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A Guide to Pendennis Castle
People tend to think of the castles of the United Kingdom in terms of the fortifications that were built in the wake of the Norman Conquest of 1066. Whilst it is true that hundreds of castles were built in the years after William took the throne, castles continued to be built sporadically right through until the modern day.
Indeed, during the reign of Henry VIII, the king undertook a massive building project of fortifications, constructing Device Castles along the length of the south coast of England.
Cornwall’s Pendennis Castle is one of these Device Castles, and it would be an important part of Britain’s defences for over 400 years.
The Location of Pendennis Castle
The Pendennis Headland was chosen as a site for one of Henry’s Device castles, and Pendennis Castle was constructed. The site is about a mile southeast of Falmouth.
Importantly the headland allowed for the River Fal and the important deepwater anchorage of Carrick Roads. So important was the defence of Carrick Roads, that a sister fort of St Mawes was built on the other side of the entrance to the harbour.
In the middle part of the 16th Century, the actions of King Henry VIII in divorcing Catherine of Aragon, and setting up the Church of England, had isolated England from much of Catholic Europe. Indeed, there was an immediate possibility of invasion from France and Spain.
To defend the vulnerable southern coastline Henry ordered the construction of artillery forts, the Device Castles, or Henrician Castles as they are also known. With a squat profile, Device Castles were packed with long range artillery to both defend anchorages, and to do damage to enemy ships that passed in range. Often built with concentric, circular ramparts, the Device Castles were well known for the wide angle which guns could cover.
Device Castles though were primarily focused on the sea, and as such were often vulnerable to land based attacks, despite some being built with portcullises and drawbridges.
The Blockhouse and Fal Estuary
The Barracks at Pendennis Castle
Castles: Their Construction and History
The Early Years of Pendennis Castle
Pendennis Castle was built in 1539 by a local man called Thomas Treffry, who was also responsible for St Mawes Castle and St Catherine’s Castle at Fowey. Circular in design, Pendennis Castle was rather simple in design and construction, with the circular tower enclosed within a low-level curtain wall.
During the reign of Henry VIII, Pendennis Castle was never put to use, but the threat to England hardly diminished with his death, and during the reign of Elizabeth I, there was at least four threat of invasion from the Spanish.
The threat of invasion meant that Elizabeth would order improvements to the castle, and in 1600 the whole Pendennis headland was enclosed within a defensive structure. There were now effectively two defensive walls protecting the artillery castle. Additionally, the positioning of more guns also allowed Pendennis Castle to be protected from land attack for the first time.
The threat of attack was very real and along the Cornish coast at Mounts Bay, the villages of Penzance, Newlyn, Mousehole and Paul were destroyed in the Spanish Raid of 1595.
During this time Pendennis Castle could house a garrison of 100, but it was only fully utilised when there was a high threat of war. Most of the time there was simply a few gunners and storekeeper on site.
The Civil War and Pendennis Castle
Pendennis would come into its own during the English Civil War. Before the war the land defences had been improved with a rampart and ditch, and this extra defences were put to good use late in the war.
Pendennis Castle was garrisoned with Royalist troops during the war, and was a secure bolt-holt during the worst periods of the war. In 1644 Charles I’s wife, Queen Henrietta would stay in the castle before she departed from Falmouth for the continent. Two years later the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II, would likewise stay in the castle before following his mother.
Shortly after the departure of Charles II the Royalist cause was all but lost, and in March 1646 Parliamentarian troops arrived to lay siege to the castle. At this time 1000 men were defending the castle, and such was the strategic position and strength of Pendennis Castle that it held out for 5 months.
Eventually though, the defending forces ran out of food, and had to honourably surrender without the Parliamentarian forces ever threatening to take the castle. When it surrendered only Harlech Castle and Raglan Castle remained in Royalist hands.
At the end of the Civil War, Pendennis Castle was not slighted as many inland castles were. The threat from across the channel was still very real, and the sea facing fortification might very well be needed. Towards the end of the 17th Century, repairs and improvements were undertaken, and new barracks and powder house were built.
The Cannons at Pendennis Castle
The American and Napoleonic War
For almost 150 years war was never far away, and firstly during the American War, and then the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War, meant that Pendennis Castle was in constant use. New batteries, new cannons, more barracks and storerooms, and a hospital were all constructed on the peninsula.
Falmouth though was never really threatened, and with Napoleon in exile, no more money was put into improving Pendennis Castle.
As the 19th Century progressed though, a threat re-emerged, with firstly France once again, and then Germany emerging as rivals to Britain. Arms and Armaments were coming on leaps and bounds though, and the defensive structures, whilst improved were likely to prove inadequate against “modern” weapons. The offensive artillery though, were greatly improved with the most modern artillery that Britain possessed.
Pendennis Castle During the World Wars
During the First World War, the anchorage at Falmouth was once again in use, with Pendennis Castle once again undertaking the role it was originally designed for. Additionally, Pendennis Castle was also made the command centre for all of West Cornwall’s coastal defences.
Similarly, a generation later, the castle would be in charge of the coastal defences during the Second World War; and with modern guns, and radar control, Pendennis Castle was able to operate as a long-range defensive position.
After the Second World War, the threat to England did not come from across the Channel but further east. The development of new weapons also meant that Pendennis Castle was unlikely to ever be needed for coastal defence again, and so in 1956 it was effectively closed down.
The Device Castle
Pendennis Castle Today
Today Pendennis Castle is owned by English Heritage, who open the castle and grounds to the public. Opening hours and admission prices can be found on the English Heritage website.
There is a small museum and Discovery Centre on site, which allows visitors to find out more about the history of Pendennis Castle, from Tudor times through to the Cold War. With the centenary of the First World War, a special exhibition about “Fortress Falmouth” has been created.
There are extensive informal grounds around the main castle buildings, and there are often re-enactments taking place in these grounds. Areas of the grounds are also popular for picnics, although there is also a tearoom. Pendennis Castle has also proved a popular site for civil weddings.
Many visitors ensure that they are on site at noon, as on most days, one of Pendennis castle’s battery guns will fire a noon day shot.