Universities of Plymouth & Pennsylvania Historical Study

14th March, 2018

Plymouth Uni

For three weeks last spring, students and faculty from the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in Historic Preservation joined researchers from the University of Plymouth’s Cornerstone Heritage for an immersive and thorough investigation of Powderham Castle’s architectural history and evolution. Plymouth professors Daniel Maudlin and James Daybell initiated the two-year project, which led to a collaboration between Cornerstone and Penn Design. Cornerstone is committed to working with communities to develop and implement ‘socially engaged heritage projects’, a form of co-production that places the heritage site and its interests at the heart of the investigation. Research by the ‘Penn-Plym’ team into the social history, material culture, and evolution of the landscape and the historic fabric of the castle itself will support future programming, interpretation, community engagement and ongoing research at Powderham.

This collaborative project brings together a wealth of international scholarly expertise from both sides of the Atlantic. It brings together world-leading experts from the fields of architectural history, heritage and historic buildings, social and cultural history, gardens and landscape, as well as from the fields of archives and book history. The project in many ways acts as a model for how this kind of project-based heritage research should be undertaken, and Powderham has been on wonderful case study on which to work.

Although initially constructed as a late medieval castle—meant to look and be imposing and secure—Powderham has largely functioned as a country house over the years. While it did withstand attacks during the sixteenth century and later as it served as a Royalist outpost during the Civil War, the extensive reshaping, refitting, and expansion of the castle and landscape throughout the eighteenth century, along with a nineteenth-century re-Gothicizing campaign, define the visitor’s experience today. With only a brief time for investigative onsite field work, the team from UPenn focused on parsing the chronology of the building’s evolution from its earlier medieval configuration through physical investigation of the structure. The team from Plymouth, on the other hand, directed their attentions towards the castle’s archives, rare book collections and the rich documentary evidence that lies in the Devon Heritage Centre to uncover the hidden secrets of the Courtenays at Powderham during the eighteenth century.


Prior to the eighteenth century, documentation of Powderham Castle is limited to a few cursory descriptions. Speculations about the castle’s initial construction, which is believed to have begun circa 1391, do exist, as well as hypotheses about mid-Tudor era renovations, though no formal documentation or supportive evidence has been discovered thus far. While subsequent work obscures much of the medieval fabric, key finds in the archives helped the team cut through the complexity. Historic plans, maps, accounts and photographs from the Powderham Estate Archives and the Devon Heritage Centre inform the investigation. A detailed book kept by architect Charles Fowler, commissioned by the 10th Earl of Devon in order to reorient and reimagine the castle according to a Victorian medieval ideal, proved to be critical. Fowler provided specific accounts of all of the changes he made throughout the castle, some of which were significant (closing in windows along the western wall of the Great Stair Hall, or re-creating ‘medieval’ arches) and some less so (replicating Georgian trim around door frames).

Extensive alterations made throughout the eighteenth century are documented to varying degrees in scholarly and other secondary sources. These observations are supported by account books and other primary source documents, though logistical details of this transformation remain unclear. Primary source documents at the Devon Heritage Centre, including an original receipt for the plasterwork executed in the famous Stair Hall by plaster worker John Jenkins, referred specifically to a section of the wall adding a ‘Vitruvian scroll’—a seemingly incongruous feature that previously puzzled us.


Because the former medieval structure is subdivided into multiple rooms and floors and refitted with more contemporary interiors, close examination of remaining medieval fabric required peering behind walls, in closets, and in ceilings. As part of these in-depth investigations, the project team studied traces of ghost windows and other openings left on the exterior of the building. Lifting floorboards, peering into crawlspaces, attics, and up chimneys, analyzing cracks in plaster anddifferences in stone and mortar types all led us to developmany, many questions, hypotheses, and recommendations for further investigation. Think the kind archaeological techniques employed by Time Team, only above ground.


By carefully recording each ‘medieval’ space and significant medieval and other features, we have collected data that will determine a set of ‘preservation drawings’— architectural drawings with visual and textual annotations that communicate how spaces have changed over time in detail. A preliminary 3-D phasing model will show how and when various sections were added to the castle. The model has helped us identify areas of uncertainty where we will focus our investigations this year. Among our interests are: analyzing the west tower, for which a construction date is not definitively known; identifying possible remnants of a medieval newel staircase in what is now the China room; clarifying the evolution of a medieval section now enveloped by the north apartment wing, and conducting an exterior analysis of the building with a focus on identifying distinct stone campaigns and remnants of various window campaigns—medieval through 20th century—to look for patterns that help understand the original configuration. Central also is the transformation of the medieval core during the eighteenth century by successive generations of the Courtenay family, who oversaw its rebuilding.

