History of Deal Castle
Deal Castle was built in 1539–40 on Henry VIII’s order as an artillery fortress, designed to allow all-round firepower from over 140 guns. For over 250 years it defended the important naval anchorage called the Downs, and in 1648 endured a hard-fought siege between Royalist and Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil Wars. From 1730 it was gradually transformed into a genteel residence, and its military role had effectively ceased by around 1800.
A glorious beginning
In 1539, Henry VIII’s preparations for war included a huge construction programme of new artillery forts on the south and east coasts of England. Three castles were to protect the vulnerable beaches around Deal and the Downs, an important naval offshore anchorage. These castles were a response to an invasion threat that resulted from Henry VIII’s foreign policy, particularly his involvement in the struggle between Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (reigned 1516–56), and Francis I, King of France (r.1515–47). By 1539, Henry’s conduct in his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, in the destruction of monasteries and in taking control of the Church in England, had resulted in their alliance against him, urged on by an enraged Pope.
The Downs castles were completed in October 1540, and by the end of Henry’s reign in 1547 Deal was one of 42 new artillery forts that protected ports, anchorages and estuaries. Those built in the first few years, including Deal, adopted a form that enabled all-round defence, and were planned and built by the staff of Henry’s Works departments. They are beautiful architectural designs, intricately and scientifically planned to concentrate the fire of heavy guns against ships, while also enabling close defence against a land force. Deal Castle had guns mounted in five tiers.
In 1547 Deal was armed with 57 guns, but Henry’s grand military vision did not survive his death in that year, and a castle fully armed and bristling with over 140 guns was never realised. For the remainder of the 16th century, the castle was maintained on a shoestring and fully prepared only in response to invasion scares in 1568–70, 1583–8 (including the Armada of 1588) and 1596–9. In 1570 the castle had only 17 guns, most of them unserviceable, making all-round defence unachievable.
War comes to the castle
Though peaceful throughout the First English Civil War (1642–6), Deal was caught up in war in 1648. In-fighting between rival Parliamentary factions over the future of Charles I resulted in a mutiny of the fleet in the Downs. The garrisons of the castles at Deal, Walmer and Sandown defected in favour of the king and Parliament sent a force to retake them, under Colonel Nathaniel Rich, which arrived early in June.
Walmer succumbed to a murderous mortar bombardment in July, and although Deal received similar treatment, it held out. On 15 August, a relief force attempting to break the siege and resupply the castle was decisively defeated. The defenders had to surrender, on 25 August, followed by Sandown on 3 September. Parliament had won, and five months later Charles I was executed.
Fortress or Residence?
In 1713 British involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession, which had engulfed Europe since 1701, came to an end. Peace prompted a review of coastal fortifications which, at Deal, resulted in modernisation.
Military engineers from the Ordnance Office installed 12 modern 9-pounder guns. In 1730–32 they built the Captain’s House and improved a large garden for him just outside the castle. Craftsmen demolished the old Tudor parapets, replacing them with the more decorative crenellations that survive in part today. Subsequent alterations included new parapets for the three seaward-facing bastions to enable a wide arc of fire for each gun (1738); a new keep roof (1739); a new drawbridge (1741); and a high brick wall to enclose the captain’s garden (1744–50).
The result of all this work was an uneasy hybrid - a larger, more fashionable residence for the captain and a reformed battery of guns to defend the Downs. By this date only a lieutenant, a master gunner and a porter were usually based in the castle. In 1749 the lieutenant was also the master gunner, who looked after the guns and stores. In 1765, a tiny cabin in the courtyard provided shelter for a duty gunner to rest and sleep in; the other gunners were sent for when needed. The whole of the keep and inner bastions formed the captain’s accommodation.
In 1773 a muster listed a nominal garrison of only eight gunners, enough for only two guns. During major alarms, as occurred in 1744–5 and 1779 when French forces were expected, militia and regular soldiers came to help the gunners operate the guns and defend the castle.
Deal by the sea
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Deal remained a military and naval town and the castle continued as the captain’s residence. Robert Smith, Lord Carrington, the last captain to be salaried, remained in post until his death in 1838. Subsequently, the captaincy was awarded for service to the state and used by most captains as an occasional retreat, as Deal became an attractive seaside resort in summer.
By 1860 small ornamental gardens took up parts of the outer bastions, cheek-by-jowl with four 32-pounder guns whose presence was nothing more than a memory of the past (they are still at the castle). Across the Deal–Walmer road, walls enclosed a large, productive kitchen garden with a conservatory and a hot bed for forcing plants, and, against its outer face, the captain’s stable and coach house.
Yet, even in the face of this genteel residential character, the Office of Ordnance continued to maintain the four guns and a gunpowder magazine in the castle. In reality, these guns were obsolete relics and no one considered the castle as a place of defence.