A castle stands, enduring flaws, Gusts, tempests, storms, and time’s devouring jaws: In twice twelve hours, ‘tis twice embraced round In th’arms of Neptune, seeming to be drowned: And when the floods are eb’d into the main, Three miles in sands ‘tis compast round again. (John Taylor – The Certain Travels of an Uncertain Journey, 1653).
Device Fort built to protect Rye Harbour against the threat of a French invasion. The castle measures 20m across and the walls stand to 9m in height.
Standing hauntingly isolated within an area of sand and vegetation, it is easy for the passer by to think “Why did they build that there!”. It is common for the public to wonder why certain places were built in what appears to them, totally out of place, but we must remember that the coast of Britain is constantly changing through erosion and silting up of areas, that what is mapped one year will be different to the next. A cartographers nightmare!
And that holds true for this mighty castle. Once surrounded on three sides by the waters of the Rivers Rother, Tillingham and Bede, Camber still stands as a beacon in the landscape.
It is indeed recorded there was a Beacon kept here in the fourteenth century which acted as a lighthouse. The local people had to keep it lit so as to direct any passing ships into the safe harbour to ride out storms. And for this they had to pay a ‘fire-pence’. The greatest ship to possibly be moored here was the Great Harry, the largest in Henry VIII’s Navy.
Rye and Winchelsea are Cinque Ports, and as such held an important role in the Defence of the Realm. They also required further protection and initially a small artillery tower was built onto the site where Camber Castle now stands. Following Henry VIII’s split with Rome, a new castle was built – it was concentric in shape and had a small keep – the original artillery tower strengthened – a circular gatehouse, stirrup-shaped bastions, underground passages for the garrison to move around if the site was taken, and an outer wall which also included bastions. It was designed to hold a maximum garrison on 28 men and 28 guns.
When the site was renovated only a couple of years after it was built, the walls were raised and strengthened, the bastions were removed from the wall and four larger ones constructed, more room for the garrison, and the height of the keep was raised. The commissioners of the building works are recorded as being Philip Chute, John Fletcher, and William Oxenbridge.
The stone for the building works came from the destruction of some of the monastic buildings in Winchelsea, the quarries at Fairlight and Hastings, Mersham quarry in Hampshire and from Normandy. The timber was supplied from Udimore, Appledore and Knell, and the chalk for the mortar came from Dover.
The armoury initially included 140 longbows, 560 sheaves of arrows and polearms. The artillery included, over its short military career, demi-cannons, culverins, demi-culverins, a falconet, port pieces, and slings.
Unfortunately, due to the changing coastline, the castle was practically obsolete by the time it was completed as it stood so far from the coast.
It was recommended at one point that the castle be demolished, and its materials used for the repairs to Deal and Walmer castles – thankfully this never happened.
Other uses for the site were put forward as a Clubhouse for a local golf course, and to be used as a Martello Tower.
Although it had a short life due to the changing coastline, this little castle is standing the tests of time. People have picnicked here over the past couple of centuries and it still draws people to its walls, to tell its story.
Here is the timeline for the site.
1486 Small artillery tower built on the site built by Sir Richard Guldeford, Master of the Ordnance.
1512-1514 Small artillery tower on the site and maintained by Edward Guldeford. However, it had no artillery.
1533 A series of blockhouses were being planned for along the southern coast.
1536 Serpentine Guns provided for the site.
1538 Henry VIII planned his gardens at Nonsuch Palace, Surrey, on the designs of Camber Castle.
1539 Larger castle built on the site incorporating the previous tower, which acted as the central keep. A Moravian engineer named Stefan von Haschenperg was bought in to undertake the design and construction.
1540 Captain Philip Chute headed a garrison of between 17-24 men.
1541 Camber Castle, and the others along the coast were all placed under the Command of Sir Thomas Cheyney, Constable of Dover Castle, and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.
1542-1543 Further works were undertaken as the original ones were not considered to have to the standard that Henry VIII expected. The garrison was made up of 28 men.
