MSO9412 - Dunster Castle (Building)


A motte and bailey castle of Norman origins was rebuilt in the mid 13th Century and 1420 before the motte was landscaped in the early 18th Century. The bailey is occupied by the existing house, built in c.1571 and altered in 1867. The site is likely to have been used prior to its Norman occupation.

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Type and Period (3)

Protected Status

Full Description

Dunster Castle. Nothing now remains of the Norman Castle or of the later medieval buildings. The old gateway to the Lower Ward with the towers flanking it, and some sections of wall are probably mid 13th century. In 1420 Sir Hugh Luttrell built a new gatehouse spanning the approach from the town; this still stands, but two towers were added on its inner side in the 18th century. The existing house dates in the main from circa 1571 but since then, substantial alterations have taken place culminating in those of 1867. [1] Nothing now remains of the Norman Castle or the later medieval buildings the old gateway to the Lower Ward with the towers flanking it, and some sections of wall are probably mid C13. In 1420 Sir Hugh Luttrell built a new gatehouse spanning the approach from the town, this still stands but two towers were added on its inner side in the C18. The existing house dates in the main from c1571 but since then substantial alterations have taken place culminating in those of 1867. [2] Description and plan - see Illustration Card. [2,3] The castle is sited on a steep sided hill. The Norman motte seems to have been formed by scarping the hill top, and it is difficult to differentiate between natural and artificial slopes. This difficulty has been further increased by later terracing of the hill, for a carriage drive and landscape gardening. Earthworks surveyed at 1:2500. [4] As reported by [4], the site of the original Norman motte and bailey is difficult to discern due to three factors: the extreme topography of the hill on which the castle is sited; later landscaping and dense garden planting; later building and re-building work. The current 1:2500 depiction records the motte as an earthwork centred at SS 9910 4345, with a very level top, the result of early 18th century landscaping. The bailey was in the level area to the northeast, now occupied by the Castle. Part of a curtain wall and tower from the 13th century survive at SS 9914 4354. [5] Works to the Castle drive in 1984 showed it to be an artificial terrace into the hillside. The whole drive appeared to be of C18 date or later. [6] Scheduling revised with new national number (was Somerset 469) on 24/4/2002. [13] Dunster Castle and gatehouse, Grade I, Castle Hill. Built originally by William de Mohun in the 11th century. Of the Norman castle no trace remains, the oldest surviving feature is the 13th century gateway. The gatehouse was erected in 1420. (For full description see list.). [15] The place name Dunster indicates that in the Saxon period the torre, presumably Castle Hill, belonged to a man called Dun and it is possible that the hill may have been fortified in pre-Conquest times. By 1086 a castle, probably of the motte and bailey type, was established here by the Mohun family using the strong natural defences of the hill. A stone built castle was in existance by 1138 but no masonry from this seems to survive. At about that time the castle was held by William de Mohun against Henry de Tracy and although seigeworks were erected, no structures remain. There are many medieval references to buildings and structures in both an upper and lower ward of the castle. In the Civil War it was held against the Royalists, but was taken by them in 1642. Later in 1645-6, after a six month seige, it was retaken by the Parliamentarians. In 1649 it was ordered to be dismantled, although little demolition was carried out. A view of the castle in 1733 shows the motte used as a gazebo and pleasure garden, but with much of the rest of the castle retaining medieval features. [16, 27, 32] The castle was built by the Mohuns and bought from them by Elizabeth Luttrell in 1376 for 5000 marks. It was in the Luttrell's possession since that date. The keep buildings, surmounting the 'tor' were in decay as early as Leland's time (1542) and were levelled early in the 18th Century. The earliest surviving part of the castle is at its foot to the north, where a later 13th Century gateway was built, flanked on either side by semicircular towers. A new gatehouse was built at right-angles to it in 1420-2, interfering with one tower. Both buildings have been subject to later alteration. The castle's living quarters are L-shaped, with the range running southeast added by Anthony Salvin as part of his additions and alterations from 1867 onwards. The principal range, running southwest has two small 13th Century windows on the southeast front. The inside was reconstructed between c.1589 and c.1620, possibly by William Arnold (the architect responsible for Wadham College, Oxford and Cranborne Manor, Dorset). As part of this, "the entrance side was given as nearly as possible the E-shape favoured by Elizabethan designers," though again, this has been subject to later alteration. Further interior 17th Century alterations included, among other areas the Dining Room, "given panelling and one of the most gorgeous plaster ceilings in SW England. It is dated 1681. The artistry of this detached leaf and flower work is miraculous." A new chapel was built as a projection in 1722 but this was replaced by Salvin by a "mighty tower". He also made other changes, including creating a much larger Hall. [25] The history of the Castle has been researched in considerable detail by Gibb, who records the site from earliest times onwards. [27] Of the Norman castle no trace remains, the oldest surviving feature is the 13th century Gateway flanked on either side by a semi-circular tower with a vaulted chamber at ground floor level lit by arrow loops. Adjoining the gateway is the Gatehouse erected in 1420 by Sir Hugh Luttrell, the first of the family to live at the Castle. The heraldic panel over the entrance was set up in the 16th century. Two buttresses were added to the east wall in 1428. In 1764 the level of the lower ward was raised, submerging the first two storeys, the upper part was enlarged by the addition of two battlemented polygonal turrets on the west side, pierced by arrow loops. The present castle buildings were thoroughly reconstructed from circa 1617 onwards from designs probably by William Arnold, refurnished in the 18th century and extensively enlarged and remodelled in 1869-72 by Anthony Salvin. 