Historic castle explored in detailed study of 100 objects

Powderham Castle, the ancestral home of the Earl of Devon, has been brought to life in a remarkable study of 100 of its most historical and peculiar objects.

From a Chinese gilded imperial peacock to one of England’s finest carpets, the heritage of the iconic Devon castle is being ‘unpacked’ in forensic detail by student historians at the University of Plymouth. 

Each object is being published online as a public resource for schools, other students, and anyone interested in history, country houses and material culture. It’s part of an ongoing partnership between the University, its public history engagement unit, Cornerstone Praxis, and Powderham Castle.

“Powderham offers researchers an opportunity to explore almost a thousand years of British history from the point of view of one family: the Courtenays,” 

says Professor Daniel Maudlin, Director of Cornerstone, and lead for the project. 

“Through medieval plots, Tudor politics or Georgian high society, the Courtenays were there. Powderham is filled with hundreds of years of interesting items: things collected and brought back home; trophies of foreign wars; souvenirs from distant travels; furniture and paintings; clothes; books, letters and diaries. Together, these things tell their story. It’s a British history told in objects.” 

Inspired by Neil MacGregor’s landmark 2010 BBC Radio 4 series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, the 100 Objects at Powderham Project is being written and researched by first year History students at the University. More than 70 objects have been completed so far, and are being published online on a weekly basis.

Each object has taken a month to research and write, beginning with a day spent at the castle interviewing Charles Courtenay, the 19th Earl of Devon, and staff. In addition to focusing on the provenance of the object itself, the essays have provided an opportunity to look more broadly at the era in which they originated. 

“A Victorian cast-iron radiator offers the chance to talk about the Industrial Revolution, or sedan chair poles found on a hallway wall open the door to China and the British Empire,” 

says Daniel. 

“The student essays draw out the significance of the objects at Powderham for the family but also what they can tell us about British and global history.”

The project will be completed by next year’s intake of first-year students, and builds on a legacy of collaboration between the University and Powderham. This included a ‘Time Team’ style exploration of the castle and grounds, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, in 2018. 

Charlie Courtenay commented: 

“It is so exciting to see Powderham and its collection through the eyes of these young Plymouth historians. They have such enthusiasm and reverence for the objects, and have taught us a lot about the Castle and its contents. Sharing their excellent work online allows us to provide a useful resource for anyone looking to study these objects remotely.”

“Through the close examination of 100 objects inside Powderham – from the extravagant to the everyday – this project reveals the huge range of things that a family, a household, depended upon every day,” 

Daniel adds. 

 “And it also shows how these objects expressed their values, beliefs and identity.”

Cornerstone Heritage

Cornerstone Heritage is an interdisciplinary research initiative that brings together staff from across the University of Plymouth working in the field of Heritage (or how we live with the past today). 

'Live Projects' are at the heart of Cornerstone's activities. Live Projects engage with community groups and heritage organisations in the co-production of research-led heritage initiatives.

Find out more about the research initiative