The ruins of Lydford castle sit among remains of a Norman Fort and an ancient Saxon burh. English Heritage manages the site. Take an audio tour of Lydford Castle! Click here for details.
Visiting Lydford Castle
A small car park in the village is available opposite the Castle Inn and provides equal access to all three fortifications.
Site is open to the public at any reasonable time during daylight hours
Location & Access
Lydford Castle, Devon, EX20 4B
The site is in Lydford, south of Okehampton, found off the A386 on School Road. It is made of three separate sections, with entrances for all located adjacent to Clifton Cottage and Nicholls Hall. From the castle entrance, a left-bearing track leads to the Norman Fort. The main road bisects the Saxon Town Banks.
Know Before You Go
- Public toilets available in the car park - open from May to October only
- Dogs on leads are welcome
- Sheep may be grazing on the Town Banks and at the Norman Fort - please be aware
- English Heritage does not allow drone flying at any of their sites without explicit permission
History of Lydford Castle
A late 9th-century Saxon burh established at Lydford was part of a network of fortifications raised to protect the Kingdom of Wessex. The site served as a host for multiple forts before construction of the castle began. Detailed studies and excavations of Lyford have been carried out; to learn more about the discoveries made and subsequent conclusions reached, check out Lydford Castle by A. D. Saunders for a detailed account.
-1195 (Stone Castle Built)
Devon and Cornwall's tin industry was of such significance that it was governed by special taxation and legal systems, and Lydford administered the stannaries. King John authorised a stone castle--at the cost of £32--to be built to imprison offenders against Forest and Stannary laws.
On 18 May, the Forests of Exmoor and Dartmoor were spared from King John's disafforestation of Devon, leaving Lydford under royal control.
King John granted the castle and its components to William Brewer, the Sheriff of Devon.
-1239 (Manor of Lydford/Reconstruction)
Richard, Earl of Cornwall, received the castle and Dartmoor Forest (noted as 'our Manor of Lydford') from his brother, King Henry III, as part of a royal endowment. As a consequence of being severed from the Crown, Dartmoor's legal status changed from a 'forest' to a 'chase,' which led to an increase in Lydford's court authority.
The tower was rebuilt to have four storeys, with the first storey covered in heaping piles of earth to mimic a castle's facade.
When Richard died, the estate was left to his son, Edmund.
Upon Edmund's death, the castle is returned to the Crown.
Thomas le Erecedekne was described as the castle's Constable.
-1337 (Duchy of Cornwall)
Edward, Black Prince, Earl of Cornwall, is granted the estates by King Edward III. Henceforth, Lydford Castle and Dartmoor were Duchy of Cornwall possessions.
The castle had lost its importance, and Richard de Thorley issued the King orders to remove the lead from the roof of Lydford's tower for use as materials for repairing the Royal Cornish Castles.
-1400s-1600s (Tudor Period Maintenance and Repairs)
During the Tudor period, the Duchy regained possession of Lydford Castle and made intermittent repairs in 1590, 1618, 1622, and 1639.
-1510 (Strode Imprisoned)
One notable imprisonment was that of Richard Strode, Member of Parliament for Plymouth, who had the audacity to complain about the moorland rivers' mining debris silting up at Plymouth harbour. (Notably, Strode was a tinner himself.) This act landed him in the gaol, from which he was released and returned to Parliament soon after an Exchequer's letter was written on his behalf.
Strode later described Lydford Castle as "one of the most heinous, contagious and detestable places within this realm."
An apt description of Lydford's appearance was in a poem by Browne, the Tavistock, thus stating, "They have a castle on a hill, I took it for an old windmill."
The castle operates as a Royalist prison; military prisoners captured during the Civil War by Sir Richard Grenville were executed for high treason.
A Parliamentary survey noted the castle's floor had collapsed, its beams had fallen, and generally described the castle as "very much in decay and almost totally ruined." Notwithstanding, Lydford continued to serve as a prison, further cementing its notorious, somber reputation and association with the 'Law of Lydford' across the land.
The castle is now made to hold captured Parliamentarians; the village only contained but twenty houses and was described as 'mean' and 'miserable.'
Another report in 1703 noted the roof was missing--most of the timber and lead stolen by town locals--and all that remained were the bare walls.
Some repairs were recorded in 1716 and 1733 but to little avail; the site was near ruins by the early 19th century.
Furthermore, a prosperous farm, established by Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, Lord Warden of the Stannaries in Princetown, ultimately culminated in Lydford's courts being removed and transferred to the popular, growing town; the town was left in decline, and the castle, now unnecessary, was abandoned.
Additional commentary from the early 20th noted that the castle was in ruins, and rubbish littered its dungeon. Local sources also shared their experiences with the castle ruins as children in the mid-1940s, recounting times they climbed up the ivy on the walls, demonstrating how thickly it had grown.
