Plymouth Castle

So as we discussed in a previous post, Plymouth wasn’t always the power that it is today. In fact, in 1066, during the norman conquest, it was still called Sutton Pool, and had a population of 18 people. So realistically, there was no real need for any sort of fortification. The only place with a need for protection was just up the river at Plympton. Here, there was a Motte and Bailey Castle. Basically a small keep on top of a big hill, surprisingly effective at the time.

Over time though, the river changed, and the need of Sutton as a main port suddenly became of strategic importance. Around the start of the hundred years war in 1337 it was attracting unwanted attention from continental forces. It’s thought that earthwork defences were built around this time on the hoe and waterfront. There was also likely to have been similar works on the other side of the river at mount batten.

The most important part of this defence was Plymouth castle. In 1377 a murage grant was received, this is basically a tax specifically for castles, walls and other defences. The exact date that it was built is unknown, but it was first recorded in the early 1400’s. The castle was on the western side of Sutton Pool. It had 4 sides, with round towers on each corner, with curtain walls, 4 meters high. The main need for the castle was to control a chain that was raised to stop access to the harbour. If a ship got caught in this, it would be subjected to the castle’s cannons. The castle’s entrance was shielded by a barbican, which now lends its name to a part of the city.

There is no official date that the castle is said to have been built, but based around events we can give a good range. In 1340 during the Hundred Years’ War, the town was attacked by a flotilla of french raiders. Although they burned a manor house, and took some prisoners, they failed to get into the town. It was said to be due to an effective defence, this could be the castle, or it could just have been earthworks. There was another attack by the french in 1377. This lead to the murage grant to fund fortification, this may well be the money used to build the castle, but it could also have been used to fund walls or earthworks.

In 1400, it was likely that the castle was in existence, as it allegedly drove off a fleet of french ships. It was said that an english force of ships were being pursued by James of Bourbon, Count le Marche. The english forces sought refuge in Sutton harbour and scared them away. In august 1403 the castle was definitely present, and provided refuge when a Breton army landed at Cattewater and attacked and burned the town. This attack is still remembered today, by a part of the town known as Bretonside. This is the point where the invaders were stopped by the citizens marching out from the castle to attack them.

After this the castle saw very little real action. Other parts of the city were being fortified, and the castle became less important in the grand scheme. In 1549, it did play a part in the Prayer Book Rebellion; where cornishmen rebelled against the law created to have all church services in the land to be conducted in the english language. The Cornish at the time rarely spoke english, and so a rebellion started. At a point during this time, the town was besieged by rebels. The town quickly surrendered, but the castle didn’t, it held members of the crown and protestants, likely targets by the rebels. Eventually the rebellion was defeated, and the siege was lifted.

In 1588, the castle played a small part in the attack on the Spanish Armada. The English Navy took shelter from the wind and waited for the tide in Sutton harbour. The Castle gave the Navy a good defence. Unfortunately after this, in the Elizabethan era defences had moved on from simple castles. Sir Francis Drake (kinda famous in Plymouth) built an artillery fort on the Hoe. The structure, eventually known as Drake’s Fort was partially built using stone from Plymouth Castle. After this the closest it got to any action was during the civil war, when it held a parliamentary Garrison. Although, because Royalists controlled Mount Batten, Millbay on the west side of the harbour was used over Sutton Harbour so the castle wasn’t used as a military structure.

That is basically the History of Plymouth Castle. The castle itself eventually fell into disrepair, actually described as ruinous. It was used as a prison, and also a workhouse for a time. Unfortunately, in the 19th century, during the population boom, the remains were slowly robbed to be used in houses and other building projects. There is only a small part of the gatehouse still existing, and it has been turned into a part of a garden.

castle gatehouse
The remnants of the Castle Gatehouse
castle gatehouse
The remnants of the castle gatehouse, and the building development behind it
garden in the castle
The garden set into the old gatehouse

Fun fact: the four towers of Plymouth Castle are said to be remembered in the towns coat of arms, with 4 towers separated by st. Andrews cross (the patron St of Plymouth). The towers are said to be protecting him.

plymouth coat of arms
Plymouths Coat of Arms on a JaJa Postcard in 1925

The Golden Hind

A famous person in the history of Plymouth is Sir Francis Drake, i’m sure many of his expeditions will make it into this section of my blog in the future, but today we are going to talk about a famous ship that he sailed, the Golden Hind.

So in 1577, Queen Elizabeth chose Francis Drake for the most daring challenge of the day. To lead an expedition, passing through South America via the Strait of Magellan. Exploring the coasts that lay beyond it. Before setting sail, Drake met the queen face to face for the first time. She reportedly said “We would gladly be revenged on the King of Spain for divers injuries that we have received.

Why was this important? Well this basically meant the queen backed him. He had official approval to benefit himself and the queen (the queen had shares in the expedition). On top of this he was told to cause maximum damage to the Spaniards. The problem was, Drake took this too far, and acted more like a privateer. They weren’t to know at the time, but this would eventually lead to the Anglo-Spanish war.

He set sail in December 1577, with 5 small ships with a total of 164 men manning them. Reaching the coast of Brazil in early 1578. Note at this time, Drake’s flagship was named the “Pelican”, and it was small only displacing around 100 tons. Mid way through the journey, Drake had the inspiration to rename the ship the “Golden Hind”. Named after his patron (the man who payed for most of it) Sir Christopher Hatton; who was at the time, one of the queens favourites. His crest was a Golden ‘hind’, another word for a female deer.

The date that made the Golden Hind a big name was the 1st of March 1579, when they were in the Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of Ecuador. The ship challenged and captured a Spanish galleon. Named Nuestra Señora de la Concepción the galleon had the largest treasure ever captured up to that date, at over 360,000 pesos. The six tons of treasure took 6 days to move between ships.

Why is Plymouth important in this story? well it is the first harbour that the ship sailed into when it got home, on the 26th september 1580, a famous day in Plymouths history. Note that of the 80 people the ship left with, only 56 were left aboard.

Even though Drake basically acted like a pirate, the Queen herself went aboard the Golden hind when it sailed to Depthord in the Thames Estuary. There Drake got bestowed with a knighthood, and went into the history books. What did the queen get, around £160,000. This was reportedly enough to “pay off her entire foreign debt and still have £40,000 left to reinvest. The return to all the investors came to £47 for every £1 invested, or 4700%, a good return in anyone’s book.

What happened to the Golden hind in the end? well it basically stayed in Deptford. Maintained for public display, incidentally the first ship to be kept and displayed in this manner because of the historical significance. It remained there for around 100 years, and eventually rotted away and was finally broken up. It’s still not gone or forgotten though, parts were reportedly made into a table in Middle Temple Hall in london, and a chair in Buckland Abbey in devon, also the Pelican Inn in Gloucester claims to be made with some timbers from the ship.