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Hemyock Castle
Ancient Heart of the Blackdowns

Brief History

For more information: See the new guidebook available as a Kindle eBook and as a printed booklet.

The castle plan is typical of small late medieval castles: a rectangular site with high round corner towers and central interval towers, connected by a high curtain wall; all topped with crenellations. Most buildings were of chert, a local flint stone. The exterior was rendered and lime-washed white.

The castle was in use from 1380 until the 1660s. According to local tradition, Hemyock Castle was slighted – ie. partly demolished – soon after the restoration of King Charles II, because during the civil war, it had been held for Parliament against his father King Charles I.

Today, substantial fragments remain of the massive gate house, several towers, walls, and part of the moat. The manor house is a private house. Several of the historic surrounding buildings have been converted into comfortable cottages which are available on long lets.

Model of Hemyock Castle in 1380s. Note white external rendering
Model of Hemyock Castle in 1380s. Note white external rendering

Originally, this was possibly a Roman, a Romano-British farm, or a Roman stronghold. But there has not yet been a proper excavation. Much has yet to be discovered. As so often, there are legends of secret passages and buried treasure.

General Simcoe suggested that the ground plan of the site was similar to that of Roman strongholds (He mentioned the citadel at Cairo). He believed that it may have been built to protect Roman iron smelting at the nearby iron pits. Scoria and cinders from iron smelting are found on the site.

Most likely, the site first had a wooden stockade and probably a wooden defensive tower. It may also have had a ditch or moat. Later, the wooden tower was replaced by a stone tower. Subsequently, a hall was added on the north side of the tower, probably with other outbuildings. In 1380, the site was "crenellated" – converted into a castle.

During the 1100s the Norman Hidon family built a fortified manor house. Later, the Dynhams (originally from Brittany) married into the family.

On 5th November 1380, King Richard II granted Sir William and Lady Asthorpe (née Dynham) licence to crenellate their fortified manor house.

The plan of the castle has similarities with Bodiam Castle, built some 5 years later in Sussex.

Two towers at the front, about 13 metres (40 feet) high, protected the entrance gate house. The portcullis and the drawbridge over the moat were operated from here.

The curtain walls, about 7 metres (20 feet) high, were pierced by putlog holes through which wooden beams projected to support the roofed wooden fighting galleries (hourds). From the safety of these, defenders could fire arrows and missiles, or pour noxious liquids onto any attackers who crossed the moat.

By the 1600s, Hemyock castle and most of Hemyock belonged to Sir John Popham, who as Lord Chief Justice, sentenced Sir Walter Raleigh, Mary Queen of Scots, and Guy Fawkes to death. (The original licence to crenellate Hemyock Castle had been granted on 5th November 1380!) According to local legend, Sir John is reputed to have been rewarded for his controversial life by being thrown from his horse into Popham's Pit, a deep local bog, dying horribly, and descending to Hell.

During the Civil War (mid 1600s) the castle was still owned by the Popham family. It was garrisoned for Parliament, used as a strong point, as a base for collecting the taxes to pay Parliamentary forces, and to imprison Royalists. Eventually, after a short brutal siege in 1643/4, it was captured by the Royalists. 200 prisoners were released. Three of the garrison were hanged immediately, and the remainder marched off to prison in Exeter. Not long afterwards, it was recaptured and held for Parliament until the Restoration in 1660, when King Charles II ordered that it be slighted – ie. partly demolished – to destroy its military value.

From then, the manor house became a farm, and the castle was used as a stone quarry for local buildings. General John Graves Simcoe bought Hemyock Castle in the 1790s following his distinguished career in the New World. One of his first acts as the first Lt. Governor of Upper Canada (Ontario) had been to abolish slavery in that province, subsequently allowing some 40,000 slaves escaping America to gain their freedom in Canada. At Hemyock, he had visions of restoring the Castle to its former glory. But he died prematurely, before being able to do this, so the remains of Hemyock Castle date mostly from the original 1380 castle.

The house was sold in the early 1970s, without the farm land and in serious need of repair. Work continues to discover the history, and to stabilise the castle remains.

Further information is available in our new guidebook and in the booklet "Hemyock Castle – The Continuing Story".

Links to Resources:

Historic England Geophysical Survey 14/1999:

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Hemyock Castle, Hemyock, CULLOMPTON, Devon, EX15 3RJ, UK.
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