Prideaux Castle

Coordinates: 50°22′08″N 4°43′50″W / 50.3689°N 4.7305°W / 50.3689; -4.7305 Prideaux Castle (pronounced /ˈprɪdɨks/) is a quadrivallate Iron Age hillfort situated atop a 133 m (435 ft) high conical hill near the southern boundary of the parish of Luxulyan, Cornwall, in the United Kingdom. It is also sometimes referred to as Prideaux Warren, Prideaux War-Ring, or Prideaux Hillfort.

This site should not be confused with the historically linked, but quite distinct Elizabethan stately home called Prideaux Place, in Padstow, Cornwall.

Physical description

The remains of the first and second circular ramparts are quite distinct, although overgrown with trees on the north and east sides. They appear to be constructed of earth and rubble. The third rampart is only fragmentarily represented, but easily traced, due to the vegetation. A fourth, outermost wall is discerned on aerial photographs, or on the 1888 Ordnance Survey map. This outermost wall is in the form of an incomplete "D" shape, extending to the west and south on the downhill slope of the site. There are two entrances, typical of the small hillfort, located on the eastern and northern side (i.e., opposite the fourth wall), where it is most wooded. There is no evidence of dressed stones. The palisade and any internal structures would have been of wooden construction and must have perished without trace.

The enclosed area is level and described from the ground as being somewhat elliptical, although from aerial photographs it appears nearly circular. Its diameter is about 100 m, with an area of about 0.8 ha. Its present use is as a cattle pasture, with a frangible, pinkish stone (possibly Devonian sandstone) forming the substrate. Its condition is slowly deteriorating, with less structure now visible than was shown on the 1888 survey map. The northern and eastern ramparts are overgrown with trees, merging into forest. In the vicinity, there is much evidence of mining for iron, tin and kaolinite, with quarries, pits, shafts and dumps in abundance.

Bronze Age

The earliest occupation in the vicinity of the site dates from the Bronze Age. Cornwall has functioned continuously since high antiquity as a centre of tin mining and trade, tin being an essential ingredient of bronze. The fort is situated not far from the ancient trade route which later became known as the Saints' Way; from here tin was traded as far as the Levant.

The central role of tin mining in the local economy seem to have a continuity leading up to the stannary "Pridias", which in later times was one of the "tithings" (administrative districts) of the Blackmoor Stannary, centered at nearby Hensbarrow Beacon, with its records stored at the church in Luxulyan.

  • See also Mining in Cornwall and Devon
Iron Age

Without dateable artifacts, the hillfort is nonetheless assigned to the Iron Age of pre-Roman Britain on the basis of its general form. The fort does not appear to be listed in the English Heritage or Cornwall Heritage Trust registries, and it does not appear ever to have been the subject of professional archaeological investigation. Because the enclosed area is less than 1 ha, it would be classified as a "small multivallate hillfort", resembling most others of that type.

Romano-British period

There is currently no physical evidence that any structure was ever built upon the site subsequent to the Iron Age. It may have been used as a temporary camp by the Romans or even by English Civil War forces, as for example, Castle Dore. However, archaeological evidence from any later period is also absent.

The western branch of the Bronze Age trade route later known as Saint's Way passes the foot of the hill on which the fort is situated, less than 100 m away on the southwest slope. Local legend would have it that the tin merchant Joseph of Arimathea passed this way with the boy Jesus on his pilgrimage to Glastonbury. A cross in nearby Fowey memorializes this legend.

On a clear day looking in an east-southeasterly direction from the fort, it might be possible to see Castle Dore, a somewhat more well-known hillfort situated at a distance of approximately 5 km (3 mi), as the crow flies, mentioned below. Castle Dore has been traditionally assigned to Mark of Cornwall, husband of Iseult, in the Arthurian cycle. There is a monument believed by some to refer to Tristan ("Drustanus") in nearby Fowey at grid reference SX112521.


The word castle has long been employed colloquially to designate prehistoric remains of this general type throughout Great Britain. As examples of other hillforts called "castle" in the same vicinity, one may note Castle Dore at grid reference SX103548 or Castle an Dinas at grid reference SW9455062450, both within a few kilometers of Prideaux Castle.

It could also be observed that the word "castle" comes from the Latin word castella "little camp", from castrum "camp". Castella could also refer to a fortified village, although Prideaux is rather too small for this characterization.

On the 1888 survey map the Prideaux site is designated as "Camp". Nearby Castle Dore to the east and Castilly Henge to the west were both reoccupied and used as military encampments during the English Civil War in 1664.

