As a youngster I often pondered why the small muddy footpath that leads along the waters edge from St Clement to Malpas had its own road sign. As I grew older I realised that the name on the sign – Denas Road – must have some connection to the Cornish word for castle, dinas, but there wasn’t a castle here . . . was there? Well, if there is one thing I have become accustomed to since I began researching and writing about Cornwall is that our home is always full of surprises! This is what I have discovered about Moresk Castle.
Before the village was named after Saint Clement, the patron saint of mariners, there was a manor here called Moresk. Moresk, or Moireis, was recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086 as having a population of eighteen households, ten cattle, one hundred sheep and seven goats. Prior to the Norman Conquest details of landownership and settlement in Cornwall are fairly sketchy, very few written records exist.
However, Susan Pearce in her book South-West Britain in the Early Middle Ages (2004) writes that around one thousand years ago in 981 AD a man called Earl Ordwulf (or Ordulf) owned large areas of land in the south-west, particularly in Devon and Cornwall. Importantly for us however Ordwulf held ‘Castle Moresk’ near Truro.
Despite being a name that has just about vanished into the mists of time, Ordwulf was an important member of English aristocracy and became part of the Royal family of Wessex. The family were from Devon and he was the brother of Alfrida (Elfrida), who became Queen of England as the third wife of King Edgar, and the uncle of King Ethelred the Unready.
As a man Ordwulf was considered to be clever and well educated, chroniclers of the time record him as a close advisor to his nephew, King Ethelred. Also highly religious he founded Tavistock Abbey in about 974 and may have retired there to live as a monk in 1005. At some point he married a woman called Aelfwynn but it is unclear whether they had any children. However, some historians have claimed his descendants were important men in Cornwall at the time of the Conquest. Earl Ordwulf died on 18th December, probably at Tavistock, but the exact year is unknown.
So, what of his castle?
Location, Location, Location
Unfortunately we can’t be sure of the castle’s exact position or how it would have once looked. But piecing together various sources we are able to build a rough idea. It seems likely that the castle would have been built on the high ground above the creek, a defensive position which would have afforded commanding views of the river in both directions.
These waterways and the crossing at Tresillian have always been of strategic importance. The so called Denas Road, now just a footpath, skirts the edge of the creek around the curve of the point all the way to Malpas. The name of course suggests a close association with the now vanished fortification. These old OS map images gives us a good indication of its probable position, with the ‘road’ leading right to it, but they were mapped many years after the castle’s destruction.
Fun Fact: Moresk, also Morhesk, Moireis or Moreis, means ‘sea waters’ or ‘marsh’.
The Manorial Assession Rolls, which recorded the 17 manors of Edward III in the Duchy in 1337, the ‘Antiqua Maneria’, include some details of Moresk Manor. Interestingly the manor recorded a tenement called Dinas suggesting that this was once the location of the castle, although I haven’t been able to establish whether a map of Moresk Manor still exists.
The 15th century antiquarian and chronicler William Worcester wrote in 1487 that there were the ruins of a castle at Moresk which had once been the home of Edmund, Earl of Cornwall. He concluded that it had been destroyed in c1104, so roughly 100 years after Earl Ordwulf’s death. However, some have attributed its destruction to the war between Stephen and Matilda which occurred a little later.
Cutting a long and complicated story short, when Henry I died in 1135 his nephew Stephen went to London to take the throne, claiming that the king had named him as heir on his deathbed, Henry’s daughter Matilda, who was actually the next in line, was a bit put out by this. The civil war that followed lasted for nearly 20 years and became known as The Anarchy. Matilda’s forces took control of the south-west as far as the Thames Valley and seized all the strategic castles in the region. Could Moresk Castle have been one and did this lead to its ruin?
How the castle looked is a mystery but we can be fairly certain that it was once a substantial stone structure, not timber as some have suggested. “Old walls” were recorded in the 17th century and again in 1794 as forming part of a garden. In 1847 H. Maclaughlan, who wrote about many of Cornwall’s antiquities, surveyed the area and submitted his findings in a report, Notes on the Manors of Tewington, Moresk and Tywarnhaile, to the Royal Institute of Cornwall. He is said to have identified a rectangle earthwork at St Clements, though it is not clear exactly where in the little hamlet this was. At the time he wrote that:
“on examination of the ground that where a barn is now, is the most likely site for the ancient structure; and an excavation of some extent in the lane strengthens the opinion”
In the subsequent 180 years it is entirely possible that these last vestiges of the castle have been built over or ploughed up, or maybe they are just hiding, awaiting rediscovery . . .
Alternatively St Clement Church, which was dedicated in 1259, has been identified as another possible site for the castle. It is thought that the earliest part of the church, presumably within the foundations of this later building, was once the chapel for Moresk Castle and that the fortification may have occupied the sheltered site of the present church and graveyard.
Unfortunately other than these few ‘facts’ there really isn’t much else to go on, aside from our imaginations that is, but there is one final thread which I really think enriches the story of the ancient manor of Moresk and its castle.
Tristan & Iseult
The legend of Tristan and Iseult, the lovers who were forced to flee King Mark of Cornwall, has appeared in various forms since the 12th century. How much of this story is true is debateable but in Cornwall it seems that the divide between legend and historical fact is always joyfully slim.
King Mark was a real historical figure who lived in the 6th century and one of Cornwall’s many kings. Tristan was supposedly a Cornish knight, while Iseult was an Irish princess who had been married to the Cornish king. Their journey across Cornwall with Mark in hot pursuit incorporates various locations that are still recognisable to us today including Roche Rock, Castle Dore and surprisingly Moresk.
One of the earliest representations of the story (which has many, many variations) was written by a 12th century Breton poet called Beroul who, at one point, describes the couple taking shelter in the great woods of Moreis (Moresk) before crossing the river at La Mal Pas (Malpas).
” The wood known as Moreis in the Domesday Book, was one of the largest in Cornwall, covering 200 Cornish acres which is 12,800 English acres.”L.E. Elliott-Binns, Medieval Cornwall, 1955
In fact it is said that the woodlands of the manor of Moresk were some of the most extensive in the whole of Cornwall, covering about 20 square miles. It is shocking to think how much of that has now completely vanished.
History is around us all the time, whether we realise it is there or not. It is down to us to spot the clues if we can, if we want to. Some paths to the past are more obvious and, let’s face it, more exciting than others, and some even have sign posts attached but each one is a part of the puzzle of the history of where we live, each piece has value.
So when I next walk from St Clement to Malpas I will try to remember that I am following in the footsteps of men and women who knew Moresk Castle well and maybe, just maybe, in the footsteps of Tristan and Iseult too!