In the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror entrusted the conquest of the south-west of England to his half-brother Robert of Mortain. Expecting stiff resistance, Robert marched west into Somerset, supported by forces under Walter of Douai, who entered from the north; a third force, under the command of William de Mohun, landed by sea along the Somerset coast. William had been granted 68 manors in the region and by 1086 had established a castle at Dunster; this would form both the caput, or principal castle, for his new lands, and help guard the coast against the threat of any fresh sea-borne attack, as well as controlling the coastal road running from Somerset to Gloucestershire. This first castle was a motte and bailey design, built upon the former Anglo-Saxon burgh; the top of the Tor was scarped to form the motte, or Upper Ward, and an area below shaped to form the bailey, or Lower Ward. Somerset became more stable in the aftermath of the post-invasion period and the unsuccessful 1068 rebellion against Norman rule. It was common in the period for the Normans to build religious houses to accompany major castles, and accordingly William de Mohun endowed a Benedictine priory at Dunster in 1090, along with its parent abbey at Bath. The River Avill was important for trade; the region around Dunster was rich with fisheries and vineyards, and Dunster Castle prospered. Stone fortifications were built on the site during the early 12th century, probably forming a shell keep around the top of the motte.
In the late 1130s England began to descend into a period of civil war known as the Anarchy, during which the supporters of King Stephen fought with those of the Empress Matilda for control of the kingdom. William de Mohun's eldest son, also called William, was a noted supporter of Matilda, and Dunster was considered one of her faction's strongest castles in the south-west. In 1138 forces loyal to Stephen besieged the castle. William successfully held the castle and was made the Earl of Somerset by the grateful Empress. Chroniclers subsequently complained of the way in which he then raided and controlled the region by force during the war, causing much destruction. In the 13th century the Lower Ward was rebuilt in stone by Reynold Mohun; this was paid for in part by Reynold commuting his tenants' ongoing duty to repair the castle walls into a single, one-off financial payment to their lord, and partially through his marriage to a rich local heiress. A survey of the castle in 1266 described the Upper Ward on the top of the motte as containing a hall with a buttery, a pantry, a kitchen, a bakehouse, the chapel of Saint Stephen and a knight's hall, guarded by three towers. The Lower Ward included a granary, two towers and a gatehouse; one of the towers, called the Fleming Tower, was used as a prison. The castle stables lay outside the defences, further down the slope. In 1330 Sir John de Mohun inherited the castle; John, although a notable knight, was childless and fell into considerable debt. His wife Joan took over the running of their estates, and when John died in 1376 she agreed to sell the castle to Lady Elizabeth Luttrell, the leading member of another major Norman family, for 5,000 marks.
When the English Civil War broke out Thomas Luttrell initially supported Parliament and William Russell, the Duke of Bedford and Parliamentary commander in Devon and Somerset, ordered him to increase the garrison at Dunster to resist a potential Royalist attack. The Royalist commander William Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, attacked the castle in 1642 but was driven back by the garrison, led by Thomas' wife, Jane. The war in the south-west turned in favour of the King, and on 7 June 1643 the Royalists mustered forces to attack the castle again: this time Luttrell surrendered, switching sides to support the Royalists until his death the following February. Colonel Wyndham was appointed the Royalist governor of the castle. During 1645 the Royalist military cause largely collapsed, and Colonel Robert Blake led a Parliamentary force against Dunster in October. In November Blake began his siege of the castle, setting up his artillery in Dunster village and starting to dig tunnels to plant mines beneath the walls. The castle was briefly relieved by reinforcements in February 1646, but the siege was resumed and by April the Royalists situation was untenable – an honourable surrender was negotiated and a Parliamentary garrison installed. Parliament decided to deliberately destroy, or slight, the defences of castles in key Royalist areas, including the south-west. In the case of Dunster, Thomas's son George Luttrell was able to convince the authorities to destroy only the medieval defensive walls, rather than the entire castle, leaving Dunster damaged from the recent siege but still habitable; the walls were demolished over 12 days in August 1650 by a team of 300 workmen. The only parts of the medieval walls to survive were the Great Gatehouse and the bases of the two towers in the Lower Ward.