At least one prehistoric British hillfort was rebuilt in later times with a Norman Motte-and-bailey style wooden castle, for example, Castle Neroche.

However, it must be stressed that there is currently no physical evidence that Prideaux Castle was ever rebuilt after its abandonment at the end of the Iron Age.


Unlike many other hillforts, Prideaux Castle has a certain amount of written history associated with it, in this case extending back to the Norman Conquest.

Paganus Prideaux

On 9 March 1874 the College of Arms granted a coat of arms to Prideaux, the accompanying pedigree being certified by Stephen Isaacson Tucker, Rouge Croix Pursuivant (a junior officer of arms) of the College. This genealogy was in turn based on the heraldic visitation of Cornwall in 1620.

According to the Visitation

There are no actual dates recorded for Paganus, but a death date is given for his son:

The grant of the College of Arms has the effect of making the status of Paganus Prideaux to be "official," since the College is an agency of the UK government. The Visitation upon which the grant is based may be questioned, since the heralds were often venal, and were sometimes suborned to accept family legends as authentic. In the absence of corroboration, it might be justifiable to regard Paganus as being semi-legendary.

It has sometimes been claimed that Paganus Prideaux was a "Companion of the Conqueror," based on College of Heralds certification. However, there is no mention of any similar name in the Battle Abbey Roll (highly dubious source though that may be), nor in any other known record.

Sir John Maclean in his "Skeleton Pedigree of Prideaux" (basing himself on the work of Richard Polwhele, as well as on the Visitations), elaborates on the origin of Paganus:

This is an anachronism, since neither Luxulion (Luxulyan) nor Fowey can be shown to have existed in the 11th century. Note, however, the use of the Cornish form of the name "Pridias." Reference to these place names does imply that Polwhele is not confusing "Prideaux Castle" with "Prideaux Place".

Domesday manors

There are at the present time three inhabited places arranged in an arc or line a few hundred metres to the north of the Castle. On the 1888 map they are called "Prideaux," "Little Prideaux," and "Great Prideaux."

At Prideaux grid reference SX059560 is now located a bed and breakfast in a house which is advertised thus:

On what basis this claim is made is unclear. The touchstone of antiquity of English (or Cornish) estates is the Domesday Book of 1086 (11th century) as it frequently mentions both current state of affairs and that under Edward the Confessor. The manor nearest to Prideaux Castle is Tywardreath (Tiwardrai) manor, at grid reference SX086544, about 1.5 km to the southeast. Next nearest would have been Bodiggo (Bodenwitghi) at grid reference SX045585 at about 2.5 km. Domesday mentions nothing that could be identified by name with either Luxulyan or Prideaux (Pridias).

Both of these manors were held by Richard Fitz Thorold from Robert, Count of Mortain, William the Conqueror's half brother. If Paganus existed, and he was "Lord of Prideaux," he would apparently have been a vassal of Richard.

Pridis (Prideaux) stannary tithing

The economy of Prideaux may have been based in part on the stannary. Britain, specifically Cornwall was famous for tin, a key ingredient of bronze and thus an important trade item during the Bronze Age.

In 1201 King John of England chartered four stannaries in Cornwall: Foweymoor (Bodmin Moor), Blackmoor (Hensbarrow downs near Saint Austell), Tywarnhaile (Truro to Saint Agnes) and Penwith-with-Kerrier. Blackmoor was the oldest stannary, with eight subdivisions called tithings.

Pridis (which is near the Cornish original of Prideaux) is listed as one of the eight tithings of the Blackmoor stannary.


Prideaux Castle is also been known as Prideaux Warren. In the popular imagination, this has found two explanations.

War ring

Metanalysis or, folk etymology, of the name "Prideaux Warren" has yielded "Prideaux War-Ring", based on the apparently defensive purpose of the concentric ramparts, which were undoubtedly surmounted by a palisade during the fort's heyday. There is no ordinary precedent for the usage "war ring."

The question of rabbits

Coney's Castle hillfort in Dorset grid reference SY372975 could hardly be more unequivocal about its identity as a rabbitry. However, the identification is likely somewhat fanciful or whimsical. Pilsdon Pen, a large hillfort contains the remains of what is described as a (typical) rectilinear mediaeval domestic warren.

Because of the French spelling of the name "Prideaux," the presumed connection with the Conqueror, and because cuniculture is believed to be a Norman innovation into Britain, "Prideaux Warren" has been often been associated with the domestic warren. There is no evidence, however, of any of the typical structures associated with this type of animal husbandry.

