Exeter Castle through the ages
The Castle of Exeter stands atop the highest part of the city, within the north-east angle of the city walls. From the reddish colour of the volcanic rock on which it stood, it became known locally as Rougemont Castle.
When Richard III. visited it in 1483, he commended it highly, both for its strength and beauty of situation; but on being told it was called Rougemont, he is said to have mistook the name for Richmond and became uneasy, saying that the end of his days approached; a prophecy having declared that he would not long survive the sight of Richmond.
After its surrender to General Fairfax, in 1646, this once formidable castle ceased to be a military fortress, and although most of it’s its towers and battlements remain, the impact of this magnificent structure is hidden behind the undergrowth of the surrounding park and gardens. It is today best viewed from within the castle yard.
There are now but few remains of the very early buildings within the walls, its site being mostly occupied by the former Devon Assize Hall and Sessions House; but the lofty entrance gatehouse, with a circular arch, is still to be seen from Castle St and Rougemont Gardens, formed on the site of the castle fosse, and commanding delightful prospects. There are still extensive remains of the boundary walls of the castle enclosure and early towers to East and West.
Exeter Castle in its glory in the Middle Ages.
The first building worthy of the name of castle is recorded to have been built by King Athelstan, and is said to have been destroyed by the Danes in 1003.
In 1068 William the Conqueror, selected Rougemont as the site of a larger and more strongly fortified castle than had ever existed at Exeter. William had laid siege to Exeter after the city refused to surrender his forces. The superintendence of the Castle’s construction, and its future custody was given to Baldwin de Moles or de Brionus, the husband of his niece Albreda. Baldwin was at the same time made hereditary sheriff of Devonshire, and after completing the castle, it became his place of residence. His son Richard died without issue, and this castle was granted to Richard de Redvers or Rivers, who had married a daughter of Baldwin de Moles, and was created Earl of Devon by Henry I.
In 1232, Exeter Castle, as well as many others, was seized by Henry III, who gave it to his younger brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall. In 1286, Edward I. granted it to Matthew Fitzjohn for life; but it continued nevertheless, chiefly in the Earls of Cornwall; and, in 1337, when Edward, the eldest son of King Edward III. was created Duke of Cornwall, this castle, with a small district adjoining, was made part of the duchy, which has been ever since vested in the heir apparent to the Crown, who becomes Duke of Cornwall immediately after his birth, and who has always been created Prince of Wales. In 1397, there being then no Duke of Cornwall, Richard II. made John Holland, the first Duke of Exeter, governor of this Castle, in which he is said to have had a fine mansion.
In 1711, an act of parliament was passed, enabling Queen Anne to grant a lease of Exeter Castle for 99 years, for the use of the county of Devon. It is probable that the castle had been used for county purposes long before that period; indeed the gaol is said to have been removed there from Bicton, in 1518.
Within these ancient walls, much of the original structure of the Devon County Court was erected in 1774, but has undergone frequent alterations and some enlargements, to make it suitable for the augmented business of the county. It is faced with Portland stone, and contains a number of courts.
On the Eastern side of the Session House the visitor may, by prior appointment, ascend to a very pleasant walk on the city walls, overlooking the whole of Exeter and the surrounding countryside.
The castle is now in private hands and the aim of the new owners is to create a vibrant hub of art, music, food and drink, open to the public for the next thousand years!