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Yarmouth Castle, Isle of Wight, UK

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Yarmouth Castle. Picture by Bob Stafford

At first glance, Yarmouth Castle, on the Isle of Wight, presents a small and unassuming sight. Indeed from land it is all but buried by the small sleepy town of Yarmouth, and only visible from the sea and Yarmouth Pier. Yarmouth Castle was built as the last of the Tudor castles on the Isle of Wight with three purposes in mind:

  • To defend the town of Yarmouth and the entrance to the River Yar;
  • To defend the western end of the Solent from an invading fleet, in conjunction with Hurst Castle on the mainland;
  • And to defend the Freshwater Peninsula in the event of an invasion of southeast Wight, long enough for reinforcements to be ferried over to the island from Hurst Castle.

Castle Description

Today, visitors approach the castle down a narrow alley to the newer entrance in the castle's south wall. Much of the area surrounding the castle has been built on or is privately owned, especially by the George Hotel, and so the best view of the castle is from the sea – either from the end of Yarmouth Pier or possibly, for those without their own yacht, from the Isle of Wight ferry from Lymington.

In the sixteenth century, the Civil War saw half of the original main square of the castle filled in to form a solid gun platform. However, a range of buildings remains on the south side. The castle's magazines, used to store the ammunition for the cannons, occupy the southwest corner on the ground floor. The courtyard leads to a flight of stairs that rise up to the gun platform and from the present entrance to the original entrance gateway. To the east of the present entrance sits the parlour room, now taken up with the castle's giftshop. The space occupied by the parlour and the present entrance originally contained accommodation for two of four gunners on the ground floor before work took place to open up the castle. The ground floor of the arrowhead bastion, when not in use to defend the castle's gateway, was the castle's kitchen, complete with garderobe1, with the ground floor of the three storey master gunner's house holding more gunners' lodging rooms. One of these was later adapted into a parlour, complete with bay window overlooking the courtyard.

The first floor only occupies the southeast corner of the castle, near the arrowhead bastion. The chambers here underwent later conversion into one large living room. Conversion of the chambers resulted in the loss of a staircase that originally provided access to the upper floor. The loss of the staircase means the gun platform now provides the only means of ingress to the upper floor of the Master Gunner's House. Two entrances provide access to the upper floor, which stretches all along the south side of the castle from the gun platform. One lies to the east, the other to the west. The one on the west leads first to a porch and then to the largest room in the castle, appropriately known as the Long Room. Built around 1632, the room now houses a display on the history of Henry VIII, his break with the Catholic Church and his castle building programmes. The Long Room leads to a smaller room near the southeast corner, as well as the upper floor of the arrowhead bastion.


The Isle of Wight's invasion in 1545 prompted the construction of Yarmouth Castle.

Invasion Threats Before The Castle

The Isle of Wight, including the town of Yarmouth2, stood on the front line in England's wars with France, which lasted, on and off, for almost 800 years. Although King John stayed in Yarmouth in 1206 while an English invasion fleet gathered in Portsmouth before sailing for La Rochelle, for much of its history Yarmouth suffered repeated attacks from the French.

In 1330, the French invaded Yarmouth and St. Helens on the Island. Sir Theobald Russell, the King's Warden of the Island, defeated them, but he suffered a mortal wound in the battle. In March 1338, the French attacked Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight again. In 1377, the Island suffered its most devastating raid yet, with Yarmouth, Francheville and Freshwater destroyed, Newport burnt and Carisbrooke Castle besieged. Carisbrooke Castle's constable, Sir Hugh Tyrell, gallantly defended until a force under Sir John Arundel arrived from the mainland. The French attacked the island again in 1381, setting Newport aflame, and in 1402, when a French army of 1,700 men landed and raided several villages on the island. The French, under the Compte de St Pol, attacked once more in 1403, raiding much of the island before forces from Portsmouth and Southampton launched a counter-attack.

