Totnes Castle


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


Ordnance survey map of Totnes Castle
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

South Hams (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SX 79984 60572

Reasons for Designation

A shell keep castle is a masonry enclosure, extending around the top of an earlier motte or castle ringwork, and replacing the existing timber palisades; there are a few cases where the wall is built lower down the slope or even at the bottom. The enclosure is usually rounded or sub-rounded but other shapes are also known. A shell keep is relatively small, normally between 15 and 25m diameter, with few buildings, and perhaps one tower only, within its interior. Shell keeps were built over a period of about 150 years, from not long after the Norman Conquest until the mid-13th century; most were built in the 12th century. They provided strongly fortified residences for the king or leading families and occur in both urban and rural situations. Shell keep castles are widely dispersed throughout England with a marked concentration in the Welsh Marches. The distribution also extends into Wales and to a lesser extent into Scotland. They are rare nationally with only 71 recorded examples. Considerable diversity of form is exhibited with no two examples being exactly alike. Along with other castle types, they are major medieval monument types which, belonging to the highest levels of society, frequently acted as major administrative centres and formed the foci for developing settlement patterns. Castles generally provide an emotive and evocative link to the past and can provide a valuable education resource, both with respect to medieval warfare and defence, and to wider aspects of medieval society. All examples retaining significant remains of medieval date are considered to be nationally important.

The shell keep, motte and baileys at Totnes Castle survive well and are known from part excavation to contain important architectural and archaeological information concerning the development and use of this strategic site from the Anglo-Saxon period onwards. The shell keep in particular survives well, with the original parapet retaining many original features. Although the buildings within the inner bailey have been partly levelled, earthworks together with cropmark evidence suggests that the lower levels of these structures and associated deposits remain intact. The stone tower built within the motte is an unusual feature.


