Cowes Castle, Isle of Wight, UK
Created | Updated Apr 19, 2014
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Cowes Castle is one of four castles and three smaller defensive structures built on the Isle of Wight during the reign of King Henry VIII. Of these seven, Cowes Castle is the oldest to still exist, although greatly modified. It is now home to one of the world's most prestigious sporting organisations, the Royal Yacht Squadron.
The Henrician Castles
Throughout history, the Isle of Wight has frequently been invaded and raided, but it was not until the reign of King Henry VIII that an attempt was made to defend the whole island and the surrounding area on the mainland.
Four castles were built on the Isle of Wight; Cowes Castle, East Cowes Castle and Sandown Castle, constructed between the late 1530s and early 1540s; and Yarmouth Castle, built in 1547. These were supported by three smaller structures; a small fort at St Helens, known as St Helen's Bulwark; Worsley's Tower, built in 1525; and Sharpenode Blockhouse, also built in 1547. Most of these were constructed at the mouths of the principal rivers. The western Yar was defended by Yarmouth Castle, the river Medina by both Cowes Castle and East Cowes Castles, and the eastern Yar was defended by St Helen's Bulwark. Sandown Bay, the largest beach on the island and the only spot on its south coast undefended by cliff, was to be defended by Sandown Castle. Worsley's Tower and Sharpenode Blockhouse defended the western entrance to the Solent.
The mainland side of the Solent and Southampton Water were similarly defended at this time, by Hurst Castle, Calshot Castle, St Andrew's or Hamble Castle, Netley Castle and Southsea Castle. The stone for these castles came from the dissolved abbeys of Quarr, Beaulieu and Netley1.
When King Henry VIII left the Catholic church in 1538, his traditional enemies, Francis I, King of France and the Emperor Charles V of Spain, signed a peace treaty and were encouraged by Pope Paul III to invade England. In response, Henry VIII began a national building programme of castles to defend England from invasion. This preparation was well justified: a full French invasion of the Island took place in 1545, in the same battle in which the Mary Rose sank. The French, perhaps weary of the new castle at Cowes, did not attempt to penetrate the river Medina and instead landed at Bonchurch, Sandown, Yaverland, Whitecliff Bay, Bembridge and St Helens.
History of Cowes Castle
In 1540, Lord Admiral and Earl of Southampton, William Fitzwilliam and Lord St John William Paulet2 were given the responsibility of planning the defences of the centre and west of the Solent. After surveying the tides and landscape, by taking boats into the Solent and noting where the wind and tide influenced ships, they recommended positions for building four castles, including the two either side of the River Medina on the Isle of Wight. These were East Cowes Castle3 and West Cowes Castle, or Cowes Castle as it is known today.
Using stone from the dissolved Abbeys of Quarr and Beaulieu, Thomas Bertie, Henry's Master Mason who also built Calshot Castle, constructed Cowes Castle. His design was for a small, round, two-storey tower protected by single-storey rectangular wings to the east and west. There was a barbican, a semi-circular or D-shaped gun platform, to the front of the castle, with a rectangular walled defensive ditch to the rear, land-facing side. The semi-circular gun platform and the roofs of the tower and wings were pierced for cannon, and the castle was armed with 11 guns, as well as bows and arrows. The castle was commanded by a captain, a porter and three gunners. During Queen Elizabeth I's reign, the captain was paid a shilling a day, the porter 8d and the gunners 3d each. These rates were identical to those paid at Netley Castle in the same period.
Noted poet and historian John Leland wrote in 1545:
The two huge Cowes that bellow from the shore
Shake east and west with their tremendous roar;
They guard fair Newport and the lofty Isle
From fierce invaders and their cruel spoil.
The two Great Cowes that in loud thunder roar,
This on the eastern, that on the western shore.
One of the first captains of Cowes Castle was Captain Sommers who, on his tomb in Whippingham Church in nearby East Cowes, is recorded as having lived until the age of one hundred.
