Tag Archives: UK

Yarmouth Castle

This is the last post about my trip to the Isle of Wight. The first can be found here. 

When I was around eight years old my class in school held a castle building competition. We were divided into teams, given a pile of boxes, scissors, string and Sellotape and the timer was started. I’m not sure why, but I became adamant that our team’s castle should be replete with a working drawbridge and portcullis. This, due to the time constraints, caused some consternation among some members of the team. A degree of teacher diplomacy was called upon, and I was eventually awarded a splinter group within our team to build the drawbridge and portcullis. We won the competition. I felt rather satisfied that our castle’s working drawbridge and portcullis was named as a deciding factor in the win.  

Still, this small success is no evidence that I could have made it as a successful castle builder. I was so determined that it should have a drawbridge and portcullis that I had little concern for anything else. If I’d have been a castle builder during the Medieval period no doubt I would have been standing back to admire my fancy gatehouse with working drawbridge and portcullis when the enemy arrived and I was asked, “Maybe we should have built some walls as well?” 

The competition was inspired by a project we were doing on castles. It was this project, and the subsequent trip to Porchester Castle, that sparked my early interest in these ancient defences. But I wasn’t the only one keenly interested in castle defences.  

Much like Southsea Castle (discussed in my previous post), Yarmouth was designed differently to Henry’s earlier castles. It was square and featured a new ‘arrow-head’ bastion protruding from its southeast corner. This new style of bastion, developed in Italy, made the castle one of the most innovative military buildings in England. Most of the castle’s firepower was directed out to sea, leaving it vulnerable to land attack. For this reason a moat was dug on the land side. The new bastion was positioned at the corner of the moat and enabled the garrison to provide flanking fire to protect the moat-side walls. Any would-be attackers who tried to get close to the walls could easily be despatched.  

The arrow-bastion revolutionised the design of fortresses, although the example at Yarmouth was initially somewhat lacking. The stone walls designed to protect soldiers from enemy fire were too short. Later alterations addressed the issue. It appears that Henry’s designers were experimenting with the concept before fully understanding it.  

Yarmouth was the last of Henry’s castles. Not long after Southsea’s completion a French fleet approached Portsmouth, on 18th July 1545. They were retaliating for an invasion by Henry the previous year. Owed to a long standing dispute, Henry still believed he, as king of England, was the rightful king of France. The fleet landed on the Isle of Wight. The next day a naval battle occurred in front of Southsea while Henry watched from the mainland. It was during this battle that his beloved, and infamous, flagship the Mary Rose sank.*  

Until the French fleet’s invasion, it was considered unnecessary to build a castle on the island. But by landing there they were beyond the reach of the mainland’s guns. The local militia defeated them, but the defensive weakness had been exposed. It was decided to build Yarmouth Castle. It was completed in 1547, after Henry’s death. It never saw action, but was garrisoned until 1885.  

This is how it originally looked: 


But the castle has been altered significantly since its construction. Its original courtyard was filled in during the late 16th/early 17th century, and in 1670 the outer earthworks were removed. The moat was also filled in and a house was built – now the George Hotel. 

This is how it looks today: 


Much like Southsea, Yarmouth’s only major action took place during the English Civil War. It was held by a Royalist captain, but he was clearly more sober and sensible than Southsea’s captain (as discussed in my previous post). When the Parliamentarians arrived the captain acknowledged that his tiny garrison was unlikely to repel such a large force, so he surrendered.  

The castle’s displays explained how the town of Yarmouth once exerted Parliamentary influence vastly disproportionate to its size. During Elizabethan times, Yarmouth’s burgesses (local officials) were able to send two MPs to Parliament. This situation continued until 1832, despite Yarmouth only possessing around six hundred residents. Birmingham, meanwhile, with a population of nearly 150,000, didn’t have the right to send any! 

In 1763, Yarmouth’s mayor was chosen during a meeting in which only he and one other burgess was present. This seems a little unseemly. Especially when the following year the same situation occurred, only with the two swapping places! It’s no wonder Yarmouth gained a reputation as a rotten borough. It still enjoys prestige beyond its size though. It’s Britain’s smallest town (unlike villages, towns have the right to hold regular markets, appoint mayors and construct town halls). 




