An eclectic collection of objects ranging from a medieval whalebone to 16th-century gambling tokens are being put on display together for the first time in Launceston castle (kastel Lanstefan) in Cornwall.
The artefacts tell the story of the castle’s decline from a place of extravagant feasting to a squalid prison that incarcerated rebels against English rule and religious dissenters.
The whalebone, measuring half a metre across and more than 700 years old, is believed be the telltale remains of one of the lavish celebrations that took place when the castle was an aristocratic residence for the earls and dukes of Cornwall.
Other objects revealed in the new exhibition include gaming boards, counters and gambling tokens that prisoners and warders used to while away the hours when the castle’s fortunes waned and it became a bleak prison.
The whale vertebra is one of about 20 bones found at the castle during excavations in the late 20th century, discoveries that initially surprised as the site is about as far away from the ocean as it is possible to be in Cornwall.
But where the bones were found – close to the kitchen and next to the great hall – suggest whale was on the menu for the castle’s medieval occupants, who also ate dolphin and seabirds such as the Manx shearwater, as well as swan, goose, partridge, woodcock and plover.
Although it is difficult to tell which species of whale the bones came from, the size of the large vertebra points to a larger species such as the blue, fin or sperm whale. Whalers of the later medieval period are believed to have been able to catch and land smaller whales but not species of this size, suggesting that at least some of the Launceston bones came from a beached whale.
Ian Leins, English Heritage’s curator of collections and interiors, said: “The whale vertebra at Launceston castle was a puzzling discovery, but its existence actually greatly informs our knowledge of the castle’s inhabitants.
“We know the bones date to the 13th century and at this time the castle was owned by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who was King Henry III’s brother and one of the wealthiest men in Europe.
“On his visits to the castle, Richard hosted great feasts attended by high-ranking officials and, while abhorrent to most people today, the serving and eating of whale meat would have been a symbol of his high status and power. There is every possibility that this great but unfortunate whale was the dish of the day.”
The whale bone was briefly displayed after it was found but has been in storage for years. “It’s a real thrill to be able to return the whale vertebra to the castle to be viewed by visitors today,” said Leins.
Founded soon after the Norman conquest, Launceston castle served as an important fortress and centre of government in Cornwall, enjoying its heyday in the 13th and 14th centuries. Earl Richard’s control of the tin industry of Cornwall and Devon brought him a huge income, making him one of the richest men in England. He rarely visited Launceston or Cornwall in person, preferring to leave his officials in charge, but he is known to have stayed at the castle at least six times, including his 51st birthday.
Another object on display is a tiny 13th-century die made of deer or cow bone. The die is weighted, meaning that it was more likely to fall on an even number and – unfairly – increasing the chances of its cheating owner winning.
After this wealthy, powerful period, the castle’s fortunes declined and it became a setting not for feasts but for the trial, imprisonment and execution of Cornish rebels, earning itself the nickname “Castle Terrible”.
George Fox, a founder of the Quakers, was arrested in 1656 during a preaching mission to the West Country, ostensibly for having long hair and was held prisoner at Launceston Castle for about eight months.
“It was a fall from grace for the castle,” said Leins. “There’s a nice contrast between luxury in the 13th and 14th centuries and the decline as other places took over as more important centres.”