March 5, 2024

Upnor Castle & Wallingford Castle

Upnor Castle

Upnor Castle belongs to the genre of Henrician cosastal forts but is an Elizabethan addition to the chain. It was begun in 1599 to guard the approach to the new dockyard at Chatham, lying two miles away near the estuary of the River Medway. Sir Richard Lee interrupted his work on the fortifications at Berwick-on-Tweed, to come and design this fort, but construction dragged on for eight years. In 1599-1601,

Upnor was enlarged but it had to wait until 1667 to face enemy action. In that year, the Dutch, under Admiral de Ruyter, sailed into the Medway and set fire to much of the English fleet. The castle was unable to offer any effective resistance and in the following year a new chain of defenses was begun, Upnor being relegated to the role of storehouse and magazine. Military occupation of one kind or another continued until the Second World War.

As originally conceived, the castle comprised an oblong blockhouse, set in the middle of a curious screen wall terminating at each end in a stair turret. This building provided accommodation for the garrison, defense being concentrated upon the low, pointed bastion facing the Medway.

Pointed bastions were devised as a defense against artillery in Renaissance Italy. Sir Richard Lee built several along his new ramparts at Berwick, but the Upnor bastion does not have the characteristic “arrowhead” plan resulting from a narrow collar. Its riverside setting made that unnecessary. However, since only one side of the bastion faces upriver, there were insufficient gun emplacements to fire effectively on an approaching fleet-this was the problem in 1667.

The late Elizabethan enlargement provided defenses on the landward side. A walled courtyard was created in front of the blockhouse, with towers where the new curtain joins the screen wall. The courtyard is entered through a gate tower retaining the traditional obstacle of a drawbridge.

Wallingford Castle

The historic town of Wallingford lies within an earth rampart first thrown up in the reign of Alfred the Great or Edward the Elder, as a precaution against Danish attack. Wallingford was once believed to be a Roman town because the rampart encloses a rectangular area and the streets follow a grid pattern. The rampart can still be followed on the three landward sides but there is no evidence of any man-made defenses facing the river. In the Norman period the rampart was heightened, but the town then fell into economic decline so the timber stockades that lined the summit were never replaced in stone.

The northeast quarter of the town enclosure became the site of Wallingford Castle. William the Conqueror crossed the Thames here in 1066, during his march on London, and he may have founded the castle in passing. It certainly existed by 1071. This important royal fortress fell into the Empress Matilda’s hands during the Anarchy and resisted King Stephen in three great sieges. The platform of a siege fort from this time can be seen across the river.

The castle showed its strength again in the Civil War. It resisted the might of Parliament until July 1646 – virtually the end of the war – and even then surrendered honorably. Six years later it was destroyed as a potentially dangerous stronghold. The earthworks comprising a large motte between two baileys are still quite impressive but almost all the masonry has disappeared.

A number of English kings contributed to the defenses, notably Henry II and John, resulting in an impressive castle with a shell keep on the motte and two towered curtains. A section of the outer rampart has been turned into a public garden and this carries an excavated length of wall and one round tower. Castle House now occupies the inner bailey.