Plymouth Uni

The project is underpinned by extensive archival research in the archives room at the castle itself, as well as at Devon Heritage Centre. This work was begun in the summer of 2016 by two Plymouth-based post-doctoral researchers who did an intensive 3-week scoping exercise of manuscripts at the house, the local record office, The British Library, and Oxford’s Bodleian. This paved the way for a team of researchers and interns to work through Powderham’s records last summer. By far the largest cache of surviving papers relating to Powderham and the family are contained in the local record office (call mark 1508M: Courtenay of Powderham, 13th century- 20th century). Later estate records form the bulk of the collection and these include a valuation of the lands of the attainted Marquis of Exeter, 1539, a survey book, 1574-1640, and a superb group of eighteenth-century surveys, maps and accounts. There are also rentals for the period 1592-1933, letter books and correspondence for 1803-1945, accounts, ledgers and audit books that cover the seventeenth century-1949, labour books for 1839-1946, manorial court rolls and books for the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, leases for the sixteenth-twentieth centuries, and a separate group of records relating to Irish properties. Among the most useful records to survive are the 80 odd massive account books that survive, which allow for us not only to reconstruct of the building work and gardens, but also provide detail of day-to-day life at Powderham over the centuries.


The archives room at Powderham is also a treasure trove of important historical manuscripts that shed further light on the history of the castle and family. In addition to household accounts and correspondence are maps, plans, and historic images, the tithe map of 1834, and various map books. From the account books we can reconstruct the servants who worked at Powderham, kitchen payments, payments for building works, as well as the planting of the gardens. Of particular note is a bill from 1739 which records ‘work in the library £39 4s 4d’, and another that documents costs associated with the making of the magnificent Stumbles Clock.

Beyond these traditional archives, the castle archives reveal a myriad of boxes, which shed light on other aspects of family life. As you enter the archives room, a small cupboard contains all the religious apparatus once used in the castle chapel, including boxes of ceremonial equipment: a chalice and small shell-shaped christening bowl for use in christenings. One of the most interesting finds, however, is a simple wooden box, which is inscribed with the words ‘Prayer Books’ ‘Family’, and ‘old’ in brackets. Contained within are dozens of pocket-sized books of prayers that date from the late-eighteenth to nineteenth century. Many of them contain the names of their owners, the person who gave them, and their date they were gifted. Among these volumes are several fascinating ‘finger prayer books’, tiny volumes that are no bigger than an index finger, and easily slipped into a pocket for prayer on the hoof. Another two piles of family prayer books are contained in old ammunition boxes, probably chosen for their sturdiness. Collected together these books shed important light on the personal piety of the Georgian and Victorian generation of Courtenays. Within the recesses of the archive rooms are several very interesting ‘memory boxes’, in other words, boxes the sole purpose of which was the preserve for sentimental reasons the personal effects of family members. One such memory box is labelled as belonging to ‘Cousin Betty Somerset’, which includes all sorts of assorted trinkets, including what is described as a ‘floating dairy thermometer’, the provenance of which is something of a mystery! The purpose of these boxes is to archive documents and objects that have either legal import or treasured sentimental meaning for the family.


Outside of the formal archive room in what might affectionately be described as the ‘wild archives’, is a veritable treasure trove of archival history and material culture. One of the most intriguing and useful types of object that survives today is a collection of old trunks, which according to Felicity Harper the sage-like archivist, were bought for boys of the Courtenay family when they attended boarding school. These trunks survive today, bearing the initials of their original owners and sometimes with their contents still intact. One such trunk off the haunted landing and up a spiral staircase is brim-full with old bric-a-brac: photos, correspondence and two rather bizarre horns. In another wing of the castle, a storage room contains what is effectively late Georgian lap-desk, its contents seemingly frozen in aspic, including love letters containing locks of hair.

A further part of this ongoing research among Powderham’s records has seen the Plymouth team recover and digitize the catalogues of rare printed books that are housed in the property. The resulting database is being order and checked, and will be available for future generations of researches wanting to consult these volumes. The library contains over 5000 titles for the period 1502-1893, with many undated volumes, but over half the volumes relate to the eighteenth century. Many of the tomes contain ownership marks and annotations, which far from being sacrilegious acts of bibliophilic vandalism, tell us a great deal about who owned the books, and how they were read.

All of this work has created a wealth of material to keep track of. With this in mind, research gathered by both UPenn and Plymouth in 2017 and 2018 will live in a database, which will keep the material organized and allow future researchers to query data already gathered by the team. Database tables include archival documents, historic images and a visual timeline, photographs, bibliographic and primary source documents, and field observations. Storing our findings in the databaseprovides a framework to keep future research accessible and organized as the data and knowledge of Powderham continue grow.

Powderham provides a remarkable learning laboratory for students and visitors alike – so many mysteries yet to explore. Our team made considerable progress towards developing a deeper understanding of Powderham Castle’s building evolution. We have been involved with working with the local Kenton Primary school to share our research as part of enriching their school curriculum, and are currently working with Kenton History Society and local community to work on a beautiful eighteenth-century map-book that has contemporary meaning for the village in which they live. Though many findings are not yet adequately conclusive to corroborate historical accounts, the investigation significantly furthered our grasp of Powderham’s structural complexities. The generations of the Courtenay family each evolved their castle and house to suit the fashions and cultural customs of their times. The significance the long family habitation over hundreds of years is inherently meaningful to the Courtenays. We are eager to return and delve in again, with this year’s focus on the eighteenth century spaces this May!

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