King Charles' Visit
In 1631 King Charles I dined at Cowes Castle. This event is described by Sir John Oglander4 in his memoirs with the words:
The 5th of August [King Charles I] dined betimes, and went ...to Cowes Castle, and there had ye pinnace to carry him, and one of ye Whelpes5 to attend him. He had ye ordinance of ye Castle three times shot of, and all ye ships saluted him...
This I may truly say both in coming, going, and staying, he received all ye honour and contentment that this Island could possibly give him... He went away well pleased, and while he was at Cowes... I never saw a braver company, nor a greater entertainment in my life. He had sent him in by ye country – a hogshead of sack, claret, and white wine; a fat ox, fish of all sorts, pewettes, guiles, rabbits, pigeons, pheasants, partridges, chicken, etc. Never was any Captain of ye Island braver entertained, or nobler used and respected by ye country; and we live in expectation of ye like from him.
The Civil War
During the Civil War (1642-46) Cowes Castle twice played a role in the battle between the Crown and Parliament. On the outbreak of war, the Isle of Wight and the nearby key port of Portsmouth declared for the king. The Island's castles of Cowes, Sandown, Yarmouth and Carisbrooke all declared for the king, although the Island's capital, Newport had declared for Parliament. The Royal Navy, despite its name, also supported Parliament. The Navy proceeded to blockade its home port of Portsmouth, with the 44-gun Charles, commanded by Captain Swanley, leading the blockade6.
On Friday 12 August, 1642, the captain of Cowes Castle, Humphrey Turney, fired its cannon at an enemy for the first and only time. Humphrey Turney supported Charles I, as did Colonel Goring, Governor of Portsmouth. The Royal Navy ship, HMS Lion7 commanded by Captain Louis Dick, fired on two Royalist ships heading for Portsmouth with supplies. Records state:
In a furie with his own hand [Captain Turney] gave fire to one piece of ordnance and shot at the said ship the Lion.
The firing of Cowes Castle's gun caused the outbreak of Civil War on the Island, but this defiance did not last long. On 13 August, Parliament ordered the Navy to support the Newport militia to capture the Island's castles. On 14 August, the Royalist forces launched a pre-emptive strike against the Parliamentary Newport militia, and on Monday 15 August, the captains of Sandown and Cowes Castle and their men rode to Newport to arrest the leader of the Parliamentary troops on the Island, the Mayor of Newport. A confused battle occurred in the streets of Newport, but while Captain Turney and his forces were engaged in the battle in Newport the Lion landed troops in Cowes and captured many Royalists, including Nicholas Weston, MP for Newtown. Captain Turney attempted to negotiate for his release, but was himself captured and arrested. The Royalists had lost the key battle for Newport.
On 17 August, leaderless, and with most of its men captured after the unsuccessful attack on Newport, Cowes Castle surrendered. The castle was re-garrisoned with Parliamentary troops. The other castles in the area beheld similar fates. The following day, 18 August, Sandown Castle and Hurst Castle surrendered. Yarmouth Castle was besieged for five days before surrendering on 22 August. Calshot Castle, Netley Castle and St Andrew's Castle all originally declared for the King, but were quickly surrendered to Parliament. On 23 August, the Island's key castle, Carisbrooke, was besieged by 600 men. Although Carisbrooke had weapons and supplies for over 1,500 men, after the attack on Newport only 20 men remained, and so it too surrendered.
On 13 November, 1647, King Charles I arrived in Cowes and expected to stay in the castle. Cowes Castle, however, was full and so the king was forced to stay in a nearby alehouse before travelling to Carisbrooke Castle, where he would be imprisoned. King Charles wrote that he 'had most confidence of the Isle of Wight, that they would have stood for him, than any of the other parts of my kingdom'.
Sir John Oglander and Sir John Berkeley would both describe King Charles' visit to Cowes Castle in their memoirs. Sir John Berkeley wrote:
We all went over that night to the Cowes. In the morning his Majesty went with the Governor to Carisbrooke, and was met in the way by divers gentlemen of the Island; from whom we learnt that we were more fortunate than we were aware of; for the whole Island was unanimously for the King ... The King, with Hammond8, Captain Baskett, Captain of Cowes Castle ... landed at Cowes from Tichfield House on Saturday afternoon, November 13; and after passing the night at an alehouse in the town, Cowes Castle then being used as a prison, arrived the next morning at Carisbrooke Castle.
