Hurst Castle was one of numerous coastal defence fortifications built by Henry VIII to secure his Kingdom from invasion. Constructed at the end of a mile-long shingle spit, it was designed to dominate the western approach into the Solent. The castle was significantly upgraded in the mid-nineteenth century with the addition of two massive artillery wings.
Hurst Spit is located at the western entrance into the Solent, a waterway that provided access to the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. The one-mile long spit narrows the channel to a chokepoint just 1,200 metres wide. Around 1525 an artillery fortification, Worsley Tower, was built upon the Isle of Wight near the site of the nineteenth century Fort Victoria. However, this was only a small facility and was overlooked by high ground making it vulnerable to a land assault. Accordingly, when the next fortifications were considered for the site, focus shifted towards the spit.
The reign of Henry VIII saw a marked deterioration in English relations with the continent as the King withdrew the Church of England from the wider Roman Catholic Church and declared himself, rather than the Pope, its "Supreme Head". This was not a problem whilst France and Spain - the two European super-powers - were at war but, in June 1538, they made peace. An invasion by one or both seemed a possibility and accordingly in 1539 a major fort building programme, the largest since the Roman era, was commenced. Initiated by an Act (Device) of Parliament, the defences stretched from Hull to Milford Haven and included forts and earthwork defences. 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.
The Tudor Castle
Work started on the castles at Cowes in April 1539 and at Calshot shortly thereafter. Hurst Castle was constructed by the same team that built Calshot Castle and accordingly had to wait until that fortification was complete. Given the perceived imminent invasion, an earth battery was constructed upon Hurst Spit to serve as a temporary measure. Work on the castle eventually started in February 1541. By this time the threat of invasion had receded and work progressed slowly ultimately not being completed until January 1544. However, the castle was sufficiently advanced for a garrison to be assigned from 1542.
The slow pace of construction meant Hurst Castle became one of the most advanced of Henry's forts. The central feature was a twelve sided central Keep which had twelve gun positions installed upon its roof. This was surrounded by an angled concentric curtain wall augmented with three substantial semi-circular bastions. Both incorporated vaulted gun chambers with further weapon positions on their parapets. As a defensive measure, the castle was surrounded by a wet moat and six gun positions were installed at ground level within the bastions to enable fire along the length of the curtain wall. In total Hurst Castle had 71 gun positions across six tiers although it should be noted it was never fully armed.
The Tudor Castle has been heavily modified and is now embedded in a much larger fortification but its outline can still be appreciated.
The invasion fears of Henry's reign proved unfounded but the castle remained garrisoned. However, the fortification was underfunded and in 1628, when tasked with stopping some Flemish ships, its garrison simply had to watch them sail by as they had only four functional weapons and no gunpowder! Nevertheless the castle was deemed to be strategically important upon the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 and was garrisoned by Parliamentary troops. With the navy under Parliament's control it saw no action but in December 1648 it briefly served as a temporary prison for Charles I whilst en route from Carisbrooke to London for his trial and execution. After the Restoration Charles II considered demolishing Hurst Castle but was swayed against it and instead used the castle as a prison. The outbreak of the Third Dutch War in 1673 prompted repairs to restore the castle back into an effective coastal defence fortification once more.
Hurst Castle continued to be garrisoned throughout the eighteenth century but it was probably not a popular assignment. Most of the weapons were not serviceable and the fabric of the castle had been neglected meaning it would inevitably have been a damp, uncomfortable and remote environment. However, by the end of the century the population living on the spit started to increase when an entrepreneur established the Shipwright's Arms Inn on the spit no later than 1780 and a manned lighthouse followed in 1786. The castle itself was re-armed in 1793 following the outbreak of the French Revolutionary War. A new battery, equipped with captured French 36-pounder guns, was built on the beach whilst the castle itself was equipped with eighteen 9-pounder guns. Heavier Weapons would have been desirable but the castle was unable to support them.
The outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803 prompted a fresh interest in coastal defence. This prompted a substantial refit and modernisation of Hurst Castle. The Keep was gutted and reinforced with brick to harden it against artillery and to enable six 24-pounder guns to be installed upon its roof. The upper levels of the bastions were also modified to take heavier guns. Ultimately the invasion fears passed once Admiral Nelson had defeated the Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). Whilst the castle remained garrisoned, it was used as a military hospital for injured Service personnel returning from fighting on the continent.
The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 and thereafter a long period of peace followed. However, in December 1851 Louis-Napoleon, President of France, declared himself Emperor Napoleon III. This prompted significant concern in England that there would be a resumption of the Anglo-French wars and accordingly coastal defence arrangements were again scrutinised. The western passage into the Solent was the recipient of new fortifications at Fort Victoria and Fort Albert - both of which were on the Isle of Wight opposite Hurst Castle. The Tudor castle was also substantially upgraded including modifications to take 32-pounder guns, enhanced magazine facilities and a deepened moat reinforced by a counterscarp wall and gallery. Significantly, earthwork wing batteries were added both sides of the former castle and equipped with 8-inch guns - seventeen to the west and twelve in the east battery.
