Cornwall, England
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Launceston, Cornwall, England         OS Map Grid Ref: SX330847
 The County of Cornwall
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The Normans subjugated their newly-won domain with castles, citadels from which they rode out to control surrounding territory, and within which they could shelter if attacked. The site now occupied by Launceston was strategically placed on high ground between Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor and near the lowest ford on the river Tamar at Polson, the main access from Devon, and the spur of ancient volcanic lava made a suitable site for Brian de Bretagne, the first Norman Earl of Cornwall, to build a castle on in the 11th Century.

All that remains of the extensive Norman castle is the keep which is accessed via a long flight of stone steps. The climb is well worth making for the amazing views, particularly to the west over Bodmin Moor. The extinct craggy peaks of the volcano at Roughtor can be seen from this vantage point (the castle itself is built on an ancient lava flow) and to Brown Willy beyond.

The earliest documentary mention of the castle is in William the Conqueror's Domesday survey of 1086 - "the count's castle at Dunhevet ". Dunhevet was the name of Launceston and the count was the powerful Robert, Count of Mortain, half-brother to the Conqueror.

The castle was built by Brian de Bretagne, the first Norman Earl of Cornwall. He led an army against the sons of the defeated Saxon King Harold II in 1069 but must have done something to greatly displease the monarch as his lands were confiscated - the fate of a traitor - and given to Robert of Mortain.

Count Robert consolidated his strength in Cornwall and his castle at Dunhevet became the county's administrative centre. Cornwall's assizes and principal jail remained at Launceston until Bodmin became the county town in 1842.

Like most Norman castles of the late 11th century, Launceston would have been constructed of wood and surrounded with defensive ditches. These hurriedly-constructed wooden castles were later rebuilt in stone but we have no details of the changes Launceston underwent until the time of Richard of Cornwall, brother of King henry III and the wealthiest and most powerful subject in the kingdom, who held the earldom from 1227 until 1272.

The shell keep was built around the crown of the hill, the only entrance being up an easily defensible steep flight of stone stairs. Within these walls a tower was built rising a storey taller and the space between roofed over to provide a high platforms from which to bombard the enemy - a device later employed by King Henry VIII at castles such as St Mawes in Cornwall and Deal in Kent.

It is during the time of Richard of Cornwall that the North or Town gate, the main castle entrance from the town, was resited; the drum towers were built to either side of the South Gate; and the high circular tower inserted in the shell keep. Excavations have also indicated that the mass of tightly packed buildings within the bailey were removed to make way for a great Hall, kitchen and a small chapel.

Following his death in 1272, Edmund, his son and successor to the earldom pulled out of Launceston in favour of the Duchy Palace at Lostwithiel and the castle sank into a period of neglect. Repairs to the castle started in 1341 and seem to have continued well into the next century.

The Great Hall was used into the early 17th century as the County Assizes, while the North Gate became the infamous prison which gave the castle the name "Castle Terrible". By the time of the Parliamentary Survey of 1650, the Great Hall had been demolished.

The bailey area underwent extensive landscaping and most of the remaining buildings were demolished in the mid-19th century when the Duke of Northumberland created a public park. Much archaeological evidence was obscured, damaged or lost during the works. During World War II, hospital huts were erected in the bailey for the US Army.

In 1984 the castle came under the care of English Heritage although it remains in the ownership of the Duchy of Cornwall.

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As a Prison

The infamous prison which the North Gate became earned the citadel grim name of "Castle Terrible" and served as a prison long after it became of no military value.

The Catholic priest Cuthbert Mayne and his friend Francis Tregain were brought to the prison in Launceston after their arrest in January, 1577. Condemned for treason, he was hugn, drawn and quartered in the Square and his head was displayed on the gate of the castle.

In 1656, George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends (better know as "Quakers"), and two of his friends were arrested and became reluctant guests of the castle's dungeons for eight months before Oliver Cromwell heard of their plight and intervened.

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1069Brian de Bretagne, Norman Earl of Cornwall, leads an army against the sons of the defeated Saxon King Harold II
1577.Jun.08Imprisnment of Roman Catholic priest Cuthbert Mayne at Launceston in Cornwall
Francis Tregian was also imprisoned
1577.Nov.29Martyrdom of the Roman Catholic priest Cuthbert Mayne for high treason at Launceston
1656Imprisonment of George Fox, founder of the Quaker sect, at Launceston, Cornwall
1984Launceston Castle in Cornwall comes under the care of English Heritage
The castle remains in the ownership of the Duchy of Cornwall

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