You’ll most likely be surprised to find out that the Isle of Man, which is off the northwest English coast situated between Ireland’s shores and those of Cumberland, has a number of castles. It is relatively quiet, as most small isles are but they hold a yearly motorcycle race- and have for the past 102 years ! – called the TT (which stands for Tourist Trophy) and is the most excitement that you will experience anywhere since they shut down all the roadways to run it. Preparations for it begin in late May and the race itself is in June for two weeks. In order to make sure of the best accommodations at that time you have to book a year ahead, so if you want to go this June you’re already too late! They claim to be the road racing capital of the world.
It’s necessary to ferry over from Morecambe Bay, which is an inlet between Cumbria and Lancashire, Liverpool to Douglas, the island’s contemporary capital. The historic capital, however, is Castletown at the southern tip of this tiny island. (The Isle of Man is 32 miles long from north to south and 12 miles wide, from east to west.) Castle Rushen is situated there at the highest point of the town overlooking the marketplace. This medieval castle is among the finest surviving fortresses of its type on the British Isles!
It is not certain when its origins were erected but the current structure was built by the Norse King Mann Magnus III who died there in 1265 and was buried at Rushen Abbey. The island had been ruled under the Norse kings from the late 8th century but after his death, control was transferred to Scotland upon the Treaty of Perth which put an end to the Scottish Norwegian War of 1263 to 1266. It was started as a central square stone tower keep and continued in fortification and building in limestone from 13th century on through the 16th. Reinforcing towers to the west and south of the keep were up by 1313 and by the turn of the century an additional east tower, gatehouses and curtain wall. Robert the Bruce damaged portions of it on May 18, 1313 but these were rebuilt by 1344 by William Montacute who was King of Mann at that time. From 1405 this island has been under royal rule with the Stanley family, beginning with Sir John Stanley, given the title of King of Mann originally by Henry IV. This title changed to Lord of Mann by 1521 which is held currently by the reigning British monarch.
This is a formidable castle by any standards as the walls of the keep are 12 feet thick at the base and taper up to 7 feet thick at the top up to 25 feet high. Four towers are exceptionally high with one reaching 80 feet on the north side, the others around 70 feet. The entrance is on the north eastern side approached by a narrow, hairpin roadway closed in on each side with high walls. It has a drawbridge entrance with a fortified inner gatehouse featuring two portcullises with murder holes in the killing area. Two guard houses are located on either side of the massive outer gatehouse. The chapel in the South Tower displays a still functioning clock which was presented by Queen Elizabeth I in 1597 when it was under her control. It is protected by a moat and a reduced 17th century glacis*, the latter of which extended as far as the moat circumventing the entire land front of the castle. There are authentic pieces of replicated medieval furniture and tapestries on display throughout the tour current to the 1500s or earlier. The best features of this castle interior are the state apartments and the banqueting hall which is the largest room, of course, with an original fireplace.
*a sloping esplanade just outside the curtain walls which places attackers under direct open fire.
During the Civil War, intrigue kept the castle out of harms way. In August of 1651 the 7th Earl of Derby, James Stanley who was the current Lord of Mann, sailed with two ships which brought Charles the II to Lancashire and 300 Royalists. This was the third phase of the war where Lord James was captured at the Battle of Worcester by the third of September and executed at Bolton Castle in October of the same year. His wife, Countess Charlotte was left in command of the Isle of Man because she had been a successful defender of Lathom House in 1644. She did well until a local uprising by Manx nationalist, Illiam ( William) Dhone convinced her garrison to commit mutiny and was forced to surrender to Parliamentarian forces at the same time as her husband’s execution.
Currently it is run by Manx National Heritage as the Historical Museum along with the Nautical Museum, the Old Grammar School and the Old House of Keys (Manx Parliament). During the open season, which runs from March to October, exhibitions throughout the castle include permanent displays and there are re-enactments of various aspects of medieval life on a regular basis, with the emphasis on educating local school children. Their exhibitions include archaeological finds which were carried out in the 1980s.
