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Dartmouth Castle, Devon

Dartmouth, on the estuary of the river Dart, in south Devon has been an important anchorage for centuries. Shipmen at Dartmouth made their living from fishing, and "trade", which often might be more realistically called piracy. Theoretically Dartmouth seamen were obliged to plunder ships of the king's enemies. In practice any ship passing nearby was vulnerable. Dartmouth Castle was originally built to defend against reprisals for the town's actions at sea, and given Dartmouth's reputation it is surprising a castle wasn't built sooner. Initially royal commissions which called for fortifications were ignored by the townspeople because of cost, and also because enemy ships could be defeated at sea before they approached the port. But then in 1387 and 1388 there was a real threat of invasion by the French king, Charles VI. Finally in 1388 one of Dartmouth's leading citizens John Hawley appealed successfully to Richard II for authority to compel the townspeople to act. Work began on a first castle at Dartmouth, the remains of which can be seen in the stone wall enclosing the present car park. Stone throwing catapaults were probably placed here, with guns, a new innovation at this time perhaps mounted down near the water's edge. These new defences seem to have had the desired effect. When the French attack did come, it was directed not at Dartmouth but at nearby Slapton Sands, where 6000 invaders were beaten off by local forces, probably led by John Hawley.

John Hawley might actually be the inspiration behind Chaucer's Shipman in The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is thought to have visited Dartmouth in 1373 on behalf of Edward III to inquire into an illegal seizure of a neutral Genoese ship. It is thought he met John Hawley, Mayor of Dartmouth, on this visit. As Chaucer says in The Shipman's Prologue, this Dartmouth mariner was an excellent sailor, and a ruthless man, who:

If he fought and had the upper hand

By water he sent them home to every land

These cryptic lines tell us that the Shipman would drown his prisoners. The nature of Dartmouth men who needed a castle to defend them from retribution is clearly reflected in Chaucer's Shipman.



Gun Platform built during the time of Henry VIII

With the castle established, it went through a series of developments. In the 1480s a gun tower was built, designed to mount heavy guns, the first gun tower of this sort to be built in England. By the time the tower was finished in 1491 conflict with France was a real prospect. This led to work on a second gun tower. When Henry VIII feared invasion in 1529, Dartmouth Castle was part of his chain of defences along the south coast. A small gun battery was then built either side of the old gun tower - as seen in this picture.

All this time Dartmouth Castle had never been called upon to fight invaders. The first time it saw fighting was during the English Civil War. This was a castle designed to fight invaders coming by sea, and had poor defences against land attack. In 1643 royalist forces quickly overcame the garrison sympathetic to Parliament. A new fort was built above the castle at Gallants Bower, but even with these additional fortifications, the parliamentarians were still able to retake Dartmouth Castle quite easily in January 1646. Through all the centuries when preparations had been made to fight invaders, the attack when it came was from an enemy within. It is not surprising perhaps that Dartmouth Castle, like many castles through history is closely associated with a church which shares its style of architecture. Often the enemies we prepare for never come, while an attack materialises against which there is no defence. A desire for a wider kind of security is reflected in typically castle-like churches. This link is particularly clear at Dartmouth Castle. St Petrox, has a tower which is a taller version of the gun tower in front of it.



St Petrox Church from the gun tower

Dartmouth Castle continued as a coastal fort, periodically strengthened or rebuilt in response to times of threat. This continued up until recent times. In 1940 a gun designed to defend against torpedo boats was mounted in what is now the ticket office. Other guns were hidden behind fake medieval battlements.

Now Dartmouth Castle sits at the mouth of the Dart as a symbol of security, just like St Petrox Church. John Hawley, the man who built the first castle sailed on seas where it wasn't clear who was friend or foe. Chaucer describes him as knowing every haven from Scotland to Finistere, but none of these havens have the feeling of home. The only home mentioned by Chaucer with regard to the Shipman is the watery "home" he sends his prisoners to. In this kind of world the symbolic security of a castle-like church seems as attractive as the physical security of a church-like castle. The Shipman's vessel is called the Magdelene, and he clearly calls on this kind of divine protection as he picks his way through the treacherous shoals of his world.




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Address: Dartmouth Castle, Castle Road, Dartmouth Devon TQ6 0JN

Directions: Dartmouth Castle is off the B3205 in Dartmouth in south Devon. The appraoch road is very narrow. Follow signs from the town cente. Click here for an interactive map centred on Dartmouth Castle.

Access: This is a difficult property for those with mobility problems, with many steps and slopes. There are no adapted toilets.


telephone: 01803 833588

web site:

for tea room at the castle see:






©2008InfoBritain (updated 11/12)