History of Dartmouth Castle
Sitting on a promontory where the River Dart meets the English Channel, the castle was begun in 1388 to protect the town and harbour of Dartmouth against French raids during the Hundred Years War. One hundred years later it was strengthened with a gun tower, the first purpose-built coastal artillery fort in Britain. The castle saw fighting during the Civil War and was later updated and re-equipped several times, serving in both world wars.
Dartmouth’s First Castle
The lifeblood of Dartmouth was always the River Dart. Its long estuary, sheltered by a steep valley and with a narrow exit to the sea, was an ideal, safe port for sea-going trade. By the mid-12th century Dartmouth was a thriving place. Its wealth came from trade – particularly wine from Bordeaux and wool, wheat, minerals and other produce from south Devon and Dartmoor – and from fishing.
In 1336 tension between England and France turned into the open conflict that began the Hundred Years War. To guard against French invasion it was thought vital to defend the entrance to the Dart. In 1388 Richard II ordered the mayor of Dartmouth – the merchant and privateer John Hawley – to compel the townsmen to contribute to a ‘fortalice’, which was built shortly afterwards.
This small fort was Dartmouth’s first castle. It was only used in times of danger, so had few permanent buildings. A circular corner tower and adjoining length of stone wall survive.
The 16th-century Castle
By 1502 another gun tower and bulwark had been built on the opposite side of the river at Kingswear, and by about 1530 a gun fort occupied the river bank at Bayard’s Cove, right on the edge of Dartmouth town. This was intended as a last line of defence against enemy ships that had eluded Dartmouth and Kingswear castles and breached the river chain.
Although built by the town of Dartmouth, the castle was taken by force in 1552 by Sir Peter Carew, a powerful soldier and courtier whose family had owned the nearby manor of Stoke Fleming for centuries, and who claimed that the castle was built on his land. The town took him to court, but he probably held on to the castle until his death in 1575.
Sixteenth-century crises included the invasion scares of 1538–40, following Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine 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. An early casualty was the grand Spanish ship Nuestra Señora del Rosario, captured and brought into Dartmouth as a prize of war by Sir Francis Drake.
Dartmouth under the Government
After 1646 Dartmouth’s defences were usually controlled by the government, rather than the town. Two years after Charles II’s Restoration in 1660 Dartmouth had a new complement of the king’s ‘guard and garrisons’, comprising 23 men and a governor.
The castle and its guns were maintained at times of hostilities with the Dutch in the 1660s and 1670s and the French in the 1690s. But upkeep seems to have lapsed after that. In 1715 the military engineer Colonel Christian Lilly surveyed the defences of south-west England, and noted that Dartmouth Castle was in a ‘ruinous condition’, having ‘not one gun well mounted’. No more than 20 feet (6 metres) remained of its chain.
By 1741 most of the castle’s guns were mounted in Maiden Fort, an open battery of 12 guns on the site of the old bulwark, with a guardhouse for the gunners and their equipment. The battery was enlarged in 1747, probably in case of French invasion, when it was renamed the Grand Battery. This could house guns on two levels to control the approach to the harbour. From then on the medieval gun tower was mainly used for accommodation and storage.
The castle saw no action during the long war with Napoleonic France (1793–1815), when the guns were manned by volunteers of the Dartmouth Artillery.
Dartmouth in Two World Wars
In 1909 the War Office gave the gun tower and battery, now surplus to military requirements, to the Office of Works for display as a historic monument. Two years later, former gunner Sergeant Thomas Lawson became its first resident caretaker and guide.
The castle’s military role was not yet over, however. During the First World War two quick-firing guns were installed on Dartmouth Point Battery to prevent fast gunboats and torpedo boats from entering the harbour.
After 1918 the Office of Works restored the castle, and from 1922 leased it to the borough as a tourist attraction, with a tearoom in the battery. But when war came again in 1939, the harbour became a haven for merchant convoys and the Royal Navy commissioned Philips’ shipyard in Dartmouth to build boats and small ships.
So the castle entered its final military phase. Two quick-firing guns were installed to engage enemy ships up to 3 miles out to sea. Both guns were protected from air attack by concrete gun houses – one (now the ticket office) on Dartmouth Point Battery, the other (since dismantled) 170 metres south-west. Dartmouth Battery operated until 1943, when its role was taken over by Brownstone Battery on the cliffs east of the river mouth.
A short distance upstream, in an echo of the old river chain, the Royal Navy laid a floating barrier (a boom) across the river, with steel mesh nets hanging to the river bed, to prevent enemy ships and submarines entering the harbour.
After the war the Ministry of Works resumed responsibility for Dartmouth Castle, repairing it and leasing it to Dartmouth Corporation to open it to the public again.