In 1648, the peace treaty between King and Parliament known as the Treaty of Newport was negotiated in nearby Newport, however, the army had effectively taken over the country from Parliament and so the treaty was never implemented.
After the Civil War during the Commonwealth, the castle still had a role to play in the battle between King and Parliament. In 1650, Sir William D'Avenant9 was held in Cowes Castle. He had been captured by Cromwell's Navy in the Channel whilst on a mission for the exiled Queen Henrietta Maria. D'Avenant was imprisoned for high treason. While in Cowes Castle, he spent his time profitably by writing Gondibert, before being taken to be imprisoned in the Tower. In 1652, he was released.
Post Civil War
In 1692, during the War of the Grand Alliance10, King Louis XIV of France planned to launch an invasion of England. With the invasion fleet gathering in the anchorage of La Hogue near Point Barfleur in north-west France, Cowes Castle was surveyed to assess its ability to withstand the invasion threat. This survey concluded:
The walls [of Cowes Castle] are rent from top to bottom and [the tower] is in great danger of falling to the ground with every cannons firing.
In 1716 most of the round tower was therefore demolished. The castle was repaired and by 1725 only the rear of the tower and the ends of the wings remained from the original Henrician castle. The castle was later re-armed with 11 nine-pounder cannon. After the end of the Napoleonic War, the castle remained armed, despite being increasingly out-of-date.
Cowes – Coastal Yachting Resort
In 1756, the Vine Hotel, now the site of the Fountain Arcade, installed sea water baths. This was the first step in Cowes becoming a fashionable spa resort for the aristocracy, who were prevented from taking part in the Grand Tour of Europe due to war on the continent.
In 1795, John Albin's History of the Isle of Wight from the Earliest Times of Authentic Information to the Present Period was published. This described the castle with the words:
It is the first [castle] which usually attracts the traveller's or stranger's attention. It commands the road as you approach the town, on the west side; the building is but small and the battery is of a semicircular form, so that the embrasures admit the guns to be pointed in a manner which would defend or annoy an approaching enemy for a large space, if well directed and resolutely supported. It has eleven guns, nine pounders, mounted, with good apartments for the captain and gunners, and was built at the same time as Yarmouth and Sandown ... in the time of Henry the Eighth.
In 1820, Ray's Isle Of Wight described Cowes as:
The streets of Cowes are narrow and ill built, but from the manner in which they rise one above another from the water's edge they do have a singular and not unpleasing appearance both from the sea and the opposite bank of the river. The convenience of this town for bathing has of late years occasioned it to become the resort of much fashionable company, also the general accommodations are very good.
Cowes Castle was described in A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places For 1813 with the words:
The bathing-machines are placed near ... the vicinity of the castle; and from the manner in which they are constructed, and the position they occupy, a person may safely commit himself to the bosom of Neptune at almost any state of the tide.
Cowes Castle was erected by Henry VIII. It stands of the west side of the Medina, near the bathing-machines; and, though useless as a place of defence, still maintains a captain, one master and five other gunners. A sentry is always on duty here, but it would be difficult to point out what he has to guard, unless it be the bathers' clothes.
When Lord Anglesey became Captain of Cowes Castle, he upgraded the castle to become a country house, adding windows and gardens. Lord Angelsey was a keen yachtsman and a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron. He died in 1854, and was succeeded as captain of Cowes Castle by Lord Raglan, who died in 1855. At the time of Lord Raglan's death, when the defences of the Isle of Wight were being modernised11 it was realised that Cowes Castle was outdated, especially in view of the experience gained from the Crimean War. The Government therefore decommissioned the castle. Cowes Castle was initially leased to Lord Conyngham and later, in 1855, to the Royal Yacht Squadron.
