Britannia Castles: Exeter Castle

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Short History of Exeter Castle in Devon
Edited by David Nash Ford


Withstander of Sieges

This was one of the original Royal strongholds set up by William the Conqueror to hold down a large and important town. Exeter had been one of the few centres of English resistance to the invaders, and had withstood a siege in 1068. But the walls of a Saxon burgh were not strong enough to resist a master of the military art and the siege had lasted only eighteen days. William put Baldwin de Brionne, his Sheriff of Devon, in charge of the place, with orders to build a castle therein. This, Baldwin did by cutting off the northern angle of the city - its highest quarter - where there is a steep descent, both to north and to west, and clearing out such houses as were to be found therein. Two sides of the castle were formed by the line of the former external wall of the burgh, the other side (facing into the city) was originally, no doubt, no more than a ditched and palisaded earthwork. But before the century was out, stone must have replaced earth, for the important gatehouse of Rougemont - the Red Hill, as the fortress was now styled - is one of the earliest pieces of Norman building work to survive in the whole country. Local Saxon masons were clearly used, as seen by the architecture of the upper windows. The whole fortress constituted a very large shell-keep - there was no donjon or high tower in it. The most dominant building was this gatehouse - about 30 feet square, with walls six feet thick: it was double, with an inner and an outer door, each formed by a twelve-foot arch. It was two stories high and furnished with very small windows. It projects some twenty-four feet beyond the line of the enceinte, and must have had a drawbridge appended to it for the crossing of the ditch. This gatehouse, however, is not now the present entrance to the castle - a much larger indefensible gate was built immediately to the side of it sometime in the 18th century.

The Norman gatehouse was defended, in 1136, by Baldwin de Redvers - grandson of its original builder - who seized it in the name of the Empress Matilda and held it for three months against King Stephen in person. The latter had recovered the city and so attacked the castle from its inner front. The King tried all the methods of twelfth century siege-craft, escalade, converging discharges of missiles against the ramparts and, finally, mining. Even the last, so often elective against castles on a dry site, failed and the garrison only surrendered, after three months, because their well had run dry and they were perishing from thirst. The King would have liked to make an example of the defenders; but he was compelled to let them march out with the honours of war by his Barons, who thought more about the gallantry of the rebels than of their treason. Baldwin, not at all touched by this clemency, retired to his lordship of the Isle of Wight and made himself a nuisance there by piratical attacks on merchant-men trading with Southampton and Portsmouth.

Exeter was several times besieged in later days, for example by Perkin Warbeck and by the Catholic insurgents of the 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion; but, on each occasion, city and castle were held by the same side and the rebels tried to force their way in, not at the high lying castle walls, but on the weakest front of the city. In both cases, they were repelled with ease, not having the artillery which would have made a twelfth century enceinte untenable.

The present condition of " Rougemont " is disappointing. While the outer walls and the gatehouse are intact, the whole of the inner buildings have been swept away so thoroughly, that it is impossible to identify the original locality of hall, chapel or kitchen. There are traces of fireplaces, flues and party walls visible in the back of the enceinte in many places, but not a single perfect chamber. Vandals of the eighteenth century cleared every medieval room away and built, in the centre of the enclosure, a vast sessions hall of Georgian style.

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