Lydford Castle


Lydford Castle

Lydford is famous for its castle although this once important centre has remains of two castles within the vicinity of St. Petroc's Church. The older castle here has long since submitted to the sands of time and all that remains are its earthworks which lie behind the church. The other castle is a roofless ruin dating to the 13th century.

The first castle was erected at Lydford shortly after the Norman Conquest as a link in a chain of defences they immediately set up in their newly conquered land. It seems the villagers were hardly overjoyed with their new-found situation and reacted rebelliously. The Domesday Book reported of Lydford just 20 years later, "40 houses destroyed since the king has come to England" probably in acts of reprisal. It is likely that Lydford Castle was built together with those at Totnes and Barnstaple to prevent further uprisings from unruly villagers.

The new Lydford Castle castle was built in 1195. The Pipe Rolls dating from the same year, report a cost of 32 pounds, a sum exacted from Devon's revenues for the building of a 'strong house' to be used for holding royal prisoners. This makes Lydford Castle the earliest example of a purpose built prison in England. Its structure points to a deliberate lack of comfort. On the second floor only one room (probably the court room) contained a fireplace while the rooms on the level below were poorly lit with the exception of what was probably the common room. One of these rooms had a trapdoor giving access on to the pit below.

Over the years, Lydford became notorious for its prison. This was not merely for the 'depe pit' in which the prisoners were thrown but for the arbitrary law which reigned there. So famous did the place become that it coined a Devonshire saying, "First hang and draw, then hear the cause by Lydford Law." This all came to a head during the Civil War, when Lydford Castle was used as a Royalist Prison to house Sir Richard Grenville's military prisoners. In fact Devon's commissioner would present a complaint to the future Charles II of "the exorbitant power of Sir Richard Grenville" his "strange acts of tyranny" as well as other arbitrary forms of justice which included having "committed very many honest substantial Lydford Prison (Lydford Castle) ... for no offence, but to commit them to ransom themselves for money." It was under these circumstances that dread filled the hearts of any who came within the confines of Lydford Prison, whether they were constables or prisoners. Curiously, the saying is often attributed to the infamous Judge Jeffries who is still said to haunt Lydford Prison in the form of a black pig. However, Judge Jeffries never held court here.

On your visit to Lydford Castle, you'll see a tower which was built in three phases. The first structure, built in 1195, consisted of two or possibly three levels. By the mid-thirteenth century, the first tower was partially demolished and rebuilt with refacing work conducted on both the interior and exterior. It is likely, that the subsequent restructuring was necessitated by a fire as the new structure was very similar to the first. The ruined first floor walls were levelled off and the ground floor subdivided into two rooms with the original windows being blocked off. The greatest alteration was the insertion of a cross-wall in the lower storey to form the notorious pit. The ground floor also housed a well in its western corner which was connected to the roof. The first floor consisted of a single room while the second floor was the most elaborate consisting of a hall and a chamber with window seats built into the walls and a trapdoor to the room below. At this time, a ditch was created around the tower and the soil was used to form a mound against the outer walls off the ground floor. In the 18th century, disuse and decay led to a refurbishment with the greatest alterations being the enlargement of the hall windows and a an increased thickness of the spine wall.

By 1390, the importance of Lydford Castle had diminished and orders were given for its roof to be stripped for its lead to be used in Royal Castle in Cornwall. Lydford's decline coincided with rise of nearby Princetown which had grown in popularity and had also built a new prison to house French prisoners of war. This resulted in the courts being moved from Lydford to Princetown and a consequent decline in use of Lydford Castle. In 1590 Browne, the Tavistock poet described its location thus "They have a castle on a hill, I took it for an old windmill". By 1704 a parliamentary report stated that Lydford Castle was mostly a shell, lacking a roof with most of its interior wooden and lead fixture having been stolen by the locals. After its refurbishment in the 18th century, Lydford Castle served another turn as a prison and also housed the Stannary courts. A century later it again fell into disuse and returned to a derelict state.
Lydford Castle Photo