Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:20 am
We strolled to Walmer Castle from Deal in September sunshine. Infamous as the place where the Duke of Wellington died, Walmer Castle was one of Henry VIII’s so-called ‘device forts’, a network of artillery strongholds built to protect England against possible French invasion. Naturally, we have retained a few of these, just in case. Walmer was completed in 1540 and is similar in style to its larger neighbour, Deal Castle, though quatrefoil in plan and once encircled by a sea-filled moat. Unlike Deal, however, it has a semi-romantic appearance, occupying a picturesque setting behind some trees at the end of a driveway. If it appears rather less military than any self-respecting fortification should, that is because it has spent most of its long years as a modestly comfortable home and is surrounded by some rather lovely gardens. Walmer did see action once, in 1648, when it was besieged by Parliamentary troops and captured after a mortar bombardment. Subsequent major conflicts passed it by unmolested, though it continued to be garrisoned against the nation’s enemies way past its sell-by date. In fact, Walmer Castle was maintained by the War Office (forerunner of the Ministry of Defence) right up until 1904. From 1728, though, it has been the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.
Cinque, of course, is French and means five. However, the English often struggle with their own language, let alone other people’s, so this is pronounced ‘sink’ ports. The Cinque Ports is a group of southern coastal towns that in times past had joint responsibility to provide a fleet on demand for the defence of the realm. Various rights and liberties were granted in return for this ‘ship service’. Some like to imagine the roots of the arrangement began when the Romans defended Britannia from wild Germanic raiders along the Saxon Shore. That’s a nice idea, but unlikely. The origins of the scheme seem to be pre-Conquest 11th century and it functioned well into the 16th century, when the need for a professional navy with purpose-built warships and deep water harbours rendered ship service obsolete. The five original Cinque Ports were Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. At times, the five head ports turned to neighbouring communities for additional resources and these towns and villages were known as ‘limbs’. Rye and Winchelsea were granted equal status with the original five in the 14th century, but more than 30 additional limbs joined in at various times. The last time a Cinque Ports fleet sailed into action was in 1596, in response to a threatened Spanish invasion. The process of erosion and silting mean that several old port towns, including New Romney, Sandwich and Rye, are no longer coastal anyway.
The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports is appointed by the sovereign, and since 1267 has also been Constable of Dover Castle. Although a largely ceremonial role these days, historically the position of Lord Warden was a very powerful one. The first Warden to make his mark on Walmer Castle, however, was Lionel Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset, for it was he who made it his official residence in 1728, and modernised and extended the accommodation previously used by the humble captain of the castle. The poor old captain was booted out. The Duke also enclosed what had previously been the captain’s garden, and developed it. Thus, Walmer Castle effectively became a seaside retreat. From 1792-1806, the Lord Warden was William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1783-1801 and from 1804-1806. Pit entertained extensively on his frequent visits and, in partnership with his niece, Lady Hester Stanhope (one of the most remarkable characters of her time), developed the garden into a small private park. This included a second walled garden, a grassy glade and a shrubbery set in an old chalk pit, known as ‘the Glen’. The Pitt-Stanhope garden project was completed by the next warden, Robert Banks Jenkinson, Lord Hawkesbury, who became the 2nd Earl of Liverpool and then, in 1812, Prime Minister after the assassination of Spencer Perceval. Lady Hawkesbury referred to the garden as ‘pleasure grounds’ and, indeed, they were. And still are.
Arthur Wellesley, who became the 1st Duke of Wellington in 1814, served as Lord Warden from 1829 until his death at Walmer on 14 September 1852. Wellington, the Iron Duke, is still remembered as one of Britain’s most successful soldiers, with a career in India and commander of the British Army in the Peninsula War that, with Portuguese and Spanish allies, forced Napoleon’s troops back into France. The peak of his military success was as commander of the Allied Army (British, German and Dutch) that, with the Prussians, finally defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. He then went into politics and was another Lord Warden to have also been Prime Minister. Wellington loved Walmer. It is said to have been his favourite home and he would spend many late summers and autumns there, frequently visited by friends, family and various dignitaries. He even loaned it to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for a month in 1842. On the day of his death, he did not feel well and took to his bed – a campaign bed, which he had used for years. Later, he felt well enough to sit up in his chair; and there he died, probably of a stroke, aged 83.
