Plymouth Drakes Island

Has been described as a Certain Artillery Fort

There are masonry footings remains

NamePlymouth Drakes Island
Alternative NamesSt Nicholas Island
Historic CountryDevonshire
Modern AuthorityPlymouth; City of
1974 AuthorityDevon
Civil ParishPlymouth

Drake's Island, known in medieval times as St Nicholas' Island, has been fortified since 1548 to safeguard the approaches to Plymouth. The first recorded fortification on the island is the conversion of St Michael's chapel into a bulwark and fort. The earliest remains are the base of a 16th century artillery tower, which formed the main defensive work until demolished in 1750-1779. The defences were improved in the late 16th century and early 17th century; the seawall dates from the 17th century or earlier. Most of the present coastal batteries date to the major alterations of 1862-1869, however two pre-Royal Commission gun emplacements are still present. (PastScape)

Drake's Island controls the entrances to Plymouth Sound, the River Tamar and the Cattewater and, in consequence, was of great strategic importance in the defence of Plymouth city and its naval base. The island has a long history of military use dating back to at least the 16th century when it acted as a major link in the coastal defences during the period leading up to and immediately following the Spanish Armada. The island played a vital role in the siege of Plymouth in the Cival War and, from the early 18th century to the abandonment of the coastal defence system in 1958, the island's sole role was in safeguarding the approaches to Plymouth. The considerable diversity in military architecture on the island and its longevity of use provides important information on the technological development of coastal artillery in works from the medieval period to more recent times. As such, the monument demonstrates a very complete record of a major defensive fortification in all its phases.

Drake's Island stands as an imposing rock outcrop guarding the entrance to Plymouth Sound, and incorporates numerous defensive structures dating from the early post medieval period to the 20th century.

The island is some 2.6ha in total area, the majority of which is occupied by military monuments

The earliest remains are the base of a masonry tower on the NE corner of the island (SX46985286) and a seawall (SX46845290). The tower base is polygonal, containing a chamber with a corbelled roof, and is identified as a 16th century artillery tower. The seawall dates from the 17th century or earlier and also functioned as an artillery work as the blocked crenellations show. It is marked on a plan of 1716, and is the most substantial defence work of this date on the island.

Although artillery fortifications of the island are first recorded around 1549, with the conversion of St Michael's chapel into a bulwark and fort, they were considerably strengthened immediately before and after the Armada (1588). In 1590 there were 23 guns on the island, the Governor of Plymouth Fort being responsible also for Drake's Island. (Scheduling Report)

Gatehouse Comments

It was garrisoned until after the Second World War and then in 1964 it was leased to the National Trust.

- Philip Davis

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

Not Listed

Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSX469528
HyperLink HyperLink HyperLink

No photos available. If you can provide pictures please contact Castlefacts

Most of the sites or buildings recorded in this web site are NOT open to the public and permission to visit a site must always be sought from the landowner or tenant.

Calculate Print


  • Duffy, Michael, 1999, 'Coastal Defences and Garrisons 1480-1914' in Kain, R. and Ravenhill, W., Historical Atlas of South-West England (University of Exeter Press) p. 158-60
  • Saunders, Andrew, 1997, Channel Defences (London; Batsford/English Heritage) p. 68
  • Andrew Pye and Freddy Woodward, 1996, The historic defences of Plymouth p. 139-149 (Plans and photos)
  • King, D.J.C., 1983, Castellarium Anglicanum (London: Kraus) Vol. 1
  • 1978, Drake's Island: Once a Fortress Now an Adventure Centre (Mayflower Centre Trust)
  • Lysons, D. and S., 1822, Magna Britannia Vol. 6 Devon p. 398-9 online transcription



  • Kenyon, John R., 1983, 'A Hitherto Unknown Early C17, Survey of Southern England' Fort Vol. 11 p. 94

Primary Sources


  • Historic England, 2016, Heritage at Risk South West Register 2016 (London: Historic England) p. 180, 184 online copy
  • Historic England, 2015, Heritage at Risk South West Register 2015 (London: Historic England) p. 181, 184 online copy
  • English Heritage, 2014, Heritage at Risk Register 2014 South West (London: English Heritage) p. 191 online copy
  • English Heritage, 2013, Heritage at Risk Register 2013 South West (London: English Heritage) p. 183 online copy
  • English Heritage, 2012, Heritage at Risk Register 2012 South West (London: English Heritage) p. 193, 196 online copy
  • English Heritage, 2011, Heritage at Risk Register 2011 South West (London: English Heritage) p. 177, 180 online copy
  • English Heritage, 2010, Heritage at Risk Register 2010 South West (London: English Heritage) p. 174, 176 online copy
  • English Heritage, 2009, Heritage at Risk Register 2009 South West (London: English Heritage) p. 177, 179 online copy