Until the late 20th century, the Isle of Wight's geographical position, combined with the weapons technology of each previous age, meant that the Island always possessed a strategic importance for both invaders and defenders. In effect, the Isle of Wight has always been a 'frontier' zone - a potential battleground; an entry point to England, open to invaders; or a base from which to attack the mainland. Consequently from an early time, the local inhabitants, and in times of a more centralised, national infrastructure, the government has felt it necessary to defend the Island from a perceived threat by establishing three forms of defence: a local militia force, an early warning system and fortifications.
There have been two periods of organised, planned fortification building in the Island's history. The first was Henry VIII's programme of planned coastal fortifications during the period 1539-40. The second period spanned from 1855 through to the First World War and fort building tended to occur at sporadic intervals when high international tension demanded a response. However, prior to the seventeenth century there were a number of small, local fortifications that do not belong to either of these state-financed fort building programmes. The relevant forts were built of varying construction and quality, around the north coast of the Island
Most of these small forts were located near creeks or estuaries, or easy landing areas. They were sited to provide a field of covering fire to prevent or hinder a landing of enemy troops or to prevent access by enemy ships to the Island's creeks or havens. All were small in size containing only one or sometimes several guns. At least three were constructed mainly from timber and earth, while two were most probably made of local stone. There are useful records available for the construction of Carey's Sconce, which provide useful pointers to the structure of several of the smaller forts. However for most of these minor forts, there is only a few references in documents or maps. Only Ryde fort is with significant mentions in the records of the Manor of Ashey and Ryde.
1. Yarmouth Fortifications
It is possible that one was located on the high ground at the entrance to Yarmouth next to the common to cover the drawbridge, thus lending the name "The Mount" to a later house that was built on the site in the 19th century [A mount was a term used in fortification architecture to denote a small, detached earthwork, constructed away from the main lines of fortification used to cover an entrance, and was often known as a cavalier]. However, one of these small forts can be definitely identified from map and document sources. It stood at the south end of the present day mill dam and by 1720 was the only one of the small forts remaining. See The Minor Fortifications of Yarmouth
2. Gurnard Fort
At a later date, Harry Guy, a local resident, recalled memories of this rapid erosion of this area:
"As I am penning this to her [mother] dear memory I gaze across to Gurnard Ledge buoy, where the Solent waters are being churned into a raging sea by the north west wind that is reaching towards a gale. The remains of the cottage where she was born (April 30th, 1829) are under that raging sea, about one-eigth of a mile from the shore, and at low water spring tides anyone can walk about on the stone flag kitchen floor. The fields where she played as a girl are all gone with the encroachment of the sea."
According to some sources, "here was antiently a seaport, but at present, a common wherry is rarely seen in its contracted channel." [A picture of the Isle of Wight, delineated upon the spot, in the year 1793 by Henry Wyndham. London, 1794] Certainly maps prior to 1800 tend to show, on the west side of Gurnard marsh, a significant headland projecting out northward, from which a low-lying spit curves round eastwards to form what looks like a small harbour. This is supported by a list, drawn up c.1625, of boats belonging to Binstead, Gurnard and Cowes [Sir John Oglander's Book of Accounts and Common place Book 1623 - 1628. OG/90/2 f.104] While the boats belonging to Cowes range between 3 and 7 tons, those of Gurnard vary from 10 to 20 tons. That people used Gurnard in earlier times as a landing/embarcation point is suggested from the references to people entering and leaving the Island from Gurnard, such as Lord