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History of Compton Castle

Inside The Hall at Compton Castle, Devon, showing the fireplace, long table and panelling of oak
Inside The Hall at Compton Castle | © National Trust Images / Francesco Venturi

Part fortified manor house, part family home, the history of Compton Castle is one that spans multiple generations, through periods of disrepair and restoration. The castle has predominantly been owned by members the same family for over 600 years and many of the significant changes made to the house in that time, such as the addition of its defences, reflect wider historical moments.

The rise, decline and rise of Compton Castle

Today, Compton Castle is the home of the Gilbert family, but 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 to, altering and renovating the castle ever since.

John Gilbert succeeded to the Compton estate in 1494 and undertook much of the development which transformed the old manorial hall into a small castle or fashionable fortified manor house. John died in 1539 and with no heir of his own, the property passed to his nephew Otho who lived at nearby Greenway overlooking the River Dart. In 1547, it was inherited by Otho’s son, also called John.

John’s two younger brothers Sir Humphrey and Adrian Gilbert were heavily involved in establishing the first English colonies along the eastern coast of the Americas. Financing such explorations, along with military service in Ireland, may have been one of the reasons why the house began to decline.

Moving on

In the early 18th century, the Gilberts moved to another family house, Sandridge, also on the River Dart and later to Bodmin, Cornwall.

The ruined Manor and castle were sold in 1785. In 1931, Commander Walter Raleigh Gilbert and his wife Joan bought the castle, and six acres of orchard and surrounding land, then started its restoration. Fragments of the original stonework were found amongst the ruins in 1955 and were used as the basis for the Great Hall’s windows.

The American connection

In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert landed in Newfoundland, claiming the harbour and land around it for Queen Elizabeth I. Two years later his half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, started planning the Roanoke Colony in North Carolina.

Gilbert and Raleigh were part of a group known as ‘The West Country Men’ or sometimes during her reign, as the ‘(Protestant) Sea Dogs’ of Elizabeth I. They advocated for and were involved with the colonisation of both North America and Ireland, as well as other colonial expansions, and therefore also attacks on ships of the similarly expanding Spanish empire.

Personal wealth

Their privateering gained them personal wealth and greatly benefited the funds of the crown. Exploring, trading or plundering, their ships sailed from the seaports of Devon. The wealth they accrued enabled investment in the region’s buildings, land and ports.

Sir Humphrey’s youngest son Raleigh Gilbert continued exploring, settling the Popham Colony in Maine, in 1607. However, it only survived one year, succumbing to a bitter winter.

A distant view of the north front side of Compton Castle, Devon with fields behind

Discover more at Compton Castle

Find out when Compton Castle is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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The garden at Compton Castle is small but perfectly formed, its character and appearance changing with the seasons. Discover the variety of plants, sights and smells to be found, including a rose garden and autumnal walks.

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Things to see and do in Compton Castle 

Step inside this fortified medieval manor, complete with a Great Hall and a sub solar, and learn about the lives of people that once called it home.

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