The town of Kinsale, an important trading port on the south coast of Ireland, was occupied by the Vikings and the Normans, who built a walled town and a castle. This castle, known as Ringcurran Castle, stood to the south of the town on the east bank of the channel leading to the sea. In 1601 a Spanish force briefly occupied Kinsale and occupied the medieval castle before being dislodged by an English force. Ringcurran Castle was slighted on the orders of Cromwell in 1656 to prevent it being used again. In 1667 the Dutch raided the Medway, capturing a number of English ships and exposing the lack of coastal fortifications. Aware of Kinsale's vulnerable position, the authorities constructed an eathwork fort around the remains of the castle to defend the harbour.
Ten years later, in 1677, Sir William Robinson, Surveyor General of Fortifications in Ireland, designed a new stone fort to be built on the site of Ringcurran Castle. This new fort, known as Charles Fort, was one of the largest forts built in Ireland. The fort had three bastions'facing the land, with two half-bastions'where the walls reached the river. Its river front consisted of two batteries, an upper battery and a lower battery. When combined with the guns at James Fort on the other side of the river, these guns would be a serious deterrent to any enemy ship sailing into the harbour.
The whole fort was laid out with the river batteries in mind. The Governor's quarters, the master gunner's quarters and the powder magazine'were all located just above the upper battery. This ensured that the garrison could be ready to fire on an enemy ship as quickly as possible. The east side of the fort, facing away from the river, was much higher than the river batteries. The steep slope inside the fort meant that officers were forced to leave their horses at the stables near the main gate and walk down to the rest of the fort. The interior of the fort was divided in two by a thick stone "blast wall" that was designed to limit the destruction caused by an explosion in the powder magazine. This is an unusual feature that is not seen on many forts.
The landward defence of the fort was not ideal. The ground sloped up steeply to the east, so the defences were overlooked by high ground. In 1685 an engineer called Thomas Phillips made proposals to enlarge the fort to the east to take in this high ground. Phillips reasoned that if the fort was extended it would deny an attacker the ability to place batteries above the fort. However, his plans were never carried out. Interestingly the highest part of the fort, the Flagstaff Bastion, was made into a citadel'by a redan'at its rear. In theory the defenders could retreat to this citadel, but in reality the Flagstaff Bastion was likely to be attacked first, since it was overlooked by the high ground.
The walls of the fort were stone, as was the counterscarp. There was a dry ditch'and a covered way around the fort, but there were no outworks. This lack of outworks was a weakness in the defences, especially coupled with the high ground to the east. The bastions themselves were rather small, about half the size of those used by Vauban'in the same period.
Charles Fort was completed by 1683 and it first saw action just seven years later in 1690. In 1688 William of Orange landed in England and overthrew King James II, who fled to France. In 1689 James, seeking to regain his throne, came to Kinsale with an army of French soldiers, where he was welcomed by the garrison, which was loyal to him. However in 1690 William arrived in Ireland and fought against James. A force under the Duke of Marlborough'attacked Kinsale in October. James Fort was captured quickly after a surprise attack, but Charles Fort resisted and its governor refused to surrender. Marlborough built batteries on the high ground to the east and started bombarding the fort's walls. After thirteen days a breach was made and the garrison surrendered.
In the years following the siege the damaged walls were repaired and the parapets were enlarged to give better protection to the troops behind them. A sally port was added next to the Devil's bastion, on the north side of the fort. This gave the garrison the ability to move men in and out of the fort close to the water's edge, perhaps to communicate with the town. In the early 18th century the gatehouse was rebuilt and several new buildings were constructed inside the fort.
Charles Fort was garrisoned throughout the 19th century until the British garrison was finally withdrawn in 1921 when the Irish Free State was set up. During the Irish Civil War some of the buildings inside were burned and the fort lay derelict for many years. In 1973 it was made a national monument and restoration work began.
Visiting Charles Fort
Charles Fort is one of the largest and best-preserved examples of a 17th century artillery fortification in the whole of the British Isles. Although the interior buildings were gutted by fire in the 1920s, the rest of the fort is in very good condition. The drawbridge has been rebuilt to its original design and some of the buildings have been restored. The fort is one of the major tourist attractions in the Kinsale area and it can be visited for a small entrance fee. The old ordnance stores are now a cafe, which is open in the summer months. One of the barrack buildings now contains an excellent and informative exhibition about the fort and its history. Charles Fort is a short walk from the town, but a regular tourist bus service runs in the summer. Nearby James Fort, on the opposite side of the harbour, is also worth a visit.