Originally built during the reign of Henry VIII as part of a chain of coastal artillery defences against Catholic attack from Europe,Walmer Castle has evolved over time into an elegant residence.
Walmer Castle became the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1708. It is easy to imagine why the Duke of Wellington, who held the post of Lord Warden for 23 years, enjoyed his time here so much.
Walmer was not one of the original Cinque Ports, but in the later Middle Ages seems to have been an appendage to Deal, which is close by. It grew into importance under the shadow of Henry VIII.’s castle, particularly after this became the official residence of the Lord Warden. Here Henry caused to be built one of the costly blockhouses which hold an intermediate place between ancient and modern fortifications, in order, with those of Deal and Sandown, to form a line of defence upon that depressed part of the coast lying between the estuary at Sandwich and the cliffs of Dover. In plans the fort is like its neighbours in great measure : four semi-circular casemated bastions being disposed round a large circular central drum tower of low elevation, the whole being surrounded by a broad ditch with masonry escarp. The original design has been much altered in adapting the place for a modern residence.
It played a distinct part in the history of the country when Mr. Pitt, as Lord Warden, resided here, and in a tiny room, which is shown, took counsel frequently with Lord Nelson, when he came ashore from his flagship, while on board the fleet in the Downs he watched the Boulogne flotilla ; and it was here that Pitt set to work to organise and drill his Cinque Port Volunteers. He planted the trees we see there, in order to shelter the fort somewhat.
Some authorities are of opinion that it was at this spot that Caesar landed, and indeed there are traces of a Roman camp close to the castle. Saxon times are blank regarding it, but after the Conquest the d’Aubervilles held the manor from Hamo de Crevecoeur, and from them it went, as did Westenhanger (q.v.), to the Criols, or Keriells.
The castle was the official residence of Arthur, the great Duke of Wellington, as Lord Warden, but Walmer was a favourite place of retirement for him many years previously, and in Castle Street is a house of the better sort, known as “the Duke’s house,” which was tenanted by him in former years. In 1842 Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort visited the castle, and were so pleased with the simplicity of the place that her Majesty greatly prolonged her stay there. To fit the house for the reception of his Royal guests the duke made no alterations, except by putting plate glass into a window to give Her Majesty a better sea view, and adding a deal bracket on the wall, made by a village carpenter, for holding the Prince’s clock.
A melancholy interest has been acquired by the old fortress as being the place where that illustrious soldier breathed his last on September 14, 1852. He was in the habit of coming there annually in September, and residing two months in every year, during which he endeared himself to the people of the district by his invariable kindness and condescension. The duke was most regular and simple in his habits : he rose at six every morning, and almost to the last would indite three or four letters before breakfast ; though eighty-three years of age, he could raise a brimming glass of water to his lips without spilling a drop., His room, which was a small one, to the left of the flagstaff and furthest from Deal, had in it a range of bookcase on one side, a painted washstand, a table and easy chair, a chest of drawers and small table ; his bed was an ordinary 3 feet iron tressle one, fitted with a horsehair mattress, 3 inches thick, covered, like the pillow, with wash-leather—the pillow always migrating with him ; there were no blankets. He had this favourite motto : ” He who wishes to have anything done well, must do it himself.” The Duke of Wellington died after a succession of epileptic fits, which seized him without any warning, after the lapse of about five hours. In the number of the Illustrated Landon. News, of September 25, 1852, is given a letter from the apothecary of Walmer .who attended him, which says he received a call from the duke at 9 A.M., when he found his grace restless, as if from indigestion, but with no dangerous symptoms; but soon after “he had fits similar to those he was subject to,” and further advice was had. “Soon after 1 his grace became very restless, the eye glassy. He tried to turn on the left side ; there was occasionally twitching of the left arm. Respiration was extremely difficult, but easier when his grace was raised. This induced us to place his grace in an easy chair, and his breathing became immediately more free, but the pulse sank. He was now brought into a more horizontal position, the pulse rallied for a short time, and then gradually declined. Respiration became very feeble, and at twenty-five minutes past 3 o’clock, P.M., his grace expired. I held a mirror before his grace’s mouth, it remained bright, and he was, indeed, no more.”
Only three days previously he had ridden over to inspect the new harbour works at Dover. The Times of September 15 contains twenty-one columns, and that of the 16th, twelve columns about his life. He was born in Dublin on May 1, 1760.
The Times ends its article thus : ” full of years beyond the term of mortality, and of honours almost beyond human parallel, he has descended into the grave amid the regrets of a generation who could only learn his deeds from their forefathers, but who knew that the national glory which they witness, and the national security .which they enjoy, were due, under God’s providence, to the hero whom they have just now lost.” (Castles Of England, Sir James D. Mackenzie, 1896)