East + West Wing

East + West Wing

Gun Embrasure

Gun Embrasure

Hurst Castle is an artillery fort established by Henry VIII on the Hurst Spit in Hampshire, between 1541 and 1544. It formed part of the King's Device programme to protect against invasion from France and the Holy Roman Empire, and defended the western entrance to the Solent waterway. The early castle had a central keep and three bastions, and in 1547 was equipped with 26 guns. It was expensive to operate due to its size, but it formed one of the most powerful forts along the coast. During the English Civil War of the 1640s, Hurst was held by Parliament and was used briefly to detain King Charles I before his execution in 1648. It continued in use during the 18th century but fell into disrepair, the spit being frequented by smugglers.


Hurst Castle was built as a consequence of international tensions between England, France and the Holy Roman Empire in the final years of the reign of King Henry VIII. Traditionally the Crown had left coastal defences to local lords and communities, only taking a modest role in building and maintaining fortifications, and while France and the Empire remained in conflict, maritime raids were common but an actual invasion of England seemed unlikely. Modest defences based around simple blockhouses and towers existed in the south-west and along the Sussex coast, with a few more impressive works in the north of England, but in general the fortifications were limited in scale. Worsley's Tower, for example, built opposite the future site of Hurst Castle in the 1520s, was too small to hold powerful artillery and considered by surveyors in 1539 to be "one of the worst devised things" they had seen.


In 1533, Henry broke with Pope Paul III over the annulment of his long-standing marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Catherine was the aunt of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who took the annulment as a personal insult. This resulted in France and the Empire declaring an alliance against Henry in 1538, and the Pope encouraging the two countries to attack England. An invasion of England appeared certain. In response, Henry issued an order, called a "device", in 1539, giving instructions for the "defence of the realm in time of invasion" and the construction of forts along the English coastline. Hurst Castle was designed to protect the western entrance to the Solent, a body of water that led from the English Channel to the naval base at Portsmouth and, through Southampton Water, to the important port of Southampton. The castle was one of four fortifications that William Fitzwilliam, the Lord Admiral, and William Paulet recommended building to strengthen the defences along the Solent; the others were at East and West Cowes, and Calshot. It was positioned on the Hurst Spit, a strip of shingle sheltering saltmarsh and mud flats, only 0.75 miles across the water from the Isle of Wight. Temporary earthwork fortifications were erected on the site and, after the other three castles had been completed, work then began on Hurst in 1541 under the direction of John Mille, the financial controller, and probably Thomas Bertie, a master mason. Bertie was appointed as the castle's captain in 1542 and the work was completed by January 1544, at a cost of over £3,200.


The result was a stone artillery fort with a central keep and three bastions, surrounded by a moat, capable of holding up to 71 guns. In 1547, however, Hurst was equipped with 26 artillery pieces–four made of brass and the remainder iron–comprising a two sakers, a culverin, a demi-cannon, a curtall cannon, two demi-culverins, six portpieces, four slings, two quarter-slings, and seven bases, three of them inoperable. A 1559 survey commented that Hurst Castle was essential for sending reinforcements from the mainland to the island, and noted that it was equipped with eleven brass and iron guns, with nine further broken guns, along with handguns, bows and arrows, pikes and bills. The survey observed that the castle was vulnerable to attack because it lacked flanking protection and had rounded walls, and that it was expensive to garrison because of its size, requiring a captain, his deputy, twelve gunners, nine soldiers and a porter. The historian John Kenyon notes, however, that its considerable armament made it one of the most powerful forts in the south, even if it was equipped with lighter guns than would have been ideal for its "ship-killing" role.


Meanwhile, the invasion threat from France had passed and a lasting peace was made in 1558; government concerns shifted away from the south coast towards the Spanish threat to the south-west of England. By 1569, when Thomas Carew was serving as Hurst's captain, there were less than ten guns but the same size of garrison to that seven years before. His son, Sir Thomas Gorges, became captain in turn, and in 1593 he reported that the castle's gun platforms were in serious need of repair. In the early 1600s, England was at peace with France and Spain, and the country's coastal defences received little attention. The Gorges family continued as captains at Hurst, with Sir Edward Gorges taking up the post in 1610, but the castle was neglected. In 1628, the castle was unable to prevent Flemish ships from passing along the Solent, as only four or five of the castle's twenty-seven guns were functional, and the fort had no ammunition or powder for them. The government replaced all the brass ordnance in the castle, which were preferred, particularly on ships, as they could fire faster and more safely, with iron guns in 1635.


