Castle set on the high motte (mound) of a stronghold built soon after the Norman Conquest
Originally known as Dunheved, Launceston was always the main gateway to Cornwall. Consequently, a castle was built here soon after the Norman conquest of 1066. The original earthwork motte and bailey castle, with wooden defences, guarded the main route into Cornwall, and became the administrative centre for the Earls of Cornwall. It was an impressive and strategically important building, controlling the river crossing into Cornwall. The castle was located high on a grassy mound overlooking the nearby settlement of St Stephens and much of the surrounding countryside.
Towards the end of the 12th century, a circular stone keep was constructed on top of the motte. Extensive alterations were carried out during the reign of Henry III by Richard of Cornwall. These included the building of a tower within the keep and replacement of the timber palisades with stone curtain walls.
Substantial gatehouses were also constructed. In 1272, the administrative centre of Cornwall was moved to Lostwithiel, resulting in a decline in the importance of Launceston Castle. However it continued to house the judiciary and to serve as a prison.
During the Civil War, the castle was in such a poor state of repair that the Parliamentarian army did not bother to damage it further when they gained control from the supporters of Charles I. By the middle of the 17th century, the castle was virtually in ruins, apart from the North Gatehouse. However, this was still used as a jail and, during the reign of Charles II in 1656, George Fox, founder of the Quakers, was imprisoned here. Eventually the jail was the only remaining building in the castle grounds and, when the assizes and the seat of county government were moved from Launceston to Bodmin in 1838, this was demolished. The Duke of Northumberland subsequently had the castle area landscaped and turned into a public park. Today only the ruin of the stone keep remains and the public garden occupies what was once the bailey.
Launceston Castle today has an interactive display tracing the thousand years of history of the site. There is also an exhibition of finds from various site excavations. The castle is open daily from the beginning of April until the end of October each year.