Britannia Castles: Dunster Castle, Somerset

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History of Dunster Castle in Somerset
By Charles Oman


Impregnable Hilltop Fortress

In the long western projection of Somerset, which runs along the Bristol Channel and slopes up into Exmoor, there has always been one predominant family - the Mohuns, from the Conquest down to 1376, and the Luttrells, their successors, from 1376 down to this day. It is an almost unparalleled thing (though compare Berkeley) to find a castle, like Dunster, which has only changed hands once, otherwise than by inheritance, since its first erection. We may add that it would be equally hard to find another castle fitting in so well with a scene of sylvan beauty as this. Others, like Harlech or Caer Cynan, may stand on sites higher, more precipitous and more majestic, but Dunster, rising from its curtain of woods above its little river presents a silhouette of towers and gables against the northern sky which cannot be excelled for grace. And it is equally effective when seen, not from the river and meadow below, but from the high street of the quaint little town which struggles up the slope towards its lowest entry. It makes a perfect foreground, from which stand out the wooded ascent to its gatehouse and the cluster of towers far above the tree tops.

William the Conqueror gave to William de Moion, a baron from the Cotentin, a great cluster of manors in West Somerset, as well as many others in Devon and Dorset. But his chief seat was on the Tor where Dunster Castle stands: "William of Mohun holds Torre and there is his castle," says Domesday Book. The Tor was the isolated circular final spur of a ridge (Grabbist Hill), which runs west towards Exmoor. Its slope drops suddenly towards the town below and the end of the shore-plain of Somerset. It is cut off by a broad depression from the main length of the ridge to which it belongs, so as to form, by its natural situation, a most eligible site for a Norman castle of the early type. The point of the Tor made a perfect motte, without any need for artificial piling of earth. It is a small flat area, 35 feet by 70, round whose edge a palisade of timber from the woods below could easily be drawn. The outer bailey was formed on a broad ledge half-way down the slope of the Tor, about 125 yards long by 33 broad. Below this ledge, the hillside gets very steep again, so that there is a sharp fall towards the town at its foot. All that was needed to make the Tor-fortress practically impregnable was to scarp the already precipitous slopes of its summit on all sides. Leaving space for a descent to the lower ward by means of a path, or perhaps steps, on the only section which was not cut into sheer impracticability. The same could be done, with almost equal ease, for the lower ward, both of whose flanks were very steep, the only comparatively easy section of the slope being blocked by a palisade with the entrance gate in its centre. This was somewhere above the spot where the present gate-house stands.

Nothing could be more formidable but, of course, the later Mohuns, like all their contemporaries, replaced palisading with stone, which was easily procurable on all sides. The ring on top of the tor became a shell-keep. The ledge on which the lower ward stood was walled, or rather its edge was cut into a low cliff, with retaining walls and a parapet above, from which (no doubt later) projecting towers to give flanking fire were thrown out. It seems likely that all the residential chambers and offices of the castle were in the lower ward - chapel, hall, kitchen, etc., as there is absolutely no trace of inner buildings within the shell-keep on top of the Tor.

The most prominent man in the annals of this family, whose castle dominated all Western Somerset and whose lands were scattered so broadly over it, was the third William de Mohun, a contemporary of Kings Henry I and Stephen. He was a furious supporter of the Empress Matilda in the Civil Wars and made himself odious by his reckless plundering and burning, so that he was known as the " Scourge of the West." His mistress would appear to have conferred on him the title of Earl of Somerset, in 1141, and he employed it in a Charter which he issued to the priory of Bruton. It was never recognised by Stephen or Henry II, however, as were some other of Matilda's creations, and the later Mohuns did not employ it. Some would attribute to this William, the building in stone of the shell-keep of Dunster and the earliest stone walls of the lower ward, but their date, since they have almost entirely disappeared, is very problematical. It is safe, however, to place the credit of the projecting towers in the curtain of the lower ward to a much later generation, the Mohuns of the time of Henry III.