Lydford Castle Occupants
Since it served primarily as a prison, the castle's occupants were numerous, unfortunate souls imprisoned within. Under Royal ownership, Lydford likely had several gaolers named throughout the years who also would have been quartered in apartments there, though records of such are tricky to come by.
Images of Lydford Castle
Images Supplied and licensed from Shutterstock Standard Licence Package
Lydford Castle Q&A
What Type of Castle Was Lydford Castle?
The structure at Lydford is a two-storey square tower upon a motte within a bailey, described as a certain Masonry Castle. However, it is famous for its infamous primary role, a medieval prison.
When Was Lydford Castle First Built?
Lydford's stone castle was first built in 1195; however, it wasn't the first fortification raised on the site. The stone version was built as an improvement upon existing fortified defences of earth and timber ringwork dating back to the Norman invasion, circa 1067. (The village of Lydford precedes as a Saxon burh from the Dark Ages--one of many strongholds established to prevent the Kingdom of Wessex from being overrun by the Vikings.)
Archaeological evidence suggests the fortification acted as a logistics site, with its five simple buildings functioning as granaries. By the 1150s, the castle ceased to be of use; the castle known today was finally "reborn" four decades later.
How Big Was Lydford Castle?
King John's gaol appears to have been a single two-storey tower measuring close to 15 metres (50 feet) square. The walls were over 3 metres (10 feet) thick with round-headed, acutely splayed windows.
The upper storey was destroyed in the late 13th century so that the ground floor could serve as the foundation for a taller building. The new walls were much thicker, and the original windows were blocked.
At the entrance, a latrine was next to a drawbar hole used for door security and a narrow flight of steps that led to a large hall. It's possible the upper floor also had apartments for the gaoler (jailer), with prison cells in lower levels and the basement pit likely reserved for the vilest prisoners.
What Was the Main Use of Lydford Castle?
The castle was initially built to serve as the Royal Forest of Dartmoor's administrative centre. In the late 12th century, the Crown enforced strict control over forest land and its trade; Lydford Castle was meant to serve as both a court for hearing Forest and Stannary cases and a prison for convicted offenders. Indeed, the castle was used to administer local laws--then imprison those who attempted to scorn them.
After reconstructed in the 13th century to resemble a motte and bailey, the new castle gave an impression of a disciplinary authority, which was undoubtedly demonstrated by the underground pit created to house the most offensive prisoners. It continued to serve as a gaol for centuries, ever gaining notoriety as a formidable and gruesome place.
Was ‘Lydford Law’ Actually Responsible for the Privilege of Parliament Act?
The castle incurred an indelible reputation for backward justice, which was often disclosed via poetry and other expressive literature of its time. One such famous poem by William Brown in 1644 resulted in the phrase 'Lydford Law' becoming an idiom for judicial cruelty:
I oft have heard of Lydford Law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgment after:
At first I wondered at it much;
But since, I find the reason such,
As it deserves no laughter.
The relation to Parliamentary Privilege goes back over 130 years to Richard Strode and his imprisonment time. Immediately following his release, he began petitioning the other MPs to pass a piece of legislation that would grant them total immunity from prosecution over parliamentary activities. This act also had literature designed to reverse the court ruling that put Strode in prison.
Soon after, in 1512, The Privilege of Parliament Act was passed into law; it is commonly known as 'Strode's Act' to this very day. Consequently, the significant constitutional anomaly, Parliamentary Privilege, also survives.
Is Lydford Castle Haunted?
Lydford is one of the many castle sites that is said to have a resident spook. Indeed, the mound of earth surrounding the structure gives an outlandish impression the castle is sinking. And inside the roofless tower, the thick walls still provide visitors with a sense of dread and depression, which some conclude is only possible through a supernatural manifestation. As it were, visitors claim the castle evokes cold shivers to this day.
Lydford lore tells the tale of Judge Jefferys, who issued savage punishment on behalf of King James II in the nefarious "Bloody Assizes." He held court throughout Devonshire, yet legend says his unrelenting judicial prowess was at its peak at Lydford.
While this may be true, very little historical evidence exists to suggest Jefferys ever visited the village. Nonetheless, his ruthless reputation inspired the long-standing claim that he haunts Lydford Castle in the form of a large, black pig!
Does Any of Lydford Castle Still Exist?
The lead roof and the castle floors no longer exist, but the walls still stand among the earthwork remains of the Norman fortification and surviving Anglo-Saxon defences. Even without a roof, the ruins' insides provide a glimpse into what a grim, fearsome, intimidating place it must have been for the prisoners.
Location of Lydford Castle
A beautiful view on the outskirts of Dartmoor, Lydford exhibits three defensive features that dominate the small village. The castle is nestled inside the sizable, ancient Saxon fort, earth ramparts surround the village, and a gorge leads down to a ford across the River Lyd, for which the village is named.