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 over.

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.


Copyright©2010 Paul Martin Remfry