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Lydford Castle

Lydford Castle

Lydford is normally associated with the stone ‘castle’ which stands next to the church, this was the place that once carried fear and awe for anybody doomed to stay there as they knew the infamous ‘Lydford Law‘ would probably end up in their deaths. There are in fact the remains of two castles in the village, the second being an earlier Norman structure which lies behind the church. Naturally with such an old buildings and especially one that was used as a prison there are several stories and myths associated with the ghosts of Lydford. But this page is more concerned with the history and archaeology of the two castles.

Lydford Castle

The first castle to be built at Lydford was the Norman castle which was located on the south-western tip of a natural promontory. The location was previously used by the Saxons presumably because on three sides are steep hills which provided natural defences – see ill. 1 here. The early castle consisted of a large crescent shaped bank with an external ditch – see ill. 2 here. It is estimated to have been built in the late 1060’s but was only briefly occupied. Saunders notes that the latest occupation material recovered by excavation was a first issue penny dating to the reign of King Stephen. This would place the date to around the late 1130s; there was a mint at nearby Launceston during this time and the Lydford Mint went out of production in the 1050’s. Most of the interior and a section of the bank and ditch were excavated in the 1960s. The burnt-out remnants of 5 timber and earth structures were discovered. The inward facing ends of the buildings were flanked by deep-set, rough stone paving. They were rectangular and measured 8 –12ft wide and between 24 and 25ft long. The walls were made of earth, clay or shillet with externally faced wattle woven round posts. There was evidence that the buildings were subdivided internally. The rampart was internally revetted with huge posts as suggested by the postholes, which measured 4ft 6in deep. Although no outer external revetment posts were found it is assumed a box rampart was present. Finds included over 5cwt of charred grain along with 11th – 12th century items.  The burnt out buildings and the excavated cereal grains have led, Creighton, 2002, p. 184, to suggest that possibly the site was a fortified granary, used to store either agricultural surplus or the supplies for a military force. The earth bank measures up to 82ft thick and stands around 16ft at its highest point. The rampart measures 180ft from end to end. The external ditch has sharply defined sides and averages 10ft deep. There are signs of a possible timber causeway entrance represented by a low narrow bank, which crosses the ditch base near its centre (Newman 2000: p.10).

Lydford Castle

The Domesday Book of 1086 lists “The king has the borough of Lideforde. King Edward held it in lordship, 28 burgesses within the borough, 41 outside. Between them they pay 60s by weight to the king. They have 2 carucates of land outside the borough. 40 houses destroyed since the king has come to England”, Morris (1985: p.100b) – see ill. 3 here. Bateman (1991: p.8) speculates that the mention of “40 houses destroyed” indicates that this was an act of reprisal by the Normans for some act of rebellion by the villagers of Lydford. Creighton, p.137, considers that the building of Lydford castle and those at Totnes and possibly Barnstaple were the result of a regional uprising that necessitated the suppression of key power bases. The next mention of the settlement is in 1195 and as Saunders (1980: p.127) notes there appears to have been a deliberate royal policy to revive the status of the settlement because the pipe rolls of this year orders Geoffrey Fitz Peter to revive its market. From 1198 Lydford was always referred to as a burgus in the Pipe Rolls as opposed to a ville. In the 12th and 13th centuries the settlement had a mayor and various other officials and sent representatives to Parliament. An impression of the borough seal was found in the castle ruins, part of its inscription read ‘SIGILLUM …BURGH…LIDE…’ Reference is then made of the castle in the pipe rolls of 1195. Saunders notes that this entry refers to the sums of £32 from the revenues of Devon and £42 from those of Cornwall, being exacted for the building of a ‘strong house’ or ‘firme domus’ at Lydford for the purpose of detaining royal prisoners. This was a countrywide initiative with similar events occurring at Launceston and Exeter. In 1199 William de Wrotham was described as being keeper of the castle, he was also appointed warden of the Stannaries as mentioned in the Stannary charter of the 20th of November 1198. Although this may not be an earth-shattering event it certainly had an effect on the usage of Lydford Castle. Somers Cocks, (Gill: 1977 p.92) states that the following years saw a decline in the importance of Lydford castle due to the rise of nearby Launceston as a stronger defensive settlement and indeed Lydford borough in favour of the more commercially stronger towns of Okehampton and Tavistock. Tin was a very important and lucrative commodity because it was vital for the production of alloys such as bronze and pewter, Hambling (1995: p.2). He then explains (1995: pp. 24-25) that the tin miners of Devon had always enjoyed special privileges ‘by ancient custom’, these included the right to dig for tin, literally wherever they chose, divert streams and take wood and turf for fuel. By the 12th century the Norman kings soon identified the need to control the tin industry and the old customary laws were embodied in a new set of regulations called the Assize of Mines. In addition the entire county of Devon was classed as a royal forest and was subject to laws, which acted to preserve game. Various officials and courts enforced these laws together with the mining codes, some of which could involve imprisonment. It became William de Wrotham’s responsibility to in effect replace both the sheriff and the forest courts in the financial and legal affairs of the Stannaries. King John’s charter of 1201 clearly states:

