In part one of a three-part series, journalist Sam Kinchin-Smith considers the tiny islands and massive forts that have played important roles in our besieged island history
By some measures, summer has now begun, and most people would regard that as good news. But for much of our history, the arrival of reliably okayish weather meant that this was also the season of war, rebellion and attempted invasion. It’s fitting, then, that as we enter the summer months, our thoughts are drawn towards reflection on periods of English history when genuinely existential threats were just a short voyage away.
Two television programmes currently in mid-flow, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and particularly Dan Snow’s Armada, have focussed on the threat of invasion, from Napoleonic and Spanish forces respectively. Similarly, in this year of significant historical anniversaries, several of the summer’s most important are inextricably linked with a fear of invasion, such as Dunkirk, which catalysed German plans to cross the Channel, and Magna Carta, which led to a French invasion (admittedly by invitation) during the First Barons’ War. And just this week we remember two attacks on English soil which also had important implications for the future security of the realm (more on those later).
Needless to say, the vast majority of these threats arrived by sea. That Britain is an island was the most important factor in the success or failure of most of the attempted invasions of previous centuries - indeed, it’s the main reason we’ve managed to go uninvaded for almost a millennium. But it’s also been an ever-present headache for monarchs, naval commanders and military architects compelled to think up ingenious (and affordable) ways of making our extensive shorelines more secure.
In other words, our island story has often been a story about the fact we are an island, particularly when the outlook was particularly perilous and/or sunny. And one of the best ways to understand these important moments in our history - to see what was at stake, why, and how things played out - is to visit some of English Heritage’s remarkable coastal places. Over a series of three blogs, I’ll be exploring some of these sites, recognising the anniversaries of some of the explosive events that happened there, and piecing together the story of our coastline, its defences, and 2000 years of besieged island history.
Part One: Tiny Islands and Massive Forts
An exploration of England’s islands and forts can take you the length and breadth of England, from the Isles of Scilly in the south-west, to Lindisfarne in the north-east, via the Henrician and Saxon Shore forts along the south coast and all the way around East Anglia. The stories to be discovered begin with the last days of the Roman Empire, and end with the Second World War.
A history of Viking incursions into Britain is, in some respects, a history of English islands. From their use of the deep waters around Piel Island as a launchpad for pillaging the north-west (its other name, ‘Foudray’ island, may come from the Old Norse for ‘fire island’, suggesting Piel was a Viking lighthouse) to the famous confrontation between Saxons and Vikings on the Roman causeway of Northey Island in 991, which preceded the Battle of Maldon, one gets the sense that the Vikings were so consistently up for a fight that they’d just spring from their boats, ready to invade, whenever they touched land. Regardless of whether they found themselves on a tiny island or the mainland they were (presumably) aiming for.
This tendency was most of all apparent when the Vikings landed on - and preceded to comprehensively ravage - Lindisfarne, 200 years before Maldon and exactly 1222 years ago this week. Although this wasn’t the first Viking raid on Britain, their desecration of Lindisfarne’s church of St Cuthbert, ‘a place more sacred than any in Britain’, was hugely symbolically significant, marking the beginning of a ‘greater suffering’ that would result in the establishment of Danelaw in the east and north a century later. Standing on the beach at Lindisfarne, looking due east across the North Sea, towards Scandinavia, it’s easy to appreciate how terrifying it must have been to know you were one of northern England’s most easterly points at a time when a famously ferocious Danish enemy had acquired a reputation for sailing in remarkably straight lines.
Piel’s own big moment came a few centuries later, with the arrival of a full-scale army, rather than a mere raiding party. Precisely 528 years ago this week, the 10-year-old son of an Oxford craftsman landed on Piel, at the head of an invasion force of 8000 men claiming he was the Earl of Warwick, a Yorkist claimant to Henry VII’s throne. Arguably the last invading army to land on English soil, they were easily defeated 12 days later at Stoke Field, the final battle of the Wars of the Roses. Visiting Piel is a great introduction to key reasons why tiny islands have played such an important role in England’s besieged history. You’ll quickly realise places like this feel oddly independent from the mainland - Piel even has its own king, the pub landlord. They also have the added benefit of making a small army feel huge and intimidating. It’s fun to imagine 8000 men, and one little boy, squeezing onto Piel’s 50 acres.
