Walmer Castle is described by English Heritage as a "vital" defence, built by Henry VIII to counter a sixteenth century Catholic invasion threat from across the English Channel. I would suggest that Walmer Castle, and all other castles built by Henry VIII along the south coast were more important symbolically than practically. To allow his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry had switched the religion of England from Catholicism to Protestantism. This led to short lived fears of invasion from Catholic France and Spain. Although the threat of invasion was short lived, a huge building programme of shore line defence began in 1539. A chain of forts built along the south coast included Camber Castle in East Sussex, Walmer Castle, Deal Castle, and Sandown Castle in Kent, Southsea Castle at Portsmouth, Hurst Castle and Portland Castle in Dorset, Calshott Castle at Southampton, Yarmouth Castle on the Isle of Wight and the sister fortifications of Pendennis Castle and St Mawes Castle in Cornwall. The functional appearance of these castles belies their largely symbolic role. Invasion may have been a brief threat, but the effect of changing a religion was explosive. Religions are designed to hold people together and maintain hierarchy and discipline. A change in religion created a situation ripe for hostile groups defined by their different religions to bring serious division. Faced with this threat, a sense of imminent invasion was useful, as it gave England something to unite against. Building huge fortifications helped create a sense of threatening external enemies. Symbolism was taken further in the use of stone from demolished monasteries in building the new forts. They were solid, squat and functional, and yet they had all the symbolism of the churches they were built from. The south coast castles were not really built to face an external enemy. Instead they were designed to create a symbolism that would prevent divisions appearing from within.
Fittingly the only time that Walmer Castle saw battle was not during an invasion, but during the seventeenth century English Civil War. Initially Walmer's garrison sided with Parliament, but then switched to the royalists. Walmer was besieged for three months before falling to parliamentary forces.
Walmer Castle is also famous for its later association with the Duke of Wellington, who used the castle as his residence during his twenty three years as Warden of the Cinque Ports. Wellington of course led British forces at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, a battle which ended Napoleon's aspirations to European power. It might be remembered that the French Revolution, out of which Napoleon emerged, led to great fears of a similar civil upheaval in Britain. It is often suggested that war with France helped keep Britain together during the turbulent years of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Perhaps it was good to think of Wellington sitting in his coastal fortress keeping all those foreigners out. In a very real sense, however, the tensions were also internal.
A number of items of Wellington's furniture remain at Walmer. His tastes were spartan, shaped by his military life. His yellow chintz chair, in which he died on 14th September 1852, can be viewed, as can his campaign bed with horse hair mattress. The Wellington Museum at Walmer has hundreds of other items relating to Wellington, and also to William Pitt the Younger, prime minister 1783 - 1801, and 1804 - 1806. Many of these were saved by former warden W.H. Smith, who founded the high street chain of newsagents.
Walmer Castle today resembles a rather oddly shaped stately home. Successive wardens were generally more interested in making the place comfortable than in stripping it down ready for battle. There are attractive gardens and a woodland walk, along with a restaurant, gift shop and plant sale.
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Directions: Walmer Castle is on the A258 south of Walmer in Kent. Walmer station is a mile from the castle. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map centred on Walmer Castle.
Address: Walmer Castle, Walmer, Kent CT14 7LJ.
Access: Gatehouse and ground floor are accessible via ramps. There are stairs to the first floor. There are gravel paths within the grounds. Adapted toilet facilities are available.
telephone: 01304 364288