Castles and sites of castles

Pages ccxxxvii-ccxlii

Magna Britannia: Volume 3, Cornwall. Originally published by T Cadell and W Davies, London, 1814.

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Castles and Sites of Castles.

In the county of Cornwall, we find the remains of several rude circular buildings on the summits of hills, still denominated castles; the walls of which having been originally built of stones, without mortar, are now thrown down, and lying in a ridge: of these Dr. Borlase says, that in the narowest part of Cornwall, from St. Michael's Mount to the Lands'-end, there are no fewer than seven; the most remarkable of them are Caerbrân castle, in Sancred; castle Andinas in Ludgvan, and Chûn castle in Morvah. The diameter of the circular wall of Caerbrân castle is 90 paces, surrounded by a ditch 15 yards wide; beyond which is a vallum of earth 15 feet high, with a ditch 15 feet wide (fn. n1). Castle Andinas, standing on the highest hill in the hundred of Penwith, Dr. Borlase says, consisted of two stone walls, built one within the other, in a circular form: the ruins he describes, as fallen on each side of the wall, shewing the work to have been of great height and thickness; he also mentions a third wall, built more than half way round, but left unfinished (fn. n2): the diameter of the whole was 400 feet, and the principal ditch 60 feet wide. The most regular work of this kind is Chûn castle, which stands on an eminence, above the Atlantic ocean, and commanding a very extensive view of the Bristol channel, Mountsbay, &c it is of an oval form, consisting of two walls, now thrown down, and forming high ridges of stones; the inner area is 125 feet from east to west, and 110 from north to south. Dr. Borlase, who no doubt ascertained that point, by the removal of some of the stones, says, that the outer wall is five feet in thickness, the inner one eight, but thicker near the foundation. The outer wall is surrounded by a ditch, and between the two walls is a ditch 30 feet wide (fn. n3): the Doctor describes a line of stone work at the distance of 30 feet from the inner wall, divided by several cross walls, parallel with it; but little of this part of the work is at present to be seen: the entrance faces west-south-west: from the ruins of the walls, Dr. Borlase supposed that the outermost could not have been less that 10 feet high, and the innermost about 15. About 500 yards north-west of Chûn castle, stands the Cromlech, already described (fn. n4). Dr. Borlase also mentions several cliff castles being stone walls, stretching across necks of land from cliff to cliff, as that called Castle Treryn, in the parish of St. Levan; the cape called Tolpedn-Penwith; the castles Karnjek and Boscajell in the parish of St. Just, and many others on the sea-coast. (fn. n5)

Launceston castle, formerly the chief seat of the Earls of Cornwall, and supposed, with great probability, to occupy the site of a Roman station, was much dilapidated when it came into the possession of the Black Prince, in the reign of King Edward III., as appears by the survey taken at that time (fn. n6).

Little now remains of the base court, except the gate-house, a small tower, and part of the outer walls, all much decayed. The Keep, which is one of the most remarkable buildings of the kind in this kingdom, consists of a round tower, 36 feet in diameter, and about 38 feet high, standing on a steep, conical, rocky mount, and surrounded by a wall 12 feet thick, and 20 feet high; the inner part of which is much decayed on the east side; in the thickness of this wall, at the entrance, on the south side of the Keep, is a stair-case, leading to the top of the rampart. The form of the outer wall approaches to an oval; its external dimensions are 78 feet by 70. The space between this wall and the inner tower varies in width, from six feet to ten feet three inches (fn. n7). Dr. Borlase says, that there was a third wall not quite three feet thick, at the distance of six feet from the wall last described, supposed to have been a kind of breast-work, very little of which remained in his time; and Norden represents such a wall in the figure of this castle, given in his survey of Cornwall; yet, from the present appearance of the mount, which is very steep, quite from the foundation of the second tower, it is difficult to imagine how a third wall could have been so constructed, as to have included a much less space in width than six feet. There was a steep flight of steps leading up the south side of the mount, to the entrance into the tower on the top, between two walls, having originally a roof covered with lead: Dr. Borlase, in whose time much of this gallery remained, says, that the passage was seven feet wide, and that the walls were pierced with narrow windows. The record of 11 Edward III. above alluded to, mentions two covered-ways as connected with the tower of the keep.

