Devon Perspectives

Okehampton part 2

A brief history of the town's politics and its castle

south facing wall of Okehampton Castle
a rotten time

The borough of Okehampton was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1623, and from 1640 Okehampton returned two members to parliament. The most notable amongst these is William Pitt the Elder who was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1766 to 1768. With the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, Okehampton was disenfranchised, losing both its seats as it was deemed to be a 'rotten borough' having declined in size and importance since 1640. Many such boroughs were controlled by patronage or bribery: Pitt the Elder himself said "[Borough representation is] the rotten part of the constitution." Before the 1832 Act there was no complete electoral register, and boroughs typically had few eligible voters. After the electoral reform the franchise in boroughs was widened to include all owners and occupiers whose property was worth at least £10 annually. The effect of the Act in Devon was a reduction in the number of MPs by 4 to 22, the removal of those in the rotten boroughs being offset by the addition of two seats in the newly created borough of Devonport.

White Hart Hotel

The White Hart Hotel, dating back to the 16th Century, occupies a prominent position where Fore Street joins West Street, and the balcony was the place from which it is said that MPs used to address the citizenry.

Okehampton Castle
Okehampton Castle

In about 1070 a stately motte-and-bailey castle was built at the side of the West Okement river, about a mile south-west of the town, by Baldwin de Brioniis whom William the Conquerer had created Earl of Devon; it was extended, restored, and beautified by subsequent barons including Richard de Redvers, believed to be the 4th Earl of Devon who died in 1193, and successive generations of Courtenays.

In the last years of its heyday, the castle was used as a base for hunting expeditions in the surrounding parkland. This is well described in 'Okehampton Castle, Devon', ©English Heritage:
By 1274 Okehampton Castle had become semi- derelict, as its lords, the Courtenay family, lived some distance to the east in Tiverton. A few years later, however, it was re-built and extended, not as a fortress but as the centre of a great deer park, an occasional residence to which tenants and retainers could be invited, a fitting stage for the display of aristocratic power. In 1335 the head of the family, Hugh Courtenay, became Earl of Devon. From then on Okehampton Castle played its part in sustaining the Courtenays prestige, its great hall resounding to the noise of their hunting parties, its chapel and suites of lodgings accommodating their ever growing household.
Okehampton Castle keep

It served as the seat of the great baronial power till its forfeiture in the time of Henry VIII in 1539, when the then incumbent Henry Courtenay, Marquis of Exeter was executed for treason. There was much residual mistrust at the time between the Yorkists and the Tudors, ultimate victors of the War of the Roses, and according to Tudor Place:

Courtenay's power in the west of England had now become supreme, and he assumed a very independent attitude to Henry VIII's minister Cromwell, whom he cordially disliked. As the grandson of Edward IV, he had a certain claim to the throne, and his wealth and intimacy with the Yorkist Poles and the Nevilles readily enabled Cromwell to point him out to the King as a danger to the succession.....Gradually information was collected in Devonshire and Cornwall to justify a prosecution for treason.
Most of the castle was then dismantled and it was never again inhabited. Here is an evocative portrait of the ruins by John Marius Wilson, Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870-72), reproduced from Vision of Britain:
The ruins of it still stand, and form, with the objects around them, a very striking picture; they occupy the summit and slopes of a rocky mount, thickly clothed with trees; they show the castle, as to both position and structure, to have been very strong; they form a large mass or group of masonry, and yet are so embosomed in wood as to be but slightly visible from the road approaching them; and they include a crowning small quadrangular keep of decorated or later English date, and lower buildings, with great hall, numerous chambers, and part of a chapel, ranging in date from early English to perpendicular.
Okehampton Castle, on the River Okement

The historical image shown is of "Okehampton Castle, on the River Okement" engraved by Charles Turner in 1825 after JMW Turner's famous watercolour painted a year earlier. Charles was a close friend of JMW Turner, many of whose paintings he engraved with great technical skill and artistry. The ruined castle's haunting presence is used as a backdrop to the contemporary scene showing the wood-cutters at work.

Another famous painting of the castle is that by Richard Wilson (1714-1782). His 'View of Okehampton Castle' was painted after a visit to the town in 1771. It now hangs in Birmingham Art Gallery.

Acknowledgements
The image of Charles Turner's engraving of Okehampton Castle is used by courtesy of Tate Images, ©Tate, London 2006.
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