The New Forest National Park is home to two well preserved castles which date back to the time of King Henry VIII and the remains of strategically positioned hill forts.
MALWOOD CASTLE, Minstead
Malwood Castle was never really a castle as we understand it today and thousands of cars pass it every day without realising it’s there. Situated west of Cadnam on the A31 at the top of Mallwood Hill, it is thought to have been the most important Bronze Age hill fort in the New Forest area occupying a commanding position along a route that has existed since pre Roman times. It was a large double ring ditched hill fort and its outer rings remain mostly intact and rising up to 3 or 4 metres in places. Much of the fort is now overgrown and the inner circle is on private land occupied by Castle Malwood Lodge, a country house built in 1884 for Sir William Harcourt but now converted to flats. Sir William Harcourt was a prominent Liberal politician in the Gladstone era serving under him in the offices of Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Not to be confused with Castle Malwood Lodge is the nearby property known as Castle Malwood. There was a house on the site in 1802, and sometime between 1802 and 1840 it became the property of Col. Thomas William Robbins. He served at the Battle of Quatre Bras under the Duke of Wellington and was wounded at the Battle of Waterloo, a few days later in 1815. He became General Robbins and in 1864 he died at Castle Malwood. Mr Charles Hill, a retired tea planter, purchased the property in 1892. He enlarged the property, which was described as ‘yellow brick, low and rambling, in free Jacobean style with some baroque touches’. In 1910 Mr Daniel Hanbury, one of the Directors of Allen and Hanbury,
the makers of baby food products, bought the estate. Mr Hanbury made extensive improvements to the property and also laid the cricket field and the tennis courts. During the Second World War the house was used for refugee children under the management of the Dr. Barnardo’s Homes. He and his family took a great interest in Village affairs. Mr Hanbury died in 1947 and the estate was sold. Subsequently the Southern Electricity Board took possession and many alterations were made. Since the reorganisation of the SEB an IT company is in possession of the house.
However, perhaps the site’s most significant place in British history is that it was also the location of a royal hunting lodge, often referred to as Malwood Keep in old documents, in which King William II (William Rufus) was known to reside on his visits to the New Forest. Whilst speculation has surrounded the precise spot in the Forest where William was mortally wounded by an arrow, it is widely reputed that he spent his last night at Malwood entertaining his court before setting out the following morning in August 1100 for a day’s hunting. The rest, as they say, is history – he was mortally wounded by an arrow and conspiracy theories still persist. Was it an accident or regicide?
A later hill fort lies on the extremity of the national park boundary in the south west corner of the New Forest. Skirting the town of Lymington, Buckland Rings is a hill fort dating from the Iron Age period situated at a strategic location which, at its time of construction around 400 BC, would have overlooked the Lymington River at its navigable limit, providing clear lines of vision in case of attack. Nowadays it is covered with trees but it still has impressive well preserved triple banks and double ditches. However, over the centuries the outer rampart and ditch have been destroyed on the west side by road construction and on the east a portion has been nearly levelled. Roman coins have been found at the site and it is believed that the fort fell to the Roman General Vespasian in AD 43 during the Roman invasion of Britain and was abandoned thereafter.
This type of site is rarely found in lowland areas and is regarded as the best preserved and most important in the Hampshire/Dorset basin. The site is now owned and managed by Hampshire County Council.
Situated in the far south east corner of the New Forest in a prominent position on a spit of land at the mouth of Southampton Water and guarding its entrance stands Calshot Castle which was built in 1539 by King Henry VIII as part of a coastal deference system. Following his break from the Roman Catholic Church there was an increasing risk of foreign invasion and a series of artillery fortifications, known as Device Forts, were built all along the south coast from Cornwall to Kent and Calshot Castle was one of two constructed along the coastline of the New Forest. It mustered 36 cannon with a garrison consisting of a Captain, a deputy, eight gunners and five soldiers.
The structure was severely damaged by fire during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign when it required over 100 New Forest oaks during its repair. Following its initial construction it remained a manned artillery base for over 400 years until 1956 – a period during which it saw its use in the Spanish Armada threat, English Civil War, Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars.
During the English Civil War, Parliamentary forces captured Calshot Castle and removed the cannons, using them to force the surrender of Southampton and pledge the town’s allegiance to the cause of Oliver Cromwell.
The area of Calshot Spit immediately surrounding the castle also holds a significant place in aviation history. In March 1913 Calshot Royal Naval Air Station was established there to experiment with the defence capabilities of seaplanes which had only recently been invented. At that time Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and he took a close interest in their military use. He first took a seaplane flight from Calshot Castle on 28 August 1913, piloted by the legendary aviation pioneer and yachtsman, Timmy Sopwith, who later taught Churchill how to fly.