Conway in 1627 ["... he landed at Gournord, where all ye Gentlemen mett him, and brought him to ye Castle ..." OG/90/3]. In 1559, a commission was appointed to undertake a royal survey of the defences of the Isle of Wight to discover their true state. Although its main purpose was to establish the exact condition of the Island's fortifications, it also looked at the infrastructure and population from a military perspective. A series of ninteen questions were asked, one of which inquired about the nature of landing places round the coast. Only Ryde and Gurnard are named as places of "common passage" [i.e. crossing points]: "Gurnarde - a common passage of Thysley halfe a myle est from North ledge good landinge at full see a quarter of a mile longe at a fadom water and at low water drye" [D(W) 1778/III/01]
It was no doubt to protect this landing place/harbour that Gurnard Fort was constructed some time perhaps around 1600. In 1635, during a tour of the southern and western counties of England, an officer from the Norwich militia paid a visit to the Island. From Leap, ""I there wth much adoe Leapt my Nag into the Boat, & got passage to crosse over that 3 miles rough, & untoward Channell to Gurnord, & there set footing (where before I was soe putt off) in that strong, healthful, & pleasant Island of Europe." During the course of his journey, he listed the captains in charge of the various forts that he encountered.On the Island, he noted that a Captain Barret was commander of "Garnord ffort". He also described the defence of the Island in the most approving terms:
"As this precious Island is well strengthned and fortify'd inwardly, so is she also well guarded, & defended outwardly, by Yarmouth Castle, Cowes Castle, by the Needles & Sandom ffort, having no place of Invasion, either In, or Outletts, but such places as are safely defended. At Yarmouth agt [against] Hurst Castle; Garnord agt Leep; Cowes agt Calshoke Castle; and Ride agt Portsmouth so as no daring approching Enemies can passe those Channells wthout thundring Gun-shot from those commaunding Castles."This fort is again referred to in government accounts, where it is referred to as "Gurnerds fortt". It is also mentioned in other government accounts, where it is listed as Gurnard Fort [Official letters addressed to Colonel William Sydenham, Governor of the Isle of Wight, 1643-1659; BL Add. Mss. 29319 f.113, mentioned in Our Island. The Isle of Wight 1640-1660, Paul Hooper. Cross Publishing 1998]
The fort disappears from records at the end of the seventeenth; presumably it was allowed to decay, there being no longer any need for it. Cowes had developed rapidly in the 17th century from nothing to being the main commercial and transit port for the Island. Gurnard also suffered increasingly from erosion on the seaward side and silting of the creek or 'luck' on the landward side. The low headland that existed on the west side of Gurnard marsh was steadily eroded in the 18th century probably due to the continual encroachments of quarrying that denuded the natural protection provided by the Bembridge Limestone ledges in the vicinity.
By the 19th century all traces above ground had been erased. However, in 1864, an archaeological excavation of a Roman villa also led to the uncovering of the remains of Gurnard Fort. The villa was sited to the north-west of today's Marsh Cottage and while uncovering the eastern end of the villa building range, it was noticed that the fort had cut right through the roman walls. An account of the excavation written by Edwin Smith in 1883 described what he uncovered:
"In 1868, permission was obtained to continue the excavation, when it was found that the building had been cut through at right angles directly through the hypocaust, and the materials thrown up to form a rampart for the Gurnet Fort, which was probably a work of Henry 8th and which was in a state of deficiency in1635, and probably to the end of the seventeenth century. It was evidently nothing but an earthen Rampart with two or three small guns on stone platforms.
Smith identifies the garden of Marsh Cottage as it was then as the site of Gurnard Fort. Much of the villa site was rapidly eroding before their very eyes at that time, further emphasizing the rapid denudation of this area. Today the site of the villa has totally vanished, while over half the garden area has also disappeared.
