The ruins of Lydford Castle, which actually was a medieval prison, dominate the small village. Nearby are the earthwork remains of a small Norman ringwork fortification. A portion of the Anglo-Saxon defences also survive.
Notes: There is a small village car park that provides a central location from which to explore all three fortifications. The site is sign-posted and found on School Road off the A386.
Norman Castle. A small castle was established in the south-western corner of the Saxon defences probably shortly after the 1067 rebellion. It seems to have been a logistics site as it contained five large timber framed buildings which were most likely granaries.
Saxon Defences. A portion of the Saxon burh defences survive as earthworks.
Occupying a position with substantial natural defences, Lydford was an Anglo-Saxon fortified burh (town). After the Norman invasion a small ringwork castle was raised but was only used for a few decades. Later Lydford Castle was built as a court and prison to enforce Royal rights over the Forest of Dartmoor and its tin mining industry.
HISTORY OF LYDFORD CASTLE
A Saxon burh (fortified town) was established at Lydford in the late ninth century AD as part of a network of defended strongholds built to ensure the Kingdom of Wessex was not overrun by the Vikings. One of four such sites in Devon, it occupied a wedge shape promontory protected on the south and eastern sides by steeply scarped terrain. The northern side lacked natural defences and was protected by a deep ditch and rampart possibly topped by a timber palisade. Granite revetting was added later. By the late tenth century AD a mint had been established at the site indicating it had become an important town whilst the discovery of many Lydford coins in Scandinavia suggests payments of Danegeld; cash brides to prevent attacks.
Lydford was still a thriving community by the time of the Norman invasion in 1066. An earth and timber ringwork fortification was raised within a few years of their arrival - most probably after the suppression of the 1067 revolt centred on Exeter. It occupied a roughly triangular area in the south-western part of the Saxon defences and was protected by a deep ditch and an earth rampart that stood about 7 metres high. It is likely it acted as a storage or logistics site as there was no Keep or refuge inside - simply five rectangular buildings that were made of wattle and daub. The shape of these structures, along with archaeological evidence of oats and rye, suggest they functioned as granaries. The castle was out of use by the 1150s.
The structure known as Lydford Castle was built in 1195 not for defence but to serve as the administrative centre for the Royal Forest of Dartmoor. At this time, areas classified as 'forest' were subject to royal jurisdiction with extensive restrictions on building, hunting and use of local resources which included a thriving tin mining industry. Control over the forest and its trade was strictly enforced by the Crown and Lydford Castle was intended from the start to act as both a court and prison to hear cases relating to Forest and Stannary (tin mining) law. The structure, which had been commissioned by Prince John in the absence of his brother (Richard I who was a prisoner of Henry VI), was a simple two storey tower.
Lydford remained in Royal ownership until 1238 when it was granted to Henry III's brother - Richard, Earl of Cornwall - who substantially rebuilt the tower into a four storey structure as well as heaping earth around the lower storey to make it look like a castle. The upper levels would have been the apartments for the Chief Gaoler, the floors below were occupied by the prison cells and the basement included a particularly grim 'pit prison'. A bailey, on the north-west side of the tower, was established at this time. Lydford later passed to Richard's son, Edmund, but after his death in 1300 it reverted to the Crown.
In 1337 the castle and manor of Lydford became part of the Duchy of Cornwall. Throughout, its primary role remained a prison and it seems to have been infamous; Richard Strode, Member of Parliament for Plymouth, was imprisoned there in 1510 and described it as "one of the most...contagious and detestable places within this realm". It improved little over the subsequent years with poet William Browne noting “I’ve oft heard of Lydford Law, where in the morn they hang and draw. And sit in judgement after.”
The castle was still a functioning gaol at the time of the Civil War when it was used by the Royalists as a military prison. After the war it reverted to its former role but by this time it was described as ruinous. Repairs were made in 1716 and 1733 but these did little more than patch up the decaying fabric of the castle. Following the construction of Dartmoor Prison in the early nineteenth century, Lydford Castle was abandoned in 1833.