Built to guard the entrance into the Sutton Pool, Plymouth Castle was constructed in the late fourteenth century. Consisting of four round towers connected by a tall curtain wall, it was fitted with artillery and controlled a chain boom. It drove off multiple attacks by the French and withstood a major local rebellion. It was later complemented by Plymouth Town Wall.
At the time of the Norman invasion of 1066, Plymouth was a small fishing settlement known as Sutton situated adjacent to a sheltered harbour within the Sound known as the Sutton Pool. The major settlements within the immediate area were Plympton and St Germans and that is where the Normans built fortifications (Plympton Castle and Trematon Castle). Plymouth, as a small fishing village, didn't warrant its own castle and only received a fleeting mention in the Domesday Book suggesting it had a populace of just 18 people! Nevertheless the natural harbour and ease of access to the sea meant it grew in size and by the time the Hundred Years War commenced in 1337 it was attracting unwanted attention from continental forces. It was attacked in 1340 by a flotilla of French pirates who attempted to gain access to the Sutton Pool in order to sack the town. A further raid was made in 1377. These attacks, which were inevitably complemented by numerous other false alarms, prompted construction of the castle as well as various other earthwork defences and small gun batteries installed near the waterfront on the Hoe and at Mount Batten. A small grant of money (murage) was made by Richard II to support this work. A licence to crenellate (fortify), granted in February 1404 by Henry IV, probably reflected the completion of the work on the castle.
Built on the western side of Sutton Pool, Plymouth Castle was reported as "a strong castle quadrate, having at each corner a great round tower" with curtain walls four metres high. Its primary defensive purpose was to manage a chain that could be raised to bar access into the harbour (similar arrangements existed at Dartmouth and Fowey). Ships attempting to push through the chain would have been static in the immediate vicinity of the castle and subjected to fire from its guns. A barbican protected the castle's gateway, and possibly also the chain mechanism, giving its name to the now fashionable waterfront area in modern day Plymouth.
Almost as soon as it had been built (and perhaps even whilst it was under construction), Plymouth Castle saw action. In 1400 its guns drove off a fleet of French ships under James of Bourbon, Count le Marche that was pursuing an English force who had sought safety within Sutton Pool. In August 1403 it provided a safe refuge when a Breton army landed at Cattewater and attacked the town (this attack is remembered today with a suburb of the city known as Bretonside and marks the point where the invaders were stopped by the citizens marching out from the castle to attack them). After the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453, the fortification seems to have been neglected although it was still sufficiently grand to receive Catherine of Aragon in 1501 when she landed at Sutton on her way from Spain to marry Henry VII's eldest son, Prince Arthur (and later Henry VIII). The castle underwent some restoration work in 1508.
The troubles caused by Henry VIII’s break from the Roman Catholic Church saw the defences of the Sutton Pool augmented by artillery blockhouses. An expected French invasion never occurred but, after the death of the conservative Henry, religious upheaval commenced at a significant pace. In 1549 the Prayer Book rebellion erupted, first in Cornwall and then spreading to Devon. In January of that year Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and a Protestant reformer implemented the Act of Uniformity - a political direction requiring all Church services in the land to use a new English language Book of Common Prayer vice the former Latin Mass. In remote and distant Cornwall - where English was almost a foreign language in itself - this lead to all out rebellion. Starting in Bodmin, the trouble quickly escalated with loyalists retreating to St Michael's Mount which was stormed and a significant portion of Cornish gentry marched off to imprisonment at Launceston Castle. Plymouth was besieged by the rebels and whilst the town quickly surrendered, the castle stood firm and provided a safe haven for Crown officials and Protestants likely to be targeted by the rebels. The rebellion was defeated and the half hearted siege of Plymouth Castle lifted.
Plymouth Castle was still an active fortification in 1588 during the Spanish Armada. The ships of the English Navy waited for the wind and tide to turn before departing the safety of Sutton Pool and the defence afforded by the castle. However, artillery had moved on and during the late Elizabethan era Sir Francis Drake successfully lobbied the Queen for (supplementary) funding to construct an artillery fort on the Hoe. This structure, which became known as Drake's Fort, was partially constructed from stone removed from Plymouth Castle.
