Many years ago, I happened upon Nunney Castle whilst out on a walk in the area. I was mesmerised by this ruined castle, set in the centre of a village surrounded by a moat. It was not the classic, Norman stronghold on a rocky outcrop. I felt I had been transported back to medieval France. There was good reason for that feeling, as I found out later. The builder of the castle, Sir John Delamare (c. 1320-1383) had fought in the Hundred Years Wars. As a veteran of the wars, he retired to Somerset and built himself a castle in the middle of Nunney village in a style reminiscent of what he would have seen in France. With four corner towers and four storeys he had his own compact castle with a village to service him.
The reason that the castle is a ruin today is that it was besieged by Parliamentarians in 1645 during the English Civil War. The north side of the castle was severely damaged by gunfire. Whilst the walls remained intact, the north wall collapsed on Christmas Day, 1910.[i]
There are a number of castles in France with corner towers with conical-shaped caps, machiolations and moats. For example, in southern Brittany is the Chateau de Suscinio, which dates from the 13th C. It is not known where Sir John Delamare got his design ideas from. Or was it his master mason specialising in such castle designs?
Chateau de Suscinio in Southern Brittany (dates from 13th C)[ii]
Nearby castles of the same period had their own unique designs. Some 13 miles away from Nunney is the castle of Farleigh Hungerford Castle, Somerset. It was built with a quadrangular plan between 1377 and 1383 (expanded later). At Old Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, built in the 1390s, some 25 miles away, the plan was a hexagonal arrangement, with a rectangular section at the front. Both these castles had inner open courtyards, which Nunney did not have.
The castle at Nunney is sited at the lowest point in the surrounding landscape. Dominating the village, it is surrounded by a moat, has a single small entrance defended by arrow loops and defensive machiolations running round the roofline. The plan is rectangular with a tower in each corner. The two end towers have little room between them – it is the north and south elevations that are the main facades.
Local building stone was freely available and of good quality. ‘Castle Hill Quarry’ can be seen on an OS map nearby.
There are four storeys which would have had wooden floors between them. The ground floor is about 10 feet high. This floor housed the kitchen as demonstrated by the large fireplace. It also had a well. At Old Wardour the kitchen is also integral to the castle and near the great hall. A similar arrangement occurs at Farleigh Hungerford, although the kitchen is sited in a service range.
The kitchen must have been a hot and noisy place which must have resounded around the castle. There is an interesting narrow, rectangular shaft that comes down the length of the castle, terminating in the kitchen. Was it a speaking tube from the parapet?
The general wall thickness is in the region of 2.35 metres of solid rubble, dressed with limestone ashlar, apart from the northwest wall where a staircase was placed within the wall space. The fenestration originally was limited to narrow loops on the ground floor and first storey. These windows were expanded in a later period.
The northeast tower had a large winding stair.
The second and third storeys contain evidence of a higher status residence with examples of decorated Gothic window tracery, window seats and a chapel. The south tower has remains of a chapel – the remains of an altar and a piscina on 3rd storey.
The castle is an example of a wealthy knight building his own fortified residence. In 1373 Sir John Delamare was granted a licence to crenellate for a castle.[iii] Traditionally historians understood that these licences were to enable the Crown to control all buildings of fortifications, thus limiting the power of the king’s subjects. However, Coulson has disputed this interpretation and asserts that what these documents represented was an aspirational subject increasing their social standing by petitioning the king. The royal seal on the document sanctioned their standing and authority from the Crown. The evidence Coulson presents is that it was not the nobility that were petitioning the king but in the main ambitious civil servants or knights.[iv]
With limited documentation what can be ascertained about Nunney Castle when related to the historical context? At the time the castle was being built and then occupied, the political situation in England was uncertain. Edward III’s health had been failing and when he died in 1377, leaving a ten-year old heir, royal power was a tense issue. The Black Death had changed the social landscape in that labour was scarce, and the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 posed a threat to established authority.[v] As a veteran of the Hundred Years War, the historical records show that Sir John Delamare had returned to England to take up various offices such as sheriff of both Somerset and Wiltshire and in four successive parliaments he represented at least one county before his death in 1383.[vi] This emerging professional class demanded castles from which they could defend and manage their estates.[vii]
Given the potential threat of unrest in England and Sir John Delamare’s political positions, was it possible he built his castle as a stronghold in case of civil disorder? Did it also act as a deterrent by making a statement in architecture of his power and authority? He built his castle in an existing village near the established Roman road system,[viii] making it strategically placed in the southwest for access across the region and to London. The architecture also conveys ornament as demonstrated in the fenestration of the second and third storeys, which has caused speculation that the mason Henry Yevele may have been involved in building Nunney Castle. The cusped, perpendicular style window tracery is comparable to Yevele’s work in London.[ix] Edward III may well have allowed his followers access to the top masons of the day that worked on royal buildings. Perhaps in return for favours or to offset debts. At Penshurt Place in Kent, Sir John Pulteney, built his house in 1341. The royal master mason, William de Ramsey III and the royal master carpenter, William Hurley quite possibly worked on building Pulteney’s prestigious house. Pulteney had provided food for the Edward III’s troops and lent the King money for his campaigns in France.[x]
Nunney Castle has survived as a unique reminder of the world of the latter part of the 14th C. It has not been expanded or significantly modified as at Farleigh Hungerford or Old Wardour (although like Nunney, the latter was ruined in the English Civil War). It articulates the architectural ambition of the aspirational wealthy knight class on the rise.
[i] ‘Nunney Castle‘, Historic England List Entry 1014716, (1915), < https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1014716?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 23 February 2022].
[ii] Man vyi, ‘Suscinio’, Wikimedia Commons, 2007 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Suscinio_2007_2.jpg> [accessed 24 February 2022].
[iii] S. E. Rigold, Nunney Castle: Somerset (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1957), p. 3.
[iv] Charles Coulson, ‘Freedom to Crenellate by Licence: An historiographical revision’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, Vol. 38 No. 1 (1994), pp. 86-137.
[v] W. Mark Ormrod, Edward III, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013) pp. 573-586.
[vi] Rigold, p. 4.
[vii] John Goodall, The English Castle (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), p. 4.
[viii] Ivan D. Margary, Roman Roads in Britain: Vol. 1 South of the Fosse Way – Bristol Channel (London, Phoenix House, 1955), pp. 76-77.
[ix] Andrew Foyle and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: North Somerset and Bristol (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 572.
[x] Penshurst Place and Gardens (Norwich: Jigsaw Design & Publishing, 2013), p. 4.
Coulson, Charles, ‘Freedom to Crenellate by Licence: An historiographical revision’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, Vol. 38 No. 1 (1994), pp. 86-137
Foyle, Andrew, and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: North Somerset and Bristol (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011)
Goodall, John, The English Castle (New Haven and London: Yale University Press)
‘Nunney Castle‘, Historic England List Entry 1014716, (1915), < https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1014716?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 23 February 2022]
Margary, Ivan D., Roman Roads in Britain: Vol. 1 South of the Fosse Way – Bristol Channel (London, Phoenix House, 1955)
Ormrod, Mark W., Edward III, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013)
Penshurst Place and Gardens (Norwich: Jigsaw Design & Publishing, 2013)
Rigold, S. E., Nunney Castle: Somerset (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1957)