Barnstaple Castle


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Barnstaple Castle
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

North Devon (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SS 55572 33337

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of time, motte castles continued to be built and occupied from the 11th to the 13th centuries, after which they were superseded by other types of castle.

Although it was landscaped in the 19th century, Barnstaple Castle still retains the basic features of a medieval motte and bailey castle and its motte in particular survives in excellent condition as a well known and dominant feature in the western part of the town. The monument will retain archaeological information about the Saxon population of the town from unexcavated burials. The monument will also be instructive about Norman fortification techniques, in particular with regard to moat construction. The location of the castle on a Saxon burial site indicates something of the relationship between the Norman rulers and the population of the Saxon burh which preceded it. Artifacts and organic remains lying within the moat, some of which may survive well due to waterlogging, will shed light on the lives of the inhabitants of the castle, and their surrounding contemporary landscape. The extant motte provides a visual reminder of the steps which were necessary to establish Norman rule in England by the construction of impressive and strongly defended motte and bailey castles, in this case not only within the recognised boundaries of the Anglo-Saxon town itself, but overlying the earlier Saxon cemetery.


The monument includes Barnstaple Castle, a Norman motte and bailey, part of which overlies a Saxon cemetery. The castle, which has a surviving motte, stands on the east bank of the River Taw at its confluence with the River Yeo just upstream from where the Taw broadens out on its journey to the Bristol Channel. It thus protected the lowest point at which the Taw could be forded in medieval times. The castle was sited within the western corner of an earlier Anglo-Saxon defended town or burh and was probably under construction by the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, although it is not recorded in documents until the 12th century. Excavations conducted by Trevor Miles within the castle grounds in 1972-75 on the north west side of the motte in the area thought to encompass the bailey and its defences, revealed the presence of 105 graves forming part of a Saxon cemetery which was in use at the time of the Norman Conquest. All of the excavated burials were extended inhumations orientated east-west and all lacked grave goods. The cemetery was therefore deemed to be Christian and it may date to about 900, but would have ceased to be used as such when the moat and rampart of the Norman castle were constructed across the site. The results of the excavations were published in 1986. Further burials are expected to lie in those undisturbed areas within the castle grounds which were not subject to archaeological investigation. Barnstaple Castle itself comprises a courtyard or bailey area originally enclosed by a bank and moat, which stood on the north west side of a motte that was equipped with its own associated set of defences, thus creating a stronghold within the castle. The bailey would have held some of the working buildings of the castle constructed either in timber or in stone. The earth and stone-built motte, which stands about 14m high with a diameter of just over 60m, retains masonry fragments of a stone defensive wall and an inner circular tower known as a donjon or shell keep with wing walls descending the slopes of the motte. In plan it was roughly circular and comprised two concentric walls. Another wall, 1m thick, bounded the edge of the flat top of the motte. A document of 1274 indicates the presence of a hall, chamber, and kitchen on the motte. The structure is considered to be a shell keep with enclosed tower similar to contemporary Norman castle architecture at Launceston in Cornwall and Plympton in Devon. The rampart and ditch which defended the bailey were part-excavated in 1972-75 and from these excavations it was suggested that the bailey rampart was about 10m wide and probably revetted with vertical timbers, although its height remains unknown. It was fronted by a berm 4m-5m wide and then a ditch which, because its depth has been demonstrated to be well below the high water mark, may be more correctly termed as a moat fed by channels connected to the River Yeo. The full width of the bailey moat has not yet been established although it appears to exceed 5m. A flat-bottomed trench located between the rampart and the ditch is considered to be a robber-trench of a stone wall about 1m thick which was added to the front of the rampart in the late medieval period. As with the bailey, the motte mound was surrounded by an encircling moat found in an excavation of 1927 to be about 16m wide and 4.5m deep. The motte must have been connected to the bailey by some means, probably by a drawbridge. A moat of this size is also likely to have utilised river water by the linking of the nearby Rivers Taw and Yeo, although it was not until the 13th century that castle defences made extensive use of water-filled moats, and Barnstaple Castle appears to have been in decline by then. Although an early Norman castle might be expected at Barnstaple, as was the case at Exeter and Totnes, there is no documentary evidence of such a castle until the early 12th century. Records suggest that by the reign of Stephen, in 1136, Barnstaple Castle was abandoned as being too weak to defend, but it was rebuilt after 1139 by Henry Tracy and his descendants. In 1228 the defences were reduced in height on the orders of Henry III and the castle was in disrepair by the end of the 13th century. The whole site is recorded as utterly ruinous by the time of John Leland's visit in 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII. A mansion, known as Castle House, was built on the area of the bailey in the 19th century and the surrounding area, including the motte, was landscaped and planted with trees. A spiral path up the mound was also created in this period. The mansion was demolished in 1976. A number of features are excluded from the scheduling. These are: all breeze-block and other modern buildings in the former cattle market, where these lie within the area of protection, the post-medieval boundary wall of the telephone exchange which separates this property from the cattle market car park, all modern fencing, lamp posts, path surfaces and paving, tarmac surfaces and their make-up, all fixed benches and seating, bicycle stands and all signs and signposts. The ground beneath all these features is, however, included. Specifically included in the scheduling is the retaining wall at the base of the motte.

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
Higham, R, 'Devon Archaeology' in Barnstaple Castle, , Vol. 2, (1984), 7-9
Miles, T J, 'Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society' in Excavations of a Saxon Cemetery and Norman Castle at Barnstaple, (1986), 59-84
Miles, T J, 'Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society' in Excavations of a Saxon Cemetery and Norman Castle at Barnstaple, (1986), 59-84
Oliver, B W, 'Transactions of the Devonshire Association' in The Castle of Barnstaple, , Vol. 60, (1928), 215-23


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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