Kingswear Castle was one of two artillery fortifications that guarded the entrance into the River Dart. Developments in artillery, coupled with the castle’s exposed coastal location, meant it only remained in use for around 100 years although it was temporarily reactivated during both the Civil War and World War II.
Kingswear is located on the eastern banks of the mouth of the River Dart. This waterway - which offers a deep water harbour, ease of access to the English Channel and movement inland to Totnes - has been used by mariners for thousands of years. Whilst Totnes originally served as the main port, by the twelfth century this settlement had been eclipsed by Dartmouth which had become the base for an internationally focused mercantile community famed for aggressive (almost piratical) practises. By the latter half of the fourteenth century, with the Hundred Years War on-going, reprisal attacks on Dartmouth seemed increasingly likely and, after some reluctance from the merchants of the town to fund new defences, Dartmouth Castle was constructed. In 1481 this was augmented with a gun tower, the first fortification in Britain to have been designed for cannons. However, despite the relatively narrow entrance, the effective range of the guns was insufficient to adequately cover the river mouth. Accordingly around 1491, the Dartmouth Corporation funded the construction of Kingswear Castle.
Kingswear Castle shared a similar design to the Gun Tower at Dartmouth Castle. It was a three storey square blockhouse constructed from slate rubble with red sandstone ashlar dressings. The main platform was on the ground floor with lighter weapons on the levels above. The roof consisted of a flat wooden platform and may have hosted further light guns. An octagonal stair tower provided access to all levels. The guns were augmented by a harbour chain that ran between Dartmouth Castle and Gomerock, a further 250 metres to the north-west; ships attempting to break through the chain were held stationary under the combined fire-power of both Dartmouth and Kingswear Castles. Despite this formidable (and state-of-the-art) fire-power, the Dartmouth Corporation funded a further fortification, Bayard’s Cove Fort, within a few years of the completion of Kingswear Castle.
From the start Kingswear Castle suffered from its exposed coastal location which quickly rendered any iron weaponry useless prompting the installation of expensive brass cannon instead. However, the rapid development in gunpowder artillery meant that by the end of the sixteenth century, the guns of Dartmouth Castle were able to cover the entire width of the river mouth and Kingswear Castle was abandoned.
Upon the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Dartmouth supported Parliament and Kingswear Castle was re-activated to bolster the harbour defences. However, the wider South West fell into the Royalist sphere of influence and in October 1643 the town was seized by the King's forces. Both Dartmouth and Kingswear Castles had been designed to attack shipping, not to withstand a land attack, and quickly fell. The Royalists continued to garrison both castles and built two earthwork forts - Gallants Bower and Mount Ridley - 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. Both castles and the two forts surrendered the following day.
Shortly after the civil war, Kingswear Castle suffered a significant fire that gutted the structure. It remained ruinous until the late eighteenth century when it was repaired and re-armed due to on-going hostilities with France. However, with the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the castle was again allowed to decay and by the mid-nineteenth century was ruinous. It was purchased by Charles Seale Hayne in 1855 who transformed it into a lavish Summer residence. The round tower to the north was constructed at this time and later linked to the original Gun Tower by a concrete structure. The castle complex was briefly taken into military use during World War II, when it became barracks for Royal Marines who manned a nearby coastal defence battery, and was purchased in 1987 by the Landmark Trust and is now let as a holiday home.
Allen, R (1976). English Castles. Batsford, London.
Colvin, H.M (1982). History of the King's Works 1485-1600. HMSO, London.
Douglas, D.C and Myers, A.R (ed) (1975). English Historical Documents Vol 5 (1327-1485). Routledge, London.
Douglas, D.C and Williams, C.H (ed) (1975). English Historical Documents Vol 5 (1485-1558). Routledge, London.
Historic England (1949). Kingswear Castle, List entry 1108543. Historic England, London.
King, C.D.J (1983). Castellarium anglicanum: an index and bibliography of the castles in England, Wales and the Islands. Kraus International Publications.
Pattison, P (2013). Dartmouth Castle. English Heritage, London.
Salter, M (1999). The Castles of Devon and Cornwall. Folly Publications.
Saunders, A (1997). Channel Defences. English Heritage, London.
Kingswear Castle is owned by the Landmark Trust and rented out as a holiday home. The original gun tower survives but has been extensively converted and augmented by a nineteenth century round tower.
Kingswear Castle. The original portion of the castle is the square Gun Tower. Funding for this was secured in 1491 although work may not have started until some years later. This artillery tower was complete by 1502. The round tower, to the left of the earlier structure, was built as part of the 1855 transformation of the castle into a Summer residence and connected by a concrete passageway.
Early Artillery. The Gun Tower of Dartmouth Castle was the first of its kind in Britain. However, early artillery lacked range and accordingly Kingswear Castle was built to cover the eastern portion of the channel.
East Bank. The east bank of the River Dart as viewed from Dartmouth Castle. Kingswear Castle can be seen to the right of the photograph whilst to the left was the site of Gomerock castle where the harbour chain terminated.
Kingswear Castle is found off Castle Road to the south-east of Kingswear. The site is not assessable unless rented out via the Landmark Trust. The castle can be seen across the water from Dartmouth Castle.
Castle Road, TQ6 0DX
Dartmouth Castle / Car Park
Castle Road, TQ6 0JN