History Of The Royal Yacht Squadron
The Isle of Wight, and Cowes in particular, has a long proud tradition of royal yachting. Britain's first royal yacht, Queen Elizabeth I's Rat of Wight was built in Cowes in 1588, and sailed against the Spanish Armada. In 1673, a royal yacht was named Isle of Wight. Following in this tradition, two royal yachts were named Osborne after Osborne House in East Cowes.
Racing at Cowes is believed to have started with smugglers and the customs men. It then developed into a game in which fishing boats and pilot cutters vied to show off their skills. In 1776, naval vessels competed at Cowes; in 1788, cutters raced annually around the island; and by 1811, the Duke of Gloucester gambled on the results.
On June 1st, 1815, before the sailing season started, a group of 42 men who enjoyed racing around Cowes met at the Thatched House Tavern in St James's Street, London, and decided to form a yacht club. They agreed to meet for dinner twice a year, once in London and once in Cowes, to pursue their mutual interest. This was set down in the 10th rule of the club's founding, which stated that on the 24th August each year, a dinner would be held in Cowes at 4 o'clock. Before the lease and purchase of Cowes Castle, this dinner was held in the Vine Hotel.
In 1817, the Earl of Yarborough, first Commodore of the Yacht Club, invited the Prince Regent to join the club. In 1820, when the Prince Regent became George IV, the club was renamed the Royal Yacht Club.
In the early years, the Royal Yacht Club's emphasis was on sailing together in formation as a squadron, led by a commodore who was initially elected on a daily basis. To this end, the Royal Yacht Club considered signals and flags as a high priority. As early as 1815, the Royal Yacht Club composed a Club Book of Signals, arranged by the Admiralty Librarian John Finlaison with the assistance of Sir Home Popham. Over the next 80 years, the Royal Yacht Squadron developed its own code and language of signals, before adopting the mercantile code in 1896. Some of the phrases it uniquely developed signals for include:
- Can you lend me your band?
- Have you any ladies aboard?
- Send me 300 oysters.
Curiously, the mercantile code does not have a code for 'Send me 300 oysters'.
In 1824, the first recorded Round the Island Race took place. In 1826, the Royal Yacht Club held its first three-day regatta. Racing became a principal feature of the annual regatta, which soon became the popular Cowes Week, which still takes place each year today. From 1827, George IV presented a cup as the prize for the winner of the King's Cup race. A newspaper reported:
These gentlemen, by building fast vessels and bestowing prizes upon the best sailors, create a spirit of emulation among the different branches of the artificers connected with nautical affairs, and by introducing for trial new and extended machinery, perform services which no individual could or would undertake. So unrivalled are some of the yachts in the cut of sails and beauty of construction that they have received considerable attention from the government.
In 1825, Charles Pelham, Lord Yarborough was elected the first Commodore of the Royal Yacht Club. In 1826, the year of the first regatta at Cowes, Yarborough's new yacht, the Falcon, was launched. This was a three-masted ship, equal to a 20-gun ship of the Royal Navy. Yarborough wished to make a statement to the Royal Navy that the Royal Yacht Club was able to make a serious contribution in the event of war. In 1827, Lord Yarborough sailed the Falcon to the eastern Mediterranean along with a Royal Navy squadron, and played an active auxiliary role in the battle of Navarino Bay12. In 1831, he was appointed the Vice Admiral of Hampshire.
The Royal Navy was impressed with and purchased some of the Royal Yacht Club members' vessels. These included local East-Cowes-built yacht Waterwitch, owned by Lord Belfast, which served as 10-gun sloop HMS Waterwitch until 1861. The Duke of Portland's yacht Pantaloon, was also bought by the Royal Navy, and used as the template for the next generation of Navy ten-gun brigs. In 1829, as a reward for the services that the Royal Yacht Club had performed, the Admiralty issued a warrant to allow members of the Royal Yacht Squadron to fly the Navy's white ensign13. All other British yachts fly red or, exceptionally the blue14 ensigns. Despite this, racing remained a minor diversion and not the focus of the club.
