Guest Blog Post – English Heritage
With its peaceful setting on the water’s edge, Dartmouth Castle occupies one of the most beautiful locations of any fortress in England. Yet the history of this medieval stronghold is far from tranquil. The castle guarded the entrance to the River Dart for almost 600 years, protecting the town and harbour against attack.
Protecting the river
Journey back to the 12th century and Dartmouth town was a bustling trading and fishing port. The wine and wool trade had brought great wealth to the area, and the river was of significant strategic importance.
However, by the 14th century, Dartmouth’s prosperity came under threat. At that time England was at war with France, part of the long conflict known as the Hundred Years War. So, to guard against French invasion, the king decided it was vital to protect the mouth of the River Dart.
Marauders and privateers
In 1388, king Richard II ordered the mayor of Dartmouth, John Hawley, to build a small ‘fortalice’ – Dartmouth’s first castle. From Hawley’s fortalice, men armed with catapults, artillery and handguns could defend the river mouth against hostile ships.
Hawley was quite a character; known as a successful merchant and notorious privateer, he may have inspired Geoffrey Chaucer’s burly ‘shipman’ in the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer described his fictional shipman from Dartmouth as no saint; instead portraying a ruthless man who took no account of ‘nice conscience’, kept a dagger on a cord about his neck, and sent his enemies ‘home by water’ – that is, threw them overboard, or simply sunk their ships!
A feat of medieval engineering
In the mid-15th century, England was still at war with France and the English Channel was notoriously dangerous. Fighting at sea was common and ships of both sides were often captured. Almost a century after building the castle, the townspeople of Dartmouth set about improving it – constructing a new gun tower, purpose-built for more powerful artillery.
At the same time, one of Dartmouth Castle’s ingenious defences was the harbour chain. A massive 250m iron chain was laid across the River Dart, helping to keep enemies away from the prosperous port. In times of conflict, the chain was laid just above water level to stop the passage of enemy ships, making them an easy target for gunfire from the castle.
As England moved into the 16th century, yet more drama was on the horizon for Dartmouth. This included the invasion scares of 1539-40, following Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and the threat of the Great Armada in 1588, when the Spanish warships sailed past Dartmouth on their way to meet the English fleet.
In 1552, a local dispute resulted in Sir Peter Carew taking possession of Dartmouth Castle by force, and promptly changing all the locks! Carew was a powerful soldier and courtier, who claimed (rightly) that the castle had been built on his land. The town authorities took him to court, but he held on to the castle until his death in 1575.
Having been taken by Royalists and Parliamentarians in turn during the First English Civil War, then heavily re-fortified through the Victorian Era, the castle continued in service through the two world wars. During WWI, two quick-firing guns were installed to prevent fast gunboats and torpedo boats from entering the harbour. It was called upon once more during the Second World War, when troops returned, and the building which now serves as a shop was created to house a large coast defence gun.
After the Second World War, the War Office finally withdrew from Dartmouth Castle. Since 1984 it has been in the care of English Heritage, which now conserves this important piece of our history for future generations.
Dartmouth Castle today
Visitors to the castle today are greeted with unrivalled picturesque views. Yet, step inside and you’ll discover fascinating reminders of Dartmouth’s tumultuous past – guarding the river for almost 600 years.
You can climb to the top of the gun tower, explore the maze of winding passages, and discover where the chain would have stretched across the estuary. Families will love picturing enemy ships on the horizon, as you hear stories of those who bravely protected Dartmouth over the centuries.
Find out more about Dartmouth Castle and book your tickets here.