*As an aside, I visited the Mary Rose during a school trip in, I believe, the same year as the castle building competition. It was behind glass while being sprayed with water as part of its preservation. I remember wondering how long it would take to complete the process. That was back in the 1980s (it was raised in 1982). It’s scheduled to go on full display in the summer of 2016. It seems incredible that it’s taken so long. What an astounding amount of work it’s taken to preserve such a magnificent treasure. I’m thinking I might have to pay it a visit… 


Beautiful Scars of the British Countryside 

Every year thousands of people visit the numerous stately homes and country houses that dot the British landscape. But most visitors are blissfully unaware of the dark stories lurking beneath the foundations of many of these buildings. It’s a story in stark contrast to the elegant houses nestled amongst their idyllic grounds and gardens. It’s a story of the how blood, sweat and misery can often be found soaked into each and every brick. This post explores that story. 

I stopped off to visit numerous country houses during my travels around the UK. These opulent and extravagant former residences of the über-rich provide fascinating insights into a lifestyle most people can only ever imagine (not you, of course, dear reader, I mean members of the peasant class). One such house I enjoyed visiting was Penrhyn ‘Castle’ in North Wales. 

Penrhyn is a mock-Norman castle country house situated in Llandegai, Bangor, near Snowdonia. Visitors flock to the property to enjoy leisurely strolls around the sixty acre grounds, the Victorian walled garden, the dolls museum, railway museum and adventure playground. Inside can be found one of the finest art collections in North Wales, elaborate carvings, mock-Norman furniture and the famous one-ton, slate bed made for Queen Victoria’s visit (a bed whose sturdy construction was owed to the great local slate industry, not necessitated by her ample stature). The fantasy castle was transformed during the early 19th century from a medieval manor house into the massive three hundred roomed house of today. It’s the industry that allowed this transformation to take place that forms the centre of this story. 

Gifford Pennant began buying up land in Jamaica during the late 17th century. His purchases were combined to become one of the largest estates on the island. His son, Edward, became Chief Justice of Jamaica and his grandson, John, later expanded the family estate through marriage. The land generated great wealth for the Pennant family. This wealth was amassed from sugar plantations – sugar plantations worked by African slaves. 

By 1750 the family had returned to Britain and John invested the family’s wealth in land in North Wales, including half of the land upon which the castle would eventually stand. The other half of the land was gained through the marriage of John’s son, Richard Pennant. Once the estate was united Richard set about building the spectacular family home. It’s estimated that the renovation from manor house to mock-castle cost £150,000, the equivalent of almost £50 million today. This astonishing sum illustrates the huge wealth that was amassed by slave owners during the period, and much of this wealth was eventually invested into British property and land. 

In 2007 English Heritage began researching the links between slavery and properties in its care. Of the small sample of thirty-three properties surveyed twenty-six were found to have some connection to either slavery or abolition. A separate investigation identified over twenty great houses in the Liverpool area alone that had links to the trade (although most of these have since been demolished). A 1769 map of Bristol and its surrounding area listed forty-two properties whose owners were affiliated with slavery. Of the seventeen surviving houses built near Bristol between 1660 and 1830 at least ten have been linked to slavery-based wealth. A separate project concluded that, in 1830, between five and ten percent of all British country houses were owned by slave-holders. It’s been claimed that the majority of country houses built in England and Wales during the 17th and 18th centuries were done so with its profits, and at one stage over a third of slave plantations on the island of St Vincent were connected to country houses back in Britain.  

After his return to Britain, Richard Pennant began managing his plantations by letter. He acquired the moniker of Richard Pennant the Improver on account of his numerous virtuous activities (such as planting over half a million trees in the area). He treated his slaves better than most, but he clearly felt no moral dilemma about the exploitation. Some of his letters complain that not enough children were being born to slave women as “breeding” was cheaper than purchasing new slaves. But more than this Pennant was a passionate advocate of the industry. He became an outspoken champion of the trade and argued that abolition would lead to economic disaster. He wielded his power and influence to organise opposition to the growing abolitionist movement. Parliament was petitioned and pamphlets proclaiming the economic benefit of slavery were distributed. He even told parliament, “Were the house to vote for abolition they would actually strike at £70 million worth of property, they would ruin the colonies, and by destroying an essential nursery of seamen, would give away the domination of the sea at a stroke.” 

Thankfully parliament were not swayed by such doomsday predictions and under the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 the slaves in most of Britain’s colonies were emancipated, but not without compensation to their owners. It may seem shocking today but £20 million in compensation was paid to those in the industry. The Pennant family alone received £14,683 (almost £5 million in today’s money). But most of this money, along with the rest of the family’s wealth, is now thought to be in the hands of the National Trust who manage the property. So next time you’re wandering around a country house in awe of the great wealth on display, spare a thought for those who may have paid for that wealth with their blood, sweat and freedom.