Launceston Castle motte, bailey and shell keep


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


Ordnance survey map of Launceston Castle motte, bailey and shell keep
© Crown Copyright and database right 2019. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100024900.
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Cornwall (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SX 33063 84595

Reasons for Designation

Motte castles are medieval fortifications introduced into Britain by the Normans. They comprised a large conical mound of earth or rubble, the motte, surmounted by a palisade and a stone or timber tower. In a majority of examples an embanked enclosure containing additional buildings, the bailey, adjoined the motte. Motte castles and motte-and-bailey castles acted as garrison forts during offensive military operations, as strongholds, and, in many cases, as aristocratic residences and the centre of local or royal administration. Built in towns, villages and open countryside, motte castles generally occupied strategic positions dominating their immediate locality and, as a result, are the most visually impressive monuments of the early post-conquest period surviving in the modern landscape. Over 600 motte castles or motte-and-bailey castles are recorded nationally with examples known from most regions. As such, and as one of a restricted range of recognised early post-conquest monuments, they are particularly important for the study of Norman Britain and the development of the feudal system. Although many were occupied for only a short period of time, motte castles continued to be built and occupied from the 11th to the 13th centuries after which they were superceded by other types of castle. A shell keep is an enclosure, of masonry, extending round the top of an earlier motte or castle ringwork and replacing the existing timber palisades. Shell keeps are generally small, usually round or rounded, and contained few internal buildings. They were sometimes provided with gate towers and mural towers. They held the same functions and siting characteristics as motte castles. Only 71 shell keeps are recorded nationally, with examples known throughout England though a concentration occurs in the Welsh Marches. Consequently they are rare monuments of particular importance in the study of the development of medieval fortifications. They were built for only a short period of time, mostly during the 12th century and a few in the 13th century, after which they were superceded by other types of castle. Launceston Castle is an especially well-preserved example of a motte-and-bailey castle, clearly showing the development into a shell keep castle. The limited excavations have demonstrated the survival of extensive well-preserved archaeological remains of all periods of the castle's history, allowing considerable potential for future contributions to the study of these important monument classes. This potential is supported by the many historical sources that arise from this monument's importance as one of the four major castles of the Earls, later Dukes, of Cornwall, and as their principal residence and the chief administrative centre of Cornwall during the mid 13th century.