Their house died out in direct male line, in 1376, and the widow and daughters of the last Baron sold Dunster to Lady Elizabeth Luttrell, widow of Sit Andrew Luttrell of Chilton, and daughter of the Earl of Devon. From her, descend the second dynasty of owners of the castle, who have now held it for five centuries and a half continuously. It was an early Luttrell, probably just before or soon after 1400, who built the imposing gate-house, which stands well outside the lower ward, as an additional defence to it, joined up to it by walls. This is a very large quadrangular structure, 63 feet broad by 23 deep, in three storeys. Over its front arch is an interesting carved panel with nine heraldic shields, showing the arms of Luttrell impaled with those of Courtenay and other famous baronial houses. It contains two storeys of rather handsome rooms, instead of the usual portcullis chamber, for it does not seem to have possessed that usual fitting of castle gates. The inner gateway of the ward, a smaller but more elaborately ornamental structure, is a square between four turrets of polygonal shape, much pierced with arrow-slits and much crenellated. It is quite a century older than the outer and larger gate-house below, and may go back to the time of Edward I.

The main front of the residential buildings, in the lower ward, is largely Elizabethan, built by George Luttrell in 1589 - his shield is above the central door. He must have pulled down much medieval work when erecting his own: for, while scraps of inner and outer walls belonging to older buildings are incorporated in his masonry, there are traces of foundations of vanished blocks outside the circuit of the existing residence. By this time, the upper ward, or shell-keep, on the top of the Tor must have been completely deserted. For already half a century earlier, Leland (a great admirer of Dunster) had remarked that the donjon above "hath been full of goodly buildings, but now there is only a chapel in good case, which of late days Sir Hugh Luttrell [temp. Henry VII] did repair."

There is now, not a trace of this chapel or of any other old building, or indeed of the ring-wall, on top of the Tor, which is levelled into a grass plot, with a summer house or gazebo of small dimensions on one edge of it. The clearing away of such medieval stones as may have survived is attributed to an eighteenth century Luttrell, who disliked scraps of ruins, and wanted a bowling green and a fine view over hill and dale.

Dunster, like most other West Country and Welsh castles, had its times of trouble in the great Civil War, but came through them more easily than most of its equals. The Luttrells of the day were not Royalists, but their castle was seized and held by a Royalist garrison throughout the War, down to the great collapse in 1646, after Hopton's defeat at Torrington. It was then besieged by Blake, who lay before it for some time, battering it with guns placed in the town below. The attack against such a precipitous place was not easy or effective, but the Governor, Colonel Wyndham, surrendered in April, when all the neighbouring Royalist strongholds were also hauling down their flags in despair at the general collapse of their party. For the western field-army had laid down its arms in March. Though Dunster did not belong to a "Malignant," it was put into the general list of fortresses to be "slighted" but the order was carried out without little zeal. No doubt in consideration for the owner. Probably, some holes were blown in the curtain wall of the lower ward - conceivably the decayed walls on the Tor may have been cast down, but neither the inner nor the outer gate-houses, the real strength of the castle, appear to have suffered much.

The later Luttrells, as was natural, devoted themselves to making their castle more comely and comfortable, rather than to restoring its military strength. They made a circular carriage drive, by which the front door of the main building could be reached without passing under the great gate-house, which no coach could have got through. They levelled a broad stretch of ground in front of the house, where their carriage drive ended, burying under the new gravel many traces of medieval foundations. They also levelled the top of the Tor and they cut many windows on ill-lighted parts of the older buildings. The last changes were made in Victorian days by the architect Salvin, who added to the Eliza-bethan buildings, built a new tower and reconstructed the exterior of much of the east front in the Gothic revival style. On the whole, the eighteenth and nineteenth century alterations have not destroyed the general effect of the mass of buildings and they have certainly rendered them more habitable. The castle remains the greatest baronial survival of the West Country and the most romantic and picturesque of all the old strongholds of Wessex.

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