Dartmouth Castle was the first fortification in the UK to be built with the sole purpose of housing projectile weapons for defence of a port. Funded by the wealthy merchants of the town who had prospered from privateering actions against French shipping during the Hundred Years War, it continued in its coastal defence role until the end of WWII.
With its deep water harbour and ease of access to the English Channel, Dartmouth has been used as a port for thousands of years. Whilst the scale of early settlements was hampered by the terrain, by the twelfth century Dartmouth had established itself as a thriving port and base for an internationally focused mercantile community famed for aggressive (almost piratical) practises. Made rich from the wine and cloth trades, reprisal attacks on Dartmouth seemed increasingly likely and a Royal Commission recommended the construction of defences at the mouth of the river. However the merchants of the town were reluctant to pay for the construction of a castle and it was not until the town’s mayor, John Hawley, petitioned Richard II for permission to compel a levy on the town that it was actually built. Work started in 1388.
The castle was originally constructed in the form of a fortified enclosure designed to hold a variety of stone throwing devices for destroying ships as they entered the river. More significantly state of the art cannons were installed; one of the first examples of gunpowder artillery being used within a castle in the British Isles. In the subsequent decades a chain was also fitted across the mouth of the Dart (connecting to a supporting fort, Gomerock [Godmerock] Tower, on the east side) ensuring all ships attempting to enter would be held under direct fire from the castle. Edward IV granted funding for this in 1462 but whether it was in place at this time is unclear. In 1478 the same King ordered the harbour chain at Fowey to be removed and given to Dartmouth allegedly due to the outrageous behaviour of Fowey locals, Treffry and Michelstow.
Dartmouth Castle was substantially enhanced in 1481 with the construction of a new Gun Tower. Like the harbour chain this structure was paid for by the Crown and represented the first of its kind. However funding was slow to be allocated and by 1485 little work had been done on the structure. Following the Tudor victory at the Battle of Bosworth (1485), the new King Henry VII was again petitioned for funding and granted additional money to enable the building to continue. Work was largely complete by 1491 and by the following year the tower was armed with four large 'murderers' and twelve light 'serpentynes' - a formidable and expensive weapons fit. These were early days for coastal defence guns however and the range of these early cannons was inadequate to provide effective fire across the entire width of the river mouth. Accordingly a new fortification - Kingswear Castle - was built on the opposite bank in 1491. A third fortification, Bayard's Cove Fort, was built adjacent to the Town Quay in 1529 as a further defence.
In 1534 Henry VIII sealed the Act of Supremacy which made him, rather than the Pope, the "supreme head" of the English church. Relations with the Catholic powers deteriorated rapidly and coincided with an unusual state of peace between France and Spain. An invasion of England seemed a distinct possibility and therefore in 1539 Henry VIII embarked on the largest coastal defence programme since the Roman era. At Dartmouth the three relatively new castles protecting the River meant that the area was not a recipient of a new fortification. However Dartmouth Castle was upgraded with the North and South Gun Batteries which were built as open platforms on either side of the existing Gun Tower. Also added at this time was Lamberd's Bulwarke, another gun platform, providing artillery coverage pointing south-east across the channel into the port. The construction of this latter facility prompted a dispute with the Carew family, on whose land the castle had been built, and they built a substantial manor house within the walls of the fortress to assert their rights.
In the seventeenth century Civil War the merchants of Dartmouth, who had been alienated by Charles I's taxations policies, supported Parliament and garrisoned the castle accordingly. However by October 1643 the South West was firmly in Royalist hands and Royalist forces under Prince Maurice laid siege to Dartmouth. The focus of the town's defences had always been based on an attack from the sea and both the town and castle quickly fell to a land assault. The castle itself was compelled to surrender by bombardment from artillery on the adjacent hill tops. Once firmly in Royalist hands two earthwork forts - Gallants Bower and Mount Ridley - were constructed on the summits of the hills overlooking the river mouth. Dartmouth remained in Royalist hands until January 1646 when Parliamentary forces under Sir Thomas Fairfax stormed the town in a night assault. The castle and the two forts surrendered the following day.
In the mid-eighteenth century war with France prompted the Government to strengthen the defences at Dartmouth. Lamberd's Bulwarke, by now renamed as Maiden's Fort, was upgraded in 1741. Further upgrades, converting it into a two storey structure, were made in 1748 and it was renamed Grand Battery at this time.
The defences of the castle were reviewed as part of the Royal Commission of 1859/60 that assessed coastal defences across the realm. Dartmouth was found wanting and Grand Battery was completely rebuilt in 1861 with enclosed casemated gun positions augmented by lighter guns on the roof. A howitzer provided last line defence. These defences remained extant until 1940 when they were replaced with a 4.7inch gun enclosed in a fake battlemented gun shelter to disguise its purpose. A further 4.7inch gun was installed on a nearby cliff top. These defences were enhanced in 1942 with the addition of a new gun battery at Froward Point, a submarine minefield at the river mouth and a torpedo launching station near Kingswear Castle. In June 1944 Dartmouth was one of a myriad of ports from which Operation Neptune, the Allied invasion of Normandy, was launched.
Dartmouth Castle was decommissioned as a coastal defence site in 1955 and handed over to Ministry of Works. Dartmouth however retains its military links and is home to Britannia Royal Navy College - the training facility for all Naval Officers.
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The remains of Dartmouth Castle include a medieval gun tower, parts of a fourteenth century curtain wall, artillery platforms from various eras and a nineteenth century casemated battery. Replica fourteenth century artillery pieces are also visible and Kingswear Castle can be seen directly opposite. Britannia Royal Navy College (not normally open to public) and Bayards Cove Fort are nearby.
Gun Tower Battery. The Gun Tower, the first of its kind in England, was built between 1481 and 1495.
Dartmouth Castle Layout. The castle was originally a simple enclosure protected by a substantial landward curtain wall and containing throwing machines adjacent to the channel. The Gun Tower was added in 1481-96 and further gun batteries followed.
Curtain Wall. The oldest surviving sections of Dartmouth Castle are the sections of curtain wall and the south-west tower.
Grand Battery. Originally an open air gun platform called Lamberd's Bulwarke, this seaward facing element of the castle's defences was regularly upgraded as technological advances increased the range of the power of artillery. The last major rebuild was in 1861 when casemated gun positions were built.
Gift Shop. One of the WWII 4.7inch guns was installed in a dedicated shelter with fake medieval battlements to confuse any attacker. This building is the current gift shop.
River Dart. The harbour was capable of handling hundreds of ships but the entry into the port was narrow. Dartmouth Castle can just be seen at the edge of the landmass to the right. Kingswear Castle was on the other side.