When is a castle not a castle? When it’s Gidleigh Castle! Although marked as, ‘Castle (remains of)’ on the OS map this is not strictly true because as the National Monuments Records explains: ‘The castle probably originated as a small fortified manor house in approximately 1300. The only remaining part is a small tower or keep built of granite rubble. It has an undercroft with a solar above and possibly once formed part of a larger building’. Therefore although the building is deemed a castle and in which case it’s the smallest one on Dartmoor it is in fact a fortified manor house.
Sometime prior to 1640 Tristram Risdon (pp. 124 – 126) gives a rambling account of the early pedigree of the castle’s owners:
‘ As you coast the clifts from Dawlish you have in view the outlet of the river Teign, so called by the Britons, for that is straight pent with narrow banks, who fountain is to be fetched from the forest of Dartmoor, near the Gidley-Hills, where the ancient progeny of the Prouzes had their castle, whereof most were called William; in which name it continued from the first Normans time unto the reign of Edward the second (1307 – 1327). The name is ancient, and written diversly, as Probus, Prouze and Prous… Sir William Prouz, who was lord of Gidleigh in the reign of Henry the third (1216 – 1272) had issue four sons, to the eldest bearing his own name he gave Gidleigh and Throwleigh…‘.
Today there is little to see and the structure is situated on Private Land which means there is even less to see. Pevsner (1952, p.170) describes the remains thus:
‘CASTLE of which only part of the small keep survives; about 22 by 13ft inside. It is square in shape with a stair-turret on the E side close to the SE corner. The detail similar to the parts of Okehampton Castle which belong to c. 1300. So presumably due to the last Sir William Prong who † 1316‘.
Pettifer, (1995, pp. 58 – 59) gives a slightly better description and describes the castle as a, ‘fairly complete ruin’ which consisted of two storeys, upstairs was a single apartment and below was an undercroft. He too agrees with Pevsner that the windows and doorways appear similar to those at Okehampton and adds that they were probably the work of the same master mason. He also attributes the building of the castle to Sir William de Prouze who died in 1316. Heaven knows where Pevsner got the name of Sir William Prong from, as noted later there are variations on the name but not that one? A survey was carried out by the Exeter Archaeology Field Unit in the early 1990s who came to the conclusion that apart from the original remains there was no evidence of any other medieval buildings on the site. Accordingly the ‘castle’ was described as comprised of two storeys inside which were a vaulted undercroft on the ground floor with a dwelling room above. A turret stair was attached the the south western corner which gave access to the two levels and the roof, inside was a dog-legged stair which went from the undercroft to the upper floor. Upstairs the main living room had several windows and a fireplace which for the time would have been considered well appointed. Another two storeyed structure which may well have been the solar was attached to the north of the main building, (Beverley et al. 1994 pp.241 – 243). The survey also deemed that as there was no evidence of any fortifications the term ‘castle’ has since the 17th century been misleadingly applied.
Further information on the building is supplied by Grumley-Grennan and Hardy (2000, p.30) who provide some detail on the stonework insomuch as the finer work of the door jams was achieved by using Aplite stone from Hatherleigh. This would have meant transporting the stone a good twenty miles or more which in medieval times would have been costly. Although the main walls are about 7ft thick time and the Dartmoor weather took their toll and in 1920 the front tower fell down. For an idea what it looked like prior to the collapse visit the Dartmoor Archive link opposite, here you will find a photograph taken by Robert Burnard in 1893.
Obviously there was a reason for the ‘castle’ and that was the manor of Gidleigh which dates back to Anglo Saxon times. As always, it never hurts to firstly have a look at the origin of the actual place-name – Gidleigh. Glover Et al, (1998, p.438) note that the first recorded evidence of Gidleigh was in 1158 when it appears in the Red Book of Exchequer as Geddelagæ. This name consists of a personal and descriptive element, namely, Gydda and leah thus giving, ‘Glydda’s Clearing’. For some unknown reason they make no mention of the Gidleigh entry in the Domesday Book of 1086. It is only a short record which states, ‘Godwin the priest holds Chiderleia from the Count, He held it himself before 1066. It paid tax for 3 furlongs. Land for 1 plough … Value 5s‘. The actual extract can be seen below, (Morris, 1986, p.104c).
However, the main point is who was Gydda? Gytha was the wife of Earl Godwine of Wessex who was one the main Saxon lords who governed Wessex. Amongst her nine children was Harold II who the last Anglo Saxon king of England. Earl Godwine owned extensive lands which included the manor of South Tawton which at the time Gidleigh belonged to. Gytha was daughter of Torkel Styrbjörnsson who was a Swedish warlord hence her full name: Gytha Torkelsdotter. After the Battle of Hastings, Gytha went to Exeter where she assisted in organising the defence of the city until escaping after its surrender in 1068. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle then informs that, ‘here, Gytha, mother of Harold, travelled away to the isle of Flatholme, and the wives of many good men with her, and lived there for a certain time. and so went from there across the sea to St. Omer (Flanders), (Swanton, 2003, p.202). This then possibly presents us with the Gydda or Gytha who owned the leah which later became known as Gidleigh.
After the Norman invasion the manor was give to the Robert, Earl of Mortain for his services to King William and as the Domesday Book records the manor was granted to Godwin the Priest. He himself goes down in Norman history as he was one of only two clerics who held lands prior to 1066 and were allowed to keep them after by the Normans, (Grumley-Grennan and Hardy, 2000, p.10). This suggests that for some reason he managed to find favour or convince them of his worth and loyalty. The next owners of the manor as mentioned above were the Prouz family who held possession through various generations until it came into the ownership of Sir William Prouz who then built the ‘castle’.
All of the early Saxon buildings have long vanished but are there any other features associated with the early manor? The answer to this is yes, just opposite the ‘castle’ is what appears to be an overgrown grotto but is in fact the head of a well which provided the manor with water, local custom has it that the well was in use up until 1910. A little further up the road is what appears to be a huge, walled compost heap but originally was the manorial pound where stray beasts were impounded. About half a mile from the castle is the old Gidleigh mill, the present building replacing an earlier structure in 1656. Another feature that may be connected to the medieval manor is to be found just outside the porch of the church. Some people consider that it is the tomb of a crusader knight which can neither be proven or unproven. This theory stems from the fact that the grave slab has a Cross of Lorraine carved upon it which was one of the symbols associated with crusading knights.
The earliest part of the nearby church is the south wall of the chancel which has been dated to sometime in the 13th century which is also around the time that the first rector was recorded there.
Gover, J. E. B., Mawer, A. & Stenton, F. M. 1998. The Place Names of Devon. Nottingham: English Place-Name Society.
Grumley-Grennan, T and Hardy, M. 2000. Gidleigh – The Story of a Dartmoor Village. Gidleigh: Glebe Publishing.
Morris, J. (Ed.). 1986. Domesday Book – Devon, Part One. Chichester: Phillimore & Co.
Pettifer, A. 1985. English Castles, A Guide by Counties. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer.
Pevsner, N. 1952. The Buildings of England – South Devon. Hammondsworth: Penguin Books.
Risdon, T. 1810. Survey of the County of Devon. Hertford: Stephen Austin & Sons, Ltd.
Swanton, M. 2003 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. London: Phoenix Press.