Wellington was given the rare honour of a state funeral (other recipients have included Nelson and Churchill). He is buried near Nelson in St Paul’s Cathedral.
The interior of Walmer is charming, an elegant combination of Regency and Victorian, without too much of the fussiness that often goes with the latter. It is, I recall, largely blue. Sadly, personal photography is frowned upon. I deny all knowledge of the one in this article, but suggest that the place has been paid for by British taxpayers, including me, down the years – so sue me. There is, I suppose inevitably, a slightly brooding presence of Wellington about the place, not helped by the fact that one of the highlights of your tour is to visit ‘the death room’. This is not, as you might imagine, a room that emits some kind of fatal invisible ray when you enter, but the place where the Great Man died. It is presented as it might have looked on the day, complete with his campaign bed and The Chair, alongside a wealth of Wellington memorabilia. In adjoining rooms are a pair of his famous boots and his death mask. The latter is morbidly fascinating, yet wretched and forlorn. Toothless, it is in marked contrast to the portrait of the vigorous, handsome, younger man nearby.
“Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Other than boosting visitor numbers (which I suppose counts for something), Wellington did not actually do much for Walmer. His successors included three more British prime ministers – Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (from 1861-1865), Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (from 1895-1903), Winston Churchill (from 1941-1965) – and one Australian, Robert Menzies (from 1966-1978).
Several Lord Wardens made a difference to Walmer. Influential politician Granville George Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Granville, was Lord Warden from 1865 to 1891 and actually chose to live there full-time with his family. During his tenure, he improved the garden, introducing several features including a croquet lawn, central walkway (‘the Broadwalk’) with a border and high hedges, as well as a meandering walkway through the moat. His successor was, briefly, William Henry Smith, bookseller and newsagent, who allegedly died on or shortly after his first visit (maybe he entered The Death Room). However, it was WH Smith who instigated the Indenture of Heirlooms Act, which keeps the historic collection of furniture and artwork at Walmer and on public display. Good man; he would turn in his grave if he saw what tawdry emporia his shops have become.
William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp, was Lord Warden from 1913 to 1934. Yet another leading politician of his day, Beauchamp made Walmer a summer retreat for himself, his wife and their seven children. His family loved it. He too made improvements to the grounds. However, Beauchamp was a homosexual, which was illegal at the time, and hosted risqué parties at Walmer. Eventually, he was outed by his brother in law, the Duke of Westminster, who sounds like a thoroughly nasty piece of work as well as being a political rival. When hearing about Beauchamp, George V is alleged to have said, “I thought men like that shot themselves.” Beauchamp went into exile and died of cancer in 1938. The author Evelyn Waugh was a close friend of Beauchamp’s son, Hugh Lygon, at Oxford. Hugh is generally thought to have inspired the character of Sebastian Flyte in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, whilst the character of Lord Marchmain was based on Beauchamp himself. TV transported the troubled family to Castle Howard in Yorkshire.
Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports from 1978 to 2002 was Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. To mark the occasion of her 95th birthday in 1997, Penelope Hobhouse was commissioned to create a new Queen Mother’s Garden within William Pitt’s old walled garden. The result is lovely and the Queen Mother is said to have commented that she had been given many presents in her time, but never a garden. Possible inspiration if you’re stuck for ideas this Christmas.
So that’s a bit about Walmer Castle, its gardens and the Warden of the Cinque Ports. I never cease to be amazed and delighted by the wealth of stories behind places, and how they are associated in some way, like some great heritage web. We could have spent longer in the grounds, particularly admiring the kitchen garden where vegetables that rapidly die outside north of Watford thrive in the warm and balmy South Eastern climate. If you want to know more, visit English Heritage’s website. For more information about the Cinque Ports, here is the website of the Cinque Ports confederation.