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Author Topic:   Dartmouth Castle chain defences
Senior Member
posted 06-11-2002 04:33 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for AJR     Edit/Delete Message
During the 15th century a form of defence was maintained by stretching a chain across the harbour mouth. A royal grant of £30 from the customs of Exeter and Dartmouth was made in 1462 towards this.

The chain may have been the one taken away by the Dartmouth men from Fowey in Cornwall in 1474. Small boats called cobles were hired to carry the chain across the water. Six seemed to be adequate for the job, and were hired by the month for 48 shillings each. One year one of the cobles was lost in a storm, and the corporation had to pay for a replacement at a cost of £8 10 shillings.

The chain was fixed to the cliff near Gommerock, and the small hole can still be seen in the rock there. There was also a small shelter on that side of the river, and the joist holes for the beams are visible.

In 1643 the chain was repaired, and 141 new links were made.

Defences of this kind were also used at Fowey, Cornwall, with small blockhouses at either end, and on the the River Meday in Kent, at Upnor, where the chain was harnessed to two large timber wheels.

Taken from Dartmouth Castle by A.D. Saunders, Published by English Heritage.

[This message has been edited by AJR (edited 06-11-2002).]

posted 06-11-2002 05:18 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Levan   Click Here to Email Levan     Edit/Delete Message
I sailed into Dartmouth last week and was told about the chain used as a defence against the French (use by HM Customs is not at all surprising - they still seem to be the most active defence agency in British ports). Seeing a castle either side of the estury must have been quite forboding enough in it's own right - even though the castles are quite small. In later years marine gun batteries were located on adjacent sites.

Regarding the chain, I don't think it's a sort of castle defence that is discussed very often. Some thoughts and questions:

It seems that the system was not unique - was this form of chain defence deployed elsewhere in the world?

Do we know at what level the chain was suspended? Was it hidden just beneath the surface as a hidden defence, or at a higher level to foul ship's rigging?

What sort of weight would the chain have been? I can imagine that hitting any sort of chain would have posed quite a problem for sailing ships (even today, hitting a small fishing buoy can cause significant damage).


[This message has been edited by Levan (edited 06-11-2002).]

Senior Member
posted 06-11-2002 06:17 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for AJR     Edit/Delete Message
The chain at Upnor appears to have been laid across the bed of the river, to be raised as and when necessary (hence the need for two timber wheels). In Upnor's case, the chain was not raised sufficiently high enough, for in 1667 the Dutch sailed up the river, two ships crossing over the chain without suffering any damage.

At Dartmouth, the chain would have been above the surface of the water, resting on the cobles, which appear to have been small, sturdy boats.

[This message has been edited by AJR (edited 06-11-2002).]

Senior Member
posted 06-12-2002 04:51 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Merlin   Click Here to Email Merlin     Edit/Delete Message
Such a chain was also used between the castles Ehrenfels and Mäuseturm in Bingen (Germany) to stop ships on the Rhine for the collecting of taxes.

posted 06-12-2002 02:49 PM           Edit/Delete Message
From a factual point of view, chains were used by the knights of Malta to guard the entrances to the Grand Harbour in Valletta for centuries. Other than that I've seen them mentioned in several works of fiction regarding the seaways around the Western Isles. I'm not sure if Tranter had evidence for their existance, or if he'd pinched the idea from somewhere else.....maybe someone will know. One specific site I recall he mentioned was at the Kyle of Lochalsh.

'Demeure par la verite'
Visit; Gordon's Scottish Castles Resource Page

posted 06-14-2002 07:29 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Levan   Click Here to Email Levan     Edit/Delete Message
A precursor to anti-submarine defences, I suppose?

Apart from chain defences, I was wondering what defensive features were required for coastal castles as distinct from their land-locked counter-parts. I guess, we'll need to make a distinction between castles that use the sea as an integral part of their defences against land-based attack (such as Dunnochter), and those where the primary threat was from the sea (Dartmouth, Upnor) and, to throw the spanner in the works, I'm sure some castles (such as Dumbarton) needed to fullfil both roles.

Perhaps some examples of coastal castles might tend towards being better defined as forts rather than castles proper? There are some wonderful marine batteries and forts in the Thames area, some just as old and similar in construction to what we happily think of as castles.


[This message has been edited by Levan (edited 06-14-2002).]

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