Britannia Castles: Dartmouth and Kingswear, Devon

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History of Dartmouth & Kingswear Castles in Devon
By Charles Oman


Twin Dart Estuary Defenders

Kingswear Castle

This pair of castles, corresponding to each other like Portland and Sandsfoot or Pendennis and St. Mawes, were the guardians of the entry of the broad estuary of the Dart, designed by King Henry VIII to protect a great centre of commerce and an important strategical point. The long tidal fjord, running inland for eleven miles, as far as Totnes, and able to give anchorage for whole fleets, was almost as important as the Solent in the naval geography of England. Yet its entry is so narrow that it could easily be blocked by the cross-fire of such cannon as were known in Tudor times. Both castles are somewhat different in type from the normal low round tower, encircled by an embrasured battery, which is seen in the other haven-forts of this period. Kingswear, standing low on the rocks and washed by every tide, is an adaptation of an earlier castle to the use of artillery. It is a square medieval tower of three stages, whose lowest story has had embrasures cut in it on the side facing the water.

Dartmouth CastleHere, King Henry was not the builder, but only the utilizer of what was already existing. Just at its side, a small round Tudor tower stands, quite dwarfed by the old castle and furnished with a few additional embrasures. On the opposite side of the haven-mouth stands Dartmouth Castle, on a small cliff, which rises well above the water. It is inconveniently sited, in the very yard of St. Petroc's Church, whose tombstones reach up to its walls. The main building consists of a square battlemented tower, with a large and high look-out turret rising from it, and a casemented battery with embrasures at its foot. Separated from it by the churchyard, and at a lower level on the water's edge, is a small round tower, with an embrasured battery adhering to it, exactly facing the similar addendum to Kingswear. Between these towers a chain could be, and was, stretched every night in time of war. The same precaution was taken at Fowey in Cornwall. Leland, so often helpful in his descriptions, only mentions of Dartmouth that "there be two towers at the haven-mouth and a chain to draw over."

Dartmouth town lies half a mile inside the estuary, strung along a hillside in a picturesque fashion. It was the most famous of all the nurseries of Devonian seaman. Did not Chaucer's typical shipman in the Canterbury Tales come from Dartmouth? Its contingents for the Plantagenet navy were always large - 31 vessels at the great blockade of Calais in 1346. Hence, when English fortunes ran low at sea, it was a favourite mark for French naval descents, like Rye and Winchelsea, and was twice surprised and sacked during the Hundred Years War. Probably the chain and towers at the haven-mouth were one of the many historical examples of the stable that is well barred after the horse has bolted. During the English Civil War, Dartmouth and Kingswear Castles, and a new battery called Fort Ridley above the latter, were well defended against the Parliamentarian, Fairfax, and the "New Model" army in 1645. They, however, fell in the following year after the final break up of the Royalist army of the West. A more picturesque combination than the two very similar castles looking at each other across the strait it would be hard to find. Pendennis and St. Mawes - buildings quite as effective in themselves - are not closely juxtaposed, nor capable of being taken in at one glance like these two little fortresses.

Edited from Charles Oman's "Castles" (1926).  (T) 302.234.8904    (F) 302.234.9154    Copyright ©2000, LLC