The 1545 Invasion

In 1545, the most serious French invasion of the Isle of Wight took place. After King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church and secured an alliance with Spain, the King of France chose to invade England. The 130 ships of the French fleet attempted to lure the smaller English fleet out of the safety of Portsmouth harbour, and landed troops on the Isle of Wight at Bonchurch, Sandown and Brading. King Henry VIII had foreseen the possibility of French troops landing in Sandown Bay and ordered the construction of Sandown Castle3 in 1544, yet at the time of the raid this castle remained under construction. While Henry, secure at Southsea Castle, watched the villages on the eastern side of the Isle of Wight burn, he ordered his fleet to attack – which famously resulted in the loss of Henry's flagship, the Mary Rose, in the Solent north of the island. It seems likely the French fully intended to capture the island and perhaps trade it back to England in return for Boulogne, which was in England's possession at the time. Fortunately, Richard Worsley, Captain of the Island, led the local militia to repulse the invaders, killing Chevalier d'Eulx, one of the French commanders, who died at Shanklin Chine. The French never reached as far as Yarmouth, yet Henry VIII realised how close he had come to losing the Isle of Wight.

The Building of Yarmouth Castle

In 1547, Henry ordered work on constructing a fourth new castle on the Island, at Yarmouth4. Constructed on King's land outside the borough of Yarmouth, the new castle would protect Yarmouth from attacks by the sea to the north, and defend the river Yar. It was also hoped that should another successful invasion occur on the south east of the Island, the castle would protect the Freshwater peninsula, the small area to the west of the river Yar. Henry intended for Yarmouth Castle to keep this small part of the island in English hands long enough for reinforcements from nearby Hurst Castle to land, allowing the repulsion of any invasion attempt.

Original Design

The majority of Henry VIII's coastal castles, known as Henrician or Device castles, adhered to a circular structural design to help deflect any cannonballs fired at them. However, Yarmouth Castle adopted a more advanced design. Yarmouth Castle was to be a 100-foot square artillery fort with two sides facing out to sea, and the two landward sides protected by an arrowhead bastion. This was the second arrowhead bastion built in England, after Sandown Castle on the Isle of Wight, and the oldest surviving bastion of that design.

The Arrowhead Bastion

Arrowhead bastions conform to an arrowhead shape, a fortified emplacement built out of the corner of a wall designed to protect the main wall of the castle from attack. The arrowhead bastion at Yarmouth Castle had small 'flanker' cannon overlooking the entrance to the castle in casemates on the ground and first floors, as well as heavier guns on the bastion's original roof, before laying of the domestic roof that replaced it. The embrasures for the bastion's original cannon have since undergone conversion into windows.

Twelve years later, in 1558, Yarmouth Castle helped influence the design of the defences of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The Main Castle

The builders originally constructed the main square castle as a range of buildings, some 28 feet tall, against the castle walls that surrounded a central courtyard, with 14 cannon mounted on top of these buildings and two in the arrowhead bastion defending the castle's approach. The castle's north and east sides faced out to sea, with the south and west sides isolated from the town of Yarmouth by a wet moat, 30 feet wide, controlled by sluices5. The only entrance, on the east side, crossed a drawbridge defended by cannon. Richard Worsley, who had proved his ability to defend the Isle of Wight in the 1545 invasion, received command of the castle.

In 1553, Queen Mary removed Worsley from the office of Captain of the Island. As a Protestant, the Catholic Queen did not trust him and replaced him instead with Sir Girling, one of her Catholic followers. However, when Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne it became apparent that Sir Girling had allowed the island's defences to fall into disrepair, as he had stolen the money from the treasury intended for their upkeep. Elizabeth reappointed Worsley as Captain of the Island in 1558. In 1559, he began work on improving the castle, including building the present Master Gunner's House. Richard Worsley died in 1565.