The caponier was add in 1852 as part of the first phase of modifications to the castle.
Initial tensions between Napoleon III and Britain were eased when the two countries worked together during the Crimea War (1853-56). However, in 1858 the French launched the world's first seagoing Ironclad warship, 'La Gloire' (the Glory), starting an arms race with Britain. This armoured warship instantly rendered the wooden sailing ships of the Royal Navy obsolete and prompted fears of invasion. A Royal Commission was established to review coastal defence and that body recommended a vast fort building programme around the Solent to protect the Royal Navy's dockyard at Portsmouth. The programme included a series of fortifications to prevent overland attacks as well as sea defences. The latter included new installations protecting the Western Solent.
Work on the new facilities began early in 1861. On the Isle of Wight the existing Fort Victoria and Fort Albert were replaced by Cliff End Battery, Hatherwood Battery, Needles Old Battery and Warden Point Battery. Hurst Castle was retained as part of the defensive scheme but the upgrades of the 1850s were now deemed inadequate and the entire fortification underwent significant modifications. Work started in February 1861 with the earlier earth and shingle wings being demolished and replaced by two granite built structures attached to the Tudor fort. Each wing was a single storey structure equipped with a variety of Rifled Muzzle Loading guns each enclosed within an iron shielded casemate enabling it to be re-armed in comparative safety following each firing. Work on the upgrades continued through to 1874 and thereafter the upgraded castle was fitted with ten 12.5-inch, fifteen 10-inch, five 9-inch and three 64-pounder guns. Additional magazines were added to each wing to feed this formidable armament. Accommodation was also provided for four Officers, seven Non-Commissioned Officers and 120 Other Ranks.
Quick Firing Guns
Despite the powerful upgrades to Hurst Castle's armament, they were slow to fire. This was acceptable against slow moving warships but the late-nineteenth century saw the development of the Fast Motor Torpedo Boat. These fast moving vessels could simply out manoeuvre traditional coastal defence weapons and to compensate the Quick Firing gun was developed. In 1893 three 6-pounder Quick Firing guns were mounted on an open battery adjacent to the East Wing. These defences were further augmented by three 0.45-inch Machine Guns.
Early in the twentieth century three 12-pounder Quick Firing guns were installed on the roof of the West Wing and the Tudor castle's South Bastion. Searchlights, built in dedicated enclosures attached to the West Wing, were also installed at this time. As weapon technology advanced, particularly heavy breach-loading weapons, the casemates at Hurst Castle were too small and the open batteries on the Isle of Wight became the mainstay of the Western Solent defences. Nevertheless Hurst Castle retained much of its armament fit through both World Wars and also received a pair of 40mm Bofors Anti-Aircraft guns in 1941. The site was decommissioned in 1956 as part of a nationwide reduction in coastal defence.
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Hurst Castle was a Tudor fort that was substantially expanded during the Victorian era. Located on a shingle spit that juts out into the Solent, it offers superb views across the water to the Isle of Wight. Fort Albert can be seen directly across the water. The walk along the spit is approximately one mile or, alternatively, a ferry runs from Keyhaven to the castle during the Summer months.
Hurst Castle. The castle occupies the end of a one-mile long spit that extends from Keyhaven. The original Tudor Castle is now dwarfed by mid-nineteenth century wing batteries.
Tudor Castle. The original castle was the most advanced of the 1539 device forts built by Henry VIII. It consisted of a twelve sided central Keep enclosed by an angled concentric curtain wall augmented with three substantial semi-circular bastions. Originally a moat surrounded the site. It had 71 gun positions spread across six tiers.
Triangular Windows. Hurst and Calshot castles were unique for having triangular-headed windows in their central towers.
Moat. The Tudor castle was originally completely surrounded by a wet moat. A small portion still survives.
Entrance. The castle entrance was incorporated into the north-west bastion. A drawbridge spanned the moat and there was also a portcullis.
Brick Additions. The Tudor Castle's bastions were reinforced by brick casemates during the 1850s in order to take heavier weapons on both the lower and upper tiers. The Keep was also strengthened with bricks and a caponier was added to the castle's exterior.
Wings. The East Wing (left) and West Wing (Right) were added following the 1859 Royal Commission.
Armoured Casemates. The concept behind the fort was to enable the defences to withstand an attack from weaponry at least as powerful as its own. Accordingly the guns were embedded in armoured casemates with an Iron plated front and 'Iron concrete' to the rear. The rest of the structure was made of granite. It was a robust fort but the internal casemates would have filled up with smoke quickly and the guns were slow to fire - a trial conducted by Fort Picklecombe in Plymouth put the average at one shot every 1 minute 45 seconds.
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.
Gun Battery. An open battery for three 6-pounder Quick Firing guns was added in 1893 adjacent to the East Wing.
Bofors 40mm. Anti-aircraft guns were added to the castle's armaments during World War II.
Hurst Castle is located upon a shingle spit that extends from Keyhaven. Follow signs to Milford-on-sea and then along Keyhaven Road (following signs to the castle). There is a large (pay and display) car park or alternative free parking by the access to the spit (but note this can flood at high tide).