We have granted also that the chief warden of the stannaries and his bailiffs have plenary power over the miners to do justice to them and to hold them to the law. And if it should happen that any of the miners ought to be seized and imprisoned for breach of the law they should be received in our prisons” The Medieval Sourcebook (2004: on-line source)

The first court was held at Exeter in 1198 and later moved to Lydford, Hambling (1995: p.27). The prison became renowned for its sometimes harsh treatment of prisoners and its quick summary of justice became known as ‘Lydford Law’. As Crossing notes (1990: pp.24-5) this reputation was more attributable to the forest laws than the Stannary ones. It became common knowledge that at Lydford you were hung first and tried afterwards. A fact later recorded in 1664 by William Browne in a poem from his Britannia’s Pastorals where he wrote, “I oft have heard of Lydford law, how in the morn they hang and draw, and sit in judgement after …”. The fame of Lydford Law has also reached the literary world as in Charles Kingsley’s novel ‘Westward Ho!’ the following can be found “Let Lydfor’ men mind Lydfor’ roogs, and by Lydfor’ law if they will, hang first and try after”, Westward Ho! (2004: On-line source). One reason for this was that any transgressor would first be presented to the Forest Court of Attachments that sat every forty days. They would then make presentments to the Court of Swainmote that met every four months. If this court found the presentment true the offender was deemed guilty. However, sentence could only be pronounced by the Court of Justice Seat, which sat every three years. As there was usually little doubt that the sentence would be hanging the offender would be hung in anticipation of the formal judgement. St.Ledger Gordon (1973: p.113) notes that during Henry VIII’s reign the castle was described as “one of the most heinous, contagious and detestable places in the realm”.

Lydford Castle

Saunders (1980: pp.128-135) gives a documented history of Lydford castle which is summarised as follows: On the 18th May 1204, King John disafforested Devon except for the Forests of Dartmoor and Exmoor, which meant Lydford was still under royal control. In 1216 King John granted William Brewer, the Sheriff of Devon the custody of the castle of Lydford with all its appurtenances. In 1239 a charter of Henry III granted his brother Richard ‘our Manor of Lydford’, with the castle of the same place. This changed the legal status of Dartmoor by severing it from the Crown and made the Forest a Chase. Both the disforestation and the severance from the Crown led to an increase in the jurisdiction of the court held at Lydford. Following the execution of Piers Gaveston in 1312, Lydford and Dartmoor reverted to the Crown and their custody was overseen by Thomas le Ercedekne, described as Constable of the castle of Lydford and custos of the manor of Dartmoor. In 1390 signs of the decrease in the castle’s importance can be seen by the issuing of orders to strip the lead from the roof of the tower for use in repairs to the Royal castles of Cornwall. Much of the 15th century saw Lydford castle under the guardianship of grantees who were responsible for its upkeep. During Tudor times possession of the castle reverted back to the Duchy and sporadic repairs were made. Repairs were carried out in 1590, 1618, 1622 and 1639. During the Civil War the castle was used as a Royalist prison where all military prisoners captured by Sir Richard Grenville were sent. Here they were executed for high treason. In a Parliamentary survey of 1650 the castle was described as being “very much in decay and almost totally ruined”, it also describes the floors as having collapsed and the beams having mostly fallen in. Another report in 1703/4 stated that nothing remained but the bare walls with the roof missing and much of the lead and timber stolen by the local inhabitants. Repairs were made in 1716 and 1733. The final stage of the decline of Lydford castle came upon the growth and popularity of nearby Princetown. Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt was Lord Warden of the Stannaries and had established a prosperous farm at Princetown; he was also known to be very influential with regards to Duchy affairs. In order to alleviate the growing problem of French prisoners of war he built a prison at Princetown. This saw the growth of the town, which culminated in the removal of the courts from Lydford to Princetown, leaving the castle redundant and Lydford declining. In 1590 Browne, the Tavistock poet described its location thus “They have a castle on a hill, I took it for an old windmill”, Baring Gould (1907: p.218). This aptly describes its appearance.  In 1833 Mrs Bray comments that the castle “was so gone to ruin that nothing but the bare walls remain”. Crossing in 1912 (1992: p.151) notes that the castle had become a ruin, its dungeon choked with rubbish and the site of its gallows forgotten. The archaeological record does not mention the site of the gallows, however, on a map in Wootton (1972: p.28) there is a ‘Gallows Hill’ shown. Information received by this author notes that oral tradition suggests that the gallows were located where the O.S. maps shows a tumulus at the north end of the village. Early postcards of the castle show that today the only major difference externally is a lack of the wooden door and the removal of the ivy – see ill 4 here. Local sources have related how during the mid 1940’s as children, they used to climb up the walls on the ivy which shows how thickly it grew. The various aspects of today’s castle are shown in – ill. 5 here.

