Discover the top 10 castles of Cornwall
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From the fortresses of Henry VIII to the romantic tales of King Arthur’s Excaliber - Cornwall’s ancient castles await.
It’s about quality, not quantity. That was my feeling when I delved into Cornish castles. There aren’t oodles, possibly due to being a separatist community in the southwest. The Normans were great castle builders, erecting fortresses to cow the defeated English into submission. Perhaps in Cornwall, it wasn’t necessary, well, not on such a scale anyway.
There are around 20 castles in the county - not a huge number, but there are exquisite examples other counties would give their tourism right arm for. Here follows my countdown of the Top 10, and in the best traditions, I will leave the best to last. Incidentally, for reasons I will explain, it’s not actually 10, but 12.
I’ve restricted my selections to castles that are accessible, where there are substantial remains and/or where there are stories to tell (and where possible, all of the above).
10. Ince (Privately owned)
Near Anthony House (National Trust) on the Rame Peninsula lies Ince, a 17th-century castle fortified during the English Civil War for the King. It became a farmhouse, was restored in the 1920s and is now a private house. Today’s attractions are the five-acre gardens, planted in 1960, with a charming shell house (1964) created by the current owner’s parents and beautiful river views from almost anywhere. Now privately owned it - but open as part of the National Garden Scheme (see ngs.org.uk for details).
9. Cromwell’s Castle (English Heritage)
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This round tower and fore-building on the west coast of Tresco (Isles of Scilly) was built in 1651, so around the end of the English Civil War. It is remarkably well preserved and therefore well worth visiting. It once had a garrison of 20 men and was provisioned by sea from St Mary’s; the entrance is by wooden ladder.
8. Fowey and Polruan (English Heritage)
This is the first of two pairs (hence the 12). It would be disingenuous to do these any other way, for Fowey and Polruan were forts connected by a chain, effectively guarding this harbour mouth.
The need for fortification was emphasised in 1457 when the French invaded and Place House was fortified by Thomas Treffry, whose wife apparently beat off the French from her doorstep with the help of one servant. In Henry VIII’s reign, St Catherine’s Fort (Fowey) was built, mounting four cannons, later restored in 1855.
Across the water, Polruan is a square harbour tower with two storeys and fireplaces, built around the same time as St Catherine’s, with the same intention of defending the harbour from French incursion.
7. Star Castle (Private Hotel)
Meanwhile, back on the Isles of Scilly, on St Mary’s, we have Star Castle. It was built by Robert Adams, surveyor, in 1593, and is eight-pointed, surrounded by a rampart wall. It had gun embrasures, plus a basement and two storeys. It still has a gateway defended by a portcullis and an 18th-century bell tower. The garrison in 1637 stood at 25, with a further 25 Cornishmen for six months.
Charles I, that doomed monarch, came here, when he was a prince, with the Duke of Buckingham. After its capture by Parliament in 1646, Star was used as a prison for the Duke of Hamilton and other Royalists. In 1660 Harry Vane was imprisoned here by Charles II, a monarch who knew Star well. By 1669 the garrison had grown to 200 and later it would be the governor’s residence. Today Star serves as a well-appointed hotel.
6. Pendennis and St Mawes (English Heritage)
It’s time for another pair, famed Pendennis and St Mawes, built by Henry VIII in 1548 at Falmouth, to protect Carrick Roads. Wendy Amer, English Heritage’s Property Manager, explains the castles are only just over a mile apart, but the drive is 35-40 miles via Truro. There are also a couple of ferry options’.
Pendennis sits 300 feet above the sea and consists of a circular tower 56 feet in diameter, with walls 11ft thick, pierced in three tiers with gun embrasures. Come Elizabeth I, a large angular rampart was added, covering almost two acres. The entrance is across a drawbridge from Castle Drive and through a gateway, over which Henry VIII’s arms are displayed.
During the English Civil War, Royalist Col. Arundel of Trerice was governor. Anticipating a siege, he strengthened defences with a pentagonal redoubt and other earthworks, constructed so that enemy cannon could not approach within range.
Provisions for nine months were stockpiled; these must have been considerable for the garrison was some 800. When the Parliamentarian Fairfax arrived in March 1646, Arundel eschewed surrender, holding out until 17 August, by which time supplies had run out and a quarter of the garrison was sick. Only Raglan in Wales held out longer (by two days).
When the siege ended, the garrison left with heads high, weapons intact, banners flying, songs-a-singing. The intention was to re-form, but first, they visited the nearest pub (Penryn) for a good binge. Sadly they overdid it, the possibly apocryphal tale being that more died from over-indulgence than siege!
Pendennis’s days as a fortification were not over, as it was re-used right up to WW2 because of its position and the word on the street is the MoD might requisition it again, should this country ever be threatened.
There is a fine collection of arms and armour inside, including guns and cannon from Tudor times to WW2. Wendy was delighted that a tradition of firing a gun at midday was reintroduced in April 2014. We currently have a 1938 25-pounder, and I’m a member of the in-house gun-crew!’
St Mawes meanwhile, across the estuary, was begun in 1540, and is generally considered the finest of Henry VIII’s forts. It took three years to build, consisting of large central tower, surmounted by small watch-tower, three semi-circular bastions arranged in a clover-leaf; drawbridge, protected by musket loops and outer blockhouse, lead to the first floor. Wendy told me why two forts were needed. It was the technology of the time,’ she tells me. They could only fire about half-a-mile, so needed one fort either side.’
The garrison here varied from 16 to 100, but the only time it saw action was during the Civil War, when Lt. Bonython surrendered to Fairfax in March 1646. The castle was an important part of coastal defence during the last war, and now sits in pleasant gardens.
