Castle of the Week 20 – Dunster Castle

Dunster Castle overlooks the small village of Dunster on the edge of Exmoor in south-west England. It is unusual in that it has only changed hands twice since the Norman conquest of 1066 – the Mohuns until 1376 and the Luttrells from then until 1976 when it was taken over by the National Trust and opened to the public. Originally it stood close to the Bristol Channel, but the sea has slowly receded and it’s now several miles away.

The wooded hill it stands on is natural and made the perfect site for William de Mohun to build his castle. The wall round the outer bailey was built on a ledge halfway down; below that the hill was very steep and formed a perfect defence. The initial keep and walls were of wood, but as there was much natural red sandstone in the area it was soon rebuilt.

The most famous of the Mohun family was the 3rd William de Mohun who was a supporter of Empress Matilda in her civil war against Stephen He was known as the Scourge of the West because of his reckless plundering and burning. He built the stone shell keep on top of the hill and the earliest stone walls.

In 1376 the male line of the family died out and Lady Elizabeth Luttrell, daughter of the Earl of Devon bought it. The current gatehouse was built by her, well outside the lower ward as an additional defence and joined up to it by walls. It’s an imposing 3 storey building without the usual portcullis. The other side of the gatehouse is a smaller inner gateway probably dating back to the 13th century and the oldest surviving structure in the castle.

The residential buildings in the lower ward are mostly Elizabethan, built in the late 16th century to replace those that had been in the shell keep and in 1617 a new house was built within the bailey incorporating part of the wall.

During the Civil War in 1642, the castle was seized and held by a Royalist garrison. In 1646 it was besieged and was battered with guns in the village below. The Governor surrendered and, although it was on a list of castles to be destroyed, nothing seems to have been done about this. The Parliamentarian troops were stationed there for five years, then the castle was returned to the Luttrells after payment of a fine.

During the following years, the owners made the castle more comfortable rather than restoring its military strength. They built a large carriage drive, covering many of the medieval foundations. Windows were cut into the old towers and the shell keep was removed and replaced by a bowling green.

In the 19th century the architect Salvin built two large castellated towers and another in the centre of the south wall and reconstructed the front in the Gothic revival style. He also modernised much of the interior, but left the 17th century carved oak staircase and oak-panelled dining-room.

A huge Victorian conservatory at the back leads on to a sheltered terrace where many semi-tropical plants grow. The gardens now stretch down the hill to a stream, the Avill and a deer park.

At the bottom of the hill is the Mill. There was a mill there at the time of the Domesday survey in 1086 although the current mill dates back to the 18th century. It’s a working mill, producing wholemeal flour for local bakeries.

Write-up and images provided by GillB


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