Castle Rushen (Manx: Cashtal Rosien) is a medieval castle located in the Isle of Man's historic capital, Castletown, in the south of the island. It towers over the Market Square to the south-east and the harbour to the north-east. The castle is amongst the best examples of medieval castles on the British Isles, and is still in use as a court house, museum and educational centre.
The castle cannot be dated to the nearest 100 years, although construction is thought to have taken place during the reigns of the late 12th century and early 13th century rulers of the Isle of Man – the Kings of Mann and the Isles. The last such king, Magnús Óláfsson, is recorded in the Chronicle of Mann to have died at the castle in 1265. The original Castle Rushen consisted of a central square stone tower, or keep. The site was also fortified to guard the entrance to the Silver Burn. From its early beginnings, the castle was continually developed by successive rulers of Mann between the 13th and 16th century. The limestone walls dominated much of the surrounding landscape, serving as a point of dominance for the various rulers of the Isle of Man. By 1313, the original keep had been reinforced with towers to the west and south. In the 14th century, an east tower, gatehouses, and curtain wall were added. Although parts of the castle were destroyed by Robert the Bruce in 1313, the damage was rebuilt by William Montacute, King of Mann by the year 1344.
The keep of Castle Rushen's first line of defence is an outer wall, 25 feet (7.6 metres) high and 7 feet (2.1 metres) thick. Attached to the wall are five towers, which in the post-defensive era of Castle Rushen were used for civilian administrative functions. The keep itself has walls 12 feet (3.7 metres) thick at the base and 7 feet thick at the top. Four towers sit atop the keep, the main one in the north rising to a height of 80 feet (24 metres) and other three to around 70 feet (21 metres).
After its initial construction and use by the Norse-Gaelic rulers of the Isle of Man, the castle changed hands repeatedly between the Scots and the English. The Isle of Man was transferred to Scotland the year after Magnús Óláfsson's death as part of the Treaty of Perth, ending the 1263–1266 Scottish–Norwegian War. On 18 May 1313, the Scottish king Robert the Bruce invaded the Isle of Man at Ramsey. The island was captured in five days, the only resistance occurring at Castle Rushen, which was defended by Dungal MacDouall. After a short siege Robert captured the castle, gaining the Isle of Man as an outpost securing the approaches to western Scotland and the Hebrides. After several more changes of hands the English and their supporters eventually prevailed. The English king Edward I Longshanks claimed that the island had belonged to the Kings of England for generations and he was merely reasserting their rightful claim to the Isle of Man. From 1405 to 1738 the Isle of Man was controlled by the Stanley family, beginning with Sir John Stanley, who was given the title of King of Mann by Henry IV of England in 1405. The title King of Mann was replaced in 1521 by the title Lord of Mann, held today by the reigning British monarch.
During the English Civil War of 1642–1651 James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, the Lord of Mann from 1627–1651, sided with the Royalist cause. Known as The Great Stanley, James established a secondary Royalist court at Castle Rushen before leaving to fight the Parliamentarians in England. In August 1651 James sailed with two frigates, bringing 300 Royalists from the Isle of Man to meet Charles II in Lancashire. Having fought several battles during the Civil War's third phase, Lord Derby was captured at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651 and executed at Bolton on 15 October 1651. When James left the Isle of Man he left his wife, Countess Charlotte – the renowned successful defender of Lathom House in 1644 – in command of the Isle of Man. The French-born Charlotte Stanley held Castle Rushen until a rebellion led by Manx nationalist Illiam Dhône (English: William Christian) and the mutiny of her own garrison forced her to surrender to invading Parliamentarian forces led by Colonel Robert Duckenfield by the end of October 1651.
As the defensive value of the Castle declined it was in continuous use as an administrative centre. In the 18th century a mint was located within its grounds, as was the still active southern law court of the Isle of Man. The Manx law books were also stored in The Lord's Treasury at Castle Rushen. The Castle was a meeting place in the 16th century for the 24 Keys – an early name for the Manx Parliament's lower house, the House of Keys. The Keys had no permanent residence until 1710, meeting on occasion at Castle Rushen. From 1710 the Keys met at the Bishop Wilson's library in Castletown before moving to a dedicated building (The Old House of Keys) in 1821. Since 1874 the House of Keys has been located in the Isle of Man's post-1869 capital of Douglas.
