MDE1056 - Holwell Castle Motte and Bailey, Parracombe (Monument)


Holwell Castle is an early and probably short lived motte and bailey castle, built either during the Norman conquest or in the civil war of the 12th Century. Its location suggests that it was built to dominate Parracombe and its river crossing.

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Type and Period (1)

Protected Status

Full Description

(SS 66974460) Holwell Castle (NR). [1] Motte and bailey, with the motte 50 feet high and originally surrounded by a fosse (moat) 6 feet deep but destroyed around the southeast parts by modern banking. The bailey is surrounded by a bank 10 feet high from the interior and 20 feet high on the exterior. The entrance is on the northwest. Plan and section. [2] A motte and bailey situated on a northwest facing promontory between two valleys. The motte is 40.0 metres diameter and 6.2 metres high above the bottom of a rock cut outer ditch which is itself 2.7 metres deep. The ditch is complete except in the north and west where the bailey impinges. [3] The bailey encloses an area of half an acre and has a rampart which is up to 1.0 metres high above the interior and 5.0 metres above the outer ditch. A counterscarp bank is 0.3 metres high in the west but survives only as a flat berm in the east. A break in the rampart in the northwest is possibly an original entrance, but is now too mutilated for definite interpretation. Resurveyed at 1:2500. [4] Holwell Castle is centred at SS 6697 4460. It is generally as described by [4], except that within the bailey are traces of a building platform at SS 66951 44596. It measures approximately 9 metres by 12.4 metres and is terraced into the hillside on its upper or southeast end. Other amorphous undulations within the bailey are probably partly due to the shape of the ground surface, or less likely, represent further structures. On the summit of the motte is a linear hollow running northwest to southeast. It probably represents an excavation trench and may well be associated with the Rev. Chanter's exploration of the site in 1905. Although considered by earlier authorities to occupy a classically defensive position, Holwell Castle is geared specifically to overlook the existing settlement and especially the river crossing to the north-west; it also dominates the valley of the River Heddon running northwestwards. However, it is overlooked by higher ground to the southeast, and the motte has in fact been cut down into the end of the spur which makes it weaker when approached from this direction. It seems therefore that the castle's position is intended to dominate the settlement of Parracombe and specifically the river crossing. [5] Holwell Castle was surveyed at 1:500 scale by RCHME in June 1995 at the request of the Exmoor National Park Authority. The survey was carried out after scrub clearance and after a period of drought. This enabled fine detail to be observed, including the base of the keep on the motte summit, the site of a wing wall on the motte slopes, and five platforms within the bailey. The most substantial of these, first observed in 1993 (above, [5]) is probably the site of the hall. The absence of documentary evidence for the site means that its longevity is not known, however, the field evidence suggests that the buildings within the bailey were mainly of timber (or cob). It is likely the Castle was built in the late 11th Century and was short lived. [6-9] Sub-rectangular entrance to north "keep" in south end. Reference to grant from William I to William Falaise. Manuscript [12] Norman mound with ditch; attached to this is a bailey surrounded by a ditch and rampart. The ditches were partly cleaned and examined by Prebendary Chanter in 1905. [13] A motte and bailey situated in a northwest facing promontory between two valleys. A break in the rampart in the northwest is possibly an original entrance, but is now mutilated. Plan and section [14] One of the motte and bailey sites in Devon built by Norman barons or their tenants in the late 11th or 12th Centuries. Cambridge University air photo and site plan reproduced. [15] DoE Field Monument Warden visit. [7] The bailey is of the classic kidney shape, though raised, and is defended by a rampart, ditch and counterscarp. The main entrance is opposite the motte (north west end of bailey) but there are also signs of others on the east (?modern) and west side of the motte; here there is evidence for a tower. Roof slate found on site by Higham is similar to 13th century types from Okehampton Castle. An early, and short lived, baronial castle, founded either during the Norman conquest period or the civil war of the 1130s and 1140s. Holds an interesting position in the settlement pattern; possibly responsible for migration of settlement around church to present site. Fig 28, pl 29-30, Exeter University. [17] On the ground, Holwell Castle can be seen to occupy a perfectly defensible position on the spur formed by the confluence of two streams. This is a common siting for a motte and bailey castle of this type. The only excavation carried out at Holwell took place in 1905, so information on its construction is limited. It is a good example of the many small and probably fairly short-lived defended sites for which no contemporary documentation is available. [18] RCHME trip included F. Griffith. The site is in as excellent state of preservation. The features mentioned above are clearly visible. There is some poaching on the banks in very wet conditions. ENP discussing management agreement with owner. [19] Theories as to why Holwell Castle was built include protection of the Royal Forest, tax collection or supervision of silver mining. [28] Listed by Cathcart King. [33] The 1:500 survey plan [5] was incorporated into an aerial photo plot of Parracombe and the surrounding area. [34,35] A resistivity survey was carried out in 2005 by members of the North Devon Archaeological Society however the survey failed to produce any significant new data. There was evidence for possible post holes on the motte, however these reading could have been affected by the castle's use a a beacon. Overall the survey supported the presence of many features highlighted my the RCHME survey. [6,37] The Scheduled Monument Condition Assessment of 2009 provided the site with a score of 9. [38] Holwell Castle has been included in the Exmoor National Park Monument Management Scheme for 2011-12. In order to tackle the vegetation enroachment the gorse was cut from the motte and bailey and surround, moved away from the scheduled area and chipped. To address the issue of long term management the site has been placed on the new Exmoor top 35 list for Higher Level Stewardship. [39] The site was surveyed in March 2015 as part of the 2015 Exmoor Scheduled Monument Condition Assessment. It was given a survival score of 11. [40] This record was enhanced as part of the National Record of the Historic Environment to Exmoor National Park Historic Environment Record data transfer project. [41]

