Launceston. Report from the History Section

Information about this page

Author(s): Simons. Robert; Year published: 2019; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): history; Location(s): Launceston

Bronze age man left his mark on the Launceston area. The town itself was probably founded by the Saxons around 900 when Bodmin was the main town in Cornwall. Launceston however housed the earliest known Cornish mint under Ethelred the Unready (976-1016).

Borders are protected places and the Normans built two castles in prominent Cornish border positions one maritime, Trematon in the south and one overland at Launceston. This is Cornwall’s main hill town and only walled town, the wall was some 6 foot thick in places. It towers over the Tamar and protects the strategic crossing at Polson Bridge. The derivation of the name and its alternative ‘Dunheved’ has numerous explanations too lengthy for this introduction. The truer name of Dunheved is where it developed around the castle rather than the former monastery.

Launceston castle
Photo: Anony Buller

The Domesday Book compilers tell us that The Canons of St Stephen hold ‘Lanscauetone’. The manor in 1085 comprised 4 hides of land (about 480 acres) and was held by the half brother of William the Conqueror who was Robert, Count of Mortain not only the greatest landowner in England after the King but in Cornwall he outstripped the King, holding most of the county. As the Earl of Cornwall, he built the earthwork and timber Launceston Castle. As the new town grew up around the castle, Launceston became the ancient capital of Cornwall. The next landowner to dominate was Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who not only rebuilt the castle in stone, but also confirmed the grant of Launceston as a free borough. This allowed the townsfolk to build a guildhall, a sign of its prestige and privilege which gave the town similar rights to London. Throughout the medieval period it was a major administrative and judicial centre.

In 1337 the Duchy of Cornwall was created for the maintenance of the King’s eldest son, a title which automatically passes to the first-born son of the monarch. Launceston was an important part of the first Duke of Cornwall’s (The Black Prince) lands and in 1973 at Launceston the current Duke received his title and ‘feudal dues’ which included 100 shillings, pepper, spurs, a brace of greyhounds and a spear. The town has been staunchly Royalist throughout its history from King Edward to Prince Charles as its motto ‘Royale et Loyale’ signifies.

Over the years the town has had many connections with major events including the Dissolution and the inevitable end of the priory in in 1539, the Prayer Book Rebellion, the execution of the Roman Catholic priest Cuthbert Mayne in 1577, and the Civil War where its location meant that it changed hands several times and housed important leaders of both persuasions. The castle houses a notorious prison which has held the likes of the Quaker, George Fox. The town also has a rich heritage including the beautiful church of St Mary Magdalene with its exterior of sculptured granite, richly decorated and with Latin inscriptions carved all around the cornices. The influence of Launceston can be seen far and wide, not least in the Tasmanian daughter city, also on a river Tamar. Launceston boasts a string of worthy citizens and it would be remiss not to include its most famous and beloved son, the poet Charles Causley whose works are kept in the local museum and after whom the annual literary festival is named.

Robert Simons.