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Totnes Castle and Britain's Origin Myth

The confines of Covid-19 Lockdown were akin to being imprisoned on false charges. However, I was let out for good behaviour (otherwise known as ‘lockdown easing’) in April 2021, and was able to make use of my English Heritage membership by visiting one of their sites on the south west coast of England.

I had seen the pictures of this iconic fortress, dominating the town of Totnes in Devon, and had long harboured a desire to visit. It conformed to new covid-safety guidelines by being entirely outdoors, as the castle walls form a circular shell with no buildings inside, perched on top of an earth mound or ‘motte’, at the foot of which is a ‘bailey’ – a flattened area where buildings once stood, surrounded by a deep dry ditch. I booked my slot online, and was thrilled that it included a guided tour by an enthusiastic volunteer.

The construction of Totnes Castle was started soon after the Norman Conquest of 1066, around 1068, in order to control the Saxon town and harbour of Totnes and its ancient river crossing across the River Dart. Its builder was almost certainly a knight named Juhel, one of William the Conqueror’s commanders in an army that swept across the shocked Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England, proclaiming, ‘we are your new lords, and we are here to stay!’ It is thought that Juhel, a Breton lord from Brittany, was absent at the Battle of Hastings, and once news of William’s victory reached him, he happily threw in his hand with the Conqueror, adding his Breton soldiers to swell William’s ranks. In return for military service, Juhel was granted Totnes and extensive estates in South Devon, conveniently located across the Channel from his own lands. This was William’s blueprint for ensuring his victory at Hastings and tenuous claim to the English throne became permanent.

As I stared up in awe at the impressive stone crown around the mound, my tour guide made a jarring admission – the stone shell keep atop the mound was first built in the thirteenth century, perhaps by King John or Henry III, when civil war stalked the land. It clearly remained a useful regional military asset in the Middle Ages, as King Edward II, in 1326, ordered that the castle buildings and its fortifications be ‘made good’. He would have been wise to have remained there, as the following year Edward was imprisoned by his queen and her lover, Mortimer, who force him to renounce the throne in favour of his son. Shortly after, he was murdered.

The Normans built a wooden palisade and tower on top of a flattened earth mound they put up at the top of the existing hill. It is not known if this replaced any Saxon structure. Still, the impressive Norman earthworks remain a fine example of their motte and bailey castle design. The bailey, at the foot of the mound, would have had wooden buildings, including a two-storey hall for the lord and his entourage, protected by earth and timber defences which were later replaced by stone.

The name ‘Totnes’ probably comes from the Saxon words ‘Tot’ meaning lookout, and ‘Ness’ meaning a low promontory or nose of land. The town and castle sit on such a ‘nose’, dominating the River Dart estuary. It is the site of an ancient Briton tribal settlement as it lies on a prehistoric ridgeway that crossed the River Dart at its lowest fordable point. In fact, Totnes has a place in an ancient origin story concerning the founding and naming of Britain by Brutus, a refugee from the Trojan Wars. This origin myth appears in Welsh monk Nennius’s work, The History of the Britons, published around the year 820 CE. It is clearly a tale culled from oral storytelling tradition, but strongly implanted enough for Geoffrey of Monmouth to repeat it and claim Brutus as the first King of the Britons, in his 1136 work, The History of the Kings of Britain. The Brutus Stone, on which Brutus is reputed to have stepped when he first alighted from his ship, is enshrined in Totnes High Street with a tiny plaque on the wall between two shops - I had to ask around to find it! Does this make it Britain’s oldest monument?

Throughout its entire Norman and medieval history, there is no record of the castle ever having been involved in military action. Its main role was a centre for local administration and justice. From an early date a steward or constable was in charge and carried out the lord’s duties in his absence. The old Saxon town at the foot of the castle mound has been largely preserved, and it thrived through the Middle Ages, with townsfolk involved in shipbuilding, fishing, tanning hides, leatherwork and making cloth. Apart from tin, the town exported large quantities of roofing slates, mined at local quarries. Totnes bridge was standing by the early thirteenth century when the settlement of Bridgetown Pomeroy was established and grew on the opposite bank of the river. The town experienced a mini-boom from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries through the export of wool.

More recently, Italian prisoners of war were kept there during World War II, their legacy can be seen in carvings of their names on an old tree in the bailey courtyard. A visit to the castle and walk down the historic high street, that retains much of its Saxon layout and charm, is highly recommended.

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