In the inner tower, the walls of which are ten feet thick, were two rooms 18 feet 6 inches in diameter, divided by a floor of timber; the lower one being a dungeon, without any light: in the upper room was a fire-place on the north side: the space between the two towers was covered with a flat roof, level with the floor of the upper chamber of the inner tower: a late learned writer has controverted Dr. Borlase's assertion on this subject, and attempted to prove that there could not have been such a roof; not aware of the clear indications of it which exist, for the holes in which the beams of that roof were inserted still remain all round the tower. Some of the door-ways in the Keep have round arches, others are rudely pointed. From the print in Norden's survey, there appears to have been a wall round the base of the mount in his time (in the reign of Jac. I.)

Of the date of this curious edifice, nothing is known; it was certainly in existence at the time of the Norman conquest, and probably long before; and as it exhibits no trace of Saxon ornament, there seems good reason for Dr. Borlase's opinion, that it was a British work, and the chief residence of the Cornu-British princes. One convincing proof of its great age, is the state of decay, in which it appears to have been, notwithstanding its massy structure, in the early part of the fourteenth century. What has been said by several writers of Launceston castle having been built by William Moreton, Earl of Cornwall, must apply to the buildings of the base-court, the gate-house of which, still remaining in ruins, has a pointed arch: there was a covered way 120 feet in length across the ditch, leading to the gate; much of which appears to have been standing, when the views in Buck's Antiquities and Dr. Borlase's work were taken.

Figure 25: Carnbrê Castle with a distant view of Redruth

Carnbrê castle, which stands at the eastern end of Carnbrê hill, on some of the great masses of granite with which that hill abounds, is a small irregular building, being not quite 60 feet long, and about 10 feet wide; only part of the building is ancient, the masonry of which is very rude: the modern part has probably been built on ancient foundations. (fn. n8)

Figure 24: Tintagel Castle

Tintagel castle, situated partly on the extremity of a bold rock of slate on the northern coast of the county, and partly on a rocky island, with which it was formerly connected by a draw-bridge, has been generally considered as a building of very great antiquity; but so little at present remains of its ruins, as to bafle all conjecture as to the time when it was erected, from the style of its architecture; it is however certain, that it was in a dilapidated state at the time of the survey made in the eleventh year of King Edward III., wherein it is described as a certain castle sufficiently walled, in which were two chambers beyond the two gates in a decayed state; one chamber, with a small kitchen, for the constable, in good repair; one stable for eight horses, decayed; one cellar and bakehouse, ruinous: the timber of the great hall had been taken down by command of John Earl of Cornwall, because the hall was ruinous, and the walls thereof of no value.

Trematon castle, which, in the reign of King William Rufus, was held by the family of Valletort, under the Earl of Cornwall, is situated on an eminence, above the river Lynher, having a base-court, surrounded with an embattled wall and ditch of an irregular form, following the shape of the hill on which it stands, and pierced with loop-holes, some long and narrow, some square, and others in the form of a cross. On the east side is the principal entrance: over the gateway is a large room with a chimney-piece, the ornaments of which are in the style of the early Gothic. The Keep of this castle stands on an artificial mount at the northeast corner of the base-court, about thirty feet high; which, on the outside, has a natural base of considerable height; below which, are the remains of some strong outworks. The building of the Keep has an embattled wall 10 feet thick and 30 feet high; the form of which is nearly oval, but less curved on the north side: its internal diameter is 66 feet by 52: the entrance is under a plain circular arch. The apartments in this keep, must, as Dr. Borlase observes (fn. n9), have been lighted from a little court or well, in the centre, as there are no windows in the exterior wall of the building. In the survey of the 11 Edw. III., this castle is described as well walled, and containing a hall, a kitchen, and lodging-chamber, which Edmund, formerly Earl of Cornwall, erected: the walls of which were of plaster, and a certain ancient chapel within the gate of the castle.

