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- Last updated: 22/05/2018
Dating back to the beginning of the 12th Century, Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, has been used for many roles and witnessed much history. Today, it is in the care of English Heritage and attracts visitors from all over the world, who visit to see its military architecture, the remains of which are still impressive, even after all the centuries.
The castle was built on a site which had previously been used as a fortified position during the Roman period, continuing through the Dark Ages to emerge as a motte and bailey-style Medieval castle. Some of the earthen banks and ditches, which today still surround the castle, are thought to date from the earliest period of defence. In its time, Carisbrooke Castle was attacked, most notably by King Stephen in 1136 during the civil war, known as the ‘Anarchy’, in that year. During the 14th Century the castle’s defences were tested when the Isle of Wight was attacked five times by the French who besieged the castle in 1377 but failed to capture it.
After such a turbulent period, the castle took on a new level of importance and its defences were well maintained and strengthened. By 1588, the castle’s fortifications had been further increased to defend against the Spanish Armada. Unlike other fortifications of the period, which fell into disuse, those at Carisbrooke Castle continued to be kept in good repair.
In 1597, the Italian military engineer Federigo Giambelli was commissioned to develop a defensive feature known as ‘trace Italienne’. It took three years to complete at a cost of £4000 (two million pounds in current terms) and he later re-modelled three of the castle’s original towers. Yet, despite all these preparations for war, the guns of the castle never fired a shot in anger. Its most famous role came in 1647, when King Charles I was held prisoner there for 14-months, leading up to his execution. Carisbrooke Castle’s military role dwindled over the years and by the 19th Century was used by the local artillery militia on the island. In 1863, there was still a garrison of 300 men billeted at the castle.
The castle is located south-west of Newport near Clatterford and is well sign posted, but for ‘SatNav’ users type in the post code of PO30 1XY. It has good car parking facilities and there is ease of access for all abilities. The castle encompasses a large area and is divided into several parts, each of which is fascinating to visit. For example, the water well is 200 feet deep and donkeys demonstrate how a treadmill system was used to lift water. There is also a memorial to ‘Warrior’, the horse ridden in WWI by General Jack Seely on the Western Front and known as ‘the horse the Germans couldn’t kill’.
For students of military architecture, a visit to Carisbrooke Castle is an opportunity to study how defences evolved to adapt to keep pace with the changing face of warfare. Tantalising glimpses of Medieval fortifications can be seen in places and the Tudor defences are still very impressive. The ‘arrow-head’ bastions are among some of the finest of their kind to be found in Britain today and visitors can walk the perimeter of the castle atop the walls with their commanding views.
Carisbrooke Castle Museum, with many fine artefacts, is housed within the grounds and it is currently running an exhibition entitled ‘Wight at War’, which tells the islands contribution to the First World War. It will continue to be displayed until November 2018 to coincide with the centenary of the end of WWI. The separate chapel of St Nicholas serves as the war memorial to the 2000 men from the island killed in both world wars and whose names are inscribed on plaques.
There is much to see across the site, which offers a rare opportunity to study the development of military architecture on one site. It is interesting to see how the defences were first formed at a time when there were no gunpowder weapons and trace the changes made as weapons became more powerful. The walk around the circumference of the castle on top of the walls provides a look down on to the defensive ditch and the trace Italienne, where artillery was once positioned. Some pieces of artillery have been positioned on wooden carriages to give the impression of how things would have looked.
In plan view, seen from above, the outline of the castle takes the form of an elongated, irregular pentagon, with bastions at angles where the artillery could be positioned. The shell keep, or bailey, on top of the motte or mound dates back to the period of the Norman Conquest, whilst elsewhere the walls added at a later date were kept deliberately low to prevent being engaged by artillery. In fact, it would be difficult to find a more complete example showing the development of military architecture as it evolved from pre-gunpowder period to gunpowder weaponry. The defences here are well worth the visit, providing, as they do, a field study in military defences to satisfy all students of warfare.
There is a shop on-site, selling a range of books linked in with the castle and local history, along with other items. For opening times and details of events being staged at the castle visit the website at: www. engliash-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/ carisbrooke-castle.
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