This use has not been proven; but the topology of the general area suggests that what may have been involved was in fact the free warren of Prideaux (below).

Prideaux Warren

Adjacent to the fort are two extents of forest, one named "Prideaux Woods," the other "Warren Woods." Even after centuries of deforestation these join to another forest, "North Slope Woods," covering the south side of Luxulyan Valley.

The maps and satellite views show a crescent of woods surrounding the fort on the north, east, and south. Some of this forestation has been backfilled during recent periods; other parts are known to be ancient.

At the time of the semi-legendary Paganus, which would have coincided with the heyday of Norman afforestation, the fort would have been centered on a wooded area of perhaps six square kilometers. This would enough area to support the beasts of a free warren, or even those of a chase.

Nearby hillfort Castle Dore has been dated to the 3rd or 2nd century BC, and was likely abandoned during the Roman occupation, only to be reoccupied as a hunting lodge in the pre-Saxon period.

The remains of a large (27 m by 12 m) wooden structure were found during the excavation at this fort. They are interpreted as having been a hunting lodge. If Prideaux was a free warren, a lodge would also have been useful. However, no remains are in evidence.

"Paganus, Lord of Prideaux" would then be understood as referring to the franchisee, or an officer, of "Prideaux (Free) Warren."

The name "Prideaux"
Cornish etymology

Most of the authorities agree that the earliest form of the name was something like , and that the name is of Cornish origin.

The sons and grandsons of the semi-legendary "Paganus Prideaux" (or "Pagan Pridias") chose spellings like <Pridias>, <Pridyias>, <Pridyas>. (As many as 40 variant spellings have been recorded.) The first documented appearance of the French spelling <Prideaux> did not appear until Plantagenet times, apparently for political advantage. (See e.g. Richard Plantagenet, Earl of Cornwall.) For at least the past several centuries the name has been pronounced /ˈprɪdɨks/ in Cornwall and Devon. The final /ks/ is a spelling pronunciation of the x in the French orthography <Prideaux>.

A derivation from Cornish bre "hill" + Cornish dinas "castle; fort" → *bredinas may be suggested. A development from this otherwise plausible form would have to account for the initial devoicing, as well as the loss of the nasal.

The "French connection"

The name Prideaux is well known, there having been numerous notables of this name. By its orthography, it is usually assumed to be of French origin, and is thus more often than not pronounced /priːˈdoʊ/. Since the Visitations assign it to one Paganus Prideaux, "...who lived in the time of the Conqueror", it is easy to leap to the conclusion that the name is of Norman French origin.

Several fanciful etymologies have been proposed, based on the assumption of French origin. For example, the 18th century Cornish historian Thomas Tonkin derived it from the French phrase près d'eaux "near waters":

This etymology is a somewhat implausible for a hilly location at an elevation of some 135 meters located several kilometers from the sea. It is, however, the case that on a clear day, one can see the sea, valuable for preparing for the attack of pirates. However, the nearest inlet of the sea (at Pontsmill, one or two kilometers distant) became silted up by as much as several meters of detritus from the mining operations.

Another fanciful etymology associates the name with the French prie Dieu ("pray God"), meaning "prayer bench."

Other etymologies

Finally, several other attempts to find a French origin for the name are found here (Link accessed 2006-07-22).

  • Bartlett, J. 1856. "The History of St Blazey: a lecture". Online; accessed 2006-06-30.
  • Maclean, Sir John. 1873. The Parochial and Family History of the Deanery of Trigg Minor in the County of Cornwall. Liddell & Son, Bodmin.
  • Pearce, Rob. "Luxulyan Church and the Stannaries". Online; accessed 2006-06-27
  • Polsue, Joseph. 1867—1872. Parochial History of Cornwall, vols 1—4. Truro: W. Lake,
  • Polwhele, Richard (1760–1838), The History of Devonshire (3 vol. 1797-1806, reprinted 1977 by Kohler and Coombes, Dorking, 1977).
  • Prideaux, R M. 1989. Prideaux: a Westcountry clan. Chichester: Phillimore & Co. ISBN 0850336740.
  • Rowe, John. "A Short History of Luxulyan Parish and The Parish Church of St. Cyriac and St. Julitta". Online; accessed 2006-06-27
  • Vivian, J. L. 1887. The Visitations of the County of Cornwall.
  • Vivian, J. L. 1895. The Visitations of the County of Devon.