Sources/Archives (43)

  • --- Report: Pratt, N. and Thurlow, T.. 2019. Parracombe Conservation Area: appraisal document. Exmoor National Park Authority. p 1, 4, 14, Figures 1, 9.
  • <1> Map: Ordnance Survey. 1963. 6 Inch Map: 1963.
  • <2> Monograph: Page, W. (editor). 1906. The Victoria History of the County of Somerset. Archibald Constable and Company, Limited (London). 1.
  • <3> Monograph: Grinsell, L.V.. 1970. The Archaeology of Exmoor: Bideford Bay to Bridgwater. David and Charles Limited. P. 134-5, 213.
  • <4> Unpublished document: BUCKLEY, MHB. Field Investigators Comments. RCHME Field Investigation, 18 August 1972.
  • <5> Unpublished document: Wilson-North, R.. Various. Field Investigators Comments. RCHME Field Investigation, 3 September 1993.
  • <6> Report: Wilson-North, R.. 1995. Holwell Castle, Parracombe, Devon. RCHME.
  • <7> Collection: Chapman, H., Wilson-North, R. and Hesketh-Roberts, M.. 1995-1996. RCHME: Holwell Castle, Devon.
  • <8> Technical drawing: Wilson-North, R. & Chapman, H.. 1995. Holwell Castle/ink survey . 1:500. Permatrace. Pen and Ink.
  • <9> Technical drawing: Wilson-North, R. and Chapman, H.. 1995. Holwell Castle/pencil survey . 1:500. Permatrace. Pencil.
  • <10> Aerial photograph: Cambridge University Collection. 1969. CG61-62. Cambridge University Collection of Aerial Photographs.
  • <11> Monograph: Allcroft, A.H.. 1908. Earthwork of England: Prehistoric, Roman, Saxon, Danish, Norman, and Mediaeval. Macmillan (London). P. 404.
  • <12> Unpublished document: Woollcombe. 1840-1849. Unknown : Manuscript.
  • <13> Index: Ancient Monuments. c1924. The Schedule of Monuments.
  • <14> Index: Ordnance Survey. Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division Record Card. SS64SE14. 1972.
  • <15> Monograph: Higham, R. A., in DCC. 1981. Archaeology of the Devon Landscape. 76-77. P. 76-77. Fig 8.4.
  • <16> Unpublished document: Weston, S.. 1982. Department of Environment Field Monument Warden visit.
  • <17> Unpublished document: Higham, R. A.. 1979. The Castles of Medieval Devon. University of Exeter Thesis. P. 110-113,247,253,310-311,315,319.
  • <18> Monograph: Griffith, F. M.. 1988. Devon's Past: An Aerial View. 75. 75.
  • <19> Verbal communication: Various. Various. Oral Information. V. Heal.
  • <20> Report: McDonnell, R.. 1980. Exmoor Aerial Photograph Survey : Committee for Rescue Archaeology in Avon, Gloucestershire and Somerset Aerial Photograph Survey. Gaz No SS7332A, SS7432A.. SS6644A.
  • <21> Article in serial: Houldsworth, M.. 2005. An A-Level Student's Thoughts on Holwell Castle. North Devon Archaeological Society Newsletter. 9. 9-10. 9-10.
  • <22> Aerial photograph: Cambridge University Collection. 1966. ANO 23-28. Cambridge University Collection of Aerial Photographs.
  • <23> Aerial photograph: Cambridge University Collection. 1970. BCU 82-84. Cambridge University Collection of Aerial Photographs.
