April 23, 2024

Launceston Castle & Leeds Castle

Launceston Castle

The keep of Launceston Castle dominates the town and surrounding countryside. Most Saxon burghs had castles forced upon them within a few years of the Norman Conquest, and the castle of “Dunhevet” is recorded in the Domesday Book. At that time it was held by William the Conqueror’s half-brother Robert.

Initially the castle passed through a variety of hands, and the only Norman masonry is the shell keep on the motte. In 1227 Henry III granted the Earldom of Cornwall to his brother Richard, and he must have been responsible for most of the existing masonry. Eventually, the castle fell into the common rut of being used as a courthouse and gaol for the duchy, and the defenses decayed. By the end of the Civil War, during which it changed hands several times, it was a total ruin.

Earl Richard built a stone wall on top of the bailey rampart, but only the lower courses survive. It was a curiously plain curtain for the thirteenth century, without towers except for the drums flanking the southern gatehouse. The latter are still quite impressive and the simple gate tower at the far end of the bailey has also survived destruction. Otherwise it is the keep that commands our attention.

The only approach is via the stretch of curtain ascending the side of the motte, controlled at its foot by a ruinous tower. Launceston’s unique “triple crown” keep is the result of three phases – a stone reverment around the upper part of the motte, the late Norman shell keep on top and Richard of Cornwall’s cylindrical tower rising up within it. This arrangement appears to constitute an early example of concentric planning, though it is clear from the joint holes in the walls that the narrow space between the tower and the shell were roofed over.

Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle rises serenely from the waters of its surrounding lake. The lake is an artificial one created by damming the River Len. The castle existed in 1139 because, in that year, King Stephen wrested it from Matilda’s supporters.

The two islands on which suggest a motte and bailey origin, and the lake itself existed by 1272. In terms of masonry, however, the castle is essentially the work of Edward I, with additions by Henry VIII and much nineteenth century beautification. Around the entrance, the lake decreases to a narrow moat.

On the near side of the moat are the ruins of a peculiar barbican, which had three gateways because three roads converged here. The gatehouse is a squat tower, Edwardian in date but not at all in spirit. It has a recess for the drawbridge and a later row of machicolations above the entrance.

Except for one of the four D-shaped flanking bastions, the curtain was reduced to a low retaining wall in the nineteenth century, to allow an unimpeded view across the lake. Foundations of an earlier curtain enclosing a slightly narrower area have come to light, so Leeds may have been a concentric castle, though there is no proof that the two walls stood simultaneously. There are two separate residential blocks within the bailey: Maiden’s Tower, one of Henry VIII’s additions, and the neo-Gothic mansion built by Fiennes Wykeham-Martin in the 1820s. It occupies the site of lavish medieval apartments.

From the back of the mansion, a stone corridor, replacing a wooden causeway and drawbridge, leads to the keep on the smaller island. It is known as the Gloriette. This peculiar, D-shaped structure is built around a tiny courtyard in shell keep manner. Its lower part, including the tall plinth, which rises straight out of the water, is Edward I’s work.