Barnstaple Castle in Devon
By David Nash Ford
B A R N S T A P L E
C A S T L E
A Great Fortification soon Ruinous
In medieval days, North Devon - a very isolated region - had one important castle, Barnstaple, the centre of a great "Honour" held by the Traceys and then by the Hollands. Only the great motte of Geoffrey de Mowbray, Bishop of Coutances' first wooden castle remains today. It stands 60ft tall and 40 ft in diameter and some twenty-three Saxon homes were swept away in order that it could be built. Judhael of Totnes later lived here from time to time and is known to have entertained a party of monks from Laon at the castle in 1113, not long after he had established a priory just outside the walls. The castle's first stone buildings were apparently erected by Henry de Tracey, a strong adherent of King Stephen during the Civil war of the latter's reign. The structures would have been extremely similar to those still to be seen at Totnes. Though such fortifications helped support early Norman monarchs, later Kings became worried about the power of great noblemen like the Traceys and, in 1228, the Sheriff of Devon had the walls of Barnstaple Castle reduced to a height of ten feet. By the death of the last Henry de Tracey in 1274, the castle was already beginning to decay:
"There is a certain place which is called the castle about which the wall is almost fallen, and there is a Motte in which there is a certain hall, chamber, kitchen and other houses, closely built, and the easements of the Court without are worth sixpence."
The local inhabitants soon began to cart away the stone and tear the lead from the roof. In 1326, the building was completely ruinous. When John Leland made his great tour in 1540, he found only a few walls and one piece of a donjon standing. When this was the state of things, in the reign of Henry VIII, it is not surprising to find that the last remaining walls were so flimsy that they blew down in a storm in 1601. By the time of George I, no stone at all remained.