Also known as Rougemont Castle, Exeter Castle is the historic castle of the city and another example of the city’s long and powerful history. Based in the heart of the city centre in Castle Street (where else?), the castle is now in private ownership and is used as a venue for corporate and party events, provides holiday rentals properties, and works as a wedding venue. However, visitors can still enjoy a walk around the castle wall perimeter and soak in the atmosphere and architecture of this great fortification.
The Castle of Exeter stands atop the highest part of the city. It was built into the northern corner of the Roman city walls starting in, or shortly after, the year 1068 following Exeter’s rebellion against William the Conqueror. In 1136 it was besieged for three months by King Stephen. An outer bailey, of which little now remains, was added later in the 12th century.
The castle is named after the red stone found in the hill, and used in the construction of the original buildings. The large early Norman gatehouse is the main remaining feature of the castle and is surrounded on three sides by public parks – the Rougemont Gardens and Northernhay Gardens.
The castle is mentioned in Shakespeare’s play Richard III, in reference to that king’s visit to Exeter in 1483. In 1607 Devon’s county courthouse was built within the castle walls, and in 1682 and 1685 the four “Devon witches” were tried here, before being executed at Heavitree. These four were the last people in England to be executed for witchcraft. A plaque on the wall by the gatehouse commemorates the events.
The castle was said to have been badly damaged during the Second Cornish uprising of 1497 when Perkin Warbeck and 6,000 Cornishmen entered the city, and by 1600 it was said to display “gaping chinks and an aged countenance.”
All the buildings inside the walls were swept away in the 1770s to make way for a new courthouse, which was extended by the addition of wings in 1895 and 1905. Because of its function as a court, the interior of the castle was not open to the public until the court moved to a new site in 2004.
Today, the castle is subject to a high degree of legal protection as a Scheduled Monument, and its main structures are all either Grade I or Grade II listed buildings. In 2011, the former Court 1 reopened as the Ballroom, with its arched windows lowered to floor level and lavatories were installed in what used to be holding cells for prisoners. Court 2 was reopened as a Gallery of 150 square metres. 12 new apartments were also created within the walls of the castle.