In ancient times the town of Winchelsea stood on a shingle bank, behind which was situated a large bay called the Camber, which made an ideal safe anchorage for ships. In the 13th century the shingle bank was washed away and Winchelsea was submerged, but the Camber remained a safe harbour.
There were two ports on the shores of the Camber; Rye (which was owned by the French until 1247) and Winchelsea (which was rebuilt farther to the west in 1288 after Old Winchelsea was submerged). Both towns became members of the Cinque Ports in the 12th century, which meant that they received special priviledges in return for providing the King with ships and men.
Between 1512 and 1514, Sir Edward Guldeford had a circular tower built on a split of land halfway between Winchelsea and Rye in order to defend the harbour of the Camber. This tower was a single storey high, with provision for guns on the roof and loopholes in the walls of the lower floor.
In 1533 King Henry VIII divorced his wife Catherine of Aragon and set in motion the events that led to the English Reformation. However, it also resulted in hostility with Catholic nations.
The threat of invasion grew more pronounced in 1538 when France and Spain, the two most powerful Catholic nations in Europe, signed the truce of Nice. With the prospect of France and Spain allied against him, Henry VIII began to fear for the safety of his realm.
A vast coastal defence program was undertaken to protect vulnerable or important places on the south coast. The resulting fortifications were known as the device forts and included transforming Guldeford's tower into a fully fledged coastal fort - Camber Castle.
The German-born engineer Stephen von Haschenperg was largely responsible for the design of the device forts. In 1539 he started building an octagonal wall around the original tower with four D-shaped gun platforms and a large semicircular gatehouse (see the green on the map at the top).
There was also a wall around the foot of the tower and underground passages to allow the garrison to fight an enemy who had got inside the castle. However, the design did not have much firepower and there was little flanking capability.
Just 18 months after Haschenperg's initial work was completed the design was revised and a new construction phase began. The alterations comprised the addition of four large semi-circular bastions, which were able to provide much better gun platforms.
The D-shaped towers were retained as they were higher than the new outer bastions, creating a layered defence. This effect was augmented by the central tower, which was given an extra storey and formed the highest part of the defences.
The new outer bastions were able to give flanking fire along the angled walls that linked them, although rounded bastions could never be adequately covered themselves. Indeed, the round bastions of the device forts were almost obselete as soon as they were constructed.
That said, rounded gun platforms did give better fields of fire and with coastal fortifications fields of fire over the sea is the most important factor. Vauban built semi-circular coastal batteries but was always careful to ensure well-covered land approaches defended their rear.
Camber Castle was completed in 1544 after an impressively short construction time of just 5 years. However, the anchorage of the Camber began to silt up and became unusable by the end of the 16th century, stranding the coastal fort several miles from the water. The garrison was disbanded in 1637 and the castle was abandoned.
In the Napoleonic Wars, there were new fears for safety of the south coast and the Royal Military Canal was dug to allow the marshes to be flooded in case of a landing. Two martello towers were built and two batteries were constructed at Rye.
Camber Castle had lost its significance and remains an unaltered example of a Henrican coastal fort. The form of wide circular bastions and a layered defence was used extensively by Haschenperg in the other coastal forts he designed for Henry VIII (see Deal Castle and Walmer Castle), but Camber Castle may have been the first place where he applied these principals.
Visiting Camber Castle
Camber Castle has suffered from weathering, particularly on seaward facing walls, but remains an unusual example of an unaltered Henrican device fort. Some restoration has taken place at the castle in recent years, and it is administered by English Heritage.
Camber Castle is open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the summer, click here for the English Heritage page on Camber Castle, which has detailed opening times and prices.
The castle is situated within easy walking distance (about 1.5 miles or 2.4km) of Rye, where there is a station. One of the Napoleonic batteries at Rye survives, as do both the martello towers, although neither of them can be visited.