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History of Dunster Castle

A view of Dunster Castle through the trees above the castle, Somerset
Dunster Castle through the surrounding trees | © National Trust Images / James Dobson

Dunster Castle has sat at its commanding location since the Middle Ages: a perfect site for a castle, both visually impressive and easily defended. Find out how it has been transformed through the ages from a fortress to a family home, having been owned by only two families throughout its history.

A thousand years of history

The de Mohuns family 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 hillfort 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.

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, 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.

1000 years of history video

Discover Dunster Castle in our introductory video, which takes you on a rapid romp through the first 1000 years of its history. Watch it here.

A volunteer welcomes two visitors at the entrance to Dunster Castle, Somerset
A volunteer welcomes visitors at the entrance to Dunster Castle, Somerset | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

The Luttrell family

  • 1376 - castle sold to the Luttrell family

  • 1420 - gatehouse built

  • 1617 - Jacobean mansion created

  • 1642-1651 - castle saved during the English Civil War

In 1680 Colonel Francis married the wealthy Dorset heiress, Mary Tregonwell. They spent enthusiastically, with one addition to the castle being the carved staircase. It was probably carved by Edward Pearce, one of the best craftsmen of the period.

The panels are carved with hunting scenes that run in and out of acanthus leaves, demonstrating the wealth and power of the Luttrell family.

Reinventing the castle

In 1868, George Luttrell began an ambitious building programme at Dunster. The architect Anthony Salvin was employed 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. He created corridors for servants to move around 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.

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 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 until his death in 1944.

The estate was liable for an enormous amount of death duty tax. The size of the bill left his son Geoffrey little option but to sell the castle and estate.

The Luttrell family became tenants until 1954 when they were able to buy back the castle and grounds, opening them to the public. When Geoffrey died in 1957 his wife remained at the castle until 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

Two people visit the Leather Gallery at Dunster Castle, Somerset
Visitors in the Leather Room at Dunster Castle | © National Trust Images / Megan Taylor

Leather hangings

Of international significance and the only collection of their type in the United Kingdom, the painted leather hangings are arguably the rarest and most important pieces in Dunster’s collection.

They tell the love story of Antony and Cleopatra, a tale made famous by Shakespeare. Made of calfskin, they are embossed and painted to give a three-dimensional appearance.

Altered to fit

Probably made in the Netherlands in the late 1600s the leather hangings were not originally made for ;Dunster. They were altered at some point in order to fit the room they are displayed in, sometime between 1701 and 1741.

Leather hangings were often chosen for dining rooms over more traditional tapestries as leather doesn’t retain the smells of food.

Repaired in 1759, they were re-hung in the 1870s and have remained on display ever since.

Grand stables

Dunster's stables date from the early 17th century. They are one of the earliest surviving stable blocks owned by the National Trust.

Horses were valuable commodities in medieval society, essential for transport, communication and for use in battle. For a Lord to be considered powerful they would have needed warhorses and John de Mohun V certainly had one of the best: a white charger given to him personally by the Black Prince as reward for bravery after the Battle of Crécy in 1346. This horse was named Grisel Gris and gave rise to the Legend of Grisel Gris.

Tests carried out in 2009 revealed that the massive oak beams in the stables are 17th century in origin. If you look closely at the random rubble masonry and other areas of the stables, it is possible to see that it is reused stonework from an earlier medieval stable block arrangement.

The development of the stables

Free-standing stables began to be built from the 16th century, and historically were the second oldest type of castle building apart from the Keep.

At Dunster Castle, as at other permanent strongholds, there were stables for cows and oxen, with a dairy and dovecote. The pigsty would have been beyond the outer gate. At Dunster, the pigsty was probably situated by the River Avill, close to the Mill buildings.

More recent history

From the 20th century, the stables only really came to life during polo matches, when all available space was needed to house the opposing team’s ponies.

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Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Dunster Castle on the National Trust Collections website.

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Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Dunster Castle on the National Trust Collections website.