Done Deal Castle?

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:20 am

Deal Castle, KentEngland’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.

Deal CastleBetween 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.

Canon at Deal CastleGun at Deal CastleDeal 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.

Deal Castle keepIn 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.

Captain's accommodation at Deal CastleDeal 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.

The Rounds, DealOne 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.

Deal Castle chapelIf 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 beach

Deal Castle is managed by English Heritage.

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53 thoughts on “Done Deal Castle?”

  1. Hi Mike – even though it’s along the coast – it’s an awful journey and I’ve never undertaken it – one day … perhaps a few days and I can see these two and Dover Castle. Thanks for another excellent post re Castles to visit! Cheers Hilary

  2. Ah you’re in our current territory here – we live in East Kent so yes Deal and Walmer Castles have both been “done” by the hungry travellers. Deal is a very pleasant seafront town, with a reputation for the best “full English” in Kent – on the pier if I remember correctly.

  3. artandarchitecturemainly

    The device forts created on the orders of the king came towards the end of Henry’s life. And of course the whole project was infamously expensive. The sale of those precious monastic assets had to be used for EVERYTHING!

    So we have to ask which invasions the coastal fortification programme would protect the kingdom from? and when? Or was Henry trying to impress the nobility and church on England’s S.E coast?

  4. John @ By Stargoose And Hanglands

    Interesting piece of history in a part of the world I’ve never had reason to visit. Somehow I find it very easy to picture Henry on a building site, wolf-whistling all the passing girls, knocking down any buildings that got in his way, swilling beer after work and getting into fights. I’m sure it’d look a lot less embarrassing than when our present politicians don a Bob-The-Builder hat.

  5. Another great post Mike. I’ve not been to this castle, so I was keen to see the similarities or differences between this one and Henry’s forts at the other end of the South Coast at Falmouth and St. Mawes which I did a post about recently.

    You always do a fabulous job of bringing these stories to life, so much so, that I feel as though I’ve been there already. Keep up the good work, but I think your page should now be changed from ‘A Bit about Britain’ to ‘Everything you need to know about Britain’. Great stuff!

  6. I’m sure I will have visited Deal castle as a young one. It is exactly the sort of place my Auntie Ruby would have taken us to on one of our seaside jaunts. What on earth were the Dutch and the Spanish navies doing slugging it out in British waters back in 1639! Not very neighbourly I say. I’m all for the ice cream on the beach and I hate to ask, but you didn’t notice if there was a vegetarian option for the sausage sandwich by any chance?

      1. Mustard preferred. As for the timing, probably have to wait til I get my booster shot. Who knows when that will be.

  7. Thanks for this, Mike. I didn’t know that Deal was one of Henry’s castles, I must visit it sometime. I’ve visited two of his other castles, Pendennis and St Mawes, near Falmouth in Cornwall. I think they saw more action during WWII rather than in Henry’s time.

  8. I remember going to Deal castle with my parents while on holiday in my early teens but I don’t remember much about the place itself. I love the photo of the boats, it’s a very colourful shot 🙂

  9. Such an amazing place, Mike! Isn’t King Henry VIII the guy who ran “us” Americans off to the Americas? I should know this.

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