and other Strongholds
Historically, the Scilly Isles were used by pirates and ancient mariners for clandestine respites but even before, in more ancient times, Greek and Roman literature alike referenced the Scillies in myth and legend. The Celtic people professed that this archipelago, located directly 28 miles southwest off the tip of the Cornwall coast, was a sanctuary for the Holy See of the period and King Arthur. However, the isles were primarily uninhabited until it was cited for use in planned coastal defense during the Tudor reign. Even today most of the isles are uninhabited but fortresses were built at a time when it was feared that the Spanish might use them as a base for the invasion of England. Hence, artillery fortifications were built on the islands of St Mary’s and Tresco under Edward VI (1547-1552) and some defenses were augmented even later at Elizabeth I’s request, after the attack by the Spanish Armada.
Land’s End, which is the most southwesterly point of the Cornwall coast, is a rugged cliff-lined vantage point from which to view the prettiest vacation spot that Britain can boast. The Scillies consist of five relatively large isles which are St. Mary’s, Tresco, Bryher, St. Martin’s and St. Agnes, with five lesser isles and more than a hundred smaller satellite isles that surround them like the stars in the night sky. None of the isles are more than three miles distant from one to another so island hopping is easy once you arrive. Access is primarily to St. Mary’s Airport from Land’s End, Newquay and Exeter by Skybus or sea by steamship from Penzance into St. Mary’s Harbour! As a matter of fact, St. Mary’s is the only island where you can disembark and is the only island with sufficient road networks and public highways to tour by taxi or tour bus. Most of the fortifications you’ll see are located on St. Mary’s along the southern portion of the island and there’s a lot to see and experience there- further afield.
St Mary’s is the largest of all the isles and its primary port is Old Town, located along the south of the island at Old Town Bay. Only scant remains (a bit of wall which has been well-photographed) of a medieval castle, built in 1244, exists in the Scillies. Referred to as Ennor Castle after the old Cornish name (which means mainland) it should not be confused by map enthusiasts with Giant’s Castle which is an interesting rock formation on the coastline not too far away. Ennor’s site can be found north of Old Town, where it had a shell keep atop a small, prominent knoll along the east side of the Lower Moors valley. You’ll find barely surviving above-ground wall rubble along the northwest side of the old castle site and that no excavations have been carried out on the foundations. The rest of the concentric wall is delineated by earthwork banks of up to four and a half meters wide along the south, both east and west. The keep walls can also be discerned within as a sub-rectangular outline in a north-east/ south-west directional pattern. According to the records, Ranulf de Blanchminster had possession of the castle in 1306 and a license to crenellate was granted to him in March of 1315. This property came under the designated lands of the newly created Duchy of Cornwall by 1337 along with the rest of the Scilly isles. Toward the end of the 16th century, Star Castle was commissioned by Elizabeth I, so Ennor was most likely abandoned when it came time for refortification or new residence because of obsolescence. Most of the stone for Ennor Castle went to rebuilding Old Town. However, enough of the walls remained as late as 1554 with which to mount cannons, so parts of the castle remained in military use for some time before its complete dismantling.
Above the northern perimeters of Hugh Town, Harry’s Walls are the remains of low, long stretches of walls built in arrowhead designs which resemble the fortress configuration of Star Castle’s walls. As unfinished bastions, the work on them started in 1551 but remained incomplete after the end of a building season. Even though the name suggests that these may have been built by Henry VIII, these few but large triangular fortifications were started when Edward VI took the throne, albeit as a child king. They were meant to guard the harbor above known as St. Mary’s Pool. These walls were supposed to be an Italian invention of which numerous other gun forts appeared to mirror in England during Henry VIII’s last years. Pendennis, a relatively short distance away in Cornwall is one of them but those walls were raised by the same architect of Star Castle. There is also Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight and Berwick’s bastions at the border between Northumberland and Scotland. However, there are other such examples that are a bit more contemporary. Antoine Deville and Sebastian Vauban’s 17th century fortresses all used angular bastions of which there are sizeable and numerous examples all over France and other European countries. Fortunately, the survival of a designer’s plan for Harry’s Walls exemplified a square fort with angular bastions at all four corners as the original plan showing off the early innovation.
