So as we discussed in a previous post, Plymouth wasn’t always the power that it is today. In fact, in 1066, during the norman conquest, it was still called Sutton Pool, and had a population of 18 people. So realistically, there was no real need for any sort of fortification. The only place with a need for protection was just up the river at Plympton. Here, there was a Motte and Bailey Castle. Basically a small keep on top of a big hill, surprisingly effective at the time.
Over time though, the river changed, and the need of Sutton as a main port suddenly became of strategic importance. Around the start of the hundred years war in 1337 it was attracting unwanted attention from continental forces. It’s thought that earthwork defences were built around this time on the hoe and waterfront. There was also likely to have been similar works on the other side of the river at mount batten.
The most important part of this defence was Plymouth castle. In 1377 a murage grant was received, this is basically a tax specifically for castles, walls and other defences. The exact date that it was built is unknown, but it was first recorded in the early 1400’s. The castle was on the western side of Sutton Pool. It had 4 sides, with round towers on each corner, with curtain walls, 4 meters high. The main need for the castle was to control a chain that was raised to stop access to the harbour. If a ship got caught in this, it would be subjected to the castle’s cannons. The castle’s entrance was shielded by a barbican, which now lends its name to a part of the city.
There is no official date that the castle is said to have been built, but based around events we can give a good range. In 1340 during the Hundred Years’ War, the town was attacked by a flotilla of french raiders. Although they burned a manor house, and took some prisoners, they failed to get into the town. It was said to be due to an effective defence, this could be the castle, or it could just have been earthworks. There was another attack by the french in 1377. This lead to the murage grant to fund fortification, this may well be the money used to build the castle, but it could also have been used to fund walls or earthworks.
In 1400, it was likely that the castle was in existence, as it allegedly drove off a fleet of french ships. It was said that an english force of ships were being pursued by James of Bourbon, Count le Marche. The english forces sought refuge in Sutton harbour and scared them away. In august 1403 the castle was definitely present, and provided refuge when a Breton army landed at Cattewater and attacked and burned the town. This attack is still remembered today, by a part of the town known as Bretonside. This is the point where the invaders were stopped by the citizens marching out from the castle to attack them.
After this the castle saw very little real action. Other parts of the city were being fortified, and the castle became less important in the grand scheme. In 1549, it did play a part in the Prayer Book Rebellion; where cornishmen rebelled against the law created to have all church services in the land to be conducted in the english language. The Cornish at the time rarely spoke english, and so a rebellion started. At a point during this time, the town was besieged by rebels. The town quickly surrendered, but the castle didn’t, it held members of the crown and protestants, likely targets by the rebels. Eventually the rebellion was defeated, and the siege was lifted.
In 1588, the castle played a small part in the attack on the Spanish Armada. The English Navy took shelter from the wind and waited for the tide in Sutton harbour. The Castle gave the Navy a good defence. Unfortunately after this, in the Elizabethan era defences had moved on from simple castles. Sir Francis Drake (kinda famous in Plymouth) built an artillery fort on the Hoe. The structure, eventually known as Drake’s Fort was partially built using stone from Plymouth Castle. After this the closest it got to any action was during the civil war, when it held a parliamentary Garrison. Although, because Royalists controlled Mount Batten, Millbay on the west side of the harbour was used over Sutton Harbour so the castle wasn’t used as a military structure.
That is basically the History of Plymouth Castle. The castle itself eventually fell into disrepair, actually described as ruinous. It was used as a prison, and also a workhouse for a time. Unfortunately, in the 19th century, during the population boom, the remains were slowly robbed to be used in houses and other building projects. There is only a small part of the gatehouse still existing, and it has been turned into a part of a garden.
Fun fact: the four towers of Plymouth Castle are said to be remembered in the towns coat of arms, with 4 towers separated by st. Andrews cross (the patron St of Plymouth). The towers are said to be protecting him.