During the First World War, seaplanes from Calshot were used to combat the increasing threats from German U Boat submarines. By the end of the war, Calshot-based aircraft had spotted 42 submarines and sunk three.
Between the World Wars Calshot became synonymous with the Schneider Trophy air race. This competition had been initiated by the French in 1912 with the aim of promoting seaplane development – entrants were required to represent their country and any country winning the event three times consecutively would also win the competition outright and with it, the prestigious Schneider Trophy. The UK had some early success winning in 1914, 1922 and 1927. The next event was to be held in 1929 and by this time the Air Ministry had commissioned Supermarine to build a plane for the event to be held over the Solent and hosted at Calshot Castle on Saturday 7 September, 1929. Over one million people spread along the coastline to watch the event and see Britain win in the plane designed by R J Mitchell. The next and final event was held over the same course in 1931 where Britain won the trophy outright in more powerful version of Mitchell’s Supermarine S6. Mitchell subsequently carried the plane’s design through into the Supermarine Spitfire, built in nearby Woolston.
As an interesting aside, among those involved with organising the 1929 Schneider competition at Calshot was RAF Aircraftman T E Shaw, who had found fame during WW1 as Lawrence of Arabia. At this time he was working at Calshot with the Schneider organising team and subsequently he was seconded to the British Powerboat factory at nearby Hythe, where he helped to develop high speed launches for use in towing disabled flying boats and rescuing aircrew.
The image below shows the 1931 Schneider Cup team at Calshot with the Prince of Wales (centre in light coloured suit) next to R J Mitchell (right).
After the glory days of the Schneider Trophy, Calshot Castle reverted to wartime use during World War Two. In 1940 two 12-pounder QF guns were installed on the roof as well as six searchlights as part of the anti aircraft defences for Southampton. Meanwhile RNAS Calshot and its Short Sunderland flying boats formed the backbone of Britain’s anti-submarine and pilot rescue efforts. After the war the development of major British airports made flying boats all but obsolete. In 1953 Calshot Castle was closed as a frontline station and on 1 April, 1961, Calshot Castle finally closed as a Royal Air Force station. Since 1963 the former hangars have been put to good use as the Calshot Activities Centre run by Hampshire County Council and the castle is maintained by English Heritage and is open to the public.
Further information on the site’s use as an airbase from 1913 to 1951 can be found on our “Calshot” page.
Located at the south western extremity of the New Forest, Hurst Castle also stands on a spit of land and was another Device Fort built in 1544 as part of King Henry VIII’s coastal defence chain. It was the perfect location to defend the western approach to the Solent, lying just three quarters of a mile from the Isle of Wight and subject to strong tidal flows to catch the unwary. The original castle was circular and had a portcullis and a drawbridge over a moat. The original garrison consisted of 24 soldiers who had brass and iron guns, handguns, bows and arrows available to defend it. It almost saw its first action in 1588 but the approaching Spanish Armada was blown off course past the Isle of Wight by a fierce storm.
In 1642 at the beginning of the English Civil War the castle was occupied by the Parliamentary forces of Oliver Cromwell. It also served as a prison for the defeated King Charles I who was held at the castle for two and a half weeks in December 1648 before being taken to his trial in London. He was found guilty and executed on 30 January 1649 outside the Banqueting House on Whitehall, London.
In the following years the castle garrison was decommissioned for a period and the building fell into disrepair. By 1700 it was being used as a prison for priests convicted of “popery” – promoting the growth of Catholicism. Towards the end of that century it had been neglected to such an extent that it was being used as a smugglers rendezvous.
The castle was brought back into use and modernised during the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815) and again in the 1870’s when large armoured wings were added. During the First World War the castle was garrisoned and armed with heavy artillery and was decommissioned again in 1928. In the Second World War 162 men of the Royal Artillery were stationed at the castle manning anti-aircraft guns and searchlights. Perhaps its most important remnant of that period is the ENSA Garrison Theatre which is believed to be the only surviving ENSA theatre from this period still in existence in the UK. Once again, the castle was decommissioned after the war and nowadays is open to the public.
Hurst Castle has also been the sight of a lighthouse since 1786 although the original structure is no longer in existence. The present structure dates from 1867 and is still in operation, having been modernised in 1997. The castle complex can be reached by a walk along the spit or by ferry from Keyhaven.