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Restormel castle in Cornwall             Source: Richard Croft / CC BY SA 2.0

Restormel Castle, What the English Call ‘A Romantic Scene’

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Restormel Castle is one of the four principal Norman castles of Cornwall and among the most notable in Britain for its circular design. Built in the 13th century, it was a luxurious residence and hunting retreat for its medieval owners.

Motte castles comprised of a large cone-shaped mound of earth surrounded by a palisade and a tower. They occupied strategic positions, dominating the landscape. Standing on an earlier Norman mound, Restormel was surrounded by a dry ditch. It overlooked the primary crossing point over the River Fowey, a key tactical location, and was used to control the turbulent area in the years following the Norman invasion. These rare monuments are of particular importance in the study of the development of medieval fortifications.

The inside of the castle is well-preserved. (Michael Garlick/ CC BY SA 2.0)

The inside of the castle is well-preserved. (Michael Garlick/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

The Relatively Peaceful History of Restormel Castle

Although not mentioned in the Domesday book (a survey of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086), it is likely that a castle was built at Restormel before 1090 by Baldwin fitz Turstan, son of the sheriff of Cornwall. It may have been originally intended for use as a hunting lodge as well as a fort.

From the mid-12th century the lands belonged to the powerful Cardinham family. Robert de Cardinham built up the inner curtain walls and converted the gatehouse to stone, giving the castle its current design. At around the same time, the village of Lostwithiel was established nearby. The castle belonged to the Cardinhams until Andrew de Cardinham's daughter, Isolda de Cardinham, married Thomas de Tracey, who then owned the castle.

The castle changed hands numerous times until it reverted to the Crown in 1300. The Earldom of Cornwall stayed vacant until King Edward II elevated  Piers Gaveston , his favorite, to the title in 1307. Gaveston was stabbed and beheaded by the nobility in 1312. Unfortunately, he had also allowed the castles of Cornwall, including Restormel, to fall into disrepair.

In 1337 Edward III made his son, known as the Black Prince , Duke of Cornwall and endowed him with the huge estate formerly belonging to the Earldom of Cornwall. These included the castle, parklands, and town of Lostwithiel. The prince spent a great deal of money on the castle but more on maintaining the park boundary, which reflected the high value placed on hunting. He stayed at Restormel in the summer of 1354 and again in the winter of 1362, the only two known occasions on which a member of the royal family lived at the castle. 

Until the Civil War, Restormel Castle played no military role. In 1644 the Parliamentary commander, Robert Devereux, invaded the South West. His aim was to sever the flow of Cornish tin that was funding King Charles I. Instead, he found himself cut-off from a mainland by an army headed by the king himself. Devereux fell back and Restormel Castle was held briefly by the Parliamentary force until they surrendered. The castle remained in Royalist hands until the following year. In 1645 the Royalist cause was lost. Restormel Castle was evacuated which saved it being destroyed, but subsequently allowed it to fall to ruin.

Interior of the ruin of Restormel Castle (Marcin Chodorowski / Adobe Stock)

Interior of the ruin of Restormel Castle ( Marcin Chodorowski / Adobe Stock)

A Parliamentary survey of 1649 recorded Restormel to be utterly collapsed and too worthless to demolish. In 1865, the French writer Alphonse Esquiros described the ruins as "what the English call a romantic scene." The castle passed into the hands of English Heritage in 1984.

A Castle Once Fit for Dukes and Princes

The ruin of Restormel Castle is highly distinctive. It takes the form of low curtain wall buildings arranged around a central courtyard. Its plan is circular and spacious at 109 feet (33.3 m) in diameter.

The remains of the castle rooms include the large fireplaces, high windows, and the Great Hall which reflect its past grandeur. Positions of most windows and doors remain visible. 

The ground-floor spaces were all unheated and most were storerooms. The first floor consisted of the kitchen, a hall, an inner hall, the antechapel and two further rooms, possibly the great chamber and a wardrobe. The hall, antechapel and great chamber could be accessed directly from stairs rising from the central courtyard. The outer wall is well preserved, with window openings under pointed arches, fireplace positions and a battlemented wall-walk.

A reconstruction of the hall in the 14th century, showing the storage beneath and the timber roof. (Illustration by Terry Ball / Historic England)

A reconstruction of the hall in the 14th century, showing the storage beneath and the timber roof. (Illustration by Terry Ball / Historic England )

Viewed from outside, the surrounding curtain wall has two projecting structures – the gatehouse to the west and the chapel to the east. Three large windows provide views southwards down the valley towards Lostwithiel.

The gatehouse guards the entrance to the inner castle and may have been the first part of the original castle partially constructed in stone. The 13th-century chapel is entered through a wide arch from the antechapel. At some point in the 17th century, the windows were blocked, and a heavy wooden structure added to support cannons mounted on the chapel roof.

Visiting Restormel Castle

Today the castle grounds are a favorite picnic spot where Black Pheasant and other wildlife can be spotted in the nearby woodland. You can enjoy the stunning 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside or outdoor theatre performances during the summer evening. 

Accommodation is plentiful in the area and the museum in Lostwithiel has wonderful displays of the town’s history.

Top image: Restormel castle in Cornwall             Source: Richard Croft / CC BY SA 2.0

By Michelle Freson

References

Ashbee, J. The History of Restormel Castle . English Heritage

Available at: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk

Staff Writer. Restormel Castle . Visit Cornwell

Available at: https://www.visitcornwall.com

Staff Writer. 2016. Restormel Castle . CastlesFortsBattles.com

Available at: http://www.castlesfortsbattles.co.uk/south_west/restormel_lostwithiel.html

Staff Writer. 2020. Restormel Castle: motte, bailey and shell keep . Historic England

Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1017574

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