The monument includes a motte and bailey castle of the Norman period and a shell keep of the later 12th century, with extensive 13th century modifications evident to both the keep and bailey structures. The surviving remains of the monument derive from successive developments on its site throughout the medieval period. The original motte, constructed in the later 11th century, was built on a rocky knoll on the edge of a ridge dividing the valleys of the River Kensey to the north and one of its tributaries to the west. This Norman motte lies buried beneath the considerably enlarged motte of the 12th century shell keep castle, whose surrounding defensive works have obscured those of the original motte. The Norman period bailey occupied a natural sub-rectangular terrace, c.160m by 120m, extending SW from the motte, with steep scarps to the valley floor on the W and S sides. Limited excavation has confirmed the nature of the original defensive enclosure as a clay and rubble rampart supported by timber walling on the outer face. The same excavations in the bailey's south-west corner have revealed traces of long narrow timber houses, ovoid huts and a large timber post-built hall. It is considered that similar structures will occur throughout the bailey enclosure. In the early 12th century, a rectangular stone gatehouse was inserted in the bailey's southern rampart parts of its masonry still survive in the later period gatehouse. The timber houses were replaced by stone-based houses, with surviving foundations in rows aligned with the road through the South Gatehouse. The timber hall was also replaced on a similar plan in stone. The motte and bailey was converted to a stone shell keep castle during the mid-later 12th century. The motte was considerably heightened and the circular stone shell keep, 26m diameter, was built on its top. The keep survives to the height of the wall walk, which was reached by two staircases set in the wall thickness. The keep's gate arch, on the S side, is largely collapsed, as is the parapet. A collapsed recess on the W side marks the site of latrine shafts. The motte was surrounded by a ditch, crossed by a timber bridge to the south. The bailey defences remained of earth and timber at this stage, but were strengthened by the addition of rectangular stone towers at intervals, surviving bases being revealed at the SW corner and beside the later North Gatehouse. The early 12th century hall was again rebuilt on a different alignment and limited excavation elsewhere in the bailey has revealed dense occupation in the later 12th century, extending onto the rampart bank, with similar contemporary evidence predictable throughout the bailey area. The monument reveals substantial modifications made to the keep, motte and bailey during the mid 13th century, when Launceston Castle became the chief legal and administrative centre for Cornwall under Richard, Earl of Cornwall. A circular `high tower', 12m diameter, was built within the shell keep, rising to twice the height of the keep and surviving almost to the level of its wall walk. Joist holes about its external mid-level show that it was linked to the keep wall walk at that level. The top of the motte was modified by the construction of a lower fighting platform, still clearly visible with its stone retaining wall around the base of the shell keep. The gateway to the keep was altered and large parts survive of a stone-walled passage that enclosed the steps up the S side of the motte. At the base of the steps, the motte ditch was filled and re-dug further out, creating a terrace fortified by a gate tower, largely intact, and containing a stone-lined well. Contemporary alterations to the bailey included provision of a stone curtain wall on the rampart at all sides; excavation has confirmed the presence of this wall's foundations on the W and N sides where it has not survived above ground. The surviving stone drum towers were added to the South Gatehouse, and the North Gatehouse was rebuilt in stone in its present position. Mural towers were provided in the SE corner and E side of the bailey wall, but both have collapsed. The foundations survive of a major administrative and service complex in the SW quarter of the replanned bailey, including a new Great Hall, a kitchen, a courtroom and yard areas. The foundations of other buildings were noted extending into unexcavated areas. The buried presence of foundations from other structures of this major phase is also implied by a reference in a 1337 survey of the castle to several buildings, including two chapels and various stables and chambers, whose locations have not yet been identified. The castle was extensively repaired in the mid 14th century when the South Gatehouse received a barbican, whose inner half survives, and during the 15th century, when a council chamber was added to the W side of the Great Hall. The Great Hall remained in use as an Assize Hall until the early 17th century, but by the mid 17th century, all of the bailey's internal buildings apart from the gate-houses had been reduced to the foundation survivals present today. About 1700, a thick packing of clay was laid against the N side of the motte to stabilise it, producing the profile visible today. A water-pump (Listed Grade II) bearing the date 1769 stands in the eastern half of the bailey on the site of the post-medieval county jail, demolished in 1842. As one of the major castles of the Earls, later Dukes, of Cornwall, the development of Launceston Castle can be gauged through a number of historical references, but by far the most important contribution to its archaeological understanding derives from limited excavations undertaken on the motte and in the bailey between 1961 and 1982 by A.D.Saunders. The monument is located in a strategic position in the low hilly terrain between Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, controlling the main land route into Cornwall at its crossing point of the River Tamar at Polson Bridge 2.5km to the east. Excluded from the scheduling are: all English Heritage fittings, fences, railings, seats and service trenches; the English Heritage admission and museum building; the English Heritage wooden bridge to the motte, the breeze- block store in the NW corner of the bailey and its associated concrete car park and drive; the listed water pump situated near the English Heritage admission building; the lamps, metalled paths and seats serving the public right of way through the bailey; the gas main running through the Castle grounds; the public lavatory block built into the SE part of the bailey rampart, and the G.P.O. marker stones, but the land beneath all of these features is included in the scheduling.

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.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Saunders, A D, Launceston Castle, (1984)
Archive refs. GRH/73 and GRE 26 for Cornwall SMR PRN 2749,
Buck, S and Buck, N, [engraving of Launceston Castle], (1734)
Cornwall SMR entry for PRN 2753, Launceston Castle,
Norden, J, [view of Launceston Castle], (1584)


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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