In 1534 Henry VIII signed the Act of Supremacy making himself, rather than the Pope, "supreme head" of the Church of England. This prompted international outrage not least from France and Spain but, with those two superpowers locked in conflict, there was little risk of any intervention. However, in June 1538 a peace treaty was agreed between Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and Francis I, King of France which left England dangerously exposed to the risk of an invasion. The King issued a Device (Act) for the Defence of the Kingdom which initiated the largest coastal defence programme since the Roman era. The scheme was funded by plundering the wealth of the Church enabling Henry to build on a lavish scale. The Solent was regarded as particularly vulnerable due to the access afforded to the rich town of Southampton. William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton and William Paulet, Lord St John were charged with proposing defence for the Solent region and recommended four forts at Calshot, Hurst, East Cowes and West Cowes which were all built between 1539 and 1544.
By 1545 the threat of invasion had passed and Henry VIII had renewed his alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor. This agreement led to war with France prompting a second wave of fort building with Brownsea, Netley, Sandown and Southsea castles all commissioned at this time. These new structures differed from the earlier Device forts which had all been built to a concentric design with round bastions providing all round artillery coverage. However, this configuration was quickly exposed as a blind alley for castle design as the curved structures created blind spots which made them vulnerable to land attack. Such shortcomings had been identified by continental castle builders who used angled bastions to overcome them. When Henry VIII started work on his second batch of castles in 1544, these concepts were adopted.
Before the new fortifications were completed French forces landed on the Isle of Wight and fought a sharp action around the foundations of Sandown Castle. Richard Worsley, Captain of the Isle of Wight, repelled the invading forces but it prompted further strengthening of the defences. Sandown Castle was finished and Yarmouth Castle, which was to be positioned on the main line of communication between the island and the mainland, was commissioned.
Work started on Yarmouth Castle in May 1547 and was complete by November 1547. It was built in a square shape with the arrow-head bastion protecting the landward east and south sides. A single entrance, on the east side, led into a central courtyard and the main armament of the castle consisted of artillery enclosed in vaulted casemates firing through gun ports on all four sides. These weapons were augmented with additional gun positions on the parapets.
Although dismissed during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-8), Worsley was re-appointed as Captain of the Isle of Wight by Queen Elizabeth in 1558. Upon resuming his post he made numerous updates to Yarmouth at his own expense. The northern half of the castle was filled with earth to support a heavy weapons platform at parapet level. The remaining section was converted into domestic and storage facilities. Later in the Elizabethan period, after the war with Spain commenced in 1588, further modifications were made including construction of a gun platform exterior to the castle. The two buttresses on the north and west sides of the castle were added early in the reign of James I.
In 1632 the Government of Charles I allocated funds for the rebuilding of Sandown Castle (coastal erosion had destroyed this fortification) and also for upgrading Yarmouth Castle. At the latter the long room at the south end of the castle was added possibly re-using stone from Sandown. Despite the enhancements, upon the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, the castle's Governor - Captain Barnaby Burley - surrendered it to Parliamentary forces who then held it throughout the rest of the war.
Following the end of the Commonwealth and inevitable drawdown in military expenditure, a new Captain of the Isle of Wight - Sir Robert Homnes - downscaled the castle's defences to make it a more manageable prospect. In 1668 he filled in the moat and demolished the external earthwork gun platforms. The eastern entrance was blocked and a new access was created on the South side. The armament of the castle was re-configured to be entirely seaward facing at this time.
Yarmouth Castle remained garrisoned through the eighteenth century albeit it relied entirely upon local militia to man the full arsenal in times of war. The final upgrades, modification of the gun platform including fitting the four gun rails, were made in 1813 in the latter years of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1885 the castle was abandoned with its coastal defence role assumed by Forts Albert and Victoria and (later) a host of other batteries both on the Isle of Wight and the mainland.
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Yarmouth Castle is a small artillery fortification originally built by Henry VIII as the last of his 'Device Forts'. It was subsequently substantially modified. The gun platform gives good views over the surrounding area albeit slightly curtailed due to the adjacent Ferry Port.
Yarmouth Castle. The square castle is sandwiched between the ferry terminal and a public house. The arrow-head bastion can be seen to the left of the photograph.
Initial (1547) Configuration. The castle was initially designed around a central square courtyard. The heavy guns were installed in open air at parapet level on all sides with enclosed emplacements below.
Gun Platform. The castle was extensively modified in the sixteenth century with the lower gun levels and much of the central courtyard filled with earth to support a single gun platform at parapet level.
Later (1640) Configuration. The internal emplacements in the north, east and west sides were filled with earth to support a single, parapet level platform capable of taking heavy weapons.
Castle Entrance. The original castle entrance was on the east side (left). This was later replaced with a new access (right) on the south side.
Courtyard. The narrow courtyard is a result of the northern portion of the castle being filled with earth to support a heavy gun platform.
Western Solent Defences. Whilst the easiest way into the Solent was via Spithead in the east, the western entrance provided attackers with a back door to Southampton and Portsmouth. Anti-ship fortifications were built to defend the entrance from the Tudor period onwards.
Master Gunner's House. This was added at some point before 1609.
Yarmouth Castle was the last of the artillery forts built by Henry VIII to protect the South Coast from a possible invasion. It differed in design from the earlier castles as it incorporated an arrow head bastion, a feature that would become commonplace in subsequent fortifications and remained the norm for three hundred years.
Yarmouth Castle is located adjacent to the ferry terminal in Yarmouth. No dedicated car parking but ample local facilities. To view the exterior of the Bastion and original Eastern entrance visit the George hotel.
Car Parking Option
River Road, PO41 0NU
Quay Street, PO41 0PB