Thursday, 26 January 2017

Upnor Castle – The Gun Fort with a Short Career

Upnor Castle, Copyright Janet Cameron

Upnor Castle dates from 1559 and is located at Frindsbury on the River Medway - but eventually it proved unfit for purpose. The River Medway was used for the building and repair of warships, and Queen Elizabeth's intention of building a castle here as a gun fort was to protect Chatham Dockyard and the fleet on the River Medway from attack. Stone was taken from the outskirts of Rochester Castle. William Bourne, who was a master gunner, drew up a memorandum claiming that the large guns were inadequate to protect the castle, and although invading ships might be damaged or demasted, they would not be sunk.

First defence - the chain across the River Medway
It was decided to draw a chain across the river between Hoo Ness and Gillingham to help prevent enemy vessels from approaching the castle. Action was taken in 1585, during the war with Spain and it cost £80 a year to maintain.
On 12 June 1667, Dutch vessels approached up the Thames to Gravesend, then made their way towards Chatham. On the way, they burnt a fort at Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey. They gained access despite the heavy chain. No one knows for sure if it was broken by a Dutch vessel, or set loose from the riverbank. What is known is that the Dutch were assisted by English soldiers, who were on low, or non-existent pay. They were also angry about bad conditions at the castle. It's entirely possible aggrieved military men may have been responsible for the loosening of the chain. (At this time, the reigning monarch, Charles II, was almost bankrupt.)

Warships destroyed at Chatham Dockyard
When the Dutch reached Upnor Castle on 13 June, they were greeted by fierce fire. Several warships were lost, as well as lives on both sides. However, the English had been badly provided for and although they did their best, eventually their munitions ran out. There was no resistance from Chatham Dockyard, due to the anger of the men at their low pay and conditions. HMS Royal Oak and several other ships moored at the Dockyard were destroyed.
The Dutch were forced to return to Queensborough on 14 June, before setting sail for home. It was decided that chains were a bad idea and so the castle was strengthened and more forts were built, primarily at Cockham Wood and Gillingham.
But Upnor Castle's opportunity to prove its mettle was lost and its career as a gun fort was over.

Adapted from Murder & Crime, Medway, Janet Cameron, Tempus Publishing, 2008.
Upnor Castle staff and museum.
Further Reading:

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