5. Trematon (Privately owned)
Near Saltash lies one of Cornwall’s most interesting castles. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, Trematon stands high over the River Lynher. Built on a Roman or Saxon site by Robert de Mortain, it later passed to the crown and during the Lionheart’s reign, belonged to Reginald de Valletort, responsible for much of the building. It eventually became part of the Duchy of Cornwall.
There is a shell keep, standing on a mound, with ditch. The curtain wall extends west and south in a loop, with almost an acre enclosed. The south-east gatehouse, built as lodgings for the Black Prince’, is impressive, with two portcullises, arrow loops and guard-chamber. Apparently when Sir Francis Drake returned from his circumnavigation in 1580, Elizabeth I ordered his accumulated treasures be stored at Trematon.
In 1594 Sir Richard Grenville and his wife were surrounded by rebels of Kilter’s rising, who seized Trematon, stripping the contents and prisoners. It appears to have been neglected thereafter, although in 1650 petty courts were held here. In 1808 a Georgian house was built in the bailey for Duchy Surveyor-General, Benjamin Tucker; the curtain wall partly destroyed for a sea view. The resulting vista was rated one of the superb views of Cornwall’ by the Poet Laureate John Betjeman.
Trematon’s gardens are open to the public between April and September.
4. Tintagel (English Heritage)
Fact and fable intermingle. Tintagel, clinging to its rock-face, allegedly King Arthur’s birthplace, has that ethereal quality. What complicates is two Arthurs, a real British war leader, resisting Anglo-Saxon invasions of the 5th Century AD, and a fantasy Medieval king of Excalibur and Knights of the Round Table fame. Maybe Arthur was born here, but this is not Camelot.
The site, on the edge of a cliff, is enough to get storytellers scribing: there are ruins predominantly of a great hall, probably built in 1145 by Reginald, Earl of Cornwall. Henry III’s brother, Richard, added an outer ward, connected by a drawbridge to the island ward. It also had a fortified landing stage.
With 190,000 annual visitors - many from overseas, lured by Arthurian legend, the trick is to tell them the real story, while not discrediting the legends. The locals cashed in on Arthur in the 1890s, but we don’t ham that side,’ says Matt Ward, English Heritage’s site manager. There is a real, compelling story here, which needs telling. This site was important in the 5th/6th centuries, trading with the Mediterranean.’
This was contemporary with the real Arthur, but whether he was ever here, we can’t say. The castle came later, Earl Richard imagining he was re-fortifying a site that was Arthur’s, homage to a legend, a folly one might say. Once Richard died (1272) there was no reason for the castle and it quickly deteriorated. It was the Victorians who tapped into the Arthur stories, charging admission.’
Today there is a new exhibition, telling the true story of the periods of occupation and how these square with the legends. The views from the top of the 18-acre island are amazing at any time of year - but best in winter with battering waves.
3. Launceston (English Heritage)
The first castle, probably wooden, was built by Robert de Mortain on high ground above the town. A stone castle followed when Richard of Cornwall built a shell-keep with round-tower, plus a strongly defended passage from the gatehouse to the curtain; a gaol building was later added. The East Gate contains the constable’s quarters; here, under the gatehouse, Quaker George Fox, was imprisoned in 1656, for wearing his hat in court.
During the Civil War, although ruinous, the castle was still a prize, changing hands five times. The earldom has morphed into today’s Duchy with Prince Charles visiting Launceston to take up the Dukedom and receive gifts, including greyhounds and a pound of pepper.
2. Restormel (English Heritage)
Sometimes labelled England’s most picturesque castle, Restormel was originally an earthwork built by Baldwin Fitz Turstin, passing to the Lord of Cardinham in 1100, who built up the gate, and whose grandson, Robert, added the circular curtain wall. By 1270 it was the property of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, and since 1299 resided with the Duchy, also being home to the 14th century Black Prince’ who became the first Duke of Cornwall in 1337.
The east window was blocked during the Civil War, when it became a gun emplacement and lookout post. During the Battle of Lostwithiel (1644), Restormel was captured by Royalist Sir Richard Grenville. Visitors have seen a rare black pheasant up to this year: the Black Prince reincarnate one might suggest.
Matt Bulford, English Heritage’s area manager, has responsibility for both Launceston and Restormel, so which does he prefer? We can’t have favourites. Castles are like children,’ he tells me.
1. St Michael’s Mount (National Trust)
Opposite Marazion, the island of St Michael’s Mount rises from the water, 600 yards from land. It is reputedly part of a lost kingdom (Lyonesse) and from 1044 was associated with the similar, larger Mont St Michel in France. Henry de Pomeroy appreciated the site’s military importance, landing in the Lionheart’s reign, with a force apparently disguised as monks and claiming the island for Prince John. They vacated on Richard’s return from Crusades.
Another occupier was John de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Lancastrian refugee after defeat at Barnet (1471). He fortified the island, before surrendering to Yorkist King Edward IV. During the Civil War, it was garrisoned by Royalists under Sir Francis Basset and used as a gaol.
From the Restoration (1660) and prior to the National Trust’s acquisition, the Mount belonged to the St Aubyns.
Twelve generations of the family owned the castle until 1954 when they gifted it to the Trust, in return for a 999-year lease,’ explains Pete Hamilton from the National Trust explains. I live on the island - all the cottages come with a job. I came here as a seasonal dishwasher, fell in love with the place and wanted to stay. I enjoy the buzz when we’re busy, but when the visitors leave and the tide comes in, we have it to ourselves. There are around 30 of us including partners and children. We have barbeques on the harbour front and the run of the island. I was even married in the castle. This is a magic place and I want to stay until I’m buried. They’ll have to crowbar me out!’