3. Shamlord Peel
Commission to John de Weston, John Wyndesore and William de Keleswych, reciting that the oaks lately growing in the King's forest in the Isle of Wight have been thrown down in great numbers by a violent storm of wind, and that for the defence of that isle against the attacks of aliens, the King has ordained that in the port of Shamelhorde in that isle one or two peels, as need require, shall be built with part of the said oaks, and the residue thereof sold to the King's advantage; and appointing the said commissioners to survey the said oaks so thrown down and cause as many as will be necessary for the building of the said peel or peels to be brought to the said port, and the peel or peels to be built there, and to sell the residue of the oaks and receive the money arising from the sale thereof and apply it to the costs of building the peel or peels and to keep the residue of the money, so that they answer at the Exchequer therefor; the King having ordered John de Countevyll, keeper of the said forest, to be intendant.A peel or pele is generally thought of as a defensive tower in and around the Scottish borders. English Heritage define the term as "An uncrenellated, strong, fortified dwelling, of between two and four storeys. Occupied only in times of trouble built mainly in the border country of the North from the mid 14th to the 17th century.". However, the earlier, more general word has the sense of a wooden, defensive stockade or palisaded enclosure, often temporary in nature. It is derived from the latin word palus, meaning 'stake', which is also related to the English word 'pole' and 'pale' [hence "The Pale" in Ireland]. From the latin, the middle English word pel[e], that developed via the Old French word pel or piel, was another word for 'stockade' or 'stake' and simply referred to a palisade or fence of stakes. Indeed, Thomas Blount, in his Calendarium Catholicum, defined a peel or pele as "a Fort built for defence of any place, especially against the force of the Sea" [Calendarium Catholicum, or, An universall almanack 1664, by Thomas Blount. 1664] Thus the peel at Cowes was a timber stockade feature for defence of the small landing place at the mouth of the Newport River [Medina river]. Given the fact that East Cowes was more developed in that it had rudimentary landing facilities, it is at East Cowes that this peel has been located on the map above.
4. East Cowes Bulwark and Chain
- - - - - To be completed soon - - - - -
5. Fishouse and Quarr
The site of Fisshehous at the mouth of Wootton Creek.
The Abbey was surrounded by a stone precinct wall, encompassing the main site. A number of rough gun-ports were also introduced into the masonry at a number of points to allow small calibre guns to cover the area to the north between the abbey site and the sea. The western extant embrasure is 24 inches wide and 28 inches high [The Enceinte Wall of Quarr Abbey, D.F. Renn.]. It is made up of four dressed slabs of Bembridge Limestone and is only 2 feet above the present ground level. The outer side of the embrasure is made of two rough slabs, each with a semi-circular opening, which when placed together, form a circular gunport hole. "Fisshehous", on the right bank of Wootton Creek at Fishbourne Point, was also provided with defence works, possibly small fortifications of some sort, as the Abbot had "caused certain fortalices to be constructed at Fisshehous and at the abbot's mill". Wootton Mill was also fortified in a similar manner.
Edward III 24 Oct. 1365 WestminsterThe term fortalice carries the meaning of a fortification or strong place, although it did not imply the large scale fortification now known as a fortress, with which it is related. Fortalice derived from the Medieval Latin fortelitia, which in turn derives from the latin fortis meaning 'strong'. The word was usually used in conjunction with the words castle and tower. By the 18th century, it had developed the sense of a small fort or sconce [ see A dictionary, English-Latin, and Latin-English, containing all things necessary for the translating of either language into other. by Elisha Coles. London, 1716. "fortalitium,ii,n (a fortis) a fort, Sconce." ; and Young, William. A new Latin-English dictionary: ... by William Young. London, 1757. "fortalitium,i,n. A fort, a strong place."]
It is not known whether Wootton Mill and Fisshehous were each defended with a small fortification, such as a blockhouse, or peel , as at Shamlord [East Cowes] or whether they were fortified with a stone masonry wall, crenellated on the top and interspersed with artillery loops, as at Quarr Abbey. Of course, a ditch and palisaded rampart are also not out of the question, but the use of the word fortalice rather than wall does imply a small fort of some sort. Whether it has any bearing on these works is uncertain, but a defensive tower is known to have existed at the top of the hill flanking the west side of Wootton Creek, near to Wootton farm and church.
That traces of other fortifications (both archaeological and earthwork remains) from this period remain to be discovered is most probable as the abbott of Quarr was also instructed by the Crown to construct walls and ditches to protect vulnerable landing places on the Island.
