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Castles of the British Isles

Photo Focus: Taunton Castle

by Peter Kessler, 12 December 2021

 

Taunton Castle in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

The area around Taunton and the valley of the Tone may have fallen to the West Saxon advance as early as AD 658. Place name evidence supports this (see the 'Dumnonia in Maps' series via the related links below). Taunton itself was established by the new Saxon masters of the region, between 658-710, with a temporary frontier fort being built here by King Ina.

Three 'Cornish' (Dumnonian) victories can be tentatively dated to AD 722, which seem to have won the Britons a century of peace. Even more so, it seems possible that they were able to advance and possibly penetrate as far east as Taunton. Queen ∆thelburg of the West Saxons destroyed the fort at Taunton in the same year, perhaps in an attempt to keep it out of their hands.

The West Saxons regained control between 802-814, but the fort is not mentioned again.

Taunton Castle in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

A church was founded in Taunton a few decades later. By 1120 the then-owner, William Giffard, bishop of Winchester, converted it into an Augustinian priory (see the 'Churches of Taunton' link). The town was already rich on the wool trade, and could afford some impressive medieval construction.

Giffard's successor, Henry of Blois, built numerous castles which included the one at Taunton. There he erected a stone keep in 1138, possibly within an existing earth-and-timber fortification. The work was likely to have been incomplete when the country slipped into 'The Anarchy' of civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda.

Taunton Castle in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

Blois was the king's brother. When Stephen died in 1154, Blois fled, which led to Taunton's early castle being partially demolished, along with six others in the region. The new king and the old bishop were later reconciled, and the castle was repaired. The keep was rebuilt into a substantial rectangular structure complete with five towers.

It expanded its footprint when the priory relocated to a new location in 1158 (now the county cricket ground). The castle's central keep lay to the left of and behind the converted former entrance from the moat which is shown here.

Taunton Castle in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

The castle was now a fortress of some significance (the outer body of the surviving keep elements are shown here, although ruins of the larger great keep survive inside the walls). It supported King John during the First Barons War (1215-1217), when a moat was excavated around the entire structure by the latest owner, Peter de Roches, bishop of Winchester.

It was garrisoned during the Second Barons Wars (1264-1267), being requisitioned by the king in 1267. After that it was used to imprison one of the sons of Simon de Montfort who had led the rebellion.

During this period the castle underwent various upgrades to the inner ward gatehouse, the great hall, and the outer curtain wall. In 1451, during the early years of the Wars of the Roses, the castle was held by Thomas de Courtenay, earl of Devon (holder of Okehampton Castle amongst others), who was besieged by Lord Bonville on behalf of Henry VI. Courtenay was saved from defeat by the timely arrived of Richard, duke of York.

Taunton Castle in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

The 'Second Cornish Uprising' in 1497 against the Tudor king, Henry VIII, had as its figurehead Perkin Warbeck. The castle suffered more damage when Warbeck's forces briefly captured it (along with Exeter Castle - see links).

It was subsequently extensively modified, with defensive arrangements being downgraded in order to convert it into a more comfortable residence. Large windows were installed in the inner ward gatehouse and great hall (shown here, on its northern flank).

During the English Civil War, Parliamentarian Taunton hastily re-fortified the castle against the Royalists of Somerset, but it was captured in June 1643. It changed hands a year later, being besieged by Royalists (twice) but not falling.

The restoration of 1660 saw the still-Parliamentarian people of Taunton refuse to hand over the castle to Charles II in 1662. In return the king ordered the castle to be demolished. The great keep bore the brunt of this when it was reduced to its foundations (fragments still survive in position).

Taunton Castle in Somerset
Photo © P L Kessler

The Monmouth Rebellion saw the castle being used as a gaol for captured rebels, prior to the 'Bloody Assizes' of Judge Jeffreys which were held in the great hall. An inordinately large number of death sentences were handed out in 1685. Many others were transported to the West Indies, itself a virtual death sentence at the hands of rampant tropical illnesses.

The castle was a ruin by the 1700s, before Sir Benjamin Hammet MP purchased it in 1786. He rebuilt the remaining structures, adding a good deal of Georgian building work inside and behind the main gate.

The Castle Hotel (shown here) was built in the nineteenth century, next to which can be seen the intact East Gate which allows access to North Parade and is now part of the hotel. The great hall was converted into a museum in 1899. The 'Museum of Somerset' today utilises the majority of the castle.

 

All photos by P L Kessler, taken in November 2021.

Main Sources

South West Heritage Trust

Castles Forts Battles website

Higham, Robert - Making Anglo-Saxon Devon (Exeter, 2008)

Ingram, James - Annales Cambriae (taken from the Harleian manuscript, the earliest surviving version, London, Everyman Press, 1912)

Cornwall Archaeology Society

Ashe, Geoffrey - The Landscape of King Arthur

Yorke, Barbara - Wessex

 

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