Of course, English islands have also played a defensive role throughout our history, in addition to occasionally assisting our enemies. The Isles of Scilly are a fantastic place to see the range of defensive structures that have been built to capitalise upon the tactically indispensable locations of certain English islands - it was here that the Spanish Armada was sighted for the first time, for example. Harry’s Walls, an unfinished fort, the Old Blockhouse, designed to accommodate guns, and King Charles’ Castle, an artillery fort, were all erected during the reign of Edward VI. The Garrison Walls on St Mary, a spectacular set of coastal defences, were then built after the Armada, and all these structures saw a lot of action during the Civil War, which also resulted in the construction of Cromwell’s Castle after the Royalist Scillies were conquered by his troops in 1651. This was upgraded 100 years later, and St Mary’s Garrison Walls were still in military use during the First and Second World Wars.
English Heritage’s collection of forts includes Stuart Landguard, which repelled an alternative candidacy for the title of ‘last invading army to reach English shores’, some 2000 Dutchmen in 1667, as well as the Western Heights at Dover, the real-life version of Mr Norrell’s magical Napoleonic defences; it includes the magnificent bastion fort at Tilbury, site of Elizabeth’s famous ‘heart and stomach of a king’ speech, and also Brockhurst, one of the Palmerston forts built in the 1860s as a result of that ever-present feature of English foreign policy, fear of French invasion. The true role of forts in England’s besieged island history is best understood in terms of whole series of structures, though, which attempted to secure huge stretches of England’s elaborate shoreline. Two of the most fascinating examples of these defensive chains are the Roman ‘Saxon Shore’, and Henry VIII’s coastal castles.
When we think about the development of Roman Britain, we usually focus on the triumphs and tribulations of its first two centuries: Hadrian’s Wall and Wroxeter, Verulamium (St Albans), Corinium (Cirencester) and Camulodunum (Colchester). Which is a shame, because the second two centuries are equally compelling, not least because of the way the future facing the British Isles begins to creep into view from the end of the 3rd century AD onwards. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the Saxon Shore, the stretch of coastline between Brancaster in north Norfolk, and Portchester in Hampshire. There’s a good deal of debate about whether the Saxons in question were invaders or relatively peaceful settlers, and the extent to which they were therefore the catalyst for the defences built on the Shore, but either way, nine monumental forts were constructed in quick succession, including Burgh, Pevensey and Portchester. To explore the (still) gigantic walls at these sites, 6 metres high at Portchester and 3.5 metres thick at Burgh, is to stare into the abyss of paranoia and encroaching catastrophe that faced the Roman Empire in its final years, particularly in far-flung frontier territories like Britannia.
If the enemies lining up to invade England at the end of the 1530s were a bit less mysterious, they certainly weren’t any less frightening. Henry VIII had succeeded, as a result of his divorce, new marriage, establishment of royal supremacy over the Church in England, and Suppression of the Monasteries, in alienating most of Europe. When Francis I and Charles V signed the Truce of Nice in 1538, Henry VIII realised France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were essentially united in opposition to him - a state of affairs that was compounded by his excommunication by the Pope in December of that year. With invasion looking inevitable, Henry used some of the profits of the Suppression to implement a hugely extensive and expensive national programme of military preparations.
The most prominent products of this undertaking were the 30 or so Device Forts - or Henrician Castles - which Henry built between East Anglia and Cornwall in the 1540s. Ranging from simple bulwarks to cutting-edge and rather beautiful fortifications, some of the most well-preserved include Walmer, Hurst and Pendennis castles. One need only admire Walmer’s low, curved walls, which make it a small, deflecting target, or explore Hurst’s clever utilisation of a shingle spit, or visit Pendennis, which is currently celebrating its role at the heart of the south-west’s coastal defences in World War One and beyond in a new exhibition, to appreciate how much investment and ingenuity has gone into defending England’s besieged coastline during particularly precarious periods of our history. (Even moments, like these last decades of Henry’s reign, when threat never really crystallised into war.)
Of course, one might point out that Henry VIII’s problems were somewhat of his own making, but that’s a story for another day.