An illustration of Compton Castle in the 1800s © National Trust

An illustration of Compton Castle in the 1800s

A family affair

Today, as well as being open to the public, the castle is the home of Geoffrey and Angela Gilbert and their family. The land was originally held by the de Compton family. The marriage of Joan de Compton to Geoffrey Gilbert in 1329 brought the two families together and the Gilberts have been adding, altering and renovating their home ever since.


The roofline of Compton Castle, showing some of its defences

The roofline of Compton Castle, showing some of its defences

No castle is complete without its defences and Compton has grown from a manor house to the fortified structure of today. The manor was enlarged in the 1450s and then, in response to French raids on Plymouth in the 1520s, it was fortified.

A close eye could be kept on the two portcullises from the lookout holes close to the ground and arrows, fired through loop holes, kept attackers at bay. For those that did get through and climbed the walls, a rain of stones or boiling oil thrown down holes high up on the walls stopped them in their tracks.

Facts and figures

  • The walls are three feet thick local limestone with red sandstone and Beer stone dressings
  • Missiles could be dropped through ‘machicolations’ - projections from the roofline with slots in the floor
  • The defensive curtain wall surrounding the castle is 7.3 metres high
  • In 1583, in the name of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Humphrey Gilbert colonised Newfoundland
  • Two years later his half brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, started planning the Roanoke Colony in North Carolina
  • Sir Humphrey’s youngest son Raleigh Gilbert continued exploring, settling the Popham Colony in Maine in 1607


By 1800 the family had moved to Bodmin, and Compton fell into ruin and was sold. Commander Walter Raleigh Gilbert bought the castle and surrounding orchard back and started its restoration.

Defeating the Armada

Model of The Revenge, the ship of Sir Francis Drake

Model of The Revenge, the ship of Sir Francis Drake

Compton Castle stands just three miles from the inviting anchorage at Torbay, so would have been in the front line of any Spanish invasion. As Vice-Admiral of Devon, Compton Castle's Sir John Gilbert (1533-96) played a leading part in marshalling ships, men and supplies to meet the Spanish Armada in 1588, while Sir John's brothers provided ships for the English fleet. The commanders of the fleet, Sir Frances Drake and Sir John Hawkins, were both Devon men; their defeat of the Spanish Armada marked one of the proudest moments in Devon's maritime history.