Compton Castle, three miles west of Torquay, has belonged to the Gilbert family – with one long interruption – since the early fourteenth century. The Gilberts are famous for their role in the age of exploration, Sir Humphrey Gilbert discovering Newfoundland in 1583. Occupation descended to impoverished tenant farmers who could not afford any fashionable rebuilding, and for this reason the castle is one of the few to survive more or less intact but remarkably unspoiled.
Disregarding its later defenses for a moment, Compton originated as a typical West Country manor house. It is centered upon a fourteenth-century hall which, having fallen into ruins, was rebuilt on its original lines in 1955. Otto Gilbert added the west wing containing the solar and a pretty little chapel. It appears that the tower attached to the solar is older than the others and began as a tower house.
Otto’s son John transformed the house into a more extensive complex. His additions have been dated at about 1520 and if this is accurate then Compton vies with Thornbury
as the last true castle ever raised in England. At this time, the coast suffered frequent attacks from French pirates and Compton, not far inland, would have been a target.
A new wing containing the kitchen and its domestic offices was added to the east of the hall. The outer face of this wing, with its projecting towers, is clearly a curtain wall. It is likely that a quadrangle was intended, the hall lying across the middle and dividing it into two. If we imagine the scheme brought to completion there would have been square towers at the four corners and others in the middle of the two longer sides. The older tower is one of these. However, the west wing was never extended southwards to match the east wing.
Cooling Castle, a mile east of Cliffe, was built for Sir John de Cobham, a license to crenellate being granted in 1381. Two years before, French raiders had caused devastation on the Hoo peninsula, so Cooling was built at least partly with coastal defense in mind.
Ironically, but not uncommonly where English coastal fortifications are concerned, the castle saw no action against foreign invaders but became embroiled in civil strife. In 1554, Sir Thomas Wyatt sought the aid of Lord Cobham in the rebellion that he was organizing to prevent Queen Mary marrying Philip of Spain. When Lord Cobham refused, Wyatt marched upon Cooling Castle and breached its walls by cannon fire in the space of a few hours. After the episode, the castle was abandoned.
The castle is one of those later medieval castles which is split into two enclosures comprising a residential inner quadrangle and a much bigger base court, which housed the retainers’ lodgings and ancillary buildings. Its low-lying site would have appeared stronger when the moat was full of water.
The outer curtain and its rounded angle towers are now very ruinous, but the outer gatehouse is well preserved. This is actually just a gateway flanked by open-backed, half-round towers. It is curious that machicolated parapets crown the towers but not the gateway.
The inner courtyard is reached through another gatehouse flanked by rounded turrets. Keyhole gun ports appear here and elsewhere in the walls. To the right of the gatehouse, the curtain is embellished with alternate panels of stone and flint, creating a checkered effect. The corner tower here has vanished, but the round towers at the other three corners, along with much of the intervening curtain, still stand. These towers were machicolated as well. Within the courtyard, the only domestic feature to survive is a vaulted undercroft, which carried the solar.