A series of ruined walls once formed the largest castle in Devon… Situated on the outskirts of Dartmoor, in an unassuming field you’ll find all that’s left of the once grand Okehampton Castle. Just a short walk away, you’ll find an ancient town of the same name, Okehampton. The fort like remains here have stood in the same position, overlooking the town below and defending it from potential invaders for almost a thousand years.
Okehampton Castle: a Fort of a thousand years
Set is a lush green forest, the castle sits in a prominent position atop of a man-made mound, dominating over the River Okement below. The history of the castle dates all the way back to the time of the Norman Conquest when it was built in the style of a Motte and Bailey Castle, complete with a stone keep. A similar structure can be found on the other side of Dartmoor, in the charming market town of Totnes.
Construction of the stone keep and motte and bailey structure began soon after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Records suggest that the castle was built between 1068 and 1086 by Baldwin FitzGilbert. He was a wealthy magnate and named one of the 52 Devon Domesday Book Tenants-in-Chief by William the Conqueror.
FitzGilbert commissioned the construction of the castle after a revolt against Norman rule throughout Devon. The South West of England has a long history of railing against invasion, and it’s thought that the Romans never made it as far as Cornwall. Fortification of the Castle continued well into the 1200s when the owners of the Castle became Earls of Devon. As a result, they significantly increased their wealth and looked to expand the castle into a grand mansion.
Fall of the Castle
The de Courtenays was the name of the family, and their wealth continued to grow and the castle prospered for the following centuries. Okehampton Castle was known throughout the country for its great riches and significant size. However, by the 15th Century, the family became embroiled in the War of the Roses and this proved to be their downfall. The Castle was confiscated and Henry Courtenay was executed under the command of Henry VIII. By the 16th Century, the castle was abandoned and left to the elements.
By the 19th and 20th Centuries, the castle was in complete disrepair, with no hope of recovery. The ruins stretched far and wide, and as a result attracted many prominent painters, authors, and poets. There is something hauntingly beautiful about the ruins of Okehampton, and many still visit today in order to discover this for themselves…
But perhaps the most famous of all of these visitors to the Castle was the 18th-Century painter, J. M. W. Turner. An English romanticist painter, today he is widely regarded as one of the greatest English painters of all time. Though there were attempts made at restoration during the 1800s and 1900s, the castle never fully recovered. Today, what you see is all that is left of a thousand years worth of history.
Visit Okehampton Castle
Today, Okehampton Castle is owned and managed by English Heritage. There’s a fee to enter, although much of the castle can be seen from the outside. If you do visit, then you’ll be given an audio guide (which is pretty well told, informative and entertaining), as well as have the chance to wander around the ancient ruins.
Nearby, you can also walk along the River Okement. There is limited parking onsite, and additional parking in the town centre. The town of Okehampton itself is well worth a visit if only to see the ancient buildings and check out all of the independent shops.
Recent findings suggest that the first occupants of the castle’s site were not, in fact, the Normans, but the Romans. Pottery fragments, tiles, and the like have been found in the fields surrounding the castle, suggesting much earlier occupation than previously thought. Watch this space.