Cornwall’s castles are fascinating. One of them is famous across Europe, several others actually had an active role in the Second World War and another one was a filming location for an incredibly popular series.
Another castle, tragically, was the place where a three-year-old child was left to starve in an underground cell.
We’ve had a look at Cornwall’s castles and decided to tell their stories. While Tintagel, St Michael’s Mount and Pendennis get much of the attention, there are more fascinating fortifications people need to know about.
Even if the sight of these ancient walls is familiar to you already, you might learn something new about their colourful history.
Tintagel Castle is Cornwall’s most famous castle. It is known in many countries thanks to the Arthurian legend.
Although only ruins remain on site, the castle used to be of a significant size and had a stable, a gatehouse, an upper courtyard and a great hall.
Legend has it that the King of Britain, Uther Pendragon – transformed by the wizard Merlin into the likeness of the Duke of Cornwall – stole across this passage way into the castle where he spent the night with the Duke’s wife, Ygerna, who later gave birth to the future King Arthur.
So impressed was Richard, Earl of Cornwall, by the Arthurian myth that in the 1230s and 1240s he built a castle at Tintagel, with the narrow neck of land, linking the peninsula to the mainland, an integral part of its design. It made it strongly defensible.
In Cornish, Din Tagell means “the Fortress of the Narrow Entrance”.
The medieval scholar Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that this land-bridge was so narrow that “three armed men would be able to defend [it], even if you had the whole kingdom of Britain at your side”.
That crossing vanished in the 15th or 16th century.
Now English Heritage has restored it, replacing the original rock, earth and grass with a footbridge of steel, local Cornish slate, and oak. For the first time in more than 500 years, the two separated halves of the castle are reunited. You can read more about this here.
St Catherine’s Castle, Fowey
The small castle overlooking the River Fowey estuary was built by Henry VIII in the mid-16th century.
It was one of the artillery forts and coastal defences the king built following increasing threats from France and Spain. Its aim was to defend Fowey Harbour.
By 1684 it was described as “ruinous”.
It was put back into military service during the Crimean War and then during the Second World War, when the castle homed an anti-aircraft gun and an ammunition store.
It is now in the care of English Heritage.
St Michael’s Mount
The mount was built by 18ft giant Cormoran, who would make his way to the mainland to snatch cows and sheep from the Marazion area. Or so the legend says…
In the late 11th century, the mount was gifted to the Benedictine order of Mont Saint Michel, in Normandy, before being taken back a century later.
The castle is said to have been built in the 12th century.
By 1811, there were 53 houses and four streets on St Michael’s Mount. In 1821, 221 people lived on the island and there were three schools, a chapel and three public houses.
The village went into decline in 1850s and many of the buildings were demolished.
Today, the mount is owned by the St Aubyn family and the National Trust.
This year, it was used as a filming locations for the new series of Game of Thrones, House of The Dragon.
Ten miles from St Austell stands a small castle which has the largest collection of magnolias in the UK.
Caerhays Castle used to be a castle-like house with deer parks. The castle as we know it was built in the 19th century.
It is currently home to the Williams family.
It’s believed that Launceston Castle was built in the 11th century and then redeveloped by Richard, Earl of Cornwall – the man behind Tintagel Castle.
It was actually the administrative headquarters for the Earl of Cornwall until Richard’s son inherited the castle. It then became increasingly ruinous and a prison.
Its most famous prisoner was George Fox, the founder of the Quakers – the Religious Society of Friends… not the oats brand.
The castle is currently owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.
St Mawes Castle
This is another of Henry VIII’s coastal artillery fortresses – just like St Catherine’s Castle in Fowey – to protect the country from invasion from catholic countries.
It would have guarded the anchorage of Carrick Roads alongside Pendennis Castle.
The castle continued in use as a fort through the 18th and 19th centuries. Its fortification was redeveloped in the early 1850s because of fears of a fresh conflict with France.
From 1920, the castle became a tourist attraction, before being brought back into military service during the Second World War.
At the end of the war, it became a tourist attraction again and is operated by English Heritage.
The stunning castle, standing in ruins on a hill near Lostwithiel, was built in the 13th century.
According to English Heritage, it was a luxurious retreat for its medieval owners and was twice visited by Edward, the Black Prince.
Richard of Cornwall owned the castle, before giving it to his son Edmund, who turned it into his main administrative base.
The castle then reverted to the Crown was visited by the Black Prince – regarded one of the greatest knights of his age – in 1354 and 1365.
It is now maintained by English Heritage.
Pendennis Castle, Falmouth
Yet another castle Henry VIII built for protection against France and Spain.
Pendennis Castle also had a role during the world wars. During the Second World War, ammunition was stored there and the battery had 99 staff.
In 1906, a young child left to starve was found in an underground chamber of Pendennis Castle.
The boy, who was only 3.5, had been kept in a dungeon in the castle by his foster parents. He was found by a sergeant, who described him as “a terrible sight, being simply skin and bone”.
John Henry Wynne had been adopted by the Emerys, a couple who lived at Pendennis Castle with the 105th Company of the Royal Garrison Artillery.
He was described as happy and cheerful and was loved by the soldiers.
But the child began to become skinnier and skinnier. The soldiers and their families also noticed that he was becoming unhappy. Until, one day, he vanished.
The terrible tale made the news across the pond. The Washington Post reported on the court case on Sunday, September 9, 1906, in an article titled ‘Adoptive mother imprisons child in castle’s dungeon’.
“The incarceration of a child in a subterranean chamber of Pendennis Castle and his ill-treatment by his foster mother has been the subject of a charge investigated at Falmouth Police Court,” the story reads.
“Pendennis Castle, built by Henry VIII, crowns a headland overlooking Falmouth Bay, and in the civil war was besieged by the parliamentary forces for six months, being the last of the royalist strongholds to capitulate.
“Its secret room afforded shelter to Queen Henrietta Maria and Prince Charles in their flight to the continent, and in its subterranean dungeons has been incarcerated many a high personae who had incurred royal displeasure. Now the castle affords quarters for the 105th Company of the Royal Garrison Artillery, and its underground chambers are not supposed to be used for punitive purposes.
“There have been living at the castle an army pensioner and his wife, named Emery, the former engaged as barrack labourer.
“Some time ago they adopted a child named John Henry Wynne, a pretty dark-eyed little fellow, now aged three and a half years, who soon became a general favourite with the soldiers.
“The child, it was noticed, became thin and had an unhappy appearance, and then he disappeared altogether. The suspicions of a soldier’s wife were aroused, and her inquiries resulted in the child being discovered in an old room fifteen feet below the surface of the ground.”
The article reports that the couple held two insurance policies on John’s life.
The magistrates fined Mr Emery £5, with £3 12s 6d costs, and sentenced Mrs Emery to four months’ hard labour.
A huge crowd of infuriated women assembled outside the police court and attacked Mrs Emery. You can read more about this here.
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