4-centred entrance doorway with wood mould terminated with label stops bearing initials of members of Luttrell family. [28] The Castle is situated within Dunster Conservation Area. The character appraisal (2002) states that "There are no remains of the original Norman castle, which were in decay in Leland’s time (1542). The earliest surviving part is the 13th century gateway built by Reginald de Mohun. It is flanked each side by semi-circular towers with ground floor vaulted chambers and arrow loop openings. Adjoining is the Gatehouse built c.1420 by Sir Hugh Luttrell and added to up to the 1760’s. Between c.1589-1620, the present castle was largely rebuilt by William Arnold, architect of Wadham College, Oxford. It was refurnished in the 18th century and enlarged between 1869-72 by Anthony Salvin, a leading 19th century architect. It is largely built of local red sandstone with Doulting stone dressings. The three-storey H-shape plan of the Jacobean phase was altered to a largely L-shaped plan in the 19th century. There are fine 17th and 18th century interior features, including oak staircases and panelling, and ornate plasterwork." [30] Further information on castle and incumbents is provided by Binding; for instance, in 1266 she notes that the buildings still in use on the tor included a hall with buttery, pantry, kitchen and bakehouse, a fair chapel, a knights' hall, three towers and a prison. The lower ward also had three 'towers' (groups of buildings) and a granary. A cow-house, stable, dovecot and dairy lay below near the river. During the Civil War, the castle was held by the Luttrells for the Royalists and as a result, in 1650 a gang of 100 men were sent to demolish it. "They totally demolished the buildings on the tor, the towers and the curtain wall but a last minute order countermanding the first was just in time to save the dwelling house and Hugh Luttrell's Gatehouse." The castle became the property of the National Trust in 1976. [31] Six evaluation trenches were dug on the driveway at the castle in 2001 and produced evidence of a stone retaining wall of two possible phases as well as evidence for road surface foundations. [33] A further watching brief to monitor repair and consolidation works produced no archaeological remains, probably due to the nature of the works themselves. [34] An archaeological watching brief was undertaken in 2006 to 2008 when works were undertaken to repair the castle's roof. The removal of lead sheeting and two phases of counterboarding revealed a minimum of six separate roof structures representing approximately five phases of roof construction between the 17th and 20th Centuries. A flat roof of c. three sub-phases was dated to around c.1611, converted into king post trusses in c.1728 and had wrought iron 'l' beams inserted in c.1865-72, probably under the supervision of the architect Anthony Salvin. [35] A watching brief was undertaken in September and October 2012 on an existing pathway from west of the Castle Mansion to Bowling Green House during groundworks associated with the construction of a new stepped path. The works exposed a series of post-medieval occupation layers and deposits, which produced animal bone, pottery sherds, clay pipe fragments, metal and glass. Some residual medieval pottery sherds may indicate earlier activity surviving within the development area and some of the post-medieval pottery may have been produced at Dunster Pottery Kiln, to the rear of the Luttrell Arms (MSO9466). [36] Additional roofing slates were bought for the Castle in 1426 from Treborough Quarry in Ilfracombe (MSO11639). [37] The buildings were visited in May 2012 as part of the rapid condition survey of Exmoor's Listed Buildings 2012-13. The castle received a BAR score of 6 and the gatehouse a score of 5A. [38] The inner hall of the castle has an early 17th Century style ceiling and an overmantel featuring a rectangular panel with a coat of arms (Luttrell impaling Hadley) dated 15893 King Charles' Chamber includes an overmantel dating from 1620 and the gallery features a frieze. The ceiling of the Great Staircase has "a magnificent heavy classical design with hunting scene in the foliage and a classical cornice" and there are further ceilings and friezes in the Withdrawing Room and Dining Room (the latter's ceiling is dated 1681). [39] A heritage statement, including documentary research, was written to support proposed resetting of steps and installation of handrail to steps on the south terrace and installation of a handrail to the external door of the Crypt in 2020. [40] Archaeological monitoring and recording work carried out in February 2019 during repairs to a vaulted brick walkway beneath Green Court at Dunster Castle. Excavations exposed the top of the brick vaulted passage and associated passage walls, together with an adjacent lightwell, all dating from Anthony Salvin's remodelling of the castle in 1868-1872. A probable mid 20th Century phase of repairs and a previous phase of external walkway leading to the Tenants Hall were also exposed. None of the features or deposits seen predated 1868. [41] [Centred SS 9911 4344] Dunster Castle, the site of the keep, a gateway and remains of the curtain wall are marked on historic mapping. [42] Additional bibliography. [43-48] The site was photographed in 1999 by the RCHME. [49] A collection of historic images of the site is held by the Historic England Archive. [50-53] This record was enhanced as part of the National Record of the Historic Environment to Exmoor National Park Historic Environment Record data transfer project. [55] The building is discussed in the 2018 Conservation Area Appraisal for Dunster. [56] An index of the drawings, maps and illustrations in the notebooks of Rev John Skinner (1772-1839) includes Dunster [57] Dunster Castle gatehouse and gateway was surveyed by the SANHS Early Dunster Project with new plans and photographs, discussion of the history and interpretation in 2020. The gateway was built as a defensive structure in the mid/late 13th century with two D-shaped towers on the curtain wall of the lower ward. The gatehouse was built in 1419 -26 by Sir Hugh Luttrell, probably on the barbican walls, for guest accommodation but with the appearance of a defended structure. Six rooms were all provided with a substantial fireplace, a garderobe and direct access from the outside making them self-contained lodgings. The gatehouse and main house were saved from demolition during the Civil War by an Order from the Council. In c1870, Salvin removed the internal cross wall and created the Tenant's Hall out of the top two rooms and reroofed the building. [58, 59]

