In August both myself and my daughter visited various National Trust and English Heritage properties in Devon. One of these included Totnes Castle, which we experienced on a hot, sunny day (which included the enthusiastic eating of ice-creams for the pair of us). Totnes Castle was a place that I passed twice a day for six years whilst doing my daily commute from Plymouth to Torbay, but I had never actually stopped off to visit it. This day in August was finally the time I would set foot in it.
Like all castles, Totnes has a long history. But it can be summed up quite briefly: not much happened here. Yes, that is the unsympathetic version of its history, but it also fairly accurate. The castle was first erected back in that great castle building frenzy of the Norman Conquest, back when the Normans sought to obtain control of the English kingdom by putting fear into the locals. The South-West had their own rising in the late 1060s which was put down with bloodshed and a revolution in political administration: out went the old Anglo-Saxon leaders and in came the Normans and their allies (which included various other groups, such as the Bretons). The castle was built by Juhel (a Breton) who appears to have been awarded for helping William the Conqueror claim England in 1066. He was granted a feudal barony that centred on Totnes, although he later lost this title after getting involved in a plot to remove William’s son, William Rufus, in 1088. Such actions – of plotting against the Norman royal family – was a regular occurrence, leading to drastic changes of ownership that can be traced across the kingdom. Golding stresses how ‘the wheel of fortune that had brought them such wealth kept on spinning’, meaning that those who profited from conquest did not necessarily keep their hands on their land.
The castle doesn’t seem to have played a part in a big battles or great wars, and even by the early modern period it was left desolate. In many ways it could be argued that Totnes Castle never fulfilled its purpose and promise, but perhaps that would be assessing its role too simply. Yes, castles were there to quell the locals, but they also served as fulcrums of economic power. For example, no doubt Totnes’ local market thrived due to the presence of the castle, perhaps due to the security of having it close by. Or, if we follow the example of the castles in Cornwall in the medieval period (which I have spent the summer researching and writing), it could have been that the lord of the castle used its muscle to monopolise market activity (as was the case in Launceston Castle shortly after the conquest).
The visit itself was over in less than an hour; other than the walk to the castle walls itself there isn’t much more in which to spectate or marvel at (unlike the nearby Berry Pomeroy Castle). But the walk to the top offers views across Totnes and the surrounding countryside that remain fairly impressive today in the 21st century; it doesn’t take too much imagination to consider just how overbearing it may have appeared to those living in the 12th century.