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A Guide to Dunster Castle
Found on the edge of Exmoor National Park, Dunster Castle is a fine example of the British Stately home. The history of Dunster Castle goes back over 900 years, although few parts of the original castle now remain, due in no small part to the extensive renovations that have been undertaken over the centuries.
During the long history, the fortunes of Dunster Castle have fluctuated, as have its owners. Dunster Castle has been a defensive fortress, and a comfortable stately home, but it has also been left empty for large periods of time, despite being in the ownership of the Luttrell family for over 600 years. Today though, Dunster Castle is in the hands of the National Trust, who operate the castle as a popular tourist attraction.
The Location of Dunster Castle
Dunster Castle is located in Somerset, three miles southeast of Minehead, right on the edge of Exmoor. Situated on a hill known as “the Tor”, Dunster Castle looks down over the medieval village of Dunster; with the site also offering extensive views over the Bristol Channel, Exmoor and the Quantock hills.
Dunster and Dunster Castle
Dunster and Dunster Castle
Dunster Castle under the de Mohun Family
Before the Norman Conquest, the Tor was the site of a Saxon hill fort under the ownership of Aelfric, There is of course the possibility that even earlier defensive positions were taken up on the hill, as there are Iron and Bronze Age hill forts in the area.
Aelfric is thought to have died during the Battle of Hastings, but even if he had not died his lands would have been forfeited anyway. William the Conqueror granted the manor of Dunster, amongst many others, to William de Mohun, a favoured commander of William and also Robert of Mortain.
To help with the subjugation of Somerset, William de Mohun would commence the construction of a motte and bailey castle. Early fortifications were made from wood, but by 1086 a fully functioning castle was built and was inhabited. Subsequently, stone would replace the wooden defences, making Dunster Castle one of the strongest castles in the region.
Ownership of Dunster Castle would pass from William de Mohun to his son, also called William, and further improvements would be made to the castle. It was during this period when the defensive capabilities of Dunster Castle were first tested. During the Anarchy, the first English Civil War, William held the castle for Matilda, against the besieging forces of King Stephen.
For 200 years, Dunster Castle would remain in the hands of the de Mohun family, with work continuing to improve and expand the castle; work being paid for, or done by, those who lived on the Dunster manor.
In 1330, Dunster Castle passed into the hands of Sir John de Mohun, but in trying to maintain all of his lands, John fell into debt, and upon his death in 1376, John’s widow Joan, was forced to sell Dunster Castle to Lady Elizabeth Luttrell. Elizabeth Luttrell did allow Joan to remain living in the castle until her death.
Dunster Castle and Gatehouse
Dunster Castle from Amazon
Dunster Castle under the Luttrells
The Luttrell’s, like the de Mohuns, were another major Norman family, and following the sale, 21 generations of the family would own Dunster Castle, over a period of 600 years. The first of the Luttrells to live in Dunster Castle was Sir Hugh Luttrell, a favourite of Henry V.
Briefly, the Luttrells lost their lands when Edward VI, confiscated them; the Luttrells having been supporters of the House of Lancaster during the War of the Roses. Lands though were restored to them by Henry VII.
By the 16th Century, Dunster Castle was starting to fall into disrepair, as the castle was now only a second home to the family. In 1617 though, money was once again put into the upkeep of the castle, with Dunster Castle transformed into a Jacobean mansion. Over the years the castle became a manor house rather than a functioning castle.
The remnants of the Norman defences though were put to good use in the 17th Century when the English Civil War broke out. Ownership of Dunster Castle at the time was in the hands of Thomas Luttrell. Thomas Luttrell would initially support the Parliamentary cause, and Dunster Castle held out against a Royalist siege, but shortly afterwards Thomas Luttrell would switch allegiances, and subsequently Dunster Castle would be besieged by Parliament’s troops.
In 1645 a six month siege commenced, and eventually the garrison in Dunster Castle would surrender. After the war parliament decreed that Dunster Castle should be slighted, so that it would not be a Royalist stronghold in the future. George Luttrell, the owner at the time, did manage to successfully argue that only the walls would be destroyed, rather than the living quarters.
Within 50 years though, Dunster Castle was virtually abandoned by the Luttrells, and for the next 100 years the family was in and out of debt, with only slight enhancements being made to the building. During the Georgian period though, work was once again undertaken, with an extensive garden created, and Georgian styling added to the Manor House.
Despite these improvements, Dunster Castle was once again almost abandoned and it was only in 1867 when another George Luttrell inherited the castle that the fortunes of the family and the castle improved. Income from the estate allowed George to redesign many of the buildings into a Gothic revival styling.
This financial revival though did not last long, and into the 20th Century occupation of Dunster Castle was on and off. Eventually, in 1976, Walter Luttrell passed ownership of Dunster Castle over to the National Trust.
Dunster Castle and Gatehouse
Castles of Britain and Ireland
The National Trust and Dunster Castle
The National Trust operates Dunster Castle and its grounds as a tourist attraction, with the site classed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and the Castle as a Grade I listed building.
Dunster Castle today, is of course, not an example of a Norman Castle, as virtually nothing of this period remains intact, but the castle does show an evolution of style from the Tudor period onwards. Visitors can walk around the castle, and also take in 680 acres of parkland.
The National Trust charges visitors a small fee for entrance to the castle and/or the grounds, and these charges can be found on the National Trust website. The website also shows opening hours for the different parts of Dunster Castle, and it is certainly worth visiting the website before travelling to Dunster.