Lying at the heart of Cornwall, Restormel is one of the most remarkable castles in Britain. The present circular structure, built in the late 13th century, was a luxurious retreat for its medieval owners, with a large hunting park. In the 14th century the Black Prince, Edward III’s son, stayed there twice. At this time Restormel and nearby Lostwithiel were a centre for the highly lucrative tin industry, from which the Duchy of Cornwall drew much of its wealth. Ruined since the 16th century, the castle was briefly garrisoned by a Parliamentarian army during the Civil War.
The standing ruin of Restormel Castle, formerly the castle’s inner ward or enclosure, is highly distinctive. It takes the form of a low curtain wall enclosing buildings ranged around a central courtyard. Its plan is almost perfectly circular
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The levels of first floors can be reconstructed from sockets and ledges in the outer and inner walls and in the radial walls dividing the rooms from one another. The range’s inner wall is fragmentary at first-floor level and some parts are entirely missing, but the positions of most windows and doors remain visible. Moving anticlockwise from the kitchen, the main first-floor rooms were a hall; an inner hall or solar; the ante-chapel; and then two further rooms, thought to be the great chamber and a wardrobe, or storeroom. The hall, ante-chapel and great chamber could be entered directly from wooden stairs rising from the courtyard. All the first-floor rooms communicated directly with adjoining spaces apart from the wardrobe at the north-west corner. This was accessible only by a stone stair against its gable wall. The ground-floor spaces were all unheated and most were probably storerooms.
The keep’s inner wall is 1m thick and lies 5.6m inside the outer wall. The space between is divided into rooms, which consequently have curved walls either end. The largest room is the 19m great hall, which once had a timber roof structure. The north east wing is 9.3m wide and contains a chapel with windows to three sides on the upper level. The chapel measures 7.6m by 5.5m wide internally. The end wall to the east is just 1.1m thick. Its window was blocked up with masonry during the Civil War when the wall was adapted to support a cannon platform overlooking the river. The gatehouse probably dates from the early 13th century. Its inner gateway is flanked by stone stairs leading to the upper floor. The remainder of the structure is likely to be late 13th century. The whole complex was rendered and would have been limewashed, making it white.
The site was acquired by Richard, earl of Cornwall (d. 1272) and was rebuilt by his son, Edmund (d. 1299), whose chief Cornish residence it became when he moved the earldom’s administrative centre from Launceston to Lostwithiel. He converted the 11th -12th century castle, comprising a ringwork with a rectangular bailey, into a magnificent new residence but no written record of his works survives.
Works on buildings in the bailey are recorded in 1343-1344, and repairs are documented through the 14th and 15th centuries. By Leland’s day, however, the site had become neglected and major decay followed. The most important written source for understanding the site is a survey of 1337, when the Duchy of Cornwall was created, which identified some of the fabric being in need of repair. It was described as “well walled round” with a hall, three chambers with cellars, a chapel, a stable for six horses, and three chambers above the gateway. Outside the gateway, stood a hall with two cellars and a kitchen, a chapel, three chambers with cellars, a bake-house, and two old stables for twenty horses. A lead conduit system brought water into the castle.
The central, surviving structure, it has been observed, was not designed by earl Edmund for defence but for display and comfort. Although its wall-walk was (and is) crenellated, this may have been – in this case, but certainly not at all castles by this date – a repetition of what had become a traditional element in the repertoire of castle design. The lord’s chamber (the most “private” room in the castle, see below) had its own stairway to the wall-walk, suggesting that the latter’s use was mainly for “promenade” and for enjoying views over the deer-park.
Castle Studies Group: Shell Keeps – The Catalogue (pfd) (includes floor plan)