Sir Peter Carew and Dartmouth Castle

How a centuries-old stand-off over a castle provoked Tudor soldier and adventurer Sir Peter Carew into trying to outwit the borough of Dartmouth.

Dartmouth Castle, Devon, which was seized by Sir Peter Carew in 1552

Dartmouth Castle, Devon, which was seized by Sir Peter Carew in 1552


When Sir Peter Carew took possession of Dartmouth Castle in Devon by force in 1552, he promptly changed all the locks.

It was a highly provocative act – but perhaps not an entirely unexpected one from someone with a predisposition for direct action.

Map of the coast from Salcombe to Exmouth, showing Dartmouth Castle, about 1539

Detail from a map of about 1539 of the Devon coast from Salcombe to Exmouth, showing Dartmouth Castle on the west side of the Dart estuary (centre)
© British Library Board


In the precarious Tudor power struggle that had witnessed the rapid rise and fall of many a courtier, Sir Peter had gained a reputation as a soldier and adventurer – and not a man to be taken lightly. As a young man he had travelled widely across the Continent, apparently leaving England for France at the age of 12, and serving in the armies of both France and the Prince of Orange. He caught the attention of Henry VIII in the 1530s, and was taken into royal service.  

He became prominent in Devon politics after inheriting the Carew family estates in the county when his older brother Sir George, vice-admiral of the fleet, went down with the royal flagship the Mary Rose in the Solent in 1545.

Detail of the sinking of the ‘Mary Rose’, from an engraving of 1545–6

Detail of the sinking of the ‘Mary Rose’, from an engraving of 1545–6
© By kind permission of Kester Keighley


When Sir Peter became lord of the borough of Dartmouth and MP for the town in 1547, he had the double benefit of gaining both a base for his extensive maritime interests, and an opportunity to settle an old score.

His seizure of Dartmouth Castle in 1552 was in fact just the latest episode in a long-standing feud between the Carew family and the borough over ownership of the fortress. But whose castle was it anyway?


The trouble stemmed from a national emergency many years earlier. In the 1380s, after persistent urging from the king, the borough (somewhat reluctantly, it has to be said) built the castle at Dartmouth to safeguard the prosperous town against anticipated French attacks.

But it just so happened to be built on land outside the borough’s jurisdiction, in the adjoining manor of Stoke Fleming – which was the property of the Carew family. So by 1552 the ownership of the castle was an old – and legally complicated – sore.


The borough did not let Carew’s gambit go uncontested, pursuing the matter through the law. In 1554 the castle was given back to them – although this was quite possibly because Sir Peter had been declared a traitor in January of that year for conspiring against Mary I’s intended marriage to Philip II of Spain, and had fled to France.

He got Dartmouth Castle back several years later, however, after he was pardoned late in 1556 and had his property restored to him. Returning to England, he went on to serve Elizabeth I in Ireland, and died in 1575.


By Paul Pattison




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