. The bailey was rectangular, protected by ramparts and deep ditches on the south-west and north-east sides, with the north-west side protected by the ramparts and valley of the original burh fortifications. The south-east side of the bailey probably formed a small courtyard in front of the tower, in a space now occupied by part of the 13th century earthworks, and was probably the entrance to the original castle.

Lydford Castle does not seem to be primarily designed to have a military function, although in 1199 when King John succeeded to the throne he had the castle garrisoned and expensively equipped to prevent any potential unrest breaking out in the region.

Stannary law was a medieval English legal system for governing the tin industry. South-West England, and in particular Devon, was a major producer of tin in the 12th century, produced by independent miners who worked the alluvial deposits across the region. The industry was regulated by the Crown, who taxed mining output and raised revenue from any fines imposed on those who broke the stannary laws. The output of tin increased from the end of the 12th century onwards, encouraging the Crown to extend its regulation and generate more revenue.

In 1198, William of Wrotham, who controlled Lydford Castle at the start of John's reign, was appointed as the Warden of the Stannaries, a new office intended to provide additional rigour to the administration of the mining industry. Stannary courts were established in Devon, backed by a team of officials, with the creation of the Duchy of Cornwall in the 14th century, the administration of stannary law was delegated to the duchy. From 1198 onwards, Lydford Castle was designated as the prison for supporting the court and its processes.

Forests were special areas of land in medieval England, owned by the Crown and subject to forest law. They were often selected because of their natural resources, and were expected to provide the Crown with a flow of money or raw materials. In 1195, the Forest of Dartmoor extended across all of Devon, but in 1204 John curtailed the extent of the royal forest, removing much of Devon from Forest Law and leaving the area known in the modern period as Dartmoor.

Richard, Edward II's second son, took possession of Lydford Castle in 1239 as the Earl of Cornwall. Richard took a close interest in developing the town of Lydford, creating an additional market and introducing a new fair in the 1260s. Around this time, the main tower at Lydford Castle was demolished and rebuilt, Richard was a wealthy politician and rebuilding the castle in this way would have provided him with an important status symbol in the region.

The previous tower was stripped back, the existing walls levelled off around 14 feet from the ground and the ground floor arrow slits filled in. Two more storeys were then built on top of the older walls, better executed with a higher proportion of granite stone. Although the structure remained essentially the same, the new tower was slightly smaller. As part of the work, an earth motte, was piled up around the base of the tower.

Richard's son, Edmund took over the earldom in 1278 but had little interest in Lydford, preferring Restormel and Lostwithiel. By his death in 1299, the castle had been left to decay and was in ruins. It reverted to the Crown, and when Edward II made his royal favourite, Piers Gaveston, the Earl of Cornwall in 1307, Lydford Castle was passed to him. The castle was repaired at the start of the century and was in use once again as a prison.

Edward, the Black Prince became Duke of Cornwall in 1337 and he acquired Lydford Castle on Margaret's death in 1342. Extensive repairs took place over the next three years, the castle was considered to be well roofed and decorated inside. Over the next two centuries the condition of the castle fluctuated. Around 1390 the castle roof was stripped for its lead, to be used on castles in Cornwall. The castle well was possibly dug during the 15th century. After 1425, the Crown let it to a range of individuals, including Sir Walter Hungerford and Sir Philip Courteney.

Lydford remained the centre of the forest administration through the 14th and 15th centuries. Despite complaints from non-miners at the start of the 14th century that the prison regime at Lydford Castle was overly lax, by the end of the century the prison had a reputation for poor, grim conditions. The first known rhymes complaining about Lydford Law date from 1399, continued to be popular for several centuries. In 1510, Richard Strode, a Member of Parliament campaigning for reform of the Stannary laws, was infamously arrested by Stannary officials and imprisoned in Lydford Castle. He later described how he was kept in an underground room in the keep, fed only bread and water, encumbered with legcuffs until he paid the keeper to release him from the irons.

After 1485, the Duchy took the castle back into direct control, by 1546 it was in poor repair. Renovation work was carried out under Elizabeth I, but a report of 1618 suggested that the castle was unable to function as a prison because of its poor condition, fresh repair work was carried out in the 1620s and 1630s under Charles I.

The castle was used by the Royalist commander Sir Richard Grenville as his main military prison in the region. It had a terrible reputation amongst Parliamentarians, who complained that it was used to summarily execute military prisoners and to extort money from innocent civilians, on fear of imprisonment. At the end of the civil war, the Lydford estate appears to have been sold off by Parliament. The castle was assessed by their surveyors to be almost totally ruined in 1650. The roof of the tower was still mostly intact, but the floors and their beams were collapsing.

With the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 the castle and the forest were taken back to the ownership of the Duchy. Sir John Granville was made the Rider and Master Forester of Dartmoor and the Lydford Castle courts continued to be held to regulate the Forest. Repairs were not carried out, in 1704 a report was drawn up for the government, noting that the Stannary laws could not be enforced without a working prison.

Repair work was carried out between 1716 and 1733, with the spine wall being rebuilt properly, the second floor windows were enlarged. The courtroom was refitted to include a chair for the Stannary court judge, additional seating for the court officials and a railed, public section around the outside of the room. The courtroom also doubled as a hall for village dances and feasts.

As Dartmoor Prison and Princetown grew increasingly important in the early 19th century, the courts began to be held there instead of Lydford Castle. This lead to the castle decline once again, the courtroom became unsafe to use and by 1833, the remaining judicial fittings had been stripped out. By the 1870s, the town of Lydford was vastly reduced in importance from the medieval period and the castle's roofs and floors had either collapsed or been removed.

The Duchy of Cornwall continued to own Lydford Castle into the 20th century. Albert Richardson, the architect to the Duchy estate, proposed converting the property into a private house in 1912, but the duchy turned down the project. In 1932, the castle was given to the Office of Works. Repairs were carried out in the 1930s and the 1950s, and archaeological investigations were undertaken in the 1960s.

Today the castle is controlled by English Heritage and operated as a tourist attraction. Historian Andrew Sundress has described the castle as architecturally significant, being the earliest example of a purpose-built gaol in England. The earthworks of the Norman fort are owned by the National Trust and are also open to the public.