Of Restormel castle, the ancient seat of the baronial family of Cardinan, which came into the possession of the Earls of Cornwall, towards the latter end of the thirteenth century, the only part now remaining is the keep, a circular building of large dimensions, situated on a steep mount, formed out of a rocky hill, with a deep ditch: "the outer wall or rampart of the keep is an exact circle of 110 feet diameter within, and 10 feet wide at the top, including the thickness of the parapet, which is two feet six inches. From the present floor of the groundrooms to the top of the rampart, is 27 feet 6 inches; and to the top of the parapet, 7 feet higher, garretted quite round. There are three stair-cases leading to the top of the rampart, one on each side of the gateway, ascending from the court within, and one betwixt the inner and outermost gate: the rooms are 19 feet wide, the windows mostly in the innermost wall; but there are some very large openings in the outmost wall or rampart, now walled up." (fn. n10) These openings which have pointed arches, and the gateway and chapel, both of which project from the circular keep, and have also pointed arches, are supposed to have been additions, made by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, King of the Romans, in the reign of King Henry III. "The offices," Dr. Borlase observes, "lay below in the bass-court, where signs of many ruins to the north and east were in his time apparent, and shewed that this castle was of great extent." (fn. n11) At the time of the survey, in the reign of King Edward III., there were within the keep a hall, three chambers, and as many upper-chambers, one chapel with two bells, three chambers over the gateway, in a decayed state, covered with lead; the gates at the entrance were also decayed. There were, without the gateway of the castle, one great hall, with two upper chambers, and one chapel, in good condition: the kitchen, and a certain stair-case, leading from the hall to the kitchen, were out of repair. There were also three chambers, with three upper-chambers over them, and a bakehouse, in bad condition; and two stables for 20 horses, on each side of the gateway, old and ruinous; and there was a certain conduit of lead, through which water was conveyed into every part of the castle. (fn. n12)

Below the town of Fowey, on each side of the haven, is a square tower, built, as we are informed by Leland, in the reign of King Edward IV., for the protection of the haven, having a chain to be drawn across: these towers were out of repair in the reign of King Henry VIII., as appears by the ancient chart of the southern coast of England, drawn at that time, preserved in the British Museum. (fn. n13) "Two links of the boom or chain, which ran across the harbour, were taken up by a trawl boat, about the year 1776," (fn. n14) and are now preserved in the grotto at Menabilly.

St. Catherine's castle at Fowey, St. Mawes castle, and that of Pendennis, were all built in the reign of King Henry VIII., and resemble other castles or blockhouses, erected by that monarch for the defence of the southern coast. (fn. n15) About three-quarters of a mile west of Kilkhampton church, is the site of a strong fortress, called the Castle-hill, consisting of a very steep oval mount, divided into three parts by deep ditches.


  • n1. Borlase's Antiq. pl. xxix., p. 346.
  • n2. Ibid. p. 346.
  • n3. Ibid.
  • n4. P. ccxix.
  • n5. Extent of the duchy of Cornwall, 11 Edw. III., in the Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer's Office.
  • n6. Ibid. p. 344.
  • n7. See the annexed plan and section, obligingly communicated by Lieut. Colonel Mudge, to whose kindness we have been much indebted, upon several occasions, in the progress of this work.
  • n8. See a plan of this building in Borlase's Antiq., pl. vii., p. 117.
  • n9. Antiquities, p. 354.
  • n10. Ibid. p. 356.
  • n11. Ibid. p. 357.
  • n12. For the history of this castle, see p. 176, 177.
  • n13. See p. 108.
  • n14. Grose's Antiq. viii. p. 19.
  • n15. St. Mawe's and Pendennis castle, are figured in the first volume of Buck's Antiquities.