Further west along the southern portion of St Mary’s is The Garrison (aka The Hugh) which is completely enclosed along its beach coastline with walls. On the farthest north side of this peninsula, across a causeway from Hugh Town, Star Castle (Stella Mariae) has been photographed in aerials showing off its stunning appearance for more than a century now. From these, you’ll see that this late 16th century castle hotel is aptly named and was impeccably built. The outer curtain plan uses an eight-pointed star configuration, which is said to be a Cornish symbol dating all the way back to the Crusades! Star Castle was intended to command the channel along the south of the island which looks across to the Isle of St Agnes. Essentially, the square keep consists of angular buttresses with high-pitched slate roofing and is very closely surrounded by the angled outer walls leaving little room in the bailey by comparison to most concentric castles. These bastions have triangular projections from the middle of each side, imparting a very unique appearance with slight reminiscence to some of the coastal forts of Henry VIII. The keep has a dry moat to this day.
Eventually, the central keep was adapted to make residential quarters and additional use has been made of three guardhouses on the ramparts. A wood and stone entrance ramp leads to the original gateway where you’ll see the initials ‘E.R.’ along with the year date of 1593 to commemorate the castle’s completion. Originally, Star was finished within eighteen months under the guidance of Robert Adams (a mapmaker and Surveyor of the Royal Works) and commissioned by island governor of the time, Sir Francis Godolphin at an expense of 959 pounds- more than double the original estimate. While Star may not appear to have been a serious obstacle to attackers, the views it commands from its position are absolutely phenomenal. (Location, location, location!) Another century passed before the defenses here were expanded to include the above-mentioned garrison walls that enclose The Hugh. Those were completed in 1746 from plans drawn up by Master Gunner, Abraham Tovey so that the walls were well armed with gun batteries.
One could say that this castle has been a favorite of the Princes of Wales for hundreds of years. In 1646 the future King Charles II took shelter here when he retreated from the Battle of Bodmin and his temporary stay at Pendennis Castle (in Cornwall) during the Civil War. There is a suite in the castle dedicated to him. In the same year it was used as a cavalier refuge and a year or two later became the last Royalist stronghold. Three hundred years later, King Edward VIII was the designated official to lead the opening ceremony when Star Castle was opened as a hotel when he was merely the Prince of Wales. English Heritage commissioned a detailed survey of the castle sixty years later.
This Grade I listed castle has been a hotel since 1933 and offers thirty-eight rooms- nine within the castle, a garden annex with eighteen and even three single rooms in the rampart guardhouses with full modern facilities. The garden apartments are highly recommended for the ocean views. Interiors within the keep are worth a thorough tour with surprises throughout.
During the Civil War the Scilly Islands were staunchly Royalist. Sir John Grenville used the harbor at Hugh Town as a base from which to launch repeated attacks on Parliamentary shipping but this was brought to an end when Admiral Blake launched his attack and took over Star Castle. This was the castle’s only known siege. Afterward, it was used as a prison for prominent Royalist prisoners including James Hamilton, Marquis of Hamilton.
Guests enjoy free golf, tennis courts and indoor heated swimming pool plus 2 award-winning restaurants with a bar in the old dungeon.
The Isle of Tresco has the rare distinction of being Britain’s largest privately-owned island. Back in the 1930s Augustus Smith, who was an extremely rich merchant banker, was able to purchase Tresco from the Duchy of Cornwall and is still owned by his descendants- the Dorrien-Smith family. Robert and Lucy Dorrien-Smith live in the Tresco Abbey which is located well away from the castle sites, in the southern portion of the island. It is possible to visit the Abbey Gardens which harbor ancient Benedictine Abbey remains along with sub-tropical and exotic plants- a rare bit of paradise for the English! While there, be sure to visit Valhalla Museum which has surprises you won’t want to miss. You’ll also find a wonderful gift shop with a large cafeteria when you enter the gardens.
Along the northern edge of Tresco, King Charles’ Castle and its neighboring successor, Cromwell’s Castle are both a mere mile from the harbor of New Grimsby. These both were built before Star Castle. A narrow channel separates Tresco from Bryher Isle on the west and both islands appear almost equal in size. King Charles’ Castle occupies an elevated position on the west side of Castle Down and overlooks Cromwell’s Castle near the New Grimsby harbor, right on water’s edge. Both are separated, timewise, by a hundred years as the besieged and the other never challenged by foreign troops.