At the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642 between the supporters of Charles I and Parliament, the castle was occupied by Captain Richard Swanley, a supporter of Parliament. In December 1648 it was briefly used to detain the King before his trial and execution. During the interregum, it remained in use under the command of Colonel Thomas Eyre and was reinforced in 1650 to deal with the threat of a Royalist invasion. After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Eyre was dismissed and replaced by Edward Strange. The future of the castle was uncertain; Charles gave orders to demobilise the garrison and briefly considered having the fortress demolished altogether. Instead of maintaining a regular garrison, in 1666 it was decided to staff the castle using soldiers deployed from the Isle of Wight instead, from a unit belonging to Sir Robert Holmes, the island's governor. Hurst had meanwhile fallen into disrepair, delaying the plans to deploy Holmes' men until 1671. Repairs were carried out and, by 1675, a conventional garrison and almost thirty guns were stationed at Hurst.


Hurst Castle continued to be used as a military base in the 18th century, but was also used to hold a Franciscan confessor, Father Paul Atkinson. Amid concerns over the moral condition of England and a perceived threat to the established Church, an act for "further preventing the growth of popery" was passed in 1700; Hurst was chosen by the Privy Council to house any priests convicted under this law. Atkinson was probably the only person detained in this way, and he was held for 29 years from 1700 onwards, before finally dying at the castle. There had been reported problems with smuggling around Hurst Castle since the 1670s, and these continued into the 18th century. In 1729, the Revenue service hired the Hurst, a wide, heavy yacht, to assist in anti-smuggling operations out of Southampton, arming its crew with muskets, pistols and swords. The problems persisted and, later in the century, the site was used as a rendezvous for smugglers led by a notorious criminal called John Streeter.


The castle fell into neglect, and reports from the 1770s through into the early 1790s noted extensive problems, complaining that the fort's guns could no longer be mounted on the dilapidated bastions and that water was seeping through the decaying walls. By 1793, the castle was considered to be "in the worst condition" of all the forts along the coast, and all its guns were unusable. Repairs were authorised, but little was actually done. The spit around the castle began to be used by civilians, including fishermen and gardeners; a lighthouse, called the Hurst Tower, was built there in 1786, and the Shipwright's Arms inn was established alongside the castle. The Revolutionary War with France broke out in 1793, leading to the extensive modernisation of the castle. Repairs were carried out in 1794 at a cost of £647, followed by a review of the defences, the next year, by the Master-General of the Ordnance. The 16th-century castle was still strongly fortified by the standards of the time, but it could not support the heavier guns or batteries of artillery required to tackle enemy warships. Instead, two new gun batteries, each armed with five 36-pounder (16.3 kg) guns, were built alongside the castle in 1795, with a further eighteen 9-pounder (4 kg) guns mounted in the old fort; the guns concerned had all been captured from the French.


In 1803, war with France appeared imminent once again. After some discussions, it was agreed to adapt the 16th-century keep to enable it to hold six 24-pounder (10.8 kg) guns; the roof was vaulted and a central stone pillar was installed to run up through the building, work estimated at the time to be likely to cost cost £4,122. The historian Andrew Saunders likens the resulting building to the various Martello towers being constructed along the south coast at this time. It was proposed to build two temporary gun batteries to replace the 1795 emplacements, which had suffered from the salt air and decayed, but the plan was turned down in order to focus attention on the redevelopment of the keep. The work was carried out by a mixture of soldiers and civilian contractors and was completed by the end of 1806.


The remodelled castle did not play an active part in the Napoleonic Wars, although it was used in 1809 as a hospital for injured soldiers returning from the Peninsula Campaign in Spain. A second lighthouse, known as the High Lighthouse, was constructed alongside the castle in 1812. Official interest in Hurst Castle increased again in the 1840s, as the introduction of shell guns and steam ships created a new risk that the French might successfully attack along the south coast. Previously, sailing ships had been only able to pass the castle slowly when moving against the tide, making them vulnerable to its guns; steam ships threatened to cruise past at speed. Military estimates and surveys in 1850 and 1851 suggested that the armament should therefore be significantly increased, to include more and much heavier guns.


Improvements were carried out between 1852 and 1856 at a cost of over £6,725. The keep was adapted to support 32-pounder (14.5 kg) guns, the seaward-facing bastions and curtain walls were reinforced with brick casemates and new gun positions, and the moat was deepened to protect against any surprise attack. Two batteries were built to the west and east of the castle, protected by shingle and earth and linked to the old castle by covered passageways called caponiers; a defensible barrack block was built beside the western battery, to provide further protection against any attack from the land. The result was that Hurst was re-established as a powerful fortification, equipped with fourteen 32-pounder guns, fifteen 8-inch (203 mm) shell guns and two 32-pounder carronades; in wartime, these required a team of 440 men, with a peacetime garrison of 105 soldiers. Fort Albert was built across the water on the Isle of Wight to provide supporting fire. The old inn was first reused as the garrison canteen and then demolished. The 1852, the Isle of Wight Electric Company laid a specially-armoured telegraph cable to link the castle with Keyhaven on the mainland and Sconce Point on the island; two years later, the Electric Telegraph Company linked the castle to Southampton. Hurst used flags to pass on telegraphic messages to and from shipping entering the Solent.


