Deal Castle was the largest of the three masonry forts built to protect the Downs, one of the few sheltered anchorages in the eastern sector of the English Channel. The castle was raised by Henry VIII and remained in use until the end of the Napoleonic wars. During the Second Civil War, it was garrisoned by Royalists and withstood a three month siege.
Deal overlooks the Downs, a stretch of water off the East Kent coast. It offers sheltered waters due to an extensive area of shifting sandbanks, known as the Goodwin Sands, that are located several miles offshore. By the sixteenth century, it was one of the few safe anchorages for ship's in the eastern channel seeking to take refuge from inclemental weather. Furthermore, the three mile long shingle beach that extends along the coast was ideal for beaching small ships. However, this also made the area ideal for landing an army; the site may well have been where part of the Roman invasion force landed in AD 43 and in 1495 Perkin Warbeck had landed at Deal when trying to seize the throne from Henry VII. Whilst medieval and earlier defences had been built inshore at nodal points, the development of artillery meant that the coastline itself could be effectively fortified.
The three mile long beach, coupled with the sheltered waters of the Downs, made Deal an ideal location for landing an invading force.
Construction of Deal Castle
The motivation to do so came during the reign of Henry VIII when the King made himself, rather than the Pope, Supreme Head of the English church. Matters came to a head in 1539 when France and Spain, who were normally at war with each other, made peace and threatened to invade England. In response, Henry VIII commissioned a vast coastal defence programme, the largest since Roman times, to protect vulnerable points on the coast. The Downs was one such area and no less than seven fortifications were commissioned for the site: Sandown Castle, Great Turf bulwark, Little Turf bulwark, Deal Castle, Great White bulwark, Black bulwark and Walmer Castle. Deal Castle was the largest of these structures and exercised command and control over the other facilities.
Deal Castle was constructed from April 1539 to August 1540. It was built to a concentric design with a three storey central circular citadel surrounded by six lower semi-circular bastion and a further six bastions projecting out from that; in total these supported 145 gun positions spread across five tiers. The structure was built from Kentish ragstone with Caen stone, robbed from recently dissolved monasteries, being used for detail. The structure was surrounded by a dry moat which was protected by a continuous gallery along its outer length punctured by 53 gunports for hand-held weapons enabling fire on any attacking force.
The invasion fears of Henry VIII's reign passed without major incident, although a skirmish was fought off the Isle of Wight in Summer 1545, and thereafter the earthwork bastions that formed part of the Downs defences were demolished. However, the masonry forts - including Deal Castle - were maintained especially during the reign of Elizabeth I when the war with Spain led to a number of invasion scares. Later, in 1633 and 1639, the castle saw action when it attempted to prevent Dutch vessels attacking Spanish ships that had taken refuge in the Downs anchorage.
Upon the outbreak of the First Civil War, the Navy, which was making regular use of the Downs, supported Parliament. Accordingly the three castles, the guns of which dominated the anchorages, were garrisoned by Parliamentary troops. However, the Navy’s support for Parliament wavered in 1648 during the Second Civil War. After expressing sympathetic Royalist views, the regional commander – Vice Admiral Batten - was replaced by Colonel Rainsborough. This prompted a mutiny and the Downs based Navy defected to the Royalist cause. The three Downs castles were seized and garrisoned for the King. Parliament dispatched Colonel Rich to quell the uprising and capture the castles. He targeted Walmer Castle first and, despite supporting raids launched from Deal, it fell on 12 July 1648. He targeted Deal Castle next but the larger castle proved much harder to capture. It wasn’t until 23 August 1648, after a period of protracted artillery exchanges, that Deal surrendered. Sandown Castle held out until early September.
The Royal Navy continued to make regular use of the Downs and in 1672 built a naval shore house at Deal to provision ships using the anchorages. Accordingly Deal Castle continued to play a key coastal defence role throughout the rest of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1730 modifications were made to the outer bastions to enhance the firing arcs of the guns. Furthermore a Captain's House was constructed within the eastern, outer bastion to enable the castle to serve as a venue for hosting dignitaries. The guns on the Keep roof and Inner Bastions were removed and the decorative crenellations were added at this time.
Decorative crenellations were added to the castle in the early eighteenth century.
The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century led to enhancements to the Downs fortifications. Sandown Castle was fully re-armed whilst Walmer and Deal, although both serving as high status residences, were re-armed with 36-pounder guns. A dedicated barracks, with sufficient capacity for 1,000 men, and a military hospital were also built in the vicinity. A shutter telegraph system, which provided a communications link between the Downs anchorages with the Admiralty in London, was also constructed. The defences fell into disuse after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and Deal Castle itself was disarmed by 1854. It was released by the military in 1904 and played no part in World War I.
World War II
Deal Castle was reactivated by the military during World War II. In May 1940 an observation post was built on the east outer bastion to control two 6-inch guns installed in camouflaged emplacements on the promenade. Deal, like the other 30 other coastal defence batteries between Herne Bay and Littlehampton, were controlled from Dover Castle. During an air raid in June 1940, Deal Castle was hit by a bomb that destroyed the Captain's House. The site was decommissioned in 1945.
Allen, R (1976). English Castles. Batsford, London.
Colvin, H.M (1986). The History of the King's Works, Vol 4. HMSO, London.
Harrington, P (2007). The Castles of Henry VIII. Osprey Publishing, Oxford.
Historic England (2015). Artillery castle at Deal, List entry 1013380. Historic England, London.
Johnson, P (2006). Castles from the Air: An Aerial Portrait of Britain’s Finest Castles. Bloomsbury, London.
King, C.D.J (1983). Castellarium anglicanum: an index and bibliography of the castles in England, Wales and the Islands. Kraus International Publications.
Morley, B.M (1976). Henry VIII and the development of coastal defence. HMSO, Worcester.
Saltar, M (2002). The castles of Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Folly Publications, Malvern.
Saunders, A.D (1966). Coastal Defences since the introduction of artillery.
Deal Castle is a well preserved example of a Henrican fort although the exterior has suffered some eighteenth century modifications.
Deal Castle. The castle originally had 145 gun positions either firing from embrasures or from gunports with the central tower and bastions.
Parapets. Both the bastions and citadel were originally built with rounded parapets (such as seen right). Most of these were replaced by decorational crenellations during alterations in 1732. Examples of Henrican forts with rounded parapets can be seen at Hurst Castle and St Mawes Castle.
Bastions. The interior of the outer bastions were filled with earth during the reign of Elizabeth I to enhance the castle's resilience against bombardment.
Deal Defences. Seven fortifications were built to protect the Downs; Sandown Castle, Great Turf bulwark, Little Turf bulwark, Deal Castle, Great White bulwark, Black bulwark and Walmer Castle. In addition the entire beach was protected by a three mile long earthwork rampart and ditch. Maintenance on the earthworks ceased after the invasion scares of the 1540s passed.
Entrance. The access to the gatehouse was originally via a timber bridge that led to a drawbridge. The slots for the lifting gear can still be seen but the drawbridge has now been replaced by a stone causeway. The heavy oak gate was also protected by a portcullis.