The Lord’s Private Dining Hall virtual live panoramic view:
Tower of Refuge zoom shot
Back in Douglas you’ll find a bit of a curiosity in the Bay which by all rights and purposes looks like a medieval castle on an island right in the middle of the bay. This is most often referred to as the Tower of Refuge and was built on a reef called St. Mary’s Isle. It was built by Sir William Hillary who moved to the island in 1808 and had witnessed and taken part in a rescue mission for a Steam Packet vessel. In 1824 he invented a life boat service which he had manned with a trained crew but he also saw the need for a place for people to wait until they could be rescued. He had John Welch design the tower and it was completed in granite by 1832 on Conister Rock. A bargain at £ 254 (of which half was paid by Hillary) it is kept well stocked with fresh water and bread at all times. It was recently restored by installing a new landing platform, the 12 and 1/2 foot tower refortified and lighting installed. Visiting the tower is discouraged because it is considered to be only for refuge and rescue. Since the tide can come in fast it is considered a dangerous business.
Other attractions at Douglas include the Camera Obscura, horse-drawn trams, the Manx electric railway, the National Sports Centre, Noble’s Park, the Regimental Museum, a rest home for old horses, a steam railway and the Manx Museum. The TT starts in Douglas, so of course the grandstand is there and for a little bit more diversion you can visit the Villa Marina.
To learn more:
For Those in Peril: The Life and times of Sir William Hillary, Founder of the R.N.L.I. by Robert Kelly
Shearwater Press Ltd. Sept. 1, 1979
North of Douglas, at Peel, you’ll find Peel Castle situated on St. Patrick’s Isle (an islet connected to the town of Peel by a causeway) which was also built in the 11th century by the Vikings, like Castle Rushen, under King Magnus II, referred to as Barelegs. Apparently the earlier Celtic monastic construction remains consist mostly of the prominent round tower but a large part of what exists today were Viking fortifications of wood, battlements, walls and towers of local red sandstone. The fortifications were abandoned but St German’s Cathedral continued to be used by the local Diocese up to the 18th century. The cathedral also was eventually vacated but new defenses were added to the castle by 1860. Of the castle, much is in ruins with the outer curtain in good shape. Excavations carried out in the late 1980s revealed a large graveyard, Magnus’s original wood fort along with a 10th century grave which still contained a Viking necklace and silver coins dating from the early 11th century!
Because of the relatively close proximity, this castle is sometimes confused with Piel Castle, which I covered in my first entry on Cumberland. Piel Castle, which looks quite different from her namesake neighbor out in the Irish sea (upon close examination) is close to Barrow-in-Furness on an island estuary just off the coast of Cumberland. That has been referred to as Piel Island but is also considered a part of the Isles of Walney. There is a distance of about thirty miles between these two castles. William Wordsworth wrote a poem describing Piel Castle in which he spelled it as Peele. He had visited the Isle of Man numerous times and therefore created confusion, however, if one realizes the difficulty in being able to view Peel Castle from his vantage point in reference, one can only conclude he meant Piel Castle and not Peel Castle.
If you find yourself needing victuals at any point you might want to check out Moore’s Traditional Curers at Peel. Their specialty is locally caught and smoke-cured kippers which make for wonderful sandwiches.
At Ramsey, in the north most portion of the island, a footpath called the Millennium Way runs for 28 miles from Sky Hill clear down to Castle Rushen in Castletown. This was paved to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of Tynwald and opened to the public in 1979. Great for walkers, a pastime of which many British people are quite fond.
£5 notes feature Castle Rushen and the pub opposite, The Castle Arms, on the reverse side and £10 notes feature Peel Castle on the reverse, as well, all issued by the Isle of Man Government. They make great souvenirs for a castle lover ! You’ll find larger photos of these castles plus other photos taken on the Isle of Man in a subfolder for Cumberland. Check them out !
The Castle Lady
directing you from the remotest to the most accessible !
(Castles, that is ! )
A New Year’s surprise is just around the corner !