Sources/Archives (60)

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  • <49> Photograph: Hesketh-Roberts, M.. 1999. Job: Dunster Castle. Colour. Negative.
  • <50> Photograph: Unknown. 1881. View looking over Dunster, taken from the north-west showing the castle to the left and St George's Church to the right. Unknown. Print.
  • <51> Photograph: Unknown. 1850-1900. View looking along Dunster High Street, taken from the north looking past the yarn market towards the castle. Unknown. Print.
  • <52> Photograph: F Frith and Company Limited. 1910-1925. General view looking towards Dunster showing the castle on the left and St George's Church on the right, taken from Dunster Park in the east. Unknown. Postcard.
  • <53> Photograph: F Frith and Company Limited. 1910-1925. View showing the Yarn Market in the High Street with Dunster Castle in the background, taken from the north-east. Unknown. Postcard.
  • <54> Photograph: F Frith and Company Limited. 1910-1925. View showing the Yarn Market in the High Street with Dunster Castle in the background, taken from the north-east. Unknown. Postcard.
  • <55> Digital archive: Historic England. Various. National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) entry. 36863, Updated 17 May 2022.
  • <56> Report: Pratt, N. and Thurlow, T.. 2018. Dunster Conservation Area: appraisal document. Exmoor National Park Authority. p 4, 5, 9, 16, 18, 19, 21, 53, 60, 93, 95, Figures 1, 5, 53.
  • <57> Index: Charterhouse Environs Research Team. 2012. The CHERT Index of the Drawings and Sketches of the Reverend John Skinner. Vol 18 (1836 Devonshire), Pages 58, 61, 65, 66, 68, 75,76.
  • <58> Article in serial: Richardson, I.. 2021. Dunster Castle Gatehouse - mismatched windows, the wrong coat-of-arms and a lost lower ward. Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. 164. pages 183-202.
  • <59> Report: Richardson, I.. 2020. Survey at Dunster Castle Gatehouse and Gateway, Castle Hill, Dunster. SANHS Buildings Research Group (Dunster Early Fabric Project).

External Links (3)

Other Statuses/References

  • 2012-3 Building At Risk Score (5A): 26/4/20/2
  • 2012-3 Building At Risk Score (6): 26/4/20/1
  • Exmoor National Park HER Number (now deleted): MSO11992
  • Exmoor National Park HER Number (now deleted): MSO12061
  • Listed Building List Entry UID: 264651
  • Local Heritage List Status (Rejected)
  • National Monuments Record reference: SS 94 SE6
  • National Park: Exmoor National Park
  • National Trust HER Record: MNA141395
  • National Trust HER Record: MNA176582
  • NBR Index Number: 99/01193
  • NRHE HOB UID (Pastscape): 36863
  • Somerset SMR PRN (Somerset): 34622
  • Somerset SMR PRN: 34919



Grid reference Centred SS 2991 1435 (312m by 299m)
Map sheet SS21SE

Finds (10)

Related Monuments/Buildings (13)

Related Events/Activities (11)

Related Articles (1)

Record last edited

Nov 10 2023 7:16PM


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