Britannia Castles: Berry Pomeroy, Devon

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History of Berry Pomeroy Castle in Devon
By Charles Oman


The Height of Tudor Elegance

About two-and-a-half miles from Totnes bridge, by a very uphill road, lies one of the best-known and quite the most picturesque of Devon's castles. Berry Pomeroy owes its name to one of the original Norman followers of the Conqueror, Ralph de Pomeroy, who appears in Domesday Book (1086) as lord of 106 manors in the county. Unlike his neighbour, Judhael of Totnes, Ralph did not establish himself on an old site, but went out into the woods and chose himself the most inaccessible spot that he could find, on a lonely knoll above a deep-sunk tributary-brook of the Dart. The ravine of this watercourse protects a good half of the enceinte: the exposed or southern side is covered by the main building of the old castle, a gatehouse of exceptional solidity, from which rise two high hexagonal towers. Above the portcullis-chamber is a fine carved shield with the lion rampant of Pomeroy - a bearing to be seen well displayed on the tombs of the parish church a mile outside the woods. This gatehouse certainly does not belong to Ralph de Pomeroy's original castle, which (presumably) was a scarped and palisaded shell-keep, whose outline would have followed the contour of the summit of the knoll in a somewhat quadrangular fashion. Complete reconstruction in stone no doubt followed in the twelfth century, though most of the present buildings are even later.

The Pomeroys were among the most powerful of the early Devonian feudal houses and had the unusual luck of continuing their lineal succession for nearly 500 years. During this time, they never lost their lands for a permanence, though they were more than once in danger of confiscation for treason. Henry de Pomeroy was a resolute supporter of King John Lackland in his rebellion against Richard I. When forced to fly from Berry, he seized the impregnable Cornish rock of Mount St. Michael and held it till all hope was lost. It would appear that he escaped forfeiture by committing suicide. Having assigned his lands to his sons, he had himself been bled to death by his surgeon, in the ancient Roman fashion. Since he had never been tried or condemned, Richard I allowed the Pomeroy lands to escape confiscation. The local legend at Berry - quite unauthentic - gives Henry a still more lurid end. He is said to have blindfolded his horse and then to have ridden him out of the postern straight down the precipitous north side of the castle, ending with a broken neck in the ravine below. Henry's grandson and namesake was deeply concerned in a more justifiable rebellion, having been a follower of Simon de Montfort in the Barons' War. He was lucky enough not to be present at the slaughter of Evesham, profited by the amnesty granted by the "Dictum of Kenilworth" to the surviving Montfortians, and got off with a fine instead of complete forfeiture.

The Pomeroys endured till the convulsions of religious war which marked the earlier years of the reign of King Edward VI. The then head of the house, Sir Thomas Pomeroy, was one of the chief supporters of the old Catholic party in the West. When, therefore, we find him selling his castle to Lord Protector Somerset in the second year of his Protectorate. We are suspicious of undue pressure, or blackmail, on the part of that champion among land-grabbers. A tale is told to the effect that Pomeroy saved his head after the unsuccessful Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, by making over Berry to Somerset. Unfortunately, this cannot be true, since Somerset had been deposed, and was actually confined in the Tower of London (October 1549), before the leaders of the Western Insurrection were tried and executed in January 1550.

Somerset was released and allowed two more years of life before he was attainted and executed by his jealous rival, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. It was during these last years of his life that he made over Berry to his eldest son, Edward Seymour, whom, in other respects, he had disinherited. For, when he caused his own patent for a Dukedom to be drawn up in the first year of his protectorate, it included the astounding clause that his titles should pass to his younger son, the child of his second wife, Anne Stanhope, and not to his elder son, Edward, child of his first wife, Catherine Fillot. Only if all the male issue of the younger line should die out, were the elder line to have a reversionary right of succession.

The elder son, therefore, and his descendants for two hundred years, were lords of Berry Pomeroy and certain other Devonshire lands, and baronets after the time of James I, while the younger family enjoyed the Earldom of Hertford and the restored Duchy of Somerset till 1750. It was this odd fact which gave Sir Edward Seymour, the first prominent Tory to join William of Orange after the landing at Torbay, an opportunity to vent a paradox. "I think, Sir Edward," said the Prince, "that you are of the family of the Duke of Somerset."
"Pardon me, your highness," replied Seymour, "the Duke of Somerset is of my family."

It was the earliest of the Seymour owners of Berry who cleared out part of the interior of the old castle of the Pomeroys. In the centre of the walls, was erected the magnificent Tudor building whose ruins strike the eye of the visitor so much more effectively than the remnants of the old enceinte. It is one of those mansions built for light and convenience with enormous mullioned windows which occupy more than half of its frontage. There are long galleries and spacious reception rooms in which the period 1550-1600 is so rich. Ap-parently, the interior decorations were elaborate almost to osten-tation, mantelpieces of polished marble instead of freestone, fluted Corinthian pillars, cornices of wreathed fruit and flowers highly gilt, ceilings of curiously figured plaster, panelling of precious woods. The building is said to have cost 20,000 - a great sum in Tudor days. "Yet the whole was never brought to completion, for the west side was never begun," says the author of the "Worthies of Devon," himself an eighteenth century vicar of Berry. Here lived five generations of Seymours, knights and after-wards baronets, prominent among the noble families of Devon. But the English Civil War brought harm to Berry, as to so many other ancient castles. The walls were "slighted" and the residence somewhat damaged. It must still have been habitable in 1688, as Sir Edward Seymour (named above) brought William of Orange thither on his march from Torbay to Newton Abbot. But he would seem to have been the last resident and himself spent his later years at, and died in, his manor of Maiden Bradley in Somersetshire. Tradition says that the roofs of Berry were fired by lightning in a storm and that the owner, considering it a rather remote, if splendid, abode, would not go to the expense of reconstruction. Three hundred years of wind and rain have done the rest and the once magnificent building is a picturesque skeleton, showing the sky through mullioned ribs.

In 1750, died the last Seymour Duke of Somerset who sprang from the Lord Protector's younger son. Agreeably to the strange patent of 1547, the representative of the elder line, the Berry Pomeroy Seymours, succeeded to the Duchy, but not to the bulk of the estates, of his predecessor - there was a daughter left as heiress to the lands, if not to the honours of the younger branch.

Edited from Charles Oman's "Castles" (1926).  (T) 302.234.8904    (F) 302.234.9154    Copyright ©2000, LLC