History of Walmer Castle and Gardens

Walmer Castle was built in 1539–40 as one of a chain of coastal artillery forts begun by Henry VIII in the late 1530s in the face of threatened invasion by Spain. From 1708 it became the official residence of the Lords Warden of the Cinque Ports, a position occupied by many distinguished people including the Duke of Wellington, Sir Winston Churchill and the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. It was adapted over the years to make it a more comfortable and fashionable home.

The gatehouse and bridge at Walmer Castle

The gatehouse and bridge at Walmer Castle

Tudor Fortress

Walmer, together with its larger neighbour, Deal Castle, and the now largely vanished Sandown Castle, was sited to control the Downs, the sheltered area of water between the shore and the Goodwin Sands.

When the Tudor fort was built, it was to a state-of-the-art design. A squat circular keep, surrounded by a narrow courtyard, was protected by a concentric outer wall, from which four curved bastions projected to form roughly the shape of a clover leaf. The western bastion incorporates a gatehouse leading to a drawbridge over the moat.

The castle’s low height made it a difficult target to attack from the sea, and its curved walls were well equipped to deflect gunfire. Despite later alterations, the plan and structure of the Henrician fort are still largely intact.

The castle only once saw action, in 1648, when the castles of the Downs were occupied by Royalists during the Civil War. Parliamentarian forces besieged Walmer for about four weeks before the garrison surrendered, probably because of a lack of provisions. Deal and Sandown surrendered six weeks later.

The Three Castles of the Downs, a late 17th-century painting of Walmer, Deal and Sandown castles, attributed to Sir Martin Beckman

‘The Three Castles of the Downs’, a late 17th-century painting of Walmer, Deal and Sandown castles, attributed to Sir Martin Beckman. Walmer is on the right, with Deal to the left of it and Sandown in the distance beyond

The Cinque Ports

By the end of the 17th century, Walmer Castle was seen as increasingly old-fashioned and no longer fit for military purpose. It was to find a new role, however, as an official residence, although for a time it retained its armament.

The Cinque Ports – the five ports of Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Sandwich and Dover – had first banded together in the 11th century to provide ships and men to protect the coast and cross-channel trade. Two hundred years later Henry III created the post of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, to oversee the confederation and liaise with the monarch. 

Over the centuries the confederation’s importance declined, and by the early 18th century the office of Lord Warden had become simply an honorary title. It was at this time that the official residence of Lord Warden was moved from Dover Castle to Walmer.

Detail from a contemporary print depicting the death of the Duke of Wellington at Walmer Castle

Detail from a contemporary print depicting the death of the Duke of Wellington at Walmer Castle in 1852

Lords Warden at Walmer

Walmer’s new role led to many changes in the appearance of the castle, as Lords Warden adapted it for use as a family home – a tradition that only ended when the Second World War broke out.

Over the years the space between the keep and the bastions was filled in to provide accommodation for the Lords Warden, their family, guests and staff.  In the 1730s the Duke of Dorset built a sequence of rooms (the present dining and drawing rooms) at the rear of the north bastion, and the two-storey Gunners’ Lodging at the rear of the south bastion, freeing up the keep for his personal use. 

The rooms within the south bastion were created at the turn of the 19th century by William Pitt the Younger (Lord Warden 1792–1806), who also added the first-floor bridge from the Gunners’ Lodging to the keep. The last major structural alteration was the raising in height of the west bastion to provide accommodation for the family of Earl Granville (Lord Warden 1865–91).

While the Duke of Dorset, William Pitt and Earl Granville were the Lords Warden responsible for the main alterations, the castle’s most celebrated resident was the Duke of Wellington. Made Lord Warden in 1829, he died at Walmer in 1852. The Wellington Museum at the castle reflects the duke’s private life at Walmer, and includes a pair of the famous ‘Wellington’ boots.

In 2015, using a painting created shortly after Wellington’s death by Thomas Shotter Boys, English Heritage curators commissioned detailed replicas of the carpet and wallpaper in the Duke’s room. Along with his armchair and campaign bed, the result is a faithful depiction of the place where the hero of Waterloo died. The film below records the process of recreating the room.

The castle’s ceremonial role continues, as it is still the Lord Warden’s official residence.

Gardens

As Walmer evolved from defensive castle to country residence, so the gardens developed with it. Formal gardens to the south and east of the castle are largely the result of efforts by William Pitt and his niece, Lady Hester Stanhope, who lived with him in the 1790s and early 19th century.

A survey of 1859 shows a well-established shelter belt of mature trees, the twin ovals of lawn, the kitchen and walled gardens and the paddock, now a wildflower garden. The dense shelter belt protects Walmer from the prevailing south-westerly winds.

In the second half of the 19th century Earl Granville did much to improve the grounds, laying out the gravel walk west of the castle now known as the Broadwalk, flanked by herbaceous borders and great yew hedges.  

In 1997 Penelope Hobhouse created a new garden within the 19th-century walled garden to commemorate Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s tenure as Lord Warden and to celebrate her 95th birthday.

   

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The herbaceous border of the Broadwalk and the yew hedge beyond, which was originally planted by Earl Granville in the late 19th century

The herbaceous border of the Broadwalk and the yew hedge beyond, which was originally planted by Earl Granville in the late 19th century

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