Once Devonís largest castle, Okehampton Castle is today mostly ruins. It is situated on a high hill above the River Okement valley. It was begun in the 11th century and turned into a mansion in the 14th century by the Courtenay family. They and their guests hunted deer in the adjacent parkland.
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The castle was built by Baldwin de Brione, the sheriff of Devon. It and other lands were given to him by William the Conqueror. This castle was a motte and bailey one with a three storey square stone tower. Steep sides of the hill protected the castle except for the west side which probably had a ditch and bank dug. The nearby town provided labour for the agricultural fields under de Brioneís command.
It was in 1173 when the Courtenay family took command after a de Brione heiress married into the family. The next generation of heirs brought further lands into the family. During the 12th and early 13th century more buildings were constructed in the castle bailey. As the Courtenays lived at Tiverton castle, Okehampton became more a country home for hunting and entertaining guests.
In 1335 Hugh Courtenay became the heir and was granted the title Early of Devon by King Edward III. He rebuilt the castle and it is mostly this rebuilding that survives today. New lodgings and a great hall were constructed. The family eventually inherited Powderham castle and moved there. In 1539 the family fortunes ended when the 9th earl was beheaded by King Henry VIII who mistrusted him. This was the end of the Courtenay family connections with Okehampton castle.
In 1556 the estates were divided amongst various family members and their interest in the castle was negligible. This it began its long fall into disrepair and ruin.
The curtain wall is six feet wide and was added over an earlier one. Parts have collapsed. The Barbican (outer gatehouse) was built of rock about 1300. Cobbling was added in the late 17th century. Above the gate is a room with a garderobe. After emerging from the barbican gate visitors would pass between two walls to reach the gatehouse. There was possibly a drawbridge. This second gatehouse has a chamber, defensive curtain wall, and upper floor which could have been an office or accommodation.
Steps lead to the Great Hall which would have had a timber framed slate roof. There are remains of a raised platform and hearth. Decoration survives on the door jambs. There were once windows with glass. A screen at the far end of the hall would hide a passage to a corridor leading to the kitchens and a service room (buttery). Above the buttery was an apartment (solar), the space being reserved for the lord of the castle.
The kitchens that now survive are not the original ones but from later days as they were added to and changed. One has the remains of a hearth and ash pit (late 14th-early 15th century). Bones were uncovered in this area. Another kitchen had a storage area, two ovens, and tiled floors. Baking took place in this kitchen. Another room, a larder house, was between the kitchen and steps to the keep.
The motte dates from the late 11th century. It started as natural raised ground but its height was added to. A stone tower was placed on top of the motte in Norman times. Several paths to the tower were built over the years. The keep, two stories high, was a later addition to the hilltop, added in the early 14th century. Its roof may have been lead. Remains of window openings and a garderobe can be seen.
Other remains include a western lodging for guests. It was constructed in the late 14th-early 15th century. The staircase to the upper floor was external. Extensive alterations took place as late as 1682 when a bakehouse took up residence in the grounds.
A small and narrow priestís lodging is located beside the chapel, the eastern end of which still stands. Some corbels that helped support the lead roof still exist. Two windows survive and have remnants of tracery in the decorated gothic style. On the south facing chapel window are remains of medieval wall paintings. A piscina is left of the window.
The eastern lodgings may have had housing for servants on the ground floor. The upper floor had a fireplace. Adjoining lodgings are further down the bailey. There were quite elaborate sanitary arrangementsónot just garderobes but washbasins.
Leading from the castle is a one mile woodland walk.
One miles south-west of Okehampton (signposted)
Devon, South-west Counties
Tel. 0 1837 52844
Open: April-end June and Sep, daily, 10am-5pm; July-end Aug, daily, 10am-6pm
English Heritage property; audio tours; parking; woodland walks; riverside picnic area
Photos © by Barbara Ballard and courtesy Geograph Britain and Ireland as follows:
View from top of the motte by Oliver Hunter; castle view by Chris Allen