During the seventeenth century Civil War, Plymouth supported Parliament. This was at odds with the wider South West of England that was firmly in the Royalist sphere. Plymouth was besieged and the castle was occupied by the defenders. However, the Royalists occupied Mount Batten and from there were able to bombard Sutton Pool rendering the harbour untenable for Parliamentary ships and it is possible that Plymouth Castle, which would have been in easy range of the Royalist guns, was badly damaged at this time. Despite being denied use of Sutton Pool, Plymouth withstood the siege by importing their supplies through Millbay, on the western side of the Plymouth Sound.
After the Civil War the defences of Plymouth were upgraded first with the addition of Mount Batten tower and then, following the Restoration, construction of the Royal Citadel. Plymouth Castle, which by this time was ruinous, was used as a prison and later a workhouse. However, as Plymouth's population exploded during the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century, stone was robbed to support building projects around the town. A surviving record from 1807 notes that only two towers were still standing at that time. The trend continued and today only a small portion of the Gatehouse, which was incorporated into a domestic dwelling, has survived.
Plymouth Town Wall
The humble beginnings of Plymouth means it was a comparatively late recipient of a town wall. The defences are often dated to the 1530s and only a partial circuit is shown on John Leland's 1540 map. However, it is possible a licence to crenellate, granted in November 1439 by Henry VI, was linked with its construction. Furthermore large grants of money, made in 1463 and 1485, could well have been for work on the town wall. An extension was added in the 1530s by John Vesey, Bishop of Exeter but this didn't include the precincts of the Carmelite Friary whose tower was ordered to be demolished to prevent it overlooking the new wall. The first complete map of the town walls was drawn by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1643 by which time it consisted of a stone rampart fronted by a ditch. Six gates provided access to the town including Coxside Gate, Hoe Gate and Little Hoe Gate.
During the Civil War a series of earthworks were raised to the north of the town to deny the Royalists the high ground and push them out of artillery range. Nevertheless the town walls were still employed as inner defences and were enhanced with additional earthworks. Hollar's map clearly shows that Resolution Fort was built in the north-east corner of the town walls and this structure had a key role when the Royalists briefly seized Maudlyn fort on the outer lines to the north. After the Civil War the town walls were neglected and by 1765 the entire circuit had been demolished. Some of the gates survived longer but all eventually were destroyed to improve traffic flow.
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Plymouth Castle has been almost entirely obliterated. Only a small portion of the gatehouse survives on Lambhay Street. Nevertheless a visit enables an appreciation of the the castle's dominant position commanding the access into the Sutton Pool. There are also numerous contemporary buildings in the immediate vicinity including the Elizabethan House and Tudor Merchants House - both of which are open to the public. The castle remains are also next to the Mayflower Museum and Mayflower steps. Plymouth Town Walls have been completed demolished and no visible trace remains. The Royal Citadel is also nearby.
Artist's Impression of Plymouth Castle. An imaginative impression of what Plymouth Castle may have looked like in its heyday. In actually fact, aside from the descriptions of four round towers and a high curtain wall, the precise layout of the castle is unknown.
Plymouth Castle. Only a small Fragment of Plymouth Castle has survived and it is believed to be the right-hand flanking turret of the gatehouse. It avoided demolition due to it being part of a dwelling house at the time when the rest of the site was plundered for its stone.
Plymouth Coat of Arms. The four towers of Plymouth Castle are remembered on the coat of arms for Plymouth.
Rock Base. The castle was constructed on a rock base. Part of this can be seen at the foot of the surviving fragments.
Sutton Pool. The castle commanded the entrance into Sutton Pool.
Castle Remains. The castle remains viewed from the rear.
Old Plymouth. Whilst the castle and town walls are gone, several old buildings from the town survive. Highlights are the Elizabethan House and Merchants House, both of which are museums.
Hollar Map (1643). The earliest map showing Plymouth's town walls dates from 1643. At this time the town was besieged by Royalist forces and the Civil War defences can be seen to the north of the town. Regrettably both these and the town wall have now all been destroyed.
Mayflower Steps. The departure point of the Mayflower in 1620 was directly opposite Plymouth Castle.
Plymouth Castle is found on Lambnay Street near the Barbican. There are numerous car parking options in the vicinity but the nearest is shown below. The Royal Citadel, Mayflower Museum, Elizabethan House and Merchants House are all within easy walking distance.
Car Parking Option
Lambhay Hill, PL1 2NR
Lambhay Street, PL1 2NN
Mayflower Museum and Steps
Elizabethan House (Museum)
New Street, PL1 2NA
Merchant House (Museum)
33 St Andrew Street, PL1 2AX