History Files


Castles of the British Isles

Photo Focus: Okehampton Castle

by Peter Kessler, 19 December 2021


Okehampton Castle in Devon
Photo © Star Watcher

The earliest parts of Okehampton Castle - which reputedly became the largest castle in Devon - were erected close to the Saxon settlement of Ocmundtune soon after the Normans had completed their conquest of southern England.

Having suppressed a brewing rebellion in the south-west - the principal reason for the quick appointment of a Norman sherrif of Devon - they were now in a position to dominate Devon and Cornwall.

Okehampton Castle in Devon
Photo © Douglas Law

The location above the River Okement at Okehampton on the northern edge of Dartmoor was strategically important, covering the crossroads between four major routes.

The location may previously have been occupied by a Roman villa, with tiles and pottery having been found there. Roman occupation in Devon is still poorly understood though, with almost every new discovery having the abilty to provide a surprise.

Okehampton Castle in Devon
Photo © David

The castle's builder was Baldwin FitzGilbert, son of Count Gilbert of Brionne & Eu in Normandy, after he had been appointed sheriff of Devon by William of Normandy.

The original motte and bailey fortification was established between 1068 and 1086, with it being mentioned in Domesday Book in 1086. A stone keep was quickly added to the largely wooden structure, and a prosperous market developed around the castle.

Okehampton Castle in Devon
Photo © Rich Kazeta

Having had its strategic location diminished by subsequent changes in focus (which favoured Tiverton), the castle then passed to the Courtenay family.

Hugh Courtenay, later to become the first earl of Devon, rebuilt the Norman fortress into a sumptuous residence around 1297, which is how it remained.

For the next two hundred and forty years, Okehampton was a major residence for the Courtenays, who owned vast estates throughout the county and beyond (including Taunton Castle in Somerset - see 'related links', below).

Okehampton Castle in Devon
Photo © Paul J

After the last Courtenay owner fell foul of Henry VIII, the castle declined. Henry Courtenay was executed in 1539 on a charge of treason.

The castle was abandoned and left to decay, with stones being scavenged by the locals for their own building projects in much the same way as many abbeys around the country were gradually robbed of materials.

Okehampton Castle in Devon
Photo © Rich Kazeta

The castle remains are from two main periods; the earliest Norman work and the later Courtenay fortress. From the Norman period come the earthworks, which formed the basis of the large motte between a pair of bailey enclosures, with a square keep atop the mound. What was left of it was taken into trust in 1917.


Two photos on this page kindly contributed by Rich Kazeta, and one each by Star Watcher, Douglas Law, David, & Paul J, all via the 'History Files: Castles of the British Isles' Flickr group.

Additional information by Paul J.

Main Sources

English Heritage: Okehampton Castle

Britain Express: Okehampton Castle

Castles Forts Battles


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