40 Edward III 23 January 1369 WestminsterAs most of the potential landing places are the on the low-lying coastline of the north side of the Island, it is here that significant discoveries may be made. However, given the extent of coastal erosion at such places as Gurnard, Quarr, Hamstead and Elmsworth, it is also clear that any potential remains will have disappeared, forcing a reliance on documentary sources.
6. Ryde Fort
The fort was mainly a wooden construction, the Manor accounts mostly mentioning expenditure for timber and carpenters. Its armament consisted of one gun that fired lead and stone shot. The bulwark seems to have had lines of hedging bushes planted in front of it as additional defence. Expenses for this fortification were met by the Lord of the Manor of Ashey, the Abbey of Wherwell, and thus it was a privately financed venture. This was a usual trait of small, local fortifications, whereas large forts were too expensive for private means, and thus required government intervention.
In the manor accounts for 1489-90, the use of the word "lying" when describing the gun could well suggest that the gun was mounted on a sledge-type mounting rather than on a wheeled carriage. This was a common arrangement in the early days of gunnery and was evident on ships such as the Mary Rose, and also on land where guns did not need to be moved a great deal, such as defensive positions round towns or in forts.
It is clear that this fort was protected by a natural barrier in the form of a line or lines of plashed hedging. This served two purposes. Firstly, it acted as a form of sea defence to lessen the force of the sea, by catching beach material in the wattle-like branches of this fence. This allowed the beach to build up here and acted as a sort of groyne. This same function was a feature of Sharpnode Fort at the west of the Island where money was spent in 1587 on the "Settinge of pykes and hedges to kepe of the force of the sea from the skonce". Secondly these 'plushes' or plashes acted as a form of anti-personnel barrier - a sort of organic, early barbwire. When hawthorn, blackthorn or firethorn were plashed in a hedge, they formed a difficult defensive hedge that acted as an obstacle to an attacking force. In the field, fortifications and troops used a dead version of this called abbattis, which were large branches of trees dug into the ground so that the splayed end branches formed a barrier to enemy troops. They were designed to slow down an advance enough to allow the defenders to have free shots as the attackers tried to clear the branch obstacles.
Sir Thomas Wilson, in the comment already mentioned, also seems to refer to the fort at Ryde, when he noticed:
7. Nettlestone Fort
"...the[y] landed in thre[e] severoll places all at one time pourposely to devid owr forces. Pierre Strosse landed atHowever, on the French side, there is a more detailed account of the 1545 attack on the Island by Martin du Bellay, a soldier and governor, who wrote about events between 1513 and 1546:
"... La descente se feit en trois divers lieux tout en un temps, pour tenir la force des ennemis separée : en un costé fut mandé le seigneur Pierre Strosse, pour descendre au dessus d'un petit fort ou les ennemis avoyent quelque artillerie, dont ils battoyent nos galleres par flanc : là dedans s'estoit retiré un nombre de gens de pied du païs, lesquels, ayans veu la hardiesse des nostres, abandonnerent le fort, et se meirent en fuitte dedans un bois taillis, vers les parties mediterranes : noz gens à la poursuitte en tuerent quelques uns, et bruslerent les maisons circonvoisines."