1543 Until: William Oxenbrigge was responsible for the finances of the new building works.
1544 Captain Philip Chute, Captain of Camber Castle, and Keeper of the Waters of Camber and the Puddle held the site.
1545 The French Fleet attacked the coast and nearby Seaford.
1548 Complaints were made to Parliament about the silting up of the Camber area.
1550 The garrison was enlarged.
1553 Onwards: Held a garrison of between 26-27 men, which included 17 gunners.
1568 The armoury included 140 longbows, 560 sheaves of arrows and polearms.
1568 Gun platforms in need of repair.
1568 After: Held only 9-10 artillery guns.
1570 Thomas Wilford was Captain
1573 The local authorities in Rye stated that Camber was not able to be used as an anchorage anymore.
1584 Repairs undertaken at the castle.
1588 A spy was supposed to hand over the castle to the Spanish, but he was thwarted, and it never happened!
1593 The brass artillery was removed from the castle.
1594 Surveyed – found that it was in need of repairs.
1610 Peter Temple was Captain.
1610-1614 The garrison was reduced, which included only 4 gunners.
1611 Peter Temple was Captain.
1613-1615 The north and south bastions were filled in, which cut down the amount of living area for the garrison.
1614 46 muskets were kept in the armoury.
1615 John Temple was Captain.
1615 September: The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports was asked to undertake repairs at the castle. An inventory was made of the munitions stored there.
1616 March: Robert Butler was accused of embezzling the Kings store and munitions (Public Records Office, 1858).
1616 May: A survey of the repairs needed to be undertaken was completed. (Public Records Office, 1858).
1616 July: A petition of John Greenfield, Purveyor of Fish to Lord Zouche, asked to be appointed Gunner at Camber Castle. (Public Records Office, 1858). There was a Muster Roll at the castle.
1617 Robert Boteler was Lieutenant of Camber Castle.
1618 Robert Bacon was Captain.
1623 Parliament considered abandoning the castle as it now sat so far away from the coast.
1627 10 March: At Dover Castle “The materials of Camber Castle would not yield above 1,200l, and Winchelsea and Rye think themselves quite undone if the castle be taken down….” However, “Against the demolition of Camber Castle, built by Henry VIII, for the protection of the two former towns, and merely needing repair of the platforms.” (Public Records Office, 1858).
1627 24 April: “Petition of William Byng and Edmund Lisle to the High and Mighty Prince, George Duke of Buckingham. Refer to former petitions for the reparation of Deal and Walmer Castles. The Duke procured and order for Camber Castle to be demolished for their repair, but that resolution had been changed….” (Public Records Office, 1858).
1636 Charles I ordered that the castle be demolished.
1636 Thomas Parker was Captain.
1637 The garrison and artillery were removed from the site. Charles I shut down the site and removed the garrison.
1642 Partially dismantled by Parliamentarians to stop it falling into Royalist hands and being used against them. Still used as a Royalist munitions store. The artillery was taken and installed at Rye.
1643 Mayor and Jurats of Rye to the Committee for Sussex – “we have thought good to let you know that the Castle, called Camber Castle, neere to our towne is soe greatlie ruinated and broken that nay man may goe in there and purloigne and take from thence the tymber and leade; and therefore it will be verie fit (as we conceive) that some course may be taken that the leade and such tymber as may be easily embeazeled be taken away from thence and put in safe custodie where you shall thinke fit to appoint”. (Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts 1892).
1660 The ruins were surveyed.
1664 Captain Willian Carr asked Charles II to lease the castle and land for 31 years.
1785 Antiquarian Francis Grose recorded the site.
18th C The castle was a popular picnic site.
1804 Surveyed by Lt. Col. John Brown.
1805-1807 Painted by J. M. W. Turner.
19th The castle was a popular picnic site. Also used as a base for smugglers.
1931 A proposal to turn the castle into a Golf Clubhouse was rejected.
WWII Used for training and included the digging of trenches.
1946 Aerial Photograph.
1951 Included in the research into Device Forts by the Ministry of Works.
1961 Grade I Listed Building recognition.
1967 Taken into the care of English Heritage.
1968 Conservation programme developed for the site.
1972 Surveyed. Field Investigation.
1977 The site was purchased by the Department of National Heritage.
1984 Handed to English Heritage.
1994 Conservation programme developed for the site. The site opened to the public.
1996 Scheduled Monument Notification. Aerial Photograph.
2015 Guided tours of the Castle commenced.
Although Camber Castle never saw the military action it was constructed for, it is still a stunning piece of architecture and well worth a visit.
References & Bibliography.
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