Motte and bailey at Dunster Castle


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


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Somerset West and Taunton (District Authority)
National Park:
National Grid Reference:
SS 99145 43456

Reasons for Designation

Motte and bailey 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 as centres of local or royal administration. Built in towns, villages and open countryside, motte and bailey 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 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of time, motte castles continued to be built and occupied from the 11th to the 13th centuries, after which they were superseded by other types of castle.

The motte and bailey at Dunster Castle was constructed by adapting a naturally strongly defended and strategically placed position on high ground above a flood plain of the River Avill. The monument is known to have been in existence in Norman times and it has a rare documented reference as a castle as early as 1086. It will retain archaeological and environmental evidence relating to the construction and use of the site, the lives of the inhabitants, and the landscape in which they lived. In addition, Dunster Castle is a recognised and well visited historical site in a dramatic setting.


The monument includes part of the incorporated and adapted natural features and associated below ground remains which together formed the medieval motte and bailey of Dunster Castle. A Norman motte (steep fortified mound) is known to have been created by levelling the natural rock summit of the tor around which the town of Dunster lies. At the same time a further area below the motte was levelled for the creation of a bailey (a fortified courtyard or ward). Both the motte and the lower slopes which surround the motte and bailey complex were then scarped for added protection. The castle lies above the River Avill which flows out into the Bristol Channel and the site commands the land route along the Somerset coast north of Exmoor, with extensive views particularly to the east. The stronghold at Dunster may have Saxon origins but the erection of a castle on the site soon after 1066 is credited to William de Mohun, a supporter of Duke William of Normandy. William de Mohun was granted large estates in the West Country following the Conquest and Dunster is believed to have been his administrative centre. It is one of only two castle sites in Somerset mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 where it is referred to as `Torre'. The castle was defended by the second William de Mohun against King Stephen in 1138 and it is described in a contemporary document (the Gesta Stephani) as being fortified by towers, walls, and a rampart, suggesting that the motte at least may have been of stone. The lower ward or bailey, which encompassed an area of about 0.7ha, may have been constructed of wood and encircled by an earthwork rampart in the earlier periods as there is a record of Reynold de Mohun (died 1254) rebuilding the lower ward in stone, providing mural towers, and replacing the rampart defences with a curtain wall. The masonry of the Norman castle, certainly at foundation level, has been incorporated or buried beneath extensive later works including a gatehouse, erected in 1420 by Sir Hugh Luttrell, and several major periods of rebuilding, including that of the 1620s under William Arnold. The castle was garrisoned for Parliament in 1642 at the outset of the Civil War and, after a brief period of Royalist occupation was held once again for Parliament. Extensive demolition took place in 1650 in order to prevent the castle being utilised in any Royalist uprising and much of the 13th century curtain walling above ground level is believed to have been lost at that time. In 1764 the level of the lower ward was considerably raised and in 1868-72 the castle buildings were extensively enlarged and remodelled by Anthony Salvin. The resulting multi-period standing building of Dunster Castle and its gatehouse is Listed Grade I. The garden, which took in much of the old castle grounds, was largely created in the mid-18th century, and is included in the Register of Parks and Gardens at Grade I. A number of features are excluded from the scheduling. These are: all of the standing buildings of the castle, all modern ancillary buildings associated with the upkeep of the castle, the summer house located to the west of the Castle which is a Listed Building Grade II, all modern road, path, and other surfacings, all wooden steps and railings, and all fixed garden furniture; however the ground beneath all these features 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
Gibb, J H P, 'Somerset Archaeology and Natural History Society Proceedings' in The Medieval Castle At Dunster, , Vol. 125, (1981), 1-15


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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