Tales from Lydford Castle

The Stannary court held assizes at Lydford Castle, with the Stannary prison in the dungeons below.

The Stannary court held assizes at Lydford Castle, with the Stannary prison in the dungeons below. - Credit: David Phillips

As I’ve said previously, Lydford is an important place on Dartmoor.

Not only does it contain the parish church where, at one time, all burials had to take place but it also has a castle which has seen a lot of action over the years, from defending against Viking invasion to its use as a prison for the enemies of the tinners.

The oldest defences date back to the Dark Ages, when, in the 9th century, the Saxon Kings of Wessex had ordered the construction of a stronghold at Lydford to keep out Viking raiders and marauding Cornishmen!

Back then it was regarded as equally important as Exeter or Totnes - even having its own mint, as demonstrated by the fact Lydford produced coins have been found in Scandinavia, possibly as part of the Danegeld, protection money paid by the Saxons to the Vikings!

Sadly, said Vikings weren’t to be trusted as they actually invaded the village in 997 AD... fortunately, the defences were enough to successfully repel the attack!

Like all of England, the defences were no match for our Norman conquerors, and after 1066 the village was further protected by the construction of earthworks, consisting of mounds and ditches, the remains of which can still be seen today.

The wooden fort that would have accompanied them was still in use during the 12th century when a fire broke out causing them to be abandoned. 

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However, Lydford was still an important administrative centre for the Norman lords of the newly named Dartmoor Forest, who evolved their own system of taxation and laws to control the emerging tin mining industry across the moors.

It is this part of the castle’s history that is the most notorious. 

In 1194, King John ordered the construction of a stone tower with two stories to act as a prison and court house to deal with any transgressors of both the forest and Stannary Laws.

This tower evolved into Lydford Castle, the remains of which can be seen today on its mound between the church and the pub.

Now Stannary Law consisted of the rules and regulations by which the tin miners of Dartmoor plied their trade, and they were notoriously strict.

Stannary derives from the Latin word for tin, stannum, and gives its name to anything associated with the mining of tin.

You have Stannary towns, four of which exist on Dartmoor - Tavistock, Ashburton, Chagford and Plymstock - where the tin from the moors would have been valued, turned into coinage and sold.

Representatives from each of these towns would have been required to attend regular meetings of the Stannary Parliament, which were held in the open on Crockern Tor that can be found on the hillside just north of Two Bridges outside Princetown.

This particular location was decided upon as it was deemed equidistant between all four towns, thus no member had to travel further than any other.

These meetings could last for days. Sessions would pass laws and decrees covering all aspects of the industry, and, as I’ve said, were notoriously strict...woe betide anyone who dared break them, for they would find themselves in front of the Stannary court that held assizes at Lydford Castle, that’s if they survived imprisonment in the Stannary prison in the dungeons below.

Conditions in the lower levels were pretty grim and not many survived what became known as 'Lydford Law', for once imprisoned you were literally forgotten about as your chances of making an actual court appearance were pretty slim as the judges sat in judgement seldom, so as the sentence was usually execution this was often carried out before you were actually found guilty!

This was until a local MP from Plymouth, by the name of Richard Strode, himself a tinner, in 1510 tried to pass a law restricting the activities of the tinners, whose processes used in mining were silting up the docks as far afield as Plymouth and thus upsetting his concerned constituents.

In an effort to silence the MP a fellow miner claimed Strode had an outstanding debt to pay which he was refusing to do, the punishment for this was imprisonment in Lydford Castle.

Fortunately for Strode, his powerful friends kept his sentence short and, having survived his terrible ordeal at the hands of his jailers, he got a bill passed through Parliament which curtailed the power of the tinners, preventing them from dealing with any opposition in a similar fashion.

Someone had finally stood up against the powerful industry and won!

From then on, the tinners were no longer feared and this seemed to mark a decline in the fortunes of the miners eventually leading to the end of the industry on Dartmoor. 

Is it any wonder then that when you visit the castle remains today it has a certain atmosphere that certain people find unpleasant?

Over the years several spooky stories have become attached to the place, including the fact that the infamous hanging judge, Judge Jeffreys, who may or may not have held court here, still roams the castle and the pub next-door in the form of a black pig.

Another animal spirit, possibly witnessed during late night investigations, was a bear, seen roaming the remains of the dungeon.

Is it possible that bear baiting might have been carried out among the inmates for the sport of the jailers and one such victim has returned?

For my part, I have visited Lydford Castle many times, day and night, and on one such daytime visit I was just entering the keep by myself, passing a couple of visitors as they were leaving, when I got a distinct smell of tobacco smoke.

Now I don’t smoke, and nor were either of the people I had just passed and no one else was inside the building, so where did it come from?

Sometimes you get the smell of wood smoke wafting up from the pub below, but you can tell the difference distinctly.

Had I experienced a playback of a past event? A prison guard having a crafty puff on his pipe while on sentry duty maybe?

A case of a smelly paranormal encounter... the jury is still out, m’lud.