From fortress to family home

The castle as seen from the parkland

With 1,000 years of history the castle has plenty of great stories to tell. The last family to live here, the Luttrells, moved in in 1376 and out in 1976, and changed a medieval stronghold into a comfortable family home.

A thousand years of history

Dunster Castle has commanded this outstanding location atop the tor since the Middle Ages. It is a perfect site for a castle – visually impressive and easily defended. The castle, owned by only two families, has been transformed through the ages from fortress to family home.

The long and eventful history of Dunster Castle starts with the de Mohuns who arrived soon after William the Conqueror became King of England in 1066. William de Mohun constructed a timber castle on the site of a Saxon hill fort as part of the pacification of Somerset.

Nothing remains of the de Mohuns’ castle except the 13th century lower level gateway with its massive iron-bound oak doors. In the 1470s the bill for repairing the castle gateway was just £1 and it was clearly money well spent as the doors are still in good order today. The medieval castle was fortified by a stone curtain wall and bastion towers along the north side of the lower ward. One such bastion tower remains to this day, although in a semi-ruined state as the wall was demolished by Oliver Cromwell’s men in 1650  at the end of the English Civil War. The owner at that time George Luttrell, thankfully managed to persuade parliament to let him keep his family home.

The iron-bound doors of the 13 century gateway built by Reynold de Mohun II
The iron-bound doors of the 13th century gateway built by Reynold de Mohun II
The iron-bound doors of the 13 century gateway built by Reynold de Mohun II

In 1376 the de Mohuns sold the castle to the Luttrell family, who were responsible for most of what we see at Dunster today. They built the gatehouse in 1420, created a Jacobean mansion in 1617, defended and saved the castle during the English Civil War and updated the castle in the Victorian era.

In 1680 Colonel Francis married the beautiful and wealthy Dorset heiress, Mary Tregonwell. They spent enthusiastically. One of their additions was adding the carved staircase, probably by Edward Pearce, one of the best carvers of the time. The staircase is a feast for the eyes in rich, dark wood, but at one time all this intricate carving was painted white. The panels are carved with hunting scenes that run in and out of acanthus leaves that demonstrate the wealth and power of the Luttrell family.

The staircase at Dunster Castle carved by Edward Pearce, one of the best carvers of the time
The staircase at Dunster Castle carved by Edward Pearce, one of the best carvers of the time
The staircase at Dunster Castle carved by Edward Pearce, one of the best carvers of the time

Reinventing the castle

In 1868, another George Luttrell began an ambitious building programme at Dunster Castle. George Fownes Luttrell employed architect Anthony Salvin to redesign the castle and create a comfortable Victorian family home. Salvin had worked on other castles and country houses including Alnwick, Caernarfon and Windsor Castle. At Dunster he altered the building’s exterior, demolishing the chapel on the south front, building two new towers and adding battlements emphasising its medieval origins.

A major part of Salvin’s work was the improvement of the servants’ quarters. Salvin rather ingeniously created corridors for servants to move around in as well as relocating the kitchen from the west of the castle to the new tower wing on the east. Other innovations included new bedroom suites and a bathroom with hot running water – the height of luxury.

With Salvin’s remodelling, the Luttrells had a large comfortable family home, efficiently run with the help of servants. This enabled George and his wife Anne to invest heavily in the local economy, back the railway to Minehead and promote the town as a port and seaside resort.

The entrance front of William Arnold's Jacobean house in 1839, before Salvin's remodelling
The entrance front of William Arnold's Jacobean house in 1839, before Salvin's remodelling
The entrance front of William Arnold's Jacobean house in 1839, before Salvin's remodelling

The last Luttrells at Dunster

Alexander inherited the estate in 1910 but he continued to live at Court House, East Quantoxhead. He squired both properties for 34 years till his death in 1944. The estate was liable for an enormous amount of inheritance tax. The size of the bill left his son Geoffrey little option but to sell the castle and the estate. The Luttrell family became tenants of their historic family home till 1954 when they were able to buy back the castle and grounds, this time opened to the public. When Geoffrey died in 1957 his wife remained at the castle till her death in 1974. Her son, Walter Luttrell, gave Dunster Castle to the National Trust in 1976.  

" The castle is not just bricks and mortar, it's a living thing."
- Julian Luttrell

Striking balance between conserving the castle and enabling people to enjoy its special character and collections is a constant challenge. Encouraging more visitors puts additional pressure on the historic fabric of the buildings, and opening the collections more frequently increases their exposure to sunlight and susceptibility to wear and tear. All heritage sites face these challenges, and the team at Dunster Castle strive to meet them imaginatively and successfully.