Yarmouth Castle, Isle of Wight, UK

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Yarmouth Castle. Picture by Bob Stafford

Yarmouth Castle on the Isle of Wight is, at first glance, 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.
  • To defend the Freshwater Peninsula in the event of an invasion of the southeast Wight long enough for reinforcements to be ferried over to the Island from Hurst Castle.

Castle Description

The castle today is approached 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 half of the original main square of the castle was filled in to form a solid gun platform, however there still remains on the south side a range of buildings. The castle's magazines, where the cannons' ammunition was stored, occupy the Southwest corner on the ground floor. The courtyard leads to the stairs up to the gun platform and from the present entrance to the gateway that is the original entrance. To the east of the present entrance is the parlour room, now taken up with the castle's giftshop. This, as well as the present entrance before the opening out of the castle was made were originally two of four gunners' lodging rooms on the ground floor. 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 being 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 were later converted into one large living room. There was originally a staircase from here to the upper floor, but this has been lost.

The upper floor of the Master Gunner's House is now only accessible from the gun platform. There are two entrances to the upper floor, which stretches all along the south side of the castle from the gun platform. One is on the east and one on 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. This was built around 1632 and 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.


Yarmouth Castle was built as a direct response to the Isle of Wight's invasion in 1545.

Invasion Threats Before The Castle

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

In 1330, the French invaded Yarmouth and St. Helens on the Island. They were defeated by Sir Theobald Russell, the King's Warden of the Island, who was mortally wounded in the battle. Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight were again attacked by the French in March 1338. In 1377, the Island suffered its most devastating raid yet, with Yarmouth, Francheville and Freshwater destroyed Newport burnt and Carisbrooke Castle beseiged. Carisbrooke Castle's constable, Sir Hugh Tyrell, gallantly defended until a force under Sir John Arundel arrived from the mainland. The Island was again attacked in 1381, when Newport was again burnt by the French, and in 1402 a French army of 1,700 men landed and raided several Island villages. The French, under the Compte de St Pol, attacked again in 1403, raiding much of the Island before being counter-attacked by forces from Portsmouth and Southampton.

The 1545 Invasion

In 1545 the most serious French invasion of the Isle of Wight took place. After the break with the Catholic church and an alliance with Spain, the King of France chose to invade England. The 130 ships of the French fleet, attempting to lure the smaller English fleet out of the safety of Portsmouth harbour, landed troops on the Isle of Wight at Bonchurch, Sandown and Brading. King Henry VIII had foreseen the possibility of French troops being landed in Sandown Bay and had ordered the construction of Sandown Castle3 in 1544, yet at the time of the raid this castle was still under construction. While Henry, who was 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 is believed that 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 one of the French commanders4. 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 Yarmouth5. This would be constructed on King's land outside the borough of Yarmouth, and was designed to 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. Yarmouth Castle was intended to keep this small part of the Island in English hands long enough for reinforcements to be landed on the Freshwater peninsula from nearby Hurst Castle, allowing any invasion attempt to be repulsed.

Original Design

Although most of Henry VIII's coastal castles, known as Henrician or Device castles, had been built in as round, circular structures to help deflect any cannonballs fired at them, for Yarmouth Castle a newer, more advanced design was implemented. 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 arrowhead bastion.

The Arrowhead Bastion

An arrowhead bastion is essentially an arrowhead shaped 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 the domestic roof was put upon it. The embrasures for the bastion's original cannon have since been converted into windows.

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

The Main Castle

The main square castle was originally built as a range of buildings 28 feet tall against the castle walls surrounding 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 and the south and west sides were isolated from the town of Yarmouth by a wet moat 30 feet wide controlled by sluices6. The only entrance, on the east side, was across a drawbridge defended by cannon. Richard Worsley, who had proved his ability to defend the Isle of Wight in the 1545 invasion, was in command.

In 1553 Worsley was removed from the office of Captain of the Island. As he was a Protestant he was not trusted by the Catholic Queen Mary, who replaced him with a Catholic follower of Queen Mary's, Sir Girling. However, when Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne it was discovered that Sir Girling had let the Island's defences fall into disrepair as he had stolen the money from the treasury intended for their upkeep, and so Worsley was re-appointed 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 Richard Worsley died, Richard Udall became the first captain of Yarmouth Castle7. He had a force of a master gunner, a porter and seventeen soldiers under his command. The castle was repaired in 1587, before the Spanish Armada's attempt to capture the Isle of Wight in 15888 and a bulwark outside the castle was constructed in 1598 on the other side of the moat. This was an earth bank and rampart and designed to prevent an attacker from approaching the castle's entrance. More importantly he 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. Three quarters of the interior of the castle were filled with the rubble on the northern side. This meant that the seaward side was now solid, able to carry more and heavier cannon and less vulnerable to attack. Although this meant that the interior of the castle was now cramped and dark it made the castle much stronger. The castle was refined again in 1632 to improve accommodation and strengthen the defences.

In 1642 Civil War was declared. Although then 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. Parliament replaced him, however. So Yarmouth Castle had even less involvement in the Civil War than nearby Cowes Castle, which fired a shot at a passing ship.9. 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. 1669 was the year in which Sir Robert Holmes was appointed Captain of the Island.

Sir Robert Holmes

Sir Robert Holmes was born in Ireland in 1622 and 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 became essentially 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 to the United Kingdom; the Guinea coin is named after his exploits. He was described 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 was also responsible 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 he was Knighted, given the rank of Admiral of the Red, and was appointed Captain of Sandown Castle, and 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. As part of the privileges attached to his position he was entitled to two thirds of the value of any ship of any ship and its cargo of enemy ships that he captured in local waters, at a time when both France and Holland were regarded as enemies.

From his base in Yarmouth Castle, Holmes carried out an almost piratical operation and added vastly to his wealth. The supreme example of this is in the Holmes Chapel in Yarmouth Church, which is dominated by the tomb and white marble statue of Sir Robert Holmes. It is believed that this statue was originally one 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 he travelled in was wrecked and then captured along with the statue and the sculptor, who Holmes forced to finish 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 on the site built himself a large house, 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). The original entrance on the castle's east side was blocked, a new entrance on the south side constructed, and all the cannon were repositioned to face to sea, including a new battery built on the quay nearby 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 and is 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, with the castle armed with 8 guns supported by 5 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 had some repairs. The castle was armed with only four naval cannon, with rails built to help the cannon traverse and aim in any direction required. By the end of the nineteenth century Yarmouth Castle had been replaced by newer forts and batteries on the Island10. In 1885 the castle's garrison was disbanded, its cannon removed and it was used as a coastguard signal station until 1901, when it was given to the Commisioners of Woods and Forests. Yarmouth Castle had some minor use during the World Wars. It was opened for the public by the end of the 1950s, in the care of the Ministry of Public Building and Works.

In 1984 it 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 Oratorary, known locally as The Pepper Pot. Curiously the current at time of writing in 2010 English Heritage guidebook is all but identical to the first official guidebook written in 1959, only with colour photographs inserted and the paragraph order changed.

Great Castles Of EnglandCastle Glossary Mary RoseEnglish Heritage
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 Yar3Not 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.4Chevalier d'Eulx was killed at Shanklin Chine.5Of 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.6The sluices allowed the moat to be drained or reflooded at will, should repairs to the castle wall be required.7Richard Worsley was Captain of the Island, never Captain of Yarmouth Castle.8The 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 Isle of Wight would be a 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.9Carisbrooke 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.10The 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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