Last updated: Thu 9 Jan 2014

Nunney Castle

Nunney Castle was built after 1373 by Sir John De la Mere and came under siege during the English Civil War.

Nunney CastleThe moated 14th century Nunney Castle dominates the centre of Nunney and adds a unique charm to it. But what do we know about the history of Nunney Castle?

After William the Conquerer invaded England, he commissioned a list of all the assets in his new realm: the Domesday Book. Nunney is mentioned in the Domesday Book as one of two local manors, belonging to William De Mohun. He lived in a Norman manor house that was located next to the castle was later built. The name De Moyon may sound unfamiliar, but the related surname Moon was common in Nunney until recently.

In 1373 the then lord of the manor was Sir John De la Mere, who had fought in France alongside the Black Prince during the Hundred Years War. He returned with the spoils of war – ransom money gained from the families of French noblemen held hostage – and applied to King Edward III for permission to fortify and crenellate his manor.

French influence

Instead of merely making improvements to his existing manor, however, he commissioned the King’s own architect to design a brand new fortified manor house befitting his new-found wealth. The resulting Nunney Castle had a strong French influence with a stone tower-keep at its centre, designed with four round corner-towers that were crowned with conical roofs.

The moat, dug after the castle was completed, came right up to the walls at the time and was one of the deepest in England. Nunney Castle, however, was built at the foot of a hill as Nunney Church already occupied the higher ground in the village.

Around Nunney Castle a twelve foot bailey wall ran all the way round an area that went roughly from Nunney Bridge (which itself is much later) along where Café De la Mere is nowadays and round to the other side of the castle. A medieval tithe barn that still stands next to Nunney Castle was recently restored, but is not open to the public. Inside the perimeter wall were also other barns and workshops.

Inside the castle

Nunney CastleNunney Castle had three floors. On the ground floor were the kitchen and other service areas. Visitors can still see where the old well was located inside the castle, plus the chimneys of the great kitchen fireplaces. Some of Nunney Castle’s fireplaces were removed after the English Civil War and placed inside cottages all over Nunney.

Above the kitchen was Nunney Castle’s great hall. This is where the lord of the manor and his family would dine and entertain visitors. On the top floor were the living quarters for the owners of Nunney Castle.

It must have been pretty dark inside Nunney Castle in those days and the stairs were narrow. The walls of the great hall were decorated with heavy medieval tapestries, judging by the thick bronze rings still visible in the walls to this day. Sir John De la Mere was buried inside Nunney Church. The castle was completed by his son Philip De la Mere and decorated by his grandson Elias.

Civil War siege

Nunney Castle

Nunney Castle after a wall collapsed on Christmas Eve 1910.

Nunney Castle was passed down various families for generations. In the early 16th century its owners made substantial changes to Nunney Castle. The floors and ceilings were replaced, with the new ones placed above the level of the old ones as visitors can still see today. The windows were made much larger, a Catholic altar was installed and a grand spiral staircase was put in one of the towers. At the same time a terrace was created around the castle, much as we see today.

The English Civil War was the only time in its history that Nunney Castle came under siege. Nunney Castle came under siege from Parliamentarian troops under the command of Fairfax the next year. Prater defiantly raised a flag with a Catholic crucifix so large that it was later taken to London and presented to Parliament.

The castle, however, lasted just three days. Defended by Irish mercenaries, it fell after a single cannon ball was shot from the top of the hill above Nunney Castle through one of its walls. The wall didn’t collapse until Christmas Day 1910 though. After the siege, the castle was slighted and sold as ordered by Parliament, despite protestations from the Prater family.

The ruined castle has long been a tourist attraction. In 1889 the ruins were enclosed by a wall around the moat, and a small charge was introduced for viewing it. “The shrubs, the festoons of ivy and the large fragments of stone hanging from the shattered battlements impart to it the most picturesque effect,” one visitor wrote.

English Heritage

Nunney Castle still stands today as a ruin, a romantic folly even at the time it was built. Visitors wander in and out across its little wooden footbridge and marvel at Nunney Castle’s prominent machicolations and shoots – or toilets. Unlike at nearby Farleigh Hungerford castle, Nunney Castle requires a little more imagination to see where the castle, the tithe barn, the tombs in church of former occupants of Nunney Castle fit in.

For those who take time to take it all in, however, Nunney Castle remains a charming gem of the West Country, a treasure of British heritage now managed by English Heritage. The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described Nunney Castle as “aesthetically the most impressive castle in Somerset” and few would argue with him.

Nunney Castle is managed by English Heritage.

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