During young King Edward VI’s reign, King Charles’ Castle was constructed from 1548 to 1551 to guard the narrow strait between the two islands. It is still an imposing edifice, though partially in ruins, as an oblong (cross-shaped) blockhouse built in granite stone and armed with a semi-octagonal gun battery which faces the sea and earned its name and ruinous condition after the Civil War. This former artillery fort was once two stories high and was entered on the eastern side by a guardpost with the gun battery along the front and dining and living quarters at the back. The walls are now a mere three meters in height but the structure of it is still quite clear. The exposed arched doorway retains its drawbar slot, which is unusual especially for a castle that has been so heavily besieged. This leads into a large rectangular hall with two fireplaces, one with a bread oven, and two small barracks along each end. Even though this configuration is unusual, especially for the period in which it was built, there are similar blockhouses along the River Thames in the south of England. In the same century defensive earthworks were built around the castle even though that proved to be worthless for the castle’s purpose, after all. Guns could not be positioned to fire downward into the harbor so its own defenses proved to be too vulnerable especially after the Civil War broke out. Building construction materials of King Charles’ Castle is deemed to be similar to Sandsfoot at Weymouth, Dorset- a channel seaside resort.
By the time the Civil War broke out Parliament dispatched fleets to the Scillies who had rebelled in favor of the Royalist cause. Admiral Robert Blake (yes, of Bridgwater, W. Somerset!) entered St. Helen’s Pool (a bay of smaller islands just northeast of Tresco) in 1651 and eventually stormed King Charles’ Castle which was blown up by the retreating garrison to avoid surrendering. Nevertheless, Blake took over the island.
From St. Helen’s Pool, Blake attacked the harbor of Old Grimsby, located on Tresco’s northeastern coastline the 18th of April. His plan was to use a force of men in small boats, but they landed on the wrong island and had to be recalled to the ships. The next day Blake’s soldiers landed on the beaches beneath the Old Blockhouse and fierce fighting ensued and they were driven back to their ships. Blake’s men made a further landing which was also met with unusual resistance with the guns of the blockhouse turned on the landing parties. Fifteen naval men were killed, but Blake’s ships guns had a longer range than those of the blockhouse and Old Grimsby fell.
Blake advanced inland to the northwest side of the island against Kings Charles’ Castle and by the 20th of April, Tresco was by all rights and purposes in Parliamentarian hands. After capturing Tresco’s fortifications, he used the island as a base to attack the main Royalist stronghold defended by Sir John Grenville, the Governor of the Island residing at Star Castle. King Charles’ Castle was replaced, eventually, by a much stronger gun fort known today as Cromwell’s Castle, on the other side of Tresco and was still considered serviceable in the eighteenth century.
Seated at the anchorage between the islands of Bryher and Tresco, Cromwell’s Castle is primarily a simple round tower on the edge of a rocky promontory with features making it an excellent gun fort. In the absence of crenellations are sizable openings to fire at enemies directly from the harbor. Its name tells all. This is one of the very few surviving Cromwellian fortifications in Britain and was, of course, constructed after the rout executed by Admiral Blake along with his naval force, which was formidable. (Parliament was concerned about the Dutch forces, which were hostile to England at that time.) In fact, Blake himself built the castle and named it after Oliver Cromwell most likely out of respect or something like that.
As late as 1715 the engineer Christian Lilly described the castle as, “Standing at the Foot of a Steep hill much higher than its Top and is a Huge Mass of Masonry consisting of a Round Tower two Storys high, with a Platform for six Gunns upon it and a Battery before it for Six more at the Watters Edge.” It remains primarily as it was built, comprising of two stories and measuring 50 feet high, 20 feet in circumference with the walls 13 feet thick and sporting six gun ports. Entry was originally at first floor level with an external stair along the south side. During the War of Jenkins’ Ear, a skirmish between Britain and Spain, improvements to defense design included a large gun-platform for a battery of six guns along the southwest of the tower. The entrance from the outside was most likely altered at that time.
Outworks from these two forts including the Old Blockhouse (once known as Dover Fort and built before King Charles’ and Cromwell’s) stretch eastward across the Castle Down near Old Grimsby where a large bastion of uncertain date is set amid prehistoric cairns and field systems. By 1922 most of these sites passed into the ownership of the Ministry of Works at which time archaeological excavations were carried out (in 1954). Items found were pottery, a 16th (or 17th) century bronze buckle and two coins of Henry VIII and Edward VI. All these Tresco sites are protected by English Heritage and therefore open to the public.
One of the grandest surprises of an overnight stay in the Scillies is the beautiful Bishop Rock lighthouse that is situated farthest southwest of the islands. It was built by James Walker, became fully operational by 1858 and was converted to being automated most recently. There is a helicopter landing pad on the roof and it’s almost romantic at night when you look out across the expanse of the isles and their rocky coastlines. Priceless !