  • <24> Article in serial: Higham, R. A.. 1988. Devon Castles: An Annotated List. Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society. 46. 145. 144.
  • <25> Cartographic materials: Ordnance Survey. 1903/1938. 6". 6NE. 6NE.
  • <26> Aerial photograph: Griffith, F. M.. 1987. HX 1, 3. Devon Aerial Photograph.
  • <27> Aerial photograph: Griffith, F. M.. 1989. LC 9-13. Devon Aerial Photograph.
  • <28> Aerial photograph: Unknown. -/5/1977. MAM/13/062.
  • <29> Report: Nicholas Pearson Associates. 2000. Lynton Water Supply: Environmental report. 64.
  • <30> Aerial photograph: West Air Photography. 1981-1983. Oblique aerial photographs across Exmoor National Park. CNH 2204.5.
  • <31> Aerial photograph: Cambridge University Collection. Unknown. ANM 79-80. Cambridge University Collection of Aerial Photographs.
  • <32> Aerial photograph: RAF. -/4/1947. CPE/UK/1980.4090.
  • <33> Monograph: Cathcart-King, D. J.. 1983. Castellarium anglicanum: an index and bibliography of the castles in England, Wales and the islands. Volume I : Anglesey - Montgomery. 1. 1. P. 118.
  • <34> Archive: Winton, H.. 1999. RCHME: Parracombe Project, Devon. AF1301153. H Winton, 20 December 1999, Aerial photographer's comment.
  • <35> Monograph: Riley, H. and Wilson-North, R.. 2001. The Field Archaeology of Exmoor. English Heritage. P 116-119.
  • <36> Photograph: Unknown. MOTTE 50' HIGH. BB74/04414. B/W. Negative.
  • <37> Report: Houldsworth, M. + Knights, J.. 2006. Holwell Castle, Parracombe.
  • <38> Report: Bray, L.S.. 2010. Scheduled Monument Condition Assessment 2009, Exmoor National Park.
  • <39> Report: Turner, J.. Monument Management Scheme: 2011-12.
  • <40> Report: Gent, T. and Manning, P.. 2015. Exmoor National Park Scheduled Monument Condition Survey 2015. Archaedia.
  • <41> Digital archive: Historic England. Various. National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) entry. 34709, Extant 9 November 2021.
  • <42> Report: Cox, P.W. + Sanderson, N.. 1996. The proposed construction of a new water main to Parracombe, Devon: Archaeological and ecological assessment. AC Archaeology.

External Links (1)

Other Statuses/References

  • Devon SMR Monument ID: 2084
  • Devon SMR: SS64SE/18
  • Devon SMR: SS64SE18
  • Exmoor National Park HER Number (now deleted): MDE20144
  • Exmoor National Park HER Number (now deleted): MMO26
  • Local Heritage List Status (Rejected)
  • National Monuments Record reference: SS 64 SE14
  • National Park: Exmoor National Park
  • NRHE HOB UID (Pastscape): 34709
  • OSA: SS64SE14
  • Scheduled Monument (County Number): DV 104



Grid reference Centred SS 6696 4459 (94m by 81m)
Map sheet SS64SE

Finds (0)

Related Monuments/Buildings (0)

Related Events/Activities (8)

Related Articles (1)

Record last edited

Oct 27 2022 12:06PM


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