The 18th century saw the castle in steady decay. By the end of the century it was converted into a prison. Even though the castle was in continuous use as a prison, the decline continued until the turn of the 20th century, when it was restored under the oversight of the Lieutenant Governor, George Somerset, 3rd Baron Raglan. Following the restoration work, and the completion of the purpose-built Victoria Road Prison in 1891, the castle was transferred from the British Crown to the Isle of Man Government in 1929. After the castle had lost its other uses as a defensive structure, political residence, and meeting place for the High Court of Tynwald and the legislative assembly, its use as a prison continued, prisoners being transferred from the crypt at Peel Castle in 1780. From 1765 fines were no longer used to support the castle's maintenance and heavy structural deterioration set in, exposing the prisoners to cold and poor weather. This led to protests by the 1777–1793 governor, a man named Smith, but to little avail. Only in 1813 and 1827 were the buildings renovated and converted for prison use. All inmates who were reasonably healthy were expected to perform forced labour, with set quotas for productivity.
By the 1880s the conditions in the castle had reached such a level of misery for the inmates that order broke down and separating the prisoners became impossible. After an 1885 inspection by the Chairman of the Commissioners for Prisons in England and Wales a report made the recommendation to build a new 30-inmate prison. After initial Tynwald opposition to the expense, a new site was chosen and the modern Victoria Road Prison opened in April 1891, having been designed by local Manx architect James Cowle. During Castle Rushen's service as a prison it held both women and men, with children born by serving prisoners being allowed to live with their mothers within the prison walls, and was the site of executions. The last person executed in the castle grounds was John Kewish, convicted of patricide, who was hanged in the Debtors' Yard in the summer of 1872. Kewish's body was buried within the grounds of Castle Rushen.
One notable prisoner held for a time at Castle Rushen was the 1697–1755 Anglican Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson. Wilson was imprisoned in 1722 after a conflict with the 1702–1736 Lord of Mann, James Stanley, over who was to have authority over ecclesiastical court cases in the diocese of Sodor and Man. The 19th century Manx democracy activists Robert Fargher and James Brown both spent time in the Castle Rushen gaol as punishment for attacking the House of Keys as an undemocratic institution and demanding public elections in the Isle of Man. In addition to holding criminals Castle Rushen was also used as an insane asylum, confining mentally ill patients. The criminally insane were not held on the Isle of Man, instead being sent to institutions in Scotland and England.
In 1988, control of the castle was handed over to Manx National Heritage for restoration, being opened in July 1991 by the Earl of Derby as the first major Manx heritage site. Today, it is run as a museum by Manx National Heritage, depicting the history of the Kings and Lords of Mann. Most rooms are open to the public during the opening season (March to October), and all open rooms have signs telling their stories. The exhibitions include a working medieval kitchen where authentic period food is prepared on special occasions and re-enactments of various aspects of medieval life are held on a regular basis, with particular emphasis on educating the local children about their history. Archaeological finds made during excavations in the 1980s are displayed and used as learning tools for visitors. A centre of the school activities at Castle Rushen is the recreation of the preparations and events surrounding the May 1507 visit to the castle by Thomas Stanley, 2nd Earl of Derby and King of Mann. Stanley's visit in 1507 was a momentous occasion as most Kings of Mann rarely if ever visited the island, leaving the governing of the isle to lower ranking officials. In addition to its functions as a museum, the castle is still in use as an official court house.
Entering Castle Rushen. Castle Rushen's Keep can only be reached over the bridge and through the formidable Inner Gatehouse entrance. In the past, unwanted visitors could not simply walk over a fixed bridge. There was only a drawbridge pivoting against the wall with a drop below, and beyond this two portcullis with a "killing ground" between. The three "murder holes" in the vaulted ceiling are a reminder of the likely fate of any intruder unlucky enough to be trapped there - at the full mercy of defenders in the room above. The Garrison Roll of 1428 indicates that there were 25 officials and household officers and 73 garrison soldiers at Peel Castle and Castle Rushen. By 1593 there were 55 soldiers at Castle Rushen alone who manned the day and night watches. Bishop Wilson's Cell. The ground floor guardrooms on either side of the gatehouse entrance were in later times used as prison cells. One was used in 1722 to imprison the Island's Bishop Wilson who had been found guilty of contempt of a State Court. The Guardrooms. The guards on duty are wearing the badge of the Lords of Mann on their livery jackets. Each guardroom contains a vaulted cellar, possibly used as an "oubliette" for the detention of troublesome prisoners.