In 1833, William IV15 invited the Royal Yacht Club members to form a Naval Volunteer Force. The Royal Yacht Club was renamed the Royal Yacht Squadron. The Commodore, Lord Yarborough16, assured the king that:
it will be ever our most earnest wish and desire to promote, in every way in our power, naval science and architecture.
The America's Cup17 was designed in London in 1848 by jeweller Robert Garrard as a stock item and not intended as a trophy. This ewer was purchased by Lord Anglesey, the Captain of Cowes Castle, who presented it to the Royal Yacht Squadron as a racing trophy.
It was the Royal Yacht Squadron that gave the challenge that was to become the America's Cup in 1851. The Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the Earl of Wilton, offered the 100 Guinea trophy 'open to yachts of all nations, to be sailed under the sailing regulations of the Royal Yacht Squadron round the Isle of Wight'.
John Stevens, Commodore of the New York Yacht Club, answered with the words:
The New York Yacht Club, in order to test the merits of the different models of the schooners of the Old and New World, propose through Commodore Stevens to the Royal Yacht Squadron to run the yacht America against any number of schooners belonging to any of the yacht squadrons of the Kingdom, to be selected by the Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron.
The America won the race, and when the captain of Cowes Castle, Lord Anglesey, went aboard the America he could not resist leaning heavily over the stern to check that she did not have a propeller, and was only saved from falling overboard by Commodore Stevens seizing Lord Anglesey's wooden leg.
The Castle and the Royal Yacht Squadron
In 1855, the Royal Yacht Squadron moved into Cowes Castle. The Royal Yacht Squadron employed architect Anthony Salvin to convert the castle into a luxurious clubhouse. Anthony Salvin was a pupil of John Nash18 and considered an expert at restoring mediæval castles, having worked on Carisbrooke Castle, Alnwick Castle, Scotney Castle and the Tower of London.
Salvin made substantial alterations, adding the castle's Platform, the Western Tower, and even a Ballroom. The Royal Yacht Squadron moved in officially in 1858, after the premises was inspected by Prince Albert and the Prince of Wales, who lived in Osborne House across the river Medina from Cowes Castle in East Cowes.
The Isle of Wight Observer was a little sceptical of the new-look castle, and wrote:
Some have compared the front to a monastery and the rear of the building to a noblemen's mews, while others have declared it, from its irregular appearance, to resemble a discipline establishment. One might think it had sprung up out of the fumes of the cook's stockpot ... a mixture of everything.
In 1858, Emperor Napoleon III joined the Squadron, and many Kings, Queens and other rulers have joined, including Kaiser Wilhelm19. Every British monarch since King George IV has been a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron. King Edward VII and King George V were both Commodores of the Royal Yacht Squadron and frequently raced the royal yacht Britannia.
In 1871 and 1872, the exiled French Emperor Napoleon III20 and wife Eugénie came to Cowes to attend the annual Cowes Week regatta, staying at the Marine Hotel in 1871 and Beaulieu House in 1872. Jennie Jerome later described a trip onboard Napoleon's yacht with the words, 'I can see now the Emperor leaning against the mast looking old, ill and sad... He seemed to have nothing to live for.'
In 1873, Jennie Jerome returned to Cowes for the Cowes Week Regatta and attended a ball onboard the Ariadne held in honour of the Russian Czarevich and Czarevna. At this ball, Jennie Jerome danced a quadrille with Randolph Churchill, and they met again the following day near Cowes Castle at Prince's Green. After another dinner in Cowes, Randolph Churchill proposed to Jennie Jerome, they soon married and in 1874 the future Prime Minister Winston Churchill was born. Lady Randolph Churchill later described Cowes in the early 1870s with the words:
It was delightfully small and peaceful. No glorified villas, no esplanade or pier, no bands, no motors or crowded tourist-steamers ... The Royal Yacht Squadron did not resemble a perpetual garden party or the roadstead a permanent regatta ... The Prince and Princess of Wales and many foreign royalties could walk about and amuse themselves without being photographed or mobbed.