Rapid advances in military technology made the new defences became obsolete before the end of the decade. The introduction of rifled breech-loading guns, capable of firing explosive shells, and the construction of armour-plated warships left Hurst's guns and fortifications inadequate. Fears grew in 1859 that France might invade England, potentially in a surprise attack. An 1859 Royal Commission recommended that Hurst, as one of the key forts protecting Portsmouth, should be upgraded as a matter of priority. Hurst was equipped with new heavy, RML guns in heavily protected casemated positions. These weapons were slow to reload, so to ensure that the castle would have a good chance of hitting enemy ships passing at speed, two long batteries of weapons were built onto either side of the old castle, a west wing with 37 gun positions and an east wing with 24 positions. These were built on top of the two gun batteries constructed there a few years before and also required the castle's moat to be filled in. As work progressed, the decision was taken to reinforce the batteries with additional iron shields. The work eventually cost £211,000; it began in 1861, with the majority of the work being completed by 1870 and the additional iron shielding by 1874.


In peacetime, the castle held around 131 officers and men but it would have needed to be substantially reinforced during wartime if all the weapons were to be manned. Although the fort never received its full complement of guns, by 1881 it had ten 12.5 inch, 38 ton rifled muzzle-loading (RML) guns, fifteen 10 inch, 18 ton RML guns, five 9 inch, 12 ton RML guns, and 3 64-pounders (29 kg), together forming a powerful arsenal. Two new lighthouses were constructed in the 1860s. The first was the "Low Light" built into the rear wall of the west wing of the castle. The second lighthouse was the "High Light" – the free standing Hurst Point Lighthouse built on the end of Hurst Spit between 1865 and 1867. A new public house, the Castle Inn, was established on the north end of the spit. A narrow-gauge railway was constructed in the 1880s to move supplies into the castle. By the 1880s and 1890s, both the power of naval artillery and the speed of warships had further increased, leading to further investment in the castle between 1888 and 1893. The keep's magazine, which could hold up to 2,250 shells, was reinforced with concrete and the south bastion of the old castle was filled in with shingle and concrete for additional protection. New 6-pounder (2.7 kg) quick-firing guns were installed in a battery on the end of the east wing, supported by machine guns, to enable them to target fast moving vessels, particularly the new torpedo boats. Further emplacements for 12-pounder (5.4 kg) guns followed, including one on the top of the keep.


By the First World War, the guns installed at Hurst Castle in the 1870s were obsolete. The castle retained seventeen of them, as historian Coad states, wired up together "like a collection of elderly blunderbusses", but the fort depended on its newer quick-firing weapons. During the war, Hurst's armament was controlled from Needles Battery, where a Fire Command Post, equipped with telegraphy, had been established. After the war, the guns were removed from the 16th-century part of the castle, which was passed into the national collection of the Ministry of Works in 1933, although some modernisation of the rest of the fortification took place in the 1930s. The "low light" was replaced by a new iron lighthouse in 1911.


During the Second World War, Hurst was re-armed in 1940 with two 12-pounder (5.4 kg) guns and a unit of the Isle of Wight Rifles was stationed there, controlled from the Fire Control Needles. Searchlights and two more 6-pounder (5.4 kg) guns followed the next year, when the 37-strong detachment was retitled the 129 Coastal Battery Royal Artillery, followed by the installation of Bofors anti-aircraft guns. A tower, called the Director Tower, was built along the west wing. As the war progressed, the weapons were stood down and the battery finally closed in July 1945, with most of the weapons being removed after the war. In 1956 the whole of Hurst Castle was transferred to the guardianship of the Ministry of Works. During the 1970s, the additional concrete protection added to the south bastion in the 1880s was removed. When the government agency English Heritage was formed in 1983, it took over the control of the castle. In 1996 the Friends of Hurst Castle took on the day-to-day management of the castle, with English Heritage continuing to run other aspects of the site. The castle is protected under UK law as an ancient monument. The High Lighthouse built in 1867 continues in use, and is protected as a grade II listed building.


