Dartmouth Castle, Devon
One can see how the task of defending an estuary developed down the centuries
The south-west peninsula of England is well-known for its flooded river estuaries that provide sheltered moorings for shipping of a reasonable size; at least, what would have been considered reasonable in past centuries. These estuaries needed protection from incursions by foreign warships, and there are several castles that perform this function. The River Dart, in Devon, was guarded by two castles near its mouth, Kingswear on the eastern shore and Dartmouth on the west.
A succession of “castles”
What the visitor to Dartmouth Castle will see is a variety of methods used to defend the estuary, dating from the 14th century to the 20th. The first fortification was a “fortalice” or small fortress, the remains of which are visible next to the car park. We know that, from the 15th century, chains were stretched across the river to prevent ships from getting upstream.
However, it was not until 1481 that the present castle was started. Unusually, it seems to have been built on the initiative of the townspeople and not of a monarch or nobleman. This was probably due to a succession of scares occasioned by French raids on the Devon coast, which were partly in retaliation for attacks by English ships. There is, however, plenty of evidence of royal support by successive monarchs for the castle-building effort.
The castle, which is not particularly large, took a long time to build, and it was 1493 before work began on the roof. There was also a major change of plan in that the original round tower was supplemented by a rectangular tower and the two structures merged into one. This gives the castle a most unusual shape.
In the 16th century, a gun battery was built a short distance from the castle, on the seaward side. This was altered in 1690 and again in 1747, but then a new battery was built on the site in 1861, this being known today, somewhat confusingly, as the Old Battery. The site was last fortified in 1940.
A site for artillery
When visiting the Castle and the Old Battery, it is important to bear in mind that the whole site was designed to be used by artillery. When the 15th century castle was being built, it was the first such in England, although the coastal forts built by Henry VIII in the next century took the idea forward and introduced many important refinements.
The visitor’s tour starts at the Old Battery, where you can see the two-tier battery and look out at the area of sea that it would have defended. On the upper tier is one of the original cast iron 64-pounder guns (issued to Dartmouth in the 1890s, but actually somewhat older than that), mounted on a modern replica carriage.
On the lower tier are three “casemates” or fortified compartments, “armed” with another 64-pounder gun from the 1890s and two 24-pounders from the late 18th century. You can also see much of the equipment that would have been used for firing the guns, as well as the magazines used for storing shells and cartridges, these having wooden floors to avoid the danger of sparks. You can see how the guns could be swung round to provide fire across a wide arc.
When you walk along the short cliff path to the Old Castle (also passing St Petrox Church which is right next to the castle) you move back through the centuries. You can see where the building of the round tower stopped, and was then re-started with different materials after the square tower had reached the same height.
The Old Castle
The castle is on three floors, and you enter at the ground floor level. Here you can see openings in the walls for the use of various sizes of gun, and the large opening in the round tower that was probably the porthole for the chain that was slung across the river to Kingswear Castle on the other side.
In the basement you can see further sites for gun emplacements. Alterations were made in the 16th century to lower the floor and raise the ceiling, but before then this must have been a very cramped area in which to work, and extremely noisy and uncomfortable when the guns were fired.
The first floor was the main living area, now open but formerly divided into two barrack rooms and what was probably the quarters of the castle governor.
From the ground floor you can walk out on to the adjoining open-air gun platforms, to the north and the south. The northern platform would have offered firepower over the river upstream of the castle, should any enemy ship have been able to get that far. These platforms are currently “armed” with cast-iron cannons from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
The town of Dartmouth
While visiting Dartmouth Castle, you might also like to explore the delightful riverside town of Dartmouth, which is home to the Royal Naval College. A walk along the wooded banks of the river, or a boat trip along or across the Dart, is a very pleasant way to pass the time.
It was at Dartmouth that the Pilgrim Fathers put in for repairs on their way from Southampton to the New World in 1620.
Dartmouth Castle is under the care of English Heritage, and may be visited free of charge by English Heritage members. The castle is open every day of the week from April to October, but only at weekends from November to March.