Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:20 am
England’s King Henry VIII is usually thought of as the nasty big bloke with all the wives; the chap who officially stopped his subjects being Roman Catholic, gave them the Church of England instead and closed down all the nice monasteries. He is not usually seen as a builder – but he was; picture him in dungarees and a hard hat.
Between 1539 and his death in 1547, Henry undertook a massive programme of coastal fortification to help protect his kingdom against possible invasion. Catholic Europe was often no friend to the newly Protestant England and the country had always been vulnerable to attack, especially from France just 21 or so miles away across the English Channel. Eventually, more than 30 castles, or forts, were built, along with blockhouses and other defensive works mainly, though not exclusively, on England’s South East coast. Revolutionary new designs were employed. Essentially, the ‘castles’ were artillery platforms, bristling with armaments, many with low profiles to make them harder targets for enemy guns. Unlike huge medieval castles built to project power and for personal protection and accommodation, the functional Henrican forts were part of a coordinated project with no other purpose than the defence of the realm. They are sometimes known as ‘device forts’, created by a parliamentary ‘device’ on the orders of the king. The whole scheme was extraordinarily expensive, and partly funded by proceeds from the sale of monastic assets. One of those castles was at Deal, in Kent.
Deal was a medieval port with a strategic location on the Strait of Dover. Deal Castle was constructed on the edge of town between 1539 and 1540. In plan, it resembles a Tudor rose: a central circular keep from which six semi-circular bastions radiate like petals, all gun platforms, with an outer curtain of a further six semi-circular bastions. There were openings for 140 guns (though the most Deal castle ever had was 57) and the whole thing was surrounded by a moat. Deal was also designed to work in concert with neighbouring castles at Sandown and Walmer to bring down concentrated firepower and protect the Down, a nearby area of sheltered sea between the shore and the treacherous Goodwin Sands. In fact, a massive battle between the Dutch and Spanish navies took place in these waters in 1639 – the Battle of the Downs. It was a decisive victory for the Dutch and thousands of shipwrecked Spanish sailors found themselves ashore in the Deal area.
On 27 December 1539, Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s future fourth wife, landed at Deal on her way from her native Germany to meet the king, and rested at the unfinished castle.
In the event, Deal Castle saw little action on its own account. Henry declared war on France in 1544, a conflict chiefly remembered for the sinking of the Mary Rose, but the fighting came nowhere near Deal. In 1648, during the Civil War, Deal Castle was besieged by Parliamentary troops for three months, but despite its geographic position and Britain’s eventful history, experienced no further combat itself until a German bomb fell on it during the Second World War. It was only fully garrisoned at times of national peril, chiefly during wars with France but also at the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and when the Dutch threatened invasion in 1667. In the 18th century, the keep’s upper floor was converted to provide comfortable accommodation for the Captain and his family. A garden was established outside the castle. Thereafter, although Deal itself developed as military and naval town, the defensive usefulness of its castle was diluted by domestic demands.
Deal Castle squats peacefully near the beach with a few fishing boats pulled up on the shingle in front of it. There are interesting exhibitions inside and the cunning Tudor defences can easily be appreciated. In the basement, a dark and narrow passage – ‘the rounds’ – encircles the castle at moat level, with a series of embrasures enabling defenders armed with handguns to take out any attacker that had somehow managed to infiltrate as far as the dry moat. In modern terminology, the moat is a killing-zone. On the keep’s upper floor are the panelled unfurnished rooms of the Captain’s home. Unfortunately, it is not possible to access the top of the castle, though I bet the views are great.
One relatively recent addition inside is the chapel, built in 1923 by General Sir John French, the First Earl of Ypres, who commanded the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War, when he was Captain of Deal Castle. The chapel is used by the Burma Star Association in memory of service personnel of the Burma campaign during the Second World War.
If you’re not feeling out-castled, it is an easy level walk of a couple of miles, with the beach on one side and coloured Victorian villas on the other, to Walmer Castle. This, the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, has the added allure of being the place where the Duke of Wellington died, as well as having some rather lovely gardens. To ease your journey, I can recommend an ice cream to see you off and a very decent sausage sandwich about half-way along. As further reminders of Britain’s chequered history, you will pass a bandstand erected in memory of the 11 Royal Marine musicians murdered by the IRA in 1989 and, near Walmer beach, a plaque commemorating Julius Caesar’s first landing in Britain in 55BC.
Deal Castle is managed by English Heritage.