Walmer Castle was one of three fortifications built by Henry VIII to protect the Downs, a large anchorage off the Kent coast. Although it remained garrisoned until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1708 it was transformed from its original humble origins into an impressive stately home for the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.
Walmer Castle formed part of a chain of defences intended to protect the Downs. This stretch of water, with its offshore shifting sandbanks known as the Goodwin Sands, provided one of the few safe anchorages for ships in the eastern English 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 vessels. However, this also made the area ideal for landing an army and accordingly it was identified as a weak spot by Henry VIII's Commissioners when reviewing coastal defence arrangements in light of deteriorating relations with the continental powers. The primary fortification was Deal Castle but this was augmented by a further two masonry castles, Sandown and Walmer, along with earthwork defences which provided complete protection for the entire stretch of coastline.
Work on Walmer Castle started in April 1539 and continued through to Autumn 1540. It was significantly smaller than Deal but was built to a concentric design with a central circular tower surrounded by four lower rounded bastions. This provided three tiers of guns able to fire out over the beach and anchorages. A dry moat surrounded the castle. An earthwork bank and ditch connected Walmer to the rest of the Downs defences. The total cost for constructing all the Downs defences was £27,092.
The invasion fears of the 1540s passed without major incident but Walmer Castle remained garrisoned and would have stood on alert as the Spanish Armada passed by in 1588. The three Downs castles remained in use and were still active in the seventeenth century when, during the First Civil War, they were held by Parliament. Throughout the war, the three fortifications were deemed vital as their guns protected the Parliamentary controlled naval ships that operated from the sheltered waters of the Downs.
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, by the 15 June 1648, had established siege-works around the castle to protect the attackers not only from assaults from Walmer's guns but also supporting raids launched from Deal Castle and the pro-Royalist fleet. Eventually the Parliamentarians brought up heavy weaponry and bombarded Walmer into submission. The garrison surrendered on 12 July 1648. Deal and Sandown castles held out until late August and early September respectively.
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, the three Downs castles continued to have an important role defending the fleet. However, whilst its defensive role continued, in 1708 Walmer was also converted into an official residence for the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, replacing the former residence at Dover Castle. In the decades that followed, the castle was adapted into a comfortable residence. Most notably the central Keep was extended into the courtyard to provide extra accommodation although the north bastion was kept clear to ensure the castle could fulfil its coastal defence role. One of the more famous residents was Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington who died at the castle in 1852.
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Walmer Castle is a mid-sixteenth century artillery castle that has been extensively modified and converted into a stately home for the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.
Walmer Castle. The castle has undergone a substantial modification since its construction by Henry VIII. The west bastion (seen above) was heightened, large windows installed and decorative embattled parapet added.
Bastions. Despite the modifications to convert the castle into a residence, the north bastion remained in use for coastal defence purposes. Originally Walmer Castle had 39 gun openings for heavy weapons and a further 31 for handguns.
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.
Beach. The defences at Deal were to secure the three mile long single beach that offered an idea landing site for an enemy force. It is likely elements of the Roman army landed at this very site in AD 43.