launceston castle

Launceston Castle

Perched on a ridge overlooking the Cornish countryside, the ruins of Launceston Castle stand as a monument to the turbulent history of England’s westernmost county. For over 850 years, Launceston Castle has played a pivotal role, from the Norman conquest to the Prayer Book Rebellion, the English Civil War, and beyond. Though now an evocative ruin, its imposing stone walls and lofty tower still suggest the might of its medieval lords. Join us as we explore the storied history of this Norman fortress in Cornwall.

Early History: A New Norman Stronghold

Launceston Castle was likely built soon after the Norman conquest of England in 1068, as part of the efforts of William the Conqueror and his followers to subdue the southwest. The first castle was an earthwork and timber fortification constructed by Robert, the Count of Mortain, who was granted the Earldom of Cornwall by William.

This early castle featured defensive ramparts around a bailey, with a large motte and timber keep constructed in one corner. Launceston Castle became the administrative hub of the new Earldom of Cornwall, housing a sizeable community within its bailey.

As an early Norman stronghold, Launceston asserted control over the surrounding countryside and formed part of the efforts to consolidate the conquest. The motte and bailey design would have provided a defensible base, able to withstand assault if needed.

See also  Lincoln Castle

12th Century Rebuild in Stone

While the first castle was an earth and timber structure, Launceston was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century. This included the addition of a circular shell keep atop the motte, which provided more formidable accommodation and defenses.

Gatehouses and towers were added to the walls, and many of the previous wooden buildings within the bailey were reconstructed in stone. Launceston was clearly developing into a substantial fortress under the Normans.

13th Century Expansion by Richard of Cornwall

In 1227, Richard of Cornwall, brother of Henry III, became the Earl of Cornwall and set about extensively redeveloping Launceston Castle.

Richard’s works included the construction of a high tower, increasing the height of the existing keep. This would have provided sweeping views over the surrounding countryside from the upper chamber.

Richard also established a deer park just southwest of the castle, likely using the high tower as a vantage point from which to view his hunting grounds. The bailey was cleared of older structures and a new great hall constructed.

With its imposing stone walls and lofty tower, 13th century Launcestonasserted Richard’s authority over the earldom in spectacular fashion.

14th-16th Centuries: Decline and Rebellion

After Richard’s death, Launceston declined in importance after the earldom shifted its administrative focus to Lostwithiel in the 14th century. By 1337, surveys reported the castle had fallen into disrepair.

It continued to be used as a prison and for judicial purposes, but was clearly past its heyday. Launceston played a brief role in the 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion, when Cornish rebels against the reforms of Edward VI captured the castle.

See also  HM Prison Hollesley Bay

The English Civil War and Ruin

Launceston Castle was held by Royalist forces during the English Civil War until being finally captured by Parliament in 1646.

The war left the castle in ruins, with lead stripped from roofs and buildings made unusable. It declined into a near total ruin over the following decades.

From Castle to Gaol

Though Launceston lay in ruins, its service was not yet over. In the late 17th century a gaol was built in the bailey, and the site became the county gaol.

The ruins of the Norman castle now held the outcasts of Cornish society. Conditions were criticized as poor, earning it the nickname “Castle Terrible”.

After the closure of the gaol in 1842, Launceston entered a new phase as a picturesque ruin and public park.

Launceston Castle Today

Today, what remains of the walls, keep, and high tower stand as a monument to Launceston’s long history. After 20th century use in WWII and by the government, the site was opened to the public.

Now in the care of English Heritage, visitors can explore the ruins and take in views from the motte on which this great Norman fortress once stood guard over Cornwall. Launceston Castle remains an impressive reminder of the legacy of the Normans in the Southwest.


From its start as an earth and timber fortification to a stone castle, prison, gaol, and finally tourist attraction, Launceston Castle has served many roles over its long life. Its imposing ruins speak to the turbulent centuries of English history that have shaped this county on the Celtic fringe. For those interested in the legacy of Norman England and the intrigues of Cornwall’s past, a visit to Launceston Castle makes for inspiring wander through the history of one of England’s great medieval castles.

See also  HM Prison Friarton


Who built Launceston Castle originally?

Launceston Castle was likely built soon after the Norman Conquest in 1068 by Robert, Count of Mortain. Robert was granted the Earldom of Cornwall by William the Conqueror.

What unique feature did Richard of Cornwall add in the 13th century?

In the 13th century, Richard of Cornwall extensively redeveloped the castle. His additions included a high tower constructed atop the existing keep, which increased the height and provided sweeping views from its upper chamber.

How did the castle end up in ruins?

Launceston Castle was already declining by the 14th century. During the English Civil War in the 17th century, it was heavily damaged and stripped of materials. This left it a near total ruin.

What is the castle used for today?

Today Launceston Castle is operated by English Heritage as a tourist attraction. Visitors can explore the ruins and take in views from the motte where the keep once stood.

When can you visit Launceston Castle?

Launceston Castle is open to visitors from 10am to 6pm daily between April and September. The site has more limited opening hours from October to March.

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