Up To The Civil War

After Worsley's death, Richard Udall became the first captain of Yarmouth Castle6. Udall commanded a force of a master gunner, a porter and seventeen soldiers. The castle underwent repairs in 1587, before the Spanish Armada's attempt to capture the Isle of Wight in 15887, and Udall ordered construction of a bulwark outside the castle, on the other side of the moat, in 1598. The bulwark consisted of an earth bank and rampart, designed to prevent an attacker from approaching the castle's entrance. Most importantly, Udall supervised the demolition of the very top of the castle's walls, removing nine feet, including the seaward embrasures and crenelations, to make Yarmouth Castle a smaller target. The rubble filled three quarters of the interior of the castle on the northern side. The changes rendered the seaward side more solid, able to carry more, and heavier, cannon and less vulnerable to attack. Although this change made the interior of the castle cramped and dark, it also made it stronger. The structure of the castle underwent refinement again in 1632, with improvements to accommodation and strengthened defences.

In 1642, Civil War was declared. Although the Captain of Yarmouth Castle, Captain Barnaby Burley, originally declared for the king, he soon surrendered to Parliament on condition that he remained in command of the castle. However, Parliament still replaced him. So Yarmouth Castle had even less involvement in the Civil War than nearby Cowes Castle, which fired a shot at a passing ship8. In 1650, with Prince Charles encamped on Jersey, thirty men held Yarmouth Castle for Parliament, and in 1654 the castle held seventy men. By the time of the Restoration in 1660 there were still 70 men holding Yarmouth Castle. They were given four days notice before being disbanded. By 1669, only 4 gunners still manned the castle. The same year saw the appointment of Sir Robert Holmes as Captain of the Island.

Sir Robert Holmes

Born in Ireland in 1622, Sir Robert Holmes served in the army under Charles I, then in the Navy under Prince Rupert in the Civil War, where he gained the rank of Major. In 1646, after the Royalists lost the Battle of Oxford, he accompanied Prince Rupert to the Continent. By 1648, during the Protectorate, he essentially became a mercenary fighting in France, Germany and Flanders.

After the Glorious Restoration of Charles II in 1660, he commanded the Royal African Company's West Africa squadron. Spoils from his harassment of the Dutch off West Africa's Guinea Coast included the first baboon brought to England, as well as Guinea gold – the Guinea coin is named after his exploits. Commentators described him as "the cursed beginner of two Dutch Wars", as a similar expedition to Africa in 1663 began with him capturing many Dutch trading posts and resulted in war. He also bears responsibility for burning 180 ships in the Dutch port of Ely and the town of Bradderinum, the capital town of the island of Schelling in 1664. In 1665, the King knighted him, he received the rank of Admiral of the Red, and also appointment as Captain of Sandown Castle. In 1669, he became Governor, or Captain, of the Isle of Wight, a title he held until his death in 1692. He also held the titles of Vice-Admiral of the Isle of Wight, Governor and Vice-Admiral of Newport and Vice-Admiral of Hampshire. From 1665, based initially at Sandown and later at Yarmouth Castle, he spent much of his life on the Island. Sir Robert's privileges, associated with his position, entitled him to two-thirds of the value of any enemy ship (and its cargo) he captured in the waters around the Isle of Wight. At the time, this meant any Dutch or French vessels.

From his base in Yarmouth Castle, Holmes carried out an almost piratical operation and added vastly to his wealth. The supreme example of this can be viewed in the Holmes Chapel in Yarmouth Church. The tomb dominates the church, with a substantial and impressive white marble statue of Sir Robert Holmes. Tales suggest the statue originally portrayed the likeness of King Louis XIV of France. The sculptor had carved the body, yet planned to finishing the head when he arrived at Louis XIV's court, seeing Louis in the flesh. The ship carrying the sculptor and his unfinished work ran into trouble, wrecked and then captured off the Isle of Wight. Holmes, exercising his rights, claimed the cargo and forced the sculptor to complete the statue in his own likeness.

Sir Robert Holmes at Yarmouth Castle

Robert Holmes made many changes to Yarmouth Castle. He filled in the moat and outer earthworks, moved many of the cannon to Cowes and built himself a large house on the site, now the George Hotel, which is sadly not open to the public (except, of course, in the way that hotels are usually open to the public). Holmes had the castle's original east entrance blocked, a new one constructed on the south side, and all the cannon repositioned to face the sea, including a new battery built on the nearby quay, south west of the castle.

