Launceston Castle, Cornwall

launceston castle cornwall

Launceston Castle is a medieval castle that was used by the powerful Earls of Cornwall to control the main route into the country. Launceston Castle is built high on a grassy mound, offering commanding views over the surrounding countryside and the town of Launceston in Cornwall.

Known as Dunheved Castle it was originally an 11th century motte & bailey wooden castle. It was built by Robert, Count of Mortain. The wooden keep was soon replaced by a stone circular shell keep. In the 12th century, stone walls and a tower were added.

The central two storey drum tower was added in the 13th century when the castle was obtained by Richard, earl of Cornwall. He upgraded the defences with solid drum towers flanking the South Gatehouse, a new curtain wall and the re-siting of the North Gatehouse. In the large rectangular bailey, he put in Great Hall which remained in use as the Assize Hall until the 17th century.

Launceston Castle declined in importance after Richard of Cornwall's death in 1272. His son, Edmund, moved his main residence to Lostwithiel. This building remained as both the assize and a prison.

The castle fell into disrepair after the Civil War, and large parts of the walls are missing now. By 1650 only the North Gatehouse habitable.

At the start of the Civil War, Launceston Castle was held for the Parliament but quickly fell to the Royalists. The Castle surrendered to Cromwell's forces in 1644 but then again quickly reverted to the Royalists. The Prince of Wales, afterwards Charles II, stopped at the Castle a short while in the course of his flight westwards. In March 1646 the Castle and its garrison again surrendered to the Parliamentary forces. However the castles walls were in such a poor state of repair that the castle defences were not considered dangerous enough to be neutralised by the Parliamentarian army when they eventually gained control over the castle from the supporters of Charles I. And in 1649 a Parliamentary Commission reported that the castle was in a state of ruin

Demolition work was carried out in 1764 on the North Gate to provide stone for an new house being built immediately outside the North Gate.

It was used as a jail for George Fox, the Quaker preacher. In 1656, George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends (better know as "Quakers"), and two of his friends were arrested for distributing an "earnest religious paper". They were incarcerated in the castle's dungeons for eight months before Oliver Cromwell heard of their plight and intervened.

As the venue for the county assizes and jail, the castle witnessed the trials and hangings of numerous criminals. The last execution was in 1821. A display at the castle traces 1,000 years of history, with finds from site excavations.

In 1838 the assizes and the seat of county government were moved from Launceston to Bodmin. The jail, the last remaining building in the castle grounds, was demolished. The Duke of Northumberland had the castle landscaped and turned into a public park and garden. It remained as a park until being used by the US army in 1944 for a hospital.

Launceston Castle features in the ceremony of the Dukes of Cornwall. In the 20th century, in their role as Dukes of Cornwall, both King George V and the Duke of Windsor visited the Castle in 1909 and 1921 respectively. King George VI, was already crowned when in 1937 he made a state entry into the Castle, being welcomed with age-old ceremonial and presented with feudal dues - a pound of pepper and one hundred shillings, which were set down in a charter of 1230 by Richard, King of the Romans, then Earl of Cornwall.

Launceston Castle run by English Heritage and owned by the Duchy of Cornwall


Cornwall Castles Map