Travels with Victoria: Walmer Castle

A visit to Walmer Castle opens a number of interesting windows on English history. As you might expect if you have read this blog for a while, one of those windows concerns the Duke of Wellington, our favorite hero. But the story began centuries before the Duke arrived on the scene.

Above, the moat is now partially filled in with garden and lawn, but when Walmer was built in 1539 by Henry VIII, it was an important defensive feature.  Concerned about invasion by Spain, the king ordered a chain of fortresses along the coast, including Deal Castle, just a few miles north of Walmer.  Henry had defied the Church of Rome, divorced the Spanish Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn.  He had reason for concern.

The design of Walmer (above) and Deal, which is the larger of the two, responded to the technological developments in firepower by the sixteenth century. The low shape and size provided positions for many types and calibres of guns as well as making a difficult target from ships out at sea. The goal was to protect the coastal harbors and fleet anchorages along the Downs of eastern Kent.

Cannons on the parapet at Walmer Castle

Unlike the town of Sandwich just up the road, Walmer is still right on the English Channel beach.  The Spanish Armada did not approach until 1588;  although the defenses at Deal and Walmer were prepared, the action took place elsewhere.

Alongside the canons, are comfortable lounge chairs for gazing at the sea. Looking in the opposite direction, the residential parts of the castle have the look of a comfortable Georgian house.

The office of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports is ancient, but became less important by the 16th century, because most of the original ports had silted up and were no longer required to provide ships to the Crown -- which had the Royal Navy at its disposal. Nevertheless, the office continued with limited responsibilities; by the 19th century, it was a largely ceremonial position. Walmer Castle has been the residence of the Lords Warden since 1708.

The Dining room also has a Georgian look.

Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger was the Lord Warden from 1792 until his death in 1806, the first commoner to hold the post. Receiving the annual stipend helped him to offset some of his debts while also providing a position from which he could raise a local militia during the wars with France. Pitt's niece, Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), lived at Walmer and worked hard to improve the gardens.  Later, Lady Hester became famous (or perhaps infamous) for living in the Lebanese wilderness, reclusive and devoted to the occult.

interior shots from English Heritage
The Duke of Wellington spent increasing amounts of time at Walmer as he aged. This is the room in which he died in 1852; he had served as Lord Warden since 1829. More about the Duke at Walmer will be on the blog tomorrow. (Yes, Kristine, that's the armchair in which the Duke breathed his last).

This view of the garden with the castle behind the pavilion shows you how dry the spring had been in Kent in 2011. Even a short distance from the sea, the lawn was browning.  Among some of the other significant Lords Warden were W.H. Smith (1825-1891), the founder of railway newsagents, whose company still bears his name on every British High
Street and well beyond; HRH The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII; Sir Winston Churchill; and HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.  Since her death, the post has been held by Admiral Lord Boyce.

This weather-beaten lion somehow symbolizes Walmer perfectly for me, a place which time has passsed by but which still provides an afternoon's enjoyment and remembrance of things past.

Tomorrow, more on the Duke of Wellington at Walmer; Next on Travels with Victoria, Penshurst Place