During the Glorious Revolution, Sir Robert Holmes wished to declare the castle for King James II, yet the population of Yarmouth and the rest of his garrison opposed him, preferring William of Orange and Mary. In 1692, Sir Robert Holmes died, buried beneath his statue in nearby Yarmouth Church.

After Sir Robert Holmes

After Sir Robert Holmes the castle slipped back into obscurity. Between 1718 and 1760 no changes were made, the castle armed with eight guns supported by five guns in the quay battery. The castle's garrison consisted of a Captain, a Master Gunner and five gunners. In 1813, near the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the castle enjoyed some repairs. The castle sported four naval cannon, with rails built to allow the cannon to traverse and aim in any direction. By the end of the nineteenth century, Yarmouth Castle's purpose had been usurped by newer forts and batteries on the island9 and, in 1885, the castle's garrison disbanded and all cannon were removed. Until 1901, the castle served as a coastguard signal station, then came under the jurisdiction of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. Yarmouth Castle had some minor use during the World Wars. By the end of the 1950s, under the care of the Ministry of Public Building and Works, the castle opened its doors to the public.

In 1984, Yarmouth Castle became one of the five English Heritage properties on the Isle of Wight. The other four are Appuldurcombe House, Carisbrooke Castle, Osborne House and St. Catherine's Oratory, known locally as The Pepper Pot. Curiously, at the time of writing, the 2010 English Heritage guidebook entry for the castle bears a striking similarity to the first official guidebook entry written in 1959, only with colour photographs inserted and the paragraph order changed.

1A latrine. Also used as a storeroom, especially for clothes, as it was believed the toilet smell kept moths away. The word 'wardrobe' originated from garderobe.2The word Yar was Anglo-Saxon for 'River', which is why there are several towns called Yarmouth in England, as well as two rivers on the Isle of Wight called the River Yar, the east Yar and the west Yar. Yarmouth is located at the mouth of the west Yar.3Not to be confused with Sandown Castle near Deal in Kent. Henry VIII had also ordered the construction of two other castles on the Island, at Cowes and East Cowes in 1538. Both Sandown Castles were Henrician castles, with Sandown Castle, Kent built in 1539-1540 to a standard Henrician design. Sandown Castle, Isle of Wight was built in 1544-6 and was a unique design, pioneering the use of arrowhead bastions. Neither Sandown Castle survives to this day.4Of the four castles built by Henry VIII on the Isle of Wight, only Yarmouth Castle remains in any way approaching its original design. East Cowes Castle and Sandown Castle no longer exist and Cowes Castle, now the home of the Royal Yacht Squadron, has been intensively modified almost beyond all recognition.5Should the walls of the castle require repairs, the sluices allowed drainage of the moat.6Richard Worsley was Captain of the Island, never Captain of Yarmouth Castle.7The Spanish force, under the command of Duke Medina-Sidonia, had been ordered to capture the Isle of Wight if unable to sail up the Thames to London. The Spanish considered the Isle of Wight a valuable base from which to plan further invasions of England. On the night of the 24th and 25th July 1588 the Battle of the Isle of Wight took place, in which the English fleet, through superior sailing, prevented the Spanish Armada from manoeuvring to the Solent where they would have invaded the island.8Carisbrooke Castle, the Isle of Wight's main castle, had a crucial role as that is where King Charles I was imprisoned despite rescue attempts, and the Treaty of Newport was proposed nearby.9The west Wight was defended in Victorian times, from West to East, by Needles Old Battery (1861-3), Hatherwood Point Battery (1865-9), Warden Point Battery (1862-3), Fort Albert (1854-6), Cliff End Battery (1854-6), Golden Hill Fort (1863-8), Fort Victoria (1852-5) and Freshwater Redoubt (1855-6).

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