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Castles of the British Isles

Photo Focus: Exeter Castle

by Peter Kessler, 13 November 2021

 

Exeter Castle in Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

Exeter Castle in its earliest stages was built by the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan of Wessex (924-939). That version was destroyed during a Danish attack in 1003, probably in retaliation for the previous year's St Brice's Day massacre of all Danes not in the Danelaw.

Once he had secured his conquest of England - which included a siege of Exeter itself - William of Normandy selected the site for his far greater, better fortified castle. It was erected using the local red volcanic rock which gave it the alternative name of Rougemont Castle. Command was given to his niece's husband, Baldwin de Moles or de Brionus.

That name - Rougemont - apparently gave Richard III some misgivings when he misheard it as 'Richmond', remembering a prophesy that he would not long survive the sight of Richmond (it was Henry, earl of Richmond, who finished him off to become Henry VII).

Exeter Castle in Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

Baldwin's son and successor died without an heir, so the castle was transferred to Richard de Redvers or Rivers, husband of one of Baldwin's daughters. Henry I made him the first earl of Devon. The 'Anarchy' of civil war between Stephen and Matilda saw King Stephen having to besiege the castle for three months in 1136.

Henry III seized the castle in 1232, along with others. His younger brother, Richard, then gained the castle as earl of Cornwall. Largely it continued to he held by subsequent earls of Cornwall, with Matthew Fitzjohn being an unusual lifetime exception after Edward I granted it to him in 1286. The title was raised in 1337 to duke of Cornwall when Edward III's eldest son became the new incumbent.

Exeter Castle in Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

The 'Second Cornish Uprising' which was figureheaded by Perkin Warbeck in 1497 saw the castle suffering further damage when it was captured by Warbeck's force of six thousand Cornishmen (Taunton Castle in Somerset was similarly captured - see related links,below). Henry VII soon had Perkin hanged as a traitor at Tyburn on the outskirts of London.

The English Civil war saw the castle being held by Royalists once they had captured it in 1643. It surrendered to General Fairfax and his Parliamentarian forces in 1646, following which it ceased to be a military fortress.

Exeter Castle in Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

An act of parliament was passed in 1711 which allowed Queen Anne to grant a lease for Exeter Castle for a period of ninety-nine years for use by the county of Devon. County use had probably already been long-established, with the gaol reputedly being moved there in 1518.

The last witches to be executed in England for the crime of practicing witchcraft - the 'Devon Witches' - were dispatched here in 1682.

Exeter Castle in Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

The old castle buildings were gradually demolished or re-used for less militaristic purposes. Devon County Court was erected in 1774 using Portland stone, which required most of the remaining castle structure to be destroyed. The courts buildings later underwent various refurbishments and enlargements across the centuries to make them suitable for the changing business of the county.

The chapel of St Mary in the Castle once stood at the north-east corner of the present lodge, in the western corner of the castle grounds (see related links below for an engraving of the chapel and a late sketched map of the castle grounds).

Exeter Castle in Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

Little of the main structure survives today, but glimpses of walls and turrets can still be gained, largely hidden behind the foliage of parks and gardens. The lofty entrance gatehouse, with its circular arch, can still be seen (in the first photo, above) from Castle Street. Unfortunately this area is not usually open to the public.

The main site is now primarily occupied by the former Devon Assize Hall and Sessions House. Surviving walls and towers can also be seen from Rougemont Gardens (above) which were formed on the site of the castle fosse.

 

All photos by P L Kessler, taken in August 2014.

Main Sources

Vachell, E T - Exeter Castle, its Background, Origin and History, Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association. 98 (1966).

Exeter Castle website

Andriette, Eugene A - Devon and Exeter in the Civil War (David and Charles, Newton Abbot, 1971)

 

Images and text copyright © P L Kessler except where stated. An original feature for the History Files.