The fort ceased to exist at some point in the next century. However, a house remained on the site during the 18th century, known as "Fort House" or "Old Fort House", while the point of land here was always referred to on 18th century maps as "Old Fort" [Isaac Taylor 1759; John Andrews 1769; Thomas Milne 1791; John Albin 1795; Richard Warner 1795; Ordnance Survey 1793/1810]. Whether the building had anything to do with the fort is unknown. However, it is more likely that it was built from the masonry remains of the fort, since photographs of this building show a typical domestic dwelling with a thatch roof, similar to other cottages on the Island. There is no military, functional aspect to it at all. In a booklet of memories of S. Matthews and R. Cheverton, both lifelong residents of Seaview, the site is described. "Next door is Old Fort Cafe, formerly a thatched stone-built cottage with a lean-to on the eastern side. Here Miss Frances Newell ran a grocery business. ... When she retired, the property was sold to a Mr. Salter, of Ryde, who had the site cleared and built the Riviera Cafe. During demolition, some old walls, mud-bonded, were discovered, relics of the fortress of 1540." [Memories of Old Seaview, S. L. Matthews and R. J. Chiverton. Newport, 1975]
A fort is first mentioned at St. Helens in an account of the military expenses of Henry VIII's and Edward VI's wars 1538 -1552, entitled 'Charges of the Kinges warres and Fortifications' [c. 1553. Bodleian MS. Add. D. 43 f.11] From a Royal Survey of 1559, it is clear that there was a fort at the foot of the sloping cliffs at St. Helens, north of the Church seamark. In a detailed list of the lands belonging to the Priory of St. Helens, a fortification is used as one of the land marks:
And alonge upon the shore on theste side of the priory Moore to the Bulwarke and so upon the cliffe to Sainte Hellains pointe - xx acres of pastureThis seems to point to this bulwark being in the vicinity of Nodes Point, which had always been known as "Watch House Point" until the 19th century, because of the watch house that had been sited on top of the cliff at that point. Only later was the point renamed Nodes Point after the name of a field "Node Close". It may be significant that a Victorian battery was construsted here in the 19th century on top of the slumping cliffs at a very similar point to the Tudor fort of three hundred years before.
Both this fort and the one at Seaview were sited to cover the anchorage at St. Helens, which was to become a favoured sheltered naval station in the 17th and 18th centuries. The forts also provided defence against any landings by enemy forces in the area. Although the area between Seaview Duver and St. Helens Duver consists of slumping cliffs, these are low in places and can be described more accurately as steep slopes covered with woods.
The last mention of the fort seems to be in a letter, dated 10 May 1660, from Lord Culpeper, Governor of the Island, to Sir William Oglander, Colonel of the East Medine militia, ordering him ensure that each Company performed two days labour on the fortifications at St. Helens and Bembridge [OG/19/78 or OG/BB/520].
9. Bembridge Fort
Like the forts at Nettlestone and St. Helens, this fort was abandoned in the late 17th or early 18th century. A memory of it remained in the field name "Fort Ground" that lingered on until the early 19th century.
The site of Fort Ground as it is today looking north-east towards Forelands.
10. Yarbridge Battery
In the Cowdry engraving entitled "The Encampment of the English Forces near Portsmouth", a gun battery is visible at Yarbridge covering the causeway that gives access to the Bembridge peninsula. Armed men are shown with two guns behind two ramparts that are arranged to form a wide salient angle. Towards Sandown, at Morton, there is a timber peel or circular wooden stockade, again containing armed militia. There is no reason to doubt the truth of these two features as other fortifications have been included accurately in the engraving. Today there is a conspicuous flat topped ridge of hard Upper Greensand stone to the south of the The Mall where it descends to the crossroads traffic lights at Yarbridge. This can be explained as a natural feature, where the road has caused erosion on the north side to form a small gorge. However, it would also give a vantage point for a gun battery allowing a certain amount of elevation over the causeway.
The fort erected on the lawn at St. Lawrence by the late Right Honourable Sir Richard Worsley, of Appuldurcombe Park, ( who died August 8th. 1805 ), and mounted six six cannon guns, a present by his late Majesty, King George the 3rd. The guns were Bell metal, cast from bells of churches in France in the time of war, and taken by some of gallant heroes and brought to England as a prize. At the finish of the fort, there was great rejoicing amongst the people, and in exercising the guns an accident happened, and a man`s thumb was blown off by neglect in stopping the vent.
The battery is situated on a wide ledge on the side of a cliff and commands the shingle beach of Mounts Bay. It is built in the form of a raised platform. The walls are constructed using stone ashlar blocks, with thin paving stones (106cm x 46cm) with a bevelled edge forming the top of the platform. The wall on the sea side of the battery was constructed from rough blocks of random rubble stone. A mixture of soil and small broken rocks was used as packing infill between the walls.