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History of the Walmer Castle

After divorcing the Spanish Queen Catherine of Aragon and splitting from the Catholic Church, King Henry VIII feared an invasion and therefore planned to construct a chain of defensive castles on the coast. Amongst these castles are Sandown Castle, which was almost entirely destroyed in the 19th century, Deal Castle which is a gem of architecture, and Walmer Castle, which has a very unique history.

Following the execution of King Charles I in 1468, its defences were put to the test during what is known as the English Civil War. The castle was initially held by Parliament, and later by the Royalists, when the forces manning it switched allegiance. After a three-week siege led by Colonel Rich, Parliamentary forces once again took control of Walmer Castle.

In 1708, Walmer Castle began to be used as the official residence of the Lords Warden of the Cinque Ports, a title that originally involved the control of the five most important medieval ports on the south coast of England. The name originates from Norman French and means literally ‘five ports’. The Cinque Ports Confederation originated in the 11th century when the five ports of Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich joined forces to provide ships and men for the defence of the coast and protection of cross-channel trade. In the 13th century, the Office of the Lord Warden was instituted to oversee and regulate these affairs. Holders of the post were usually appointed for life, though the title was not a hereditary one. At the time, this post carried a lot of power, however with the formation of the Royal Navy and the decline of the five ports, the role of Warden became more of an honorary position bestowed upon those who had given service to the state. Although the title is a ceremonial one, it still retains immense prestige, not to mention being tied to a substantial salary.

The first Lord Warden to use Walmer Castle was Lionel Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset, who started to transform the Fort into a home by increasing the number of rooms on the first floor in order to extend the living quarters. Over the years, successive Wardens continued to convert the fortress and its grounds, creating very comfortable and beautiful residential apartments, as well as picturesque gardens.

Amongst the most famous Lord Wardens are William Pitt the Younger (Lord Warden from 1792 – 1806), son of the Earl of Chatham, who was also the youngest person ever to become Prime Minister, since he was 24 years old when he took the office in 1783. He was Prime Minister during the Napoleonic Wars and used Walmer as his primary residence from 1801 to 1806. Other well-known figures who served as Lord Warden were the Duke of Wellington, victorious general of the Battle of Waterloo, mostly known for his popularisation of the ‘Wellington boots’ (serving from 1829 to 1852), and who in fact died inside the Castle itself, the UK Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill (from 1941 to 1965), former Australian prime minister Sir Robert Menzies (1966 – 1978) and even Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1978 – 2002). All of them contributed to the castle and its gardens in various ways.