Built in the aftermath of a substantial revolt against Norman rule, Totnes Castle was constructed over a portion of the Saxon settlement it was designed to dominate. The earth and timber motte-and-bailey structure was rebuilt in stone in the late thirteenth century but by this time it had become an administrative site rather than a military outpost.
Totnes was one of four Saxon fortified burhs located in Devon (the others were Barnstaple, Exeter and Lydford). Situated near the lowest fordable point across the River Dart, which was navigable to the sea, it was also linked by a Roman road to Bath and beyond. Such superb access made it a target for Danish raiders and it is telling to note that many Saxon coins struck at Totnes have been found in Scandinavia - perhaps evidence of payments of 'Danegeld'. Such attacks also prompted the upgrading of the town's defences which would initially have been built in earth and timber but were upgraded to stone in the early eleventh century.
Totnes was still an important settlement at the time of the Norman Conquest. Between December 1067 and March 1068, the full might of the Norman army swept into the South West which had rebelled against William I. The rebellion was centred on Exeter under the leadership of Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, mother of King Harold who had been killed trying to repel the Normans at Hastings. Exeter fell after an 18 day siege and the wider South West was suppressed. As a major settlement, Totnes was seized by the Normans and was allocated to one of the King's key commanders, a Breton Knight known as Juhel (also known as Judhael).
It was Juhel who built the first castle in the form of an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification although the precise date of construction is uncertain. Although it was not mentioned in the Domesday Book, it was certainly in existence at this time for Juhel made a charter granting land to the Benedictine Priory he had founded at Totnes below "his castle" which can be dated before the survey as it contained a prayer for the health of William I (who died in 1087). It is likely the castle was built in the immediate aftermath of the 1067 rebellion as it was clearly intended to overawe the local populace. The castle's motte was built over the north-west corner of the former Saxon defences destroying houses in the process and clearly stamping Norman authority over the former Saxon urban centre. Whilst the most suitable defensive position would doubtless have been a key factor in its placing, especially given the hostility of the local populace, the location of the castle was also a deliberate intrusion upon the settlement making a clear statement of overlordship. The inner and outer baileys were more sensitively placed in the hinterland and the main access to the castle was via a barbican exterior to the town.
Juhel was granted over 100 manors in Devon including the former Saxon settlement of Lydford, which he also fortified, enabling him to establish a substantial power base. Totnes remained his main residence though and he became known as Juhel of Totnes. Under his ownership the town grew in prosperity and by 1086 was worth £8 compared to just £3 at the time of the Conquest. However in 1088 he fled into exile - perhaps for supporting a rebellion against William II - and Totnes was granted to Roger de Nonant. Despite Juhel's fortunes being revived under Henry I, he was granted Barnstable in lieu of having Totnes returned.
The Nonant family continued to own Totnes, albeit as largely absentee landlords, until 1205 when it passed to William de Braose who claimed descent from Juhel. William was suspected of disloyalty by King John and the castle seized by the Crown and instead granted to Henry, Earl of Cornwall. In 1219 his estates were confiscated and Totnes was returned to the de Braose family. It was most probably Reginald de Braose, son of William, who enlarged the motte and built the large stone Shell Keep to replace the former cramped timber tower. Despite the upgrades though the castle had become a administrative centre rather than a military outpost. As Dartmouth evolved at the mouth of the River Dart, the relative importance of Totnes declined and by the seventeenth century the main trading staples of the town, cloth and Dartmoor tin, were drying up or moving to alternative ports.
In the late thirteenth century the castle passed into the lands of the de la Zouch family. In 1326 they started substantial rebuilding work at Totnes that repaired the Shell Keep. The family continued to own the castle until 1485 when the new Tudor regime re-allocated the castle to Sir Richard Edgecombe. However, with the decline in the town the castle become superfluous and it fell into disrepair. It was garrisoned for the Royalists during the Civil War but was evacuated before the arrival of Parliamentary forces and saw no action. Thereafter the castle fell into disuse and ruin.
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Totnes Castle includes a impressive circular Shell Keep built on top of a large, steeply scarped motte which offers superb views over the town. The stone base of the earlier timber tower is also visible. The town itself is also well worth a visit for the layout still mirrors the former Saxon burh.
Shell Keep Interior. The stone foundations of the original tower can be seen within the Shell Keep. The rooms of the original tower would not have measured more than 4 metres by 5 metres.
Totnes Castle and Saxon Burh. Totnes occupies a promontory of land jutting into the tidal marshes of the River Dart. First fortified by the Saxons, the plan above shows how the Normans stamped their castle on the existing settlement.
Earthworks. The main entrance to the castle was via a substantial barbican accessed from outside the town. This side of the castle was protected by significant earthworks and also included an outer bailey which was presumably used for livestock.