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Dartmouth, on the beautiful estuary of the River Dart, was a flourishing port from the twelfth century. When the Hundred Year War made legitimate trading difficult, the inhabitants turned to piracy to boost their profits. Their unfortunate targets were the ports across the Channel. In 1404, the Bretons land in force and attempted to sack the town in revenge, but the inhabitants drove them off with great loss to themselves. According to French sources a second attempt was more successful. Dartmouth Castle is actually a mile southeast of the town, at a point where the estuary narrows.
A fortification first rose here about 1388 in response to the threat of invasion from France. It was built at the instigation of the mayor, John Hawley, and is interesting as the earliest example of a fort built by a municipal authority as opposed to the private castle of an individual. It was a simple affair, consisting of a curtain with circular towns cutting off the landward approach to the headland. A tall piece of curtain and one shattered tower can be seen on the high ground overlooking the defenses. In view of the primitive artillery of the day it is difficult to see how this fortification could have interfered with any ships. It was also overlooked by much higher ground. Perhaps for these reasons it soon fell into disuse.
The tower, which now forms the focal point of the castle crowns the rocks on the edge of the headland. It looks like two connected towers, one square and one oval. In fact, the original design was for a freestanding oval tower and the most prominent square portion is an afterthought, but there is no internal division between the two. The splayed gun ports provided a degree of flexibility for cannon fire, which was hitherto unknown. They lie in the rock-cut basement.
Corfe Castle, midway between Wareham and Swanage, is one of the most dramatic of English ruins. It stands on an isolated hill which forms part of the Purbeck range, towering over the picturesque village of the same name. The late Saxon kings had a palace here and it was outside the gates that Edward the Martyr was murdered in a family coup that put Ethelred the Unready on the throne.
The site allowed for two baileys of unequal size flanking a steep-sided summit, which forms a natural motte. The ring work known as The Rings, a quarter mile to the southwest is probably the siege fort of Matilda. Edward II was held captive here for a while between his abdication and murder. After that, the castle was seldom visited by its royal owners and fell into decay.
The marvel of Corfe Castle is the way in which the masonry has held together despite the most determined attempts to blow it up. Walls and towers have bowed outwards, even slid down the hillside, but a great deal stands nevertheless. The approach from the village is through a wide outer gate with rounded flanking towers. This is Edward I’s only contribution to the castle.
It leads into the large outer bailey, its curtain flanked by seven half-round bastions which are closely spaced on the southwest where the terrain is most vulnerable. The bailey ascends to another round-towered gatehouse, still an impressive structure despite having split into two halves during the slighting. A stairway from the gatehouse leads upward in the thickness of a wing-wall to the keep on the summit. Otherwise, the route to the top involves passing through the West Bailey, which was walled by King John. Its wall converge to a western point, guarded by the octagonal Butavant Tower, which has been destroyed to its foundation.
Cooling Castle, a mile east of Cliffe, was built for Sir John de Cobham, a license to crenellate being granted in 1381. Two years before, French raiders had caused devastation on the Hoo peninsula, so Cooling was built at least partly with coastal defense in mind.
Ironically, but not uncommonly where English coastal fortifications are concerned, the castle saw no action against foreign invaders but became embroiled in civil strife. In 1554, Sir Thomas Wyatt sought the aid of Lord Cobham in the rebellion that he was organizing to prevent Queen Mary marrying Philip of Spain. When Lord Cobham refused, Wyatt marched upon Cooling Castle and breached its walls by cannon fire in the space of a few hours. After the episode, the castle was abandoned.
The castle is one of those later medieval castles which is split into two enclosures comprising a residential inner quadrangle and a much bigger base court, which housed the retainers’ lodgings and ancillary buildings. Its low-lying site would have appeared stronger when the moat was full of water.
The outer curtain and its rounded angle towers are now very ruinous, but the outer gatehouse is well preserved. This is actually just a gateway flanked by open-backed, half-round towers. It is curious that machicolated parapets crown the towers but not the gateway.
The inner courtyard is reached through another gatehouse flanked by rounded turrets. Keyhole gun ports appear here and elsewhere in the walls. To the right of the gatehouse, the curtain is embellished with alternate panels of stone and flint, creating a checkered effect. The corner tower here has vanished, but the round towers at the other three corners, along with much of the intervening curtain, still stand. These towers were machicolated as well. Within the courtyard, the only domestic feature to survive is a vaulted undercroft, which carried the solar.
