Upnor Castle

In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I founded a naval dockyard at Chatham on the river Medway. In 1559 it was decided to build a fort a short way downstream in order to protect the anchorage. This fort, known as Upnor Castle, was designed by the engineer Sir Richard Lee.

A plan of Upnor Castle, showing the 2 main construction phases.

Construction began in 1559 and lasted until 1564. The fort took the form of a solid stone keep fronted by a pointed bastion, which jutted out into the river. Upnor Castle was enlarged from 1599-1600 with the construction of a wall on the landward side. There was a large gatehouse as well as two towers, north and south of the original keep. The wall was protected by a ditch.

Scale model of Upnor Castle, viewed from the landward side.

As Upnor Castle was situated on the opposite bank of the river from the dockyards at Chatham, it was not expected to face an attack by ground troops. The castle's most important role in the event of an attack would be to fire at enemy ships in the river.

The outer defences consist of the later works built at the end of the 16th century. There is a relatively thin wall flanked by three solid towers. One of the towers formed a gatehouse on the landward side of the castle and the other two (the north and south towers) were on the river front (the eastern side of the castle).

All three towers had embrasure'for guns on various levels. The towers were able to give flanking fire along the walls through embrasures on the ground floor (see right), but unlike bastions, they had dead ground in front of them.

View along the wall towards the gatehouse.

The fort's main artillery platform was a triangular work situated at the bottom of the river front known as the water bastion. It was on the high-water line, so its guns could easily hit the hulls of enemy vessels whilst being hard to fire at from the deck of a rocking ship.

The water bastion.

The angled faces of the water bastion allowed the guns there to rake ships entering Upnor Reach and to rake any ships that had already passed the fort in the rear. The pallisade was first constructed in 1601, probably to prevent a surprise attack by troops charging across the beach at low tide.

The central part of the castle was the keep. It was three storeys high on the river side and two on the landward side, due to the way the ground rises sharply from the riverbank here.

The keep had the soldiers quarters on the ground floor and the second floor was divided in two lengthways. The back half was roofed over and was probably ammunition stores, whilst the front half had embrasures for guns to fire out over the river.

Upnor castle seen from the river Medway.

There were also 2 guns mounted along the short stretch of wall between the keep and the north tower and 1 gun between the keep and the south tower.

The north tower (right) and part of the keep (left) seen from the water bastion. Two embrasures can be seen between the north tower and the keep.

Upnor Castle was captured by the Royalists for a brief period during the English Civil War', but the real test of its defences came with the Dutch raid on the Medway in 1667. In June 1667, the Dutch fleet sailed up the River Medway unopposed, as parliament had not put the English fleet to sea that year for financial reasons. The Dutch took and destroyed the uncomplete fort at Sheerness on June 11 and sailed on towards Gillingham, where a chain had been slung across the river.

There were a large number of English warships'at anchor between Chatham and Gillingham, but very few men available to man them. The Duke of Albermarle was sent to Chatham to organise its defence and Sir Edward Spragge, who had been commanding at Sheerness, retreated up the river with the frigate'Unity when that place had been lost.

Albermarle had two batteries constructed at either end of the chain and several ships were sunk in an attempt to prevent the Dutch from breaking through the defences at Gillingham, but these proved insufficient and they broke through the chain, burning and capturing a number of English ships, including the flagship Royal Charles.

The gatehouse.

After this disastrous loss, the remaining English ships were removed up river as far as Upnor and many were sunk to deny the Dutch the opportunity to carry them off. More powder and shot was sent to Upnor Castle, where Sir Edward Scott commanded. Albermarle also reinforced the garrison in case the Dutch landed marines to assault the castle.

View down the river medway across the water bastion.

A battery was formed just to the north of Upnor Castle in an earthwork sconce (which was probably constructed during the civil war) and another was constructed on the opposite bank of the river, commanded by Sir Edward Spragge.

The following day, when the tide turned the Dutch again advanced up the river. The Dutch warships engaged Upnor Castle and the makeshift batteries whilst their fireships did as much damage to the half-sunken English ships as possible.

Three English warships, the Loyal London, the Royal James and the Royal Oak were burned before the Dutch withdrew. In the narrow part of the river between Upnor Castle and the heavy guns of Sir Edward Spragge's battery the Dutch lost 50 men killed and many wounded, much worse losses than they had sustained on the previous days. This, coupled with the fact that the way into the dockyard was blocked by various ships that had been sunk by the English, induced the Dutch to break off their attack.

The guns between the keep and the north tower.

They sailed back down the Medway, taking their prizes with them and leaving the English fleet in tatters. The failure of Upnor Castle to halt the Dutch advance led to a rethink of the defence of the Medway, resulting in de Gomme'building two new batteries farther down the river at Cockham Wood and Gillingham.

The top floor of the keep was used to store barrels of gunpowder.

Upnor castle was relegated to the position of a naval magazine. The gun platforms were removed and the top floor of the keep was entirely roofed over, as were the top floors of the north and south towers and the partitions in the lower floor of the keep were removed.

Visiting Upnor Castle

Upnor Castle is in excellent condition, although the modifications made when the castle was turned into a magazine means that there is no access to the rooves of the north and south towers or the keep. The wooden walkway around the landward walls that allowed muskateers to fire over the parapet'is gone, but apart from these few things, the castle is in much the same condition as it was during the Dutch raid in 1667.

View of the water bastion from the north tower.

There is an excellent sound and light show (in English, French or Dutch) with a model of the castle and the river during the Dutch attack (see top picture). Most areas of the castle are accessible and an audio tour is available.

The north tower seen from the top of the gatehouse.

It is open 7 days a week from March-October (click here for the English Heritage page on Upnor Castle, which has detailed opening times and prices. The nearest station is Strood, which is 2 miles away. The remains of Cockham Wood Battery are nearby.

Condition Access to fortifications Size of fortress Accessability of town Museum/Info Overall score
9 9 4 4 7 6.6
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