This monument includes those parts of the shell keep, motte and two baileys together forming Totnes Castle which have not been affected by modern development. It is situated on high ground commanding the head of the navigable reaches of the River Dart and overlooks Totnes town. The castle intrudes into the earlier Anglo-Saxon street plan and therefore almost certainly overlies part of the earlier town (burh). The nature, extent and character of the surviving Anglo-Saxon features is unknown. The motte, which is the earliest known defensive feature on the site, survives as a 58m diameter mound of earth and rock standing 17.5m high, covered with a waterproof layer of puddled clay, and is thought to date to the latter part of the 11th century. The ditch, from which material was excavated during the construction of the motte, surrounds its base and now survives as a buried feature. On the summit of the motte, a timber tower with a square ground plan stood on a dry stone foundation which has been traced down for 3.4m into the body of the motte and may have reached down to its base. This foundation was built at the same time as the motte and its interior was filled with loose rubble to encourage drainage. The upper part of this foundation survives at ground level as a 0.75m wide mortared wall. It is likely that the timber tower was removed before the shell keep was added in the early part of the 13th century. The shell keep, which is Listed Grade I, is nearly circular and the interior measures 21m in diameter. The walls, of hard limestone rubble, are 2m thick, with a batter (inwardly sloping wall), and carry their footings somewhat lower on the outer face than within, as they act as retaining walls to the top of the motte. The keep was rebuilt early in the 14th century. The red sandstone dressings and probably all the present facing belong to this date. At the same time, a length of wall immediately east of the entrance was straightened out to form a right-angled projection with sandstone quoins, thus giving a better lookout point. The entrance arch was also rebuilt with a double ring of chamfered, wedge shaped, sandstone blocks. At a later date this entrance was remodelled by adding a false jamb and narrowing the passageway. A garderobe built into the thickness of the western wall is entered from within the keep and projects slightly beyond the line of the original wall. This chamber was lighted by a pair of arrow slits, one of which was subsequently made into a window. The roof of the passage leading to the garderobe is roofed with stone slabs which helped provide strength to the wall. The garderobe chamber itself, however, was not so strongly built and at some date partly collapsed before being rebuilt. Only one building was built against the inner face of the shell keep. This lies against the north western wall, its position being indicated by six corbels protruding from the upper part of the wall, a partial wall scar and one side wall which survives as a 2.2m long and 0.7m wide mortared wall protruding through the surface. The corbels would have originally supported the roof of the building and it is considered that this building belongs to the 14th century refurbishment. Access to the wall walk is via two stairways made in the thickness of the northern wall and each is entered from ground level by a passage with a typically 14th century segmented arch. Surrounding the wall walk is an almost complete parapet which is predominantly of 14th century date, although the northern length was probably remodelled at a later date. Thirty three crenellations consisting of alternating merlons (raised parts) and embrasures (indentations) survive. Many of the merlons are pierced with narrow arrow slits, some of which are plain and others have a cross slit which splays outwards. The inner bailey is attached to the north west side of the shell keep from which it is separated by the moat. This bailey is of horseshoe shape plan, measures 63m long by 54m wide, is defined on three sides by a curtain wall and outer moat and on the fourth by part of the ditch surrounding the motte. Within the bailey are a series of earthworks which are confined to the edges. These may be the result of later landscaping or may indicate the position of buildings backing onto the curtain wall. The most obvious of these is a 14m diameter and 1.4m high mound situated immediately north of the visitor entrance. This may represent either a curtain wall tower or a dump of rubble. The inner bailey was originally constructed at the same time as the motte and was protected by an earthen bank surmounted by a timber palisade. In the 14th century, the palisade was replaced by a stone curtain wall of which only the north western quadrant remains standing above ground level. The remainder probably survives as a buried feature and was used as a foundation for the later, much thinner, garden wall which follows the line of the earlier defences. Within the inner bailey a range of domestic buildings were constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries, and cropmarks visible within this area during dry weather represent a number of buried structures. The great hall probably survives near the west wall and the chapel at the north end. The outer bailey lies immediately north of the moat protecting the inner bailey and, because part of its northern and eastern defences can no longer be traced on the ground, it is not possible to establish its original extent. The part of this bailey which survives includes a triangular area measuring 64m east to west by 40m north to south defined by a 10m wide and 3m high scarp. A second scarp lies 4m to the north west of the first, measures 6m wide by 2m high and may also have had a defensive function. It is not known exactly which type of buildings lay within this bailey, though stables, smithy, brewery and other industrial structures are amongst the more likely. The motte at Totnes was built on the orders of Judhael of Brittany who held Totnes together with over a hundred Devonshire manors immediately after the Norman Conquest. However, in 1088 the estate passed to Roger de Nonant and remained with his family for three generations. In 1196 the castle passed to the de Braose family and it is considered likely that Reginald de Braose was responsible for the construction of the earliest shell keep and the rebuilding of the great hall. From 1230 the de Cantilupe family controlled the castle before being succeeded in 1273 by the de la Zouche family who had considerable power and influence. It is considered likely that William de la Zouche was responsible for much of the 14th century rebuilding at the castle. Ironically, although that family completed the refortification of the castle, it does not appear to have been lived in by the family and instead was occupied by a sequence of stewards or constables. During this time the condition of the castle appears to have deteriorated, as witnessed by a court case in 1466 which indicates that trees were growing on the motte. The castle finally passed from the de la Zouches in 1485 following the defeat of the Yorkists at Bosworth Field. For a short time during the 16th century the castle belonged to Richard Edgecombe of Cothele and during this time the town was visited by Leland the antiquary, who noted that the keep was well maintained but that the buildings were completely ruinous. Around 1559 the castle was purchased by Sir Edward Seymour of Berry Pomeroy, an ancestor of the present Duke of Somerset. From this date until the present, apart from a short interlude, the castle has remained the property of the Seymours. The castle was not fortified during the English Civil War and as a result was not demolished or damaged by the victorious Parliamentarians. In 1947 the castle was placed in the care of the Secretary of State. Excluded from the scheduling are modern visitor services, such as hand rails, the guard rails around the shell keep wall walk, reception hut, signposts, modern laid surfaces, custodian's toilet and tool shed, but the ground or masonry beneath these is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Pevsner, N, Cherry, B, The Buildings of England: Devon, (1989), 869-870
Rigold, S E, Totnes Castle, (1992)
Devon County Sites and Monuments Register, SX86SW20, (1984)
MPP fieldwork by S. Gerrard, (1995)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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