The spit is subject to coastal erosion which has gradually pushed the spit towards the shore, a process which has eaten away at the remnants of the 1852 west wing battery and barracks, and has exposed the foundations of the later fortress on occasions. This erosion has increased significantly since the 1940s, due to the construction of groyne barriers at nearby Bournemouth and Christchurch which prevented the natural renewing of the spit with pebbles washed from local cliffs. Erosion caused fresh damage to the eastern end of the castle in early 2013, leading to renewed concerns. Government efforts began in the 1960s to try to stabilise the spit in its current position, both to protect the castle and neighbouring towns, with over 900,000 tonnes (990,000 tons) of gravel being laid down in the 1990s, and this is continuing in the 21st century.


The central castle was originally constructed in the 16th century, but heavily redeveloped in the early and middle years of the 19th century. It comprises a central tower with three bastions to its north-west, north-east and south, approximately 52 metres (171 ft) across. A curtain wall with gun positions originally linked the three bastions, but this was substantially altered with the addition of walls and chambers to produce a deeper structure. The central castle forms the entrance to the rest of the fortification and is accessed through a gateway dating from 1873. The 16th-century moat that protected the castle was filled in during the 1860s. The twelve-sided central tower, or keep, is approximately 20 metres (66 ft) across; it has two storeys and a basement. The inside of the tower is circular, with a spiral staircase running up through a central pillar. The ground floor and first floor rooms would have originally been sub-divided to form living quarters for the garrison, but are now open spaces. Both have eight embrasure windows, suitable for holding lighter weaponry; the first floor room was sufficiently elevated to have potentially fired out over the external walls. The roof has the remains of gun positions dating from the 1850s, and was originally topped by a look-out tower, removed in 1805. When first built, the keep was linked by three bridges to the outer bastions.


The two-storied north-west bastion protected the castle against attack along the spit from the mainland, and housed the castle's original portcullis as well as providing accommodation for the garrison. It had three levels of gun positions on its ground floor, first floor and roof, which were adapted in the 19th century to house heavier weapons and shelter riflemen. The bastion links to an external caponier, a covered walkway with rifle loops for close defence, built in 1852. The north-east and south-east bastions are only one storey tall, originally holding two levels of gun positions on the ground floor and roofs, again both adapted to support heavier guns in the 19th century. The West and East Wing date from the 1860s and are built from brick and stone. They had a lines of gun positions, each designed to hold a heavy gun and a crew of up to 12 men. The positions were protected by granite-fronted casemates and wrought-iron shields, and, with removable window screens, doubled as living accommodation for the crews. Small magazines were positioned behind the lines of casemates.


The West Wing is approximately 215 metres (705 ft) long, and has 37 heavy gun positions and two main magazines, along with various auxiliary buildings, including canteens, stores and detention facilities. It also has two of the castle's lighthouses, an 1865 tower, now disused, and an iron, gas-lit tower, still in use. The garden is a recreation of the garden in the Second World War. The late-19th century and early-20th guns at the castle were predominantly added to the West Wing, and it roof supports emplacements for 12- and 6-pounder (5.4 and 2.7 kg) quick-firing guns, a Bofors gun and associated directing positions. A small theatrical theatre, built by gunners in the Second World War, survives in one of the gun positions, along with various wall paintings, possibly used in performances. The East Wing is relatively unaltered since its construction. It is approximately 150 metres (490 ft) long, with 24 heavy gun positions and two main magazines; on the roof is the original gun directing position and a Bofors gun position added during the Second World War. It is reached through a gateway in the north-east bastion. Just beyond the East Wing are three 6-pounder quick-firing gun emplacements from 1893, which were fed ammunition from the wing through a hole in the outer wall.


There is no wheelchair access to Hurst Castle. There are no disabled toilet facilities at Hurst Castle. Assistance dogs are welcome and there is a dog bowl with water provided near the entrance. Most of the exhibits can be handled. Handrails are fitted to the staircases. There are male and female toilets available at the site. The Tearoom/restaurant sells a selection of sandwiches, baguettes and lovely home made cakes. An audio tour is available to hire at a charge of £2. There is no parking at the site but there is parking at Milford seafront or Keyhaven where a charge is payable. As Milford is 1.5 miles away the best approach is Keyhaven and then ferry to the castle. Ferry service daily from 25th March until end October. Ferries approximately every 20 mins from Keyhaven and Hurst. First ferry 1000 from Keyhaven and last boat 1730 from Hurst. Returns – Adults £6.50; Child £3.50. Singles – Adult £3.50; Child £2.50


Location : Hurst Castle, Saltgrass Lane, Milford on Sea, Lymington SO41 0TP

Transport : Lymington Town (National Rail) then taxi. Bus Routes : No bus service. Ferry Service : See above

Opening Times : April through September Daily 10:30 to 17:30;  October Daily 10:30 to 16:00;  Closed November to March

Tickets : Adults £4.80;   Concessions £4.50;   Children (5 - 15) £3.00

Tel. : 01590 642344