Camber Castle

Has been described as a Certain Artillery Fort

There are major building remains

NameCamber Castle
Alternative NamesThe Chamber; Winchelsea; Camere; Caumbre; Chambre; Rye
Historic CountrySussex
Modern AuthorityEast Sussex
1974 AuthorityEast Sussex
Civil ParishIcklesham

Camber Castle stands in the middle of field but the footpath to it is approached from this road. This was one of the series of castles built by Henry VIII as coast defences in 1538. Its plan is quatrefoil-shaped, with lunettes at the corners and the entrance on the North side forming another lunette on the stalk of the flower. It is a squat building of ashlar lined with brick. In the centre of the square is a higher round tower or keep of earlier date built of ashlar and lined with brick for the top or second storey which has probably been added. (Listed Building Report)

The artillery castle at Camber survives well, retaining much of its original fabric in unaltered form. The history of the monument is documented by contemporary records, and a modern, comprehensive programme of excavation and building recording has provided further evidence for its development over the years. The castle's importance is enhanced by the unusual survival of contemporary, associated structures in the area surrounding the main building.

The monument includes an artillery castle which survives in ruined form, and a series of associated, surrounding earthworks, situated on low-lying ground c.2km north of the modern Sussex coast. The three-storeyed castle, the walls of which stand to a height of up to c.18m, is Listed at Grade I. It is now surrounded by reclaimed marshland, but was originally constructed to fortify the northern end of a long shingle spit which protected the open water of the Camber, the seaward entry to the port of Rye c.2km to the north. The castle buildings have been shown by part excavation between 1963-83 to result from at least three main phases of construction taking place between 1512-43, during which time the defences underwent radical redesign and redevelopment. They are built of local stone, probably from quarries at nearby Fairlight, Playden and Hastings, and from Mersham near Ashford in Kent

Additional building materials include Caen stone reused from the newly dissolved religious houses at Winchelsea c.1.5km to the south west, local timber and yellow bricks fired on site. The first phase dates to 1512-14 when documentary evidence suggests that the landowner, Edward Guldeford, began to build a circular one-storeyed artillery tower, topped with an open platform designed to house heavy guns, measuring 19.5m in diameter and c.9m high. This survives as the lower part of the central citadel of the completed castle. The second phase of construction took place between 1539-40 in the face of the political crisis and consequent fear of invasion occasioned by Henry VIII's divorce of Catherine of Aragon in 1533. This resulted in an elaborate concentric structure of four stirrup-shaped towers linked to each other by an eight-sided curtain wall and to a gallery around the remodelled and heightened central citadel by radiating vaults. Access to the castle was by way of a rectangular gatehouse to the north west. Work on the final phase began in 1542 and included the replacement of the earlier, stirrup-shaped outer towers with four semicircular bastions, the thickening of the octagonal curtain wall with an outer skin of masonry and some remodelling of the gatehouse. The castle buildings are surrounded by a group of associated earthworks including, to the north west, a causeway which leads up to the gatehouse. This survives as an earthen bank which extends out into the surrounding marshland for at least 20m. The bank is c.7m wide and up to c.1.5m high. Also to the north west of the castle buildings is a rectangular enclosure which survives in earthwork form. This was found during investigations in 1974 to have been originally a walled structure built with the same type of yellow bricks used in the construction of the castle buildings. To the north east of the enclosure are the remains of an associated small building also constructed of yellow brick. Further earthworks are visible on aerial photographs. Some of these are thought to be connected with defences and army training activities dating to World War II. By 1548 the castle was rendered largely obsolete by the silting of the Camber channel, a process exacerbated by the inning of the surrounding marshes to create agricultural land. It was, however, maintained in working order throughout the 16th century. The process of abandonment began in 1637 when the garrison was disbanded and all ordnance removed, and by 1643 the lead had been stripped from the roof. The monument was purchased by the Department of National Heritage in 1977, when it was placed in the care of the Secretary of State. Since then it has been the subject of a comprehensive programme of restoration and repair. (Scheduling Report)

This early artillery castle was surveyed by M.P.B.W. during 1963 and H. Colvin and M. Biddle undertook excavations to elucidate the constructional sequence as a contribution to the History of the King's Works. The Camber was formerly a large harbour between Rye and Winchelsea, the entrance to which lay between Rye and the N. tip of a long shingle bar running N. from Winchelsea. Camber Castle stands at the tip of this former bar and was sited to control the harbour mouth. There may have been a tower here, possibly of wood, as early as 1486, but the earliest visible work is the lower half of the central tower which was built for artillery, probably in 1512. The tower was heightened probably in two stages and all the outer defence works undertaken between 1539 and 1543. Apart from the addition of internal earthern mounts c. 1570, the castle remained unaltered until its dismantling in 1643. The outer defences proved to be of two main phases, both constructed within the period 1539-43. In the earlier phase the castle was octagonal with square-fronted bastions projecting from alternate angles. These bastions presented semicircular faces to the courtyard of the castle (i.e. they were stirrup-shaped in plan) and they were linked to the semi-basement gallery added around the earlier central tower by radiating underground passages. In the second phase the earlier octagonal outer wall was strengthened and heightened by the addition of a massive outer 'skin' wall. The squarefronted bastions were transformed by the construction of semicircular bastions entirely enveloping the former, which survived to their full height as cavalliers. This drastic remodelling within so short a space of time reflects the very varied ideas about and competence in artillery fortification prevalent before the introduction of Italian ideas in the mid I540s. The gate-house was modified at least three times during the years 1539-43, each time drastically, but the full working-out of the complexities of this area requires further excavation in 1964. Large quantities of architectural fragments, metal and stratified early 17th-century pottery were recovered. (Med. Arch. 1964)

Gatehouse Comments

Between 1512 and 1514 Sir Edward Guldeford built a circular tower at the end of a shingle spits to defend Rye harbour. Use was made of this earlier tower when it was incorporated into the central tower of artillery fort begun in 1539. Camber Castle is second in size only to Deal Castle and, like all Henry VIII's fortifications, it is highly symmetrical. By its completion in 1544 the castle had cost £16,000 and by 1542 the garrison strength was forty-two men. However, by the end of C16 the silting of the Camber, and the eastward shifting of the harbour entrance, were already making the castle obsolete. In 1637 the garrison was disbanded. The castle is now roofless and some of the fine detail has been lost but it remains basically intact. Unsurprisingly, given the marsh in which it was built, Camber was not moated, like, Deal. Earthworks around the tower may well be relics of a former golf course. In 1487 Richard Guldeford was granted the manor of Higham (with a licence to crenellate it) specifically to support the building, within two years from the date of the licence, of a tower at 'le Camber' (which was also licenced to be crenellated), in a marsh of his, for the defence of parts of Kent and Sussex against enemies navigating the sea. This licence appears to be an enabling act to allow for the building and financing of a coastal artillery tower. As Richard was particularly bad at money management, and often indebted, this may explain why the tower doesn't seem to have been built until 1513 (although there is some suggestion of a fortification here, of timber, slightly before then), when his son started it (A pardon for his debts in 1506 led to many of Richard's former duties being assigned to Edward his son.)

- Philip Davis

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law

Historic England Scheduled Monument Number
Historic England Listed Building number(s)
Images Of England
Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceTQ921185
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