Dartmouth Castle

PUBLISHED: 12:18 22 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:44 20 February 2013

dartmouth castle

dartmouth castle

Discover how Dartmouth Castle has defended the South Devon town against raiders from the sea for more than 600 years

Discover how Dartmouth Castle has defended the South Devon town against raiders from the sea for more than 600 years

At the mouth of the Dart estuary, Dartmouth Castle has faced threats throughout the centuries from France, Spain, pirates and even its own countrymen. It retained its defensive role right up to the Second World War and is one of the finest examples of Britains determination to protect its shores.

The castles beginnings

Dartmouth has traditionally made its living from the sea and so the people of Dartmouth have a historic dread of enemy ships entering the harbour. In the 12th and 13th centuries, local shipmen earned themselves a fearsome reputation as ruthless fighters in times of war and as aggressive traders in times of peace and their actions made the towns people fearful of reprisals. This concern was shared by King Edward III, who, in 1388, authorised the Mayor of Dartmouth to compel the townsmen to contribute to the building of a fortalice. It is likely that the stone wall and tower enclosing the modern car park were built as part of this fort.
Between 1462 and 1502 two mighty towers were added to the fort, along with an innovative chain across the harbour entrance. On the other side of the river, Kingswear Castle was built. These new defences were designed to protect against invading ships, namely from France.

Tudor Dartmouth

In 1529, fearful of attack from the French and Spanish alliance, the townsmen of Dartmouth built a third gun fort at Bayards Cove. Ten years later, following Henry VIIIs break with Rome, France and Spain renewed their alliance and began to assemble forces for invasion. Henrys response was a massive programme of coastal fortification. New-style gun forts were built along the English coast. In Dartmouth, fortifications included the addition of a new gunbattery, called Lamberds Bulwarke, in the south-east corner of the fort.

Home threats the English
Civil War

In 1642 civil war broke out as the long struggle between King Charles I and Parliament came to a head. Dartmouth supported Parliament, but having no permanent landward defences, it was captured by Royalist forces in October 1643. Despite the building of two new earthwork artillery forts, the still unwalled town was no match for Parliamentary troops when they reclaimed Dartmouth in a single night-time assault in 1646.

War with France

Over the centuries, Dartmouth has feared many invasions by France. In the 18th century, with renewed war underway, Lamberds Bulwarke (now known as Maiden Fort) was strengthened, and a second tier of long-range guns added to create the Grand Battery.
From the middle of the 19th century, a serious arms race with France began to develop, as steam power, iron-clad ships and rifled guns changed the face of naval warfare. In response to this changing threat, the Grand Battery was completely rebuilt in 1861 as part of a massive programme of coastal fortification.

In the mid-19th century, foreign invasion was reluctantly accepted as a serious possibility. Queen Victorias government saw volunteer artillery units as the most economical way of manning the new coastal defence batteries built to meet this threat, and in May 1859 the War Office issued a circular so that those who come forward may contribute most effectively to that which they have a heart: namely, the defence and security of their country.

Dartmouths Volunteer Artillery

The Sixth Devonshire Artillery Volunteer Corps was formed at Dartmouth in 1860. At least 55 men would have been needed to work the five guns at Dartmouth Castle, with others to man the magazines. As intended by the War Office, the
men all lived and worked nearby, reporting to the battery for training and firing practice.

World War

While naval action during the First World War was concentrated along the eastern and south-eastern coasts of Britain, increased risk of attack on Dartmouth during the Second World War led to the installation of new guns and the building of searchlight units, a machine-gun post and a torpedo-launching station. An anti-submarine net and minefield were also deployed across the harbour an echo of the harbour chain installed many centuries before. Personnel were drawn from army units disbanded after Dunkirk and quartered in everything from Nissen huts in the present car park to the medieval gun tower.


Ten years after the Second World War ended, the War Office finally withdrew from Dartmouth Castle. Since 1984 the castle has been in
the care of English Heritage, which now repairs and conserves the fortifications and provides interpretation and presentation to the public.

Step Back in Time,
Dartmouth Through the Ages
Every Monday and Tuesday in August

Experience a different period of the castles history each week, from Tudor times to the Second World War. Meet some of the colourful characters from the past and enjoy hands-on activities each Monday, and fascinating living history encampments to explore each Tuesday.
11am-5pm. Adults 4.70,
children 2.80. English Heritage members free.


Latest from the Devon Life