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Castles of the British Isles

Photo Focus: Dartmouth Castle & Kingswear Castle

by Peter Kessler, 27 March 2022

 

Dartmouth Castle in Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

The Devon town of Dartmouth in the twelfth century was a bustling trading and fishing port. The wine and wool trade had brought great wealth to the area, and the river was of significant strategic importance.

By the fourteenth century, however, Dartmouth's prosperity was coming under threat. England was at war with France, part of the long conflict of the Hundred Years War.

To guard against French invasion it was decided to erect a formal defensive structure at the mouth of the River Dart. This would be Dartmouth Castle, which has guarded the narrow entrance to the Dart Estuary and the busy, vibrant port of Dartmouth since its earliest days in 1388.

Dartmouth Castle in Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

Construction of this mix of defensive structures of varying ages was begun in that year by John Hawley, mayor of Dartmouth and the prototype for the flamboyant 'Shipman' in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

He was a successful, wealthy merchant who served twice as MP for the town. He was also a famous privateer during periods of war with France, and was even imprisoned briefly in the Tower of London for his more indiscriminate attacks on vessels.

Dartmouth Castle in Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

About a century later - in 1481 - the townsmen added the imposing and well-preserved 'gun tower', probably the very first fortification in Britain which was purpose-built to mount 'ship-sinking' heavy cannon.

A great iron chain was also set across the 250m opening of the Dart Estuary to defend Dartmouth from enemy warships. Probably first installed around the same time as the gun tower was built, the chain could be raised or lowered with the tide to halt ships mid-river, making them an easy target for gunfire from the castle.

Kingswear Castle in Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

To support the castle from the opposite shore, Kingswear Castle was completed in 1502 (shown here).

Together the two castles represented the most advanced military design of their day. For the first time large guns were mounted inside each of them, on the ground floor, with rectangular ports through which to fire them.

Dartmouth Castle in Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

Within fifty years of its construction, however, Kingswear Castle was redundant. For another century it was manned during time of war, but after that it was left to decay, until rescued and turned into a summer residence in 1855 by Charles Seale Hayne.

Dartmouth Castle in Devon
Photo © P L Kessler

Unusually incorporating the fine church of St Petrox into its construction, Dartmouth Castle on the other hand saw action during the English Civil War, with the town firmly on the Parliamentarian side.

The old chain across the estuary was repaired and re-employed, but the town surrendered as soon as force was threatened. However, the month of defiance prior to that meant Plymouth's Parliamentarians remaining unconquered, a vital point in the course of the war in the south-west.

The castle continued in service right up until the Second World War. During the First World War, it was used to protect Britannia Naval College, preventing fast gunboats and torpedo boats from entering the harbour.

Successive updating included the Victorian 'Old Battery' with its remounted heavy guns, guardrooms, and a maze of passages to explore.

 

All photos by P L Kessler, taken in August 2019.

Main Sources

English Heritage

Coast & Country Cottages

Landmark Trust

Discover Dartmouth

By the Dart

 

Images and text copyright © P L Kessler except where stated. An original feature for the History Files.