George Luttrell inherited the castle in 1867 and began an extensive modernisation, backed by the considerable income from the Dunster estates – in a period of agricultural boom in England, the estates were producing £22,000 in revenue a year (think millions today). He employed Anthony Salvin, a noted architect then most famous for his work at Alnwick Castle, to carry out the work between 1868 and 1872 at a total cost of £25,350. The work included the construction of an underground reservoir, holding 40,000 imperial gallons to provide running water for the castle and village. Salvin aimed to create a castle that would appear to have grown up organically over time, but still appeal to Victorian aesthetic taste. Accordingly, a large, square tower was built on the west side of the castle and another smaller tower on the east, both creating additional space but also making the castle deliberately asymmetrical. The 18th-century chapel at the rear was demolished and replaced with another tower, alongside a modern conservatory. A variety of windows in the styles of different historical periods were inserted in the walls, while modern Victorian technology, including gas lighting-supported by a gas plant in the basement-central heating and new kitchens were installed within the castle. The roof of the Great Gatehouse was raised to create a more uniform sequence of battlements, and a large hall for gatherings of the local farmers installed. A new wing of servants' quarters and offices were sunk into the hill, spread over two floors leading away from the main part of the mansion.
Internally, Salvin knocked through existing rooms to create the Outer Hall, a new gallery on the first floor, a billiard room, a new library and a drawing room. Much of the wooden 17th-century panelling in the parlour and the hall had to be stripped out as part of the renovations. As part of his work, Salvin appears to have used a number of rolled wrought-iron beams to span the resulting structural gaps in the building, an advanced use of that technology for the time. The house was refurnished with newly bought 16th and 17th-century artwork, two brass Italian cannons and a stuffed polar bear. There is a Braille guide. Designated mobility parking in main car park and Wheelchair-accessible transfer and drop-off point. The building is on a steep slope. Steps to ground floor. Stairs to other floors. Limited access via mobile stairclimber. Please telephone in advance to check availability and suitability of stairclimber and PMVs. Adapted toilets by shop and ticket office. There is no toilet at the castle. Assistance dogs are welcome.
At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 there were two mills in Dunster. One which was called the Lower Mill was on the site of the present mill. In the 17th century there were both malt and oats mills but by 1721 one of these had been converted to a fulling mill. The present mill was built around 1780 and replaced the two former mills. In 1940 a bakery was added. The mill ground corn until World War II and then animal feed until it closed in 1962. It was restored to working order in 1979 and currently produces stoneground wholemeal flour from organic wheat. The team also pack porridge oats and jumbo oats, and mix and pack their own museli. The grinding equipment is powered by a pair of overshot wheels, which transfer power to the crown wheel via a series of belts. This then drives the grinding stones and sack lift. There is a doorway on the first floor to allow material to be hoisted up the building. An adapted winnowing machine is used to sift the flour produced by the millstones. It is wheelchair accessible and guide dogs are welcome. Currently, the watermill is only operated on selected days. Please call 01643 821759 to check when the mill is operating.
The Dunster Museum features the History of Dunster and its Villagers with audio/visual records, documentation, artifacts, archaeology in the Hall, and a ‘Hands on’ and ‘Explore’ area on the stage. In addition there is a fabulous Doll Collection. There are many old and interesting dolls to be seen, which come from many different periods, and many are in their original clothes. Old dolls can be compared with those from the second half of the 20th century to provide a fascinating contrast. There are Artists’ and Fashion Dolls and a unique collection of 20 “Sasha” Dolls in 1913 period dress, and the Bristol Red Cross Dolls. A prominent feature of the collection is the wide range of ethnic dolls illustrating the costumes of many lands and cultures. Dolls that will remind visitors of their childhood and nursery rhyme characters familiar to all children are also there. Novelties, such as tea cosy and dressing table dolls, advertising figures and dolls from many unusual materials can be seen.
The museum is wheelchair accessible and has a disabled use toilet. There is much that can be handled. Assistance dogs are welcome. Local volunteers will be happy to answer any questions.
Location : Dunster, near Minehead, Somerset, TA24 6SL
Transport: Dunster (West Somerset Rail) 1 mile to Castle. Bus Routes : 198, 467 and 678 stop nearby (steep walk).
Opening Times Castle: Daily 11:00 - 17:00
Opening Times Mill: Daily 10:00 - 17:00
Opening Times Museum: Daily 11:00 - 15:00
Tickets Castle: Adults £10.30; Children £5.15
Tickets Mill: Free but dependent on Tea Room / Shop.
Tickets Museum: Free
Tel: 01643 821314