Deal Castle, built in 1539–1540 to stand guard over the town of the same name on the Kent coast of southeast England, is a fine example of a new building type, created in response to major changes in politics and the technology of warfare. With others at Walmer and Sandown, it epitomized Henry VIII’s new forts
by its assured and concentrated use of the design elements common to all. Deal is the largest, most impressive, and most complicated of the so-called Device forts. It probably looks just as was intended: crouching in wait low above the beach, stocky, powerful, and seemingly impregnable.
In the turbulent years that followed Henry VIII’s accession in 1509 he twice made war on France, the second time as an ally of the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles V of Spain. When he realized that France’s defeat would give Spain too much power, Henry changed sides, joining France and the pope against the empire. England was financially ruined by the campaigns of 1527–1528, and six years later, Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon led to a break with the Catholic Church, isolating him from most of Europe. He tried to drive a diplomatic wedge between France and Spain, but in 1538 they signed a truce, arousing Henry’s fear of a joint invasion. He urgently launched an ambitious defense program. Using funds plundered from the monasteries by his religious “reforms,” in 1539 Henry initiated a chain of about thirty forts and batteries to defend England’s major ports and repel the expected invasion fleet. They included ten Device forts: Portland, Pendennis, and St. Mawes in southwest England; Hurst, Calshott, and Sandgate around the Solent; and Camber, Walmer, Sandown, and Deal on the southeast coast.
The nature of warfare was changing, and the sophisticated defense systems of medieval castles had become obsolete. Built to resist mechanical artillery, they now had to withstand, missiles shot with gunpowder. The clumsy bombards of the fifteenth century could be fired only a few times an hour. But by the early sixteenth century cast-iron cannonballs had replaced stone; powder quality had improved; and ordnance was generally smaller, reliable, and accurate. In 1386, Bodiam Castle in Sussex was among the first to replace archers’ loopholes with cannon and gun ports. The decline of feudalism also had its effect: enemies were more likely to be foreign than envious neighbor barons.
Finished late in 1540 Deal, Walmer, and Sandown completed the metamorphosis from medieval castle to modern artillery emplacement. Each of these squat, powerful-looking “castles in the Downs”—they were still called castles—comprised rounded bastions radiating from a circular keep. Their thick walls were curved to deflect cannonballs, and their many gun ports were widely splayed for easy traverse. There were three tiers of cannon for long-range offense and two tiers of defensive armaments. Built by an army of workmen at a total cost of £27,000—1,000 years’ pay for an artillery officer—and joined by earthen bulwarks (since vanished), they formed a defensive cluster along a vulnerable 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) stretch of coast. Sandown has succumbed to coastal erosion, and Walmer has been converted to a residence for the Warden of the Cinque Ports. Only Deal, overlooking the low-lying marshlands, has been conserved.
Henry VIII’s sexual notoriety has overshadowed his considerable abilities as a scholar, poet, and statesman. He took an interest in military engineering and personally amended the proposals for his forts, and the “device” (that is, the design) of Deal Castle has been attributed to him. The temptation to compare the concentric plan to the Tudor rose (as many have done), although alluring, must be resisted. Built with stone quarried from a nearby Carmelite priory, the castle’s architectural form was primarily constrained by serious military purpose: to pack the maximum firepower into the most compact possible structure.
Six semicircular bastions, with curved parapets and bristling with gun emplacements, radiate in two tiers from a central, cylindrical barracks-keep; the configuration is repeated in the surrounding moat. The upper tier abuts the tower; the lower forms the curtain wall. The concentric layout allowed ordnance to be effectively positioned and fired simultaneously without impeding each other. Almost 200 openings penetrate the massive walls at five levels, including 119 cannon ports and embrasures. The remaining loopholes and casemates, mostly at the lower levels, were for arquebuses and pistols. Gun positions within the bastions were vented to clear the smoke and gases. It is easy to imagine the withering salvo afforded by such purposeful design, but it has been suggested that Henry was unable to find enough cannon to fully equip his fortresses.
Because architects usually build upon what they know, Deal, simply because it had evolved from the
medieval castle, also employed traditional defenses. The entrance was at second-floor level and approached by a drawbridge across the moat; attackers then faced a portcullis, beyond which there were heavy, iron-studded oak doors. The gatehouse ceiling was penetrated by five “murder holes” (gun slots for small arms), and a cannon protected an inner door. In the manner of earlier keeps, the central tower was self-sufficient: its basement had supply and ammunition stores and a well. The garrison was quartered at ground level, with a mess hall with fireplace and bake ovens. The upper story housed, rather more comfortably, the captain of the guard.
The anticipated Catholic assault never came. Although Deal was again readied in 1588, this time to repulse the Spanish Armada, once more no invasion eventuated. Late in the English civil war the fortress was held briefly by the Royalists, but they surrendered after a sustained bombardment. In the eighteenth century Deal’s parapets were altered (some say disastrously) in unfulfilled expectation of attacks during the French Revolution, and again during the Napoleonic Wars. No shot was fired in anger until the German bombing of 1941. Since 1984 Deal Castle has been in the care of the Department of the Environment (now English Heritage).