It is interesting to note that the common location of medieval prisons was within castles. Schofield and Vince (2003: p.56) state, “Castles in towns (medieval) were used for administrative purposes; usually as the sheriff’s court and jail”. Yet at Lydford the prison is sited near but separate from the earlier castle. Saunders (1980: p.160) suggests that this could indicate that the early castle was not in royal hands in 1195 and that it was in a derelict condition by then. The prison was much more associated with the borough of Lydford. The castle occupies a prime site, which were possibly burgage plots. Because the site is located back from the street frontage this could indicate the existence of a type of enclosure, possibly a courtyard that provided access within. This early plot can be seen in the early 1900’s postcard as a walled garden plot – see ill. 4 here.

Lydford Castle

The structural archaeological findings are thus described by Saunders (1980: pp 154-164). In 1932 the Duchy of Cornwall gave the castle to the office of works. Some repairs were carried out prior to the Second World War with a major consolidation programme beginning in the 1950s. In 1957 work on the tower necessitated the removal of a build up of modern rubbish that had amassed in the cellar. This revealed the head of a doorway and part of a window jam suggesting that the tower once had a lower storey that had been filled in. Various archaeological excavations took place between 1957 and 1964. The tower consists of three levels, which fall into three periods of construction and reconstruction. Phase one of the building consisted of a freestanding structure of two or more levels. This was constructed in the late 12th century and was probably the ‘domus firme ad custodiendos prisones’ of 1195. Phase two saw the rebuilding of the tower in the mid 13th century following the partial demolition of the first phase building. The ruined walls were levelled, with some internal and external refacing in evidence. The original windows were blocked and a new structure built off the levelled walls of the first floor. This phase is also associated with the filling of the lower storey when a cross-wall was inserted to form a cellar or ‘pit’. In addition a mound was thrown up against the outer face. The final phase comprised of some internal reconstruction of the spine and cross walls and some refenestration carried out, all this occurred in the 18th century.

Lydford Castle

The design of what is now the ground floor can be seen in ill. 6 here. Room I now consists of the shell of the walls and a stone-chipped covered floor, however, as shown on the plan, originally it measured 30ft 9 in. by 19ft 6in. and stood about 13ft high. There were two opposed window loops in the north western and south-eastern walls. A well was located in the western corner and excavations further revealed a waterspout carved from local Hurdwick stone, this was located 5 ft above floor level in the south-western wall – see ill. 7 here. The head contains a circular hole leading into a half round channel, which was built within the thickness of the wall. Saunders suggests that it could have connected a supply of water, possibly from the roof. The spout could easily have been stopped thus allowing a regulated water supply. In the northern corner a doorway originally led into a single room, but by the 13th century this was subdivided into two rooms (room IIa and room IIb as shown on the plan). In its original form a single loop window in the southeastern wall lit the room. Excavations revealed many finds from the ground floor. The filling of the well revealed fragments of ironwork fittings from the well cover. This has allowed a reconstruction of the lid, which according to Geddes (Saunders 1980: p.165) sat proud in the centre of a platform, which covered the well – see ill. 8 here. A hasp was found, thus indicating that there was a need to lock the lid shut, possibly to prevent prisoners contaminating the water or drowning themselves. The design of the trap door is indicative of the 12th century as suggested by the roves and scrolled hinges. Also found in the filling of the well was a single ended pick with a fragment of oval section oak handle and a spade iron with a grooved triangular mouth that showed signs of earlier repair – see ill. 9 here. The well also revealed two rim sherds from cooking pots and wall sherds with evidence of soot on the exterior, these were dated between c.1150-c.1250. Medieval fabrics dating from between c.1250 – c.1300 consisted of similar finds of cooking potsherds and wall sherds. There were no medieval or late fabrics found in the well. Various wooden artefacts were found, most of which were made from oak and included a cask or bucket, a bucket base, five barrel staves, 55 lengths of plank which varied from 2 – 6” wide, various pegs made from hazel and hawthorn and 3 timber pieces which may possibly have been part of the water-raising mechanism. A selection of the above are shown in ill. 10 here. The rubble fill of Room I included a broken bar, possibly from a window grill, fragments of a horse shoe, a broken ferrule and a medieval nail as shown in – ill. 11 here. Pottery finds in Room I. were three rim sherds from cooking pots dating from between c.1150 – c.1225, two cooking pot sherds and a wall sherd dating from between c.1200 – c.1350. There were many sherds from bowls, cooking pots, jars, jugs, a skillet and a basin dating from between c1575 – c1650. Room IIa. produced the upper part of a jug which Dunning (Saunders 1980: p.169) described as being made of fine whitish ware with yellow glaze covering the neck, body and handle. It was elaborately decorated with applied strips and pellets and is similar to a complete jug found on the site of Quilters vault in Southampton. The Lydford jug was imported from Normandy in the late 13th century and is depicted in ill. 12 here. Other pottery finds from this room include a sherd from a cooking pot dating from between c.1150 – c 1225. At some time during the mid 13th century the earlier structure was partially demolished. One possible reason for this could be that the early building was badly damaged by a fire. The new building was constructed virtually on the same designs as the original structure but with thinner walls. The main alterations during this period was the addition of a cross wall in room II on the ground floor.