Compton Castle, three miles west of Torquay, has belonged to the Gilbert family – with one long interruption – since the early fourteenth century. The Gilberts are famous for their role in the age of exploration, Sir Humphrey Gilbert discovering Newfoundland in 1583. Occupation descended to impoverished tenant farmers who could not afford any fashionable rebuilding, and for this reason the castle is one of the few to survive more or less intact but remarkably unspoiled.
Disregarding its later defenses for a moment, Compton originated as a typical West Country manor house. It is centered upon a fourteenth-century hall which, having fallen into ruins, was rebuilt on its original lines in 1955. Otto Gilbert added the west wing containing the solar and a pretty little chapel. It appears that the tower attached to the solar is older than the others and began as a tower house.
Otto’s son John transformed the house into a more extensive complex. His additions have been dated at about 1520 and if this is accurate then Compton vies with Thornbury as the last true castle ever raised in England. At this time, the coast suffered frequent attacks from French pirates and Compton, not far inland, would have been a target.
A new wing containing the kitchen and its domestic offices was added to the east of the hall. The outer face of this wing, with its projecting towers, is clearly a curtain wall. It is likely that a quadrangle was intended, the hall lying across the middle and dividing it into two. If we imagine the scheme brought to completion there would have been square towers at the four corners and others in the middle of the two longer sides. The older tower is one of these. However, the west wing was never extended southwards to match the east wing.
Colchester reached the peak of its importance before the Romans came. A city for veterans of the Roman army was established here, dominated by a temple of the deified Emperor Claudius. Queen Boudicca razed it to the ground in AD 61 but a new city soon rose from the ashes.
Colchester Castle, near the center of the walled town, has by far the largest ground area of any keep in England, measuring 150 by 110 feet. William the Conqueror founded a castle here soon after the Norman Conquest and the keep may have been started following a Danish raid on the town in 1071. The masonry is certainly early Norman – note for example the herringbone work in the fireplaces.
The keep has affinities with the Tower of London’s White Tower, so much so that the builder of the latter, Bishop Gundulf of Rochester, is often credited with the design. However, it is possible that a destroyed keep at Rouen provided the model for both. The chief similarity is the apsidal projection at the south end of the east wall. In some respects the Colchester keep is quite different; it is much more rectangular in plan, there are projecting towers rather than mere buttresses at the corners and the keep was originally divided by two cross-walls, so that the eastern half contained two curiously long and narrow apartments.
Only the eastern cross wall still stands. The apse shows where a chapel was intended, but the keep now appears peculiarly squat in relation to its area because only the two lower floors survive. Traces of walled-up battlements reveal that, when only one story high, an embattled parapet capped the keep. This may have been done as an emergency measure in 1083 when a Danish invasion seemed imminent. The next level must have followed soon after.
Cockermouth Castle crowns a promontory between the rivers Derwent and Cocker. The notorious William de Fortibus acquired the manor in 1215 and built a castle here, possibly on an older site, but Henry III ordered its destruction upon his downfall six years later. It seems to have survived this episode but most of the present complex is the work of Gilbert, last of the Umfraville barons, and Henry Percy, who acquired Cockermouth on Gilbert’s death in 1381.
As Earl of Northumberland, the latter played a major part in the Border struggles of the period. And the Black Douglas sacked the unfinished castle. Henry is better known for his revolts against Henry IV, familiar from Shakespeare. The castle remained in Percy hands but drifted into decay. In spite of enduring a Royalist siege during the uprising of 1648, the castle was slighted by Parliament as a potentially dangerous stronghold. Around 1800, Percy Wyndham, Earl of Egremont, built a mansion inside the outer bailey.
The castle has a triangular plan very similar to Carlisle, its apex overlooking the junction of the rivers. There is no keep. Gilbert de Umfraville largely rebuilt the inner bailey though the curtain incorporates portions of William de Fortibus’ work. The well-preserved outer curtain is entirely Henry Percy’s. Its east front is flanked to the left by the square Flag Tower, now gabled, and to the right by a mighty gatehouse. This massive, oblong structure has the sidewalls of a barbican in front.
A row of shields over the gateway bears the arms of Henry Percy and his allies. He vaulted gate passage was defended by a portcullis and three sets of doors. Within the outer bailey is the Wyndham mansion, built against the curtain. The inner bailey is much Ruined and has been distorted to some extent.