You can overhear the ill-treatment and confinement of William Fisher by John Cote. Fisher died as a result and Cote was later executed for his cruelty. An enquiry into the incident is reported in the Garrison Roll. The gatehouses were the workplace of the garrison who manned the Castle. Many of the soldiers came from Lancashire and Cheshire, but a few were Manx. They had their own living quarters in the town and only spent their time on duty in the Castle, but officials such as the Captain of the Guard had their lodgings in some of the sparsely furnished upper rooms of the Inner Gatehouse - each main living area was en suite with its own "garderobe" or toilet. The Portcullis Chamber. Through the "murder holes" which pierce the floor, certain death by a variety of unpleasant means could be dealt any attackers trapped in the "killing ground" between the two portcullis below. A spiral staircase, the only means of access all the way from ground level, leads to the fighting platform at the top of the Inner Gatehouse, where the view shows all of the southern part of the Island, as far as the ridge of hills stretching from south-west to north-east. The Castle Chapel. At the top of the South Tower is the medieval chapel which also houses the Castle clock mechanism. The outside clock face on the South Tower is a well known Castletown landmark. The Chapel has a piscina or shallow stone bowl for holy water, and the stone ledges which supported the altar can still be seen in the side walls of the east window. The importance of the Lord's presence on the "banker" or bench seat at the table is indicated by the cloth and canopy of state which is raised above the fireplace. Most medieval tables consisted of solid planks resting on trestles which enabled quick removal after the meal to make room for entertainment or for the retainers to sleep. The pieces of replica medieval furniture on display have been carefully researched to give an accurate impression of what would have been familiar to Thomas, last King of Mann, at the time of his visit to the Island in 1507.
Access to Castle Rushen grounds is through a wide tarmacked entrance way (the barbican), which has a gentle upward incline. It is approximately 40 metres to the main reception area. Upon approaching the entrance way there is a slight raised edge (approx. 1 inch / 2.5 cm deep) and another small step to enter the Castle grounds (approx. 2 inches/5cms). They can arrange for visitors to access the Castle using the staff entry corridor, which has level access. If you would like to arrange this please call 01624 827413 in advance and speak to their friendly team who would be happy to help. Castle Rushen is a medieval fortress and the Castle keep (main building) has a spiral staircase and a historic staircase to access the upper levels. There are no alternative methods for accessing the upper floors. Wheelchair users are restricted to exploring the inner bailey (Castle grounds) and courtyard of the Castle keep. Motorised scooters are permitted in the Castle grounds, but caution should be exercised on the uneven ground. There is one large step (approximately 1 foot deep) leading from the courtyard to an exhibition room and film room detailing the history of Castle Rushen. There is no ramp. Disabled badge holders can park in the disc zone for double the allotted time, a parking disc must be displayed. Parking discs can be collected from any IOM Post Office or the Welcome Centre at the Sea Terminal in Douglas.
Visitors with Visual Impairment. Castle Rushen has low lighting levels throughout the interior and the floor surfaces vary. The period dressed rooms have rush-work floor coverings, which are uneven in some places. The Castle’s historic steps vary in size and can become slippery when wet or when the weather is damp. There are white edge markings on most of the stairwells. There are steps of varying size into and out of most rooms. On some sections of the upper rampart wall walks there are no railings between the wall walks and a roof on the level below. Owing to these issues, visually impaired visitors may find it helpful to have a companion with them to explore the Castle. Alternatively they can offer an accompanied tour or a descriptive tour for visitors. This must be booked in advance. Please contact Katie King on 01624 648035 or email firstname.lastname@example.org in advance of your visit to talk about your requirements. Assistance dogs are welcome and a water bowl is available at reception, please ask. Torches are available from reception.
Location : Castle Rushen, Castle St, Castletown IM9 1LA
Transport: Douglas Ferry then bus. Bus Routes : 1, 12, 4C from Douglas, approximately 25 minutes.
Opening Times : April to October, Daily, 10:00 to 16:00; June - August open until 17:00.
Tickets : Adults £8.00; Children £4.00; Manx school children free.
Tel: 01624 648000