Lydford Castle

The first floor was virtually restructured and contained a single room measuring 35ft x 20ft. Saunders suggests that the room had a timber floor with a trap door leading to room II – see ill. 13 here. The second floor was built to a higher standard than the other floors and consisted of a hall measuring 36ft 6” x 21ft 6” and a solar or chamber 39ft x 12ft 6”. The garderobe in room VII linked with another in the room below – see ill. 14 here. Compared with the rest of the building this floor was well lit and although the windows and fireplace of the central spine are of a later date it is suggested that they reproduced the original arrangements. In most cases the windows had seats built into the walls. A plan of the second floor is shown in ill 15 here. The final building phase of the castle took place in the early 18th century and consisted of refurbishment of the tower after a period of decay. The major reconstruction feature was the rebuilding and thickening of the spine wall during this period the windows of the hall were also enlarged.

Lydford Castle

It will now be prudent, having looked at the archaeological findings to briefly put their contexts into possible functions. Saunders (1980: pp162 – 164) states that Lyford’s archaeological significance is as a medieval prison as opposed to a castle. There are distinct differences in the amenities within the building and obvious grades of prison accommodation. Room VII on the second floor is the only room to possess a fireplace; there is also a garderobe, leading to the conclusion that this was the courtroom. Room VIII on the same floor also has a garderobe and the evidence for the partition wall could indicate that this served as the keeper’s quarters. The first floor was the prison and demonstrates three clear regression stages in physical comfort. Room IV was well lit with an associated garderobe; possibly serving as a common room. Room VI was well lit but had no garderobe. Room V was poorly lit and had trap-door access to an unlit ‘pit’ below. Richard Strode, an MP for Plympton was incarcerated in the prison in 1510 and is noted as recording that he was thrown into “a depe pit under the grounde” Brown (1998: p.4). In the opinion of Saunders, Lydford castle is the earliest example of a purpose-built gaol in this country. The excavations have also provided an insight into the diet of the medieval period. The bone assemblage found within the medieval layers represent 194 identifiable specimens; all were dated by associated pottery from between the 13th and early 14th centuries. There were cattle, sheep, pig, red and roe deer, domestic fowl, goose, duck and golden plover, fish remains of cod or hake size and a horse bone.

Lydford Castle


Baring Gould, S. 1907 Devon, Methuen & Co, London
Bateman, M. 1991 Lydford Lives, Alan Tyler Print, Tavistock
Brown, M. 1999 Dartmoor Field Guides Volume 30, Dartmoor Press, Plymouth.

Creighton, O. H. 2002 Castles & Landscapes, Equinox Publishing, London.
Crossing, W. 1990 Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor, Peninsula Press, Newton Abbot
Gill, C. 1977 Dartmoor – A New Study, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.
Hambling, P. 1995 The Dartmoor Stannaries, Orchard Publications, Newton Abbot.

Morris, J. (Ed.) 1985 Domesday Book, Devon 1,Phillimore, Chichester
Newman, P. 2000 The Town and Castle Earthworks at Lydford, English Heritage, Exeter.
St. Ledger-Gordon, R. 1972 The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor, EP Pub., Wakefield.
Saunders, A.D. 1980 Lydford Castle, Devon, Medieval Archaeology, No24
Schofield, J. & Vince, A. 2003 Medieval Towns, Continuum, London
Wootton, M. & S. 1972 The Little Book of Lydford, Trident Press, Tavistock.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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