The Squadron bought the Castle and grounds outright from the Crown in 1917 and made some minor changes in the 1920s.
Nelson's Handbook to the Isle of Wight, it's history, topography and antiques especially adapted to the wants of the tourist and excursionist, published in 1866, described the castle with the words:
West Cowes Castle was one of the circular forts built by Henry VIII about 1538-9, for the defence of the southern coast. During the Commonwealth and Protectorate, it was much used as a prison, and here D'Avenant, the poet, dramatist and father of English Opera, was confined in 1651, and wrote a portion of his epic of 'Gondibert'. In 1781 its military establishment only consisted of a captain, paid 10 shillings per diem, a master gunner and five other gunners, the garrison here, and in the town, however, amounting to 668 men. Its inutility as a fortress having become sufficiently apparent, since the formation of the stronger defences at Hurst and Yarmouth, it was sold by the Government, in 1856-7, to the Royal Yacht Club, who have repaired, rebuilt, and re-fitted it at considerable expense, and now employ its miniature battery for peaceful ceremonials and royal salutes.
During the Second World War, the Royal Yacht Squadron donated Cowes Castle to the Admiralty for war work, for a token rent of a shilling a year. Cowes Castle was renamed HMS Vectis21 and suffered some damage in the Battle of Britain as Cowes, being one of the island's industrial towns and involved in the construction of warships and aircraft, was heavily bombed22.
HMS Vectis was one of Lord Louis Mountbatten's Combined Operations Command headquarters. Much of the planning of the Allied Assault on Dieppe took place in Cowes Castle, with the local area used as a training ground. Sadly, the raid on Dieppe failed; 3,363 of the 4,961 Canadians sent to Dieppe died, as did 247 British Commandos, with 2,200 British and Canadian troops captured. The hard-learnt lessons did at least ensure success when Combined Operations had a role in the D-Day landings.
The next major alterations took place in 1964, when Prince Philip was Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron. In 1964, the castle was adapted to accommodate the needs of ladies, who previously were restricted to using only the lawn. In 1928, the Royal Yacht Squadron had bought the nearby Castle Rock ballroom23 to be the Ladies Annexe, but in 1964, it was felt that women should be able to access Cowes Castle itself, and a Ladies' Dining Room was added to the castle. The stone for this addition to the castle came from John Nash's second East Cowes Castle, which was sadly demolished in 1963. This meant that the stonework matched and was in keeping with the rest of the building. The balcony was added in 'Festival of Britain' style, and in 1988, the Ladies Drawing Room was linked to the platform.
Finally in 2000, an award-winning pavilion, designed by Sir Thomas Croft to resemble an orangery, was opened by the Royal Yacht Squadron Admiral Prince Phillip.
The castle's cannon, which originally belonged to William IV's yacht Royal Adelaide24, fire to start yachtsmen in their races. During Cowes Week, these cannon fire at five-minute intervals to start the races in which 4,000 yachtsmen compete.
In 2001, the Royal Yacht Squadron hosted the America's Cup 150th Jubilee, a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the oldest sailing race, the around-the-Island race that first took place on August 22nd, 1851, won by the yacht America. Over 200 of the world's most beautiful yachts gathered in Cowes to celebrate.
Cowes Castle is a Grade II* Listed Building, located close to National Cycle Route 23 and, as it is positioned on the coast, is passed by people walking the Isle of Wight Coastal Path.
Other Castles and Historic Sites Nearby:
- Calshot Castle, Hampshire
- Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight
- Christchurch Castle, Dorset
- Netley Castle, Hampshire
- Odiham Castle, Hampshire
- Portchester Castle, Hampshire
- Southampton Town Walls and Castle, Hampshire
- Winchester Castle, Hampshire
- Wolvesey Castle , Hampshire
- Yarmouth Castle, Isle of Wight
- The Pepper Pot, Isle of Wight, UK
- Farringford House, Freshwater, Isle of Wight
- Osborne House, Isle of Wight, UK