Launceston is first mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086. 'The Earl himself holds Dunhevet...
the castle of the Earl is there.' The holder was was Earl Robert
of Mortain, the half-brother of William the Conqueror and lord of Pevensey and Berkhamsted.
In the early twelfth century the lordship reverted to the Crown
and eventually came to Earl Reginald of Cornwall, an illegitimate son
of King Henry I. On Reginald's death in 1175 the castle reverted to the
Crown with the result that accounts of expenditure on the construction
and maintenance of the castle appreaed in the Pipe Roll. Up to
1216 the entries for Launceston show that the annual expenditure never
exceeded £20. This shows that no great building works took
place here under royal control. In 1227 the castle was granted to
the younger son of King John, Richard (d.1270). Received wisdom
states that it was Earl Richard who built the masonry castle that
stands today. Justification for this assertion is that any castle
built in the thirteenth century would have looked like this. As can be
seen throughout this website, such claims are often little more than
wishful thinking and there is good reason to believe that this is also
true of Launceston.
The fortress today consists of a large rectangular enclosure with a
motte in one corner. The castle is approached from the town via a
destroyed bridge across the moat. The rectangular enclosure was
defended by a ditch to south and west and the natural fall of the land
on the other fronts. A curtain wall topped a bank and was
additionally protected by internal rectangular towers. This could
be an eleventh century plan and bears some resemblance to the layout at
Berkhamsted. The main gate towards
the town is a peculiar affair with barely projecting solid drum towers
protecting the gate. A constable's chamber from where the
portcullis was operated was above, although most features are now gone.
Within the bailey lies the remains of the castle hall and adjacent
buildings. At the opposite end of the bailey is the rectangular
north gate with a pointed, ribbed vault to the gate passage with
portcullis. The best preserved section of the curtain wall is on
the east side and contains a fragment of a projecting square tower.
The ditch on this side of the castle has been filled in and built
In the NE corner of the bailey is the tall, steep motte.
This was futher protected on the bailey side by a barbican, from
which a covered staircase ran up the south side of the motte. On
the motte top stands the tripple keep. This consists of a
revetment encasing the shell keep which surrounds a later internal
round tower. This is possibly one of the most impressive circular
keeps in the country and should be compared with the smaller round tower keeps like Berkhamsted, Bronllys, Longtown and Skenfrith. Tretower
like Launceston has a shell keep surrounding the inner round tower, but
it does not have the third defensive line. Other shell keeps
exist at Arundel,
Berkeley, Cardiff, Carisbrooke, Clare, Kilpeck, Leeds, Lewes, Lincoln, Marlborough, Oxford, Restormal, Tamworth, Tonbridge, Totnes,
Tremarton, Warwick, Windsor and Wiston. There are also Dungarvan in Ireland and Chateau Sur Epte and Gisors in France.
Paul Martin Remfry