Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Invading the Isle of Wight

“The very notion of anyone invading the Isle of Wight seems absurd and even, much like the island itself, a bit quaint… With its benign climate, agricultural fertility, excellent ice-cream and numerous B&B establishments, it would suit a committed group of idealists bent on establishing a utopian societal model But the best reason for invading the Isle of Wight is that they definitely won’t be expecting it.”
James May
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The French fleet attacks Bembridge, Isle of Wight
Today’s blog post is on the theme of ‘invading the Isle of Wight’. Now this is not as random as it seems because whilst on holiday there this summer, I came across several references to previous invasion attempts. Indeed, the Roman Villa at Brading is testament to the islands vulnerability in 300AD.  But unlike James May’s assertion a couple of years ago that, “they definitely won’t be expecting it”, in previous centuries significant efforts were made to protect the island.

Modern day Bembridge (photo author's own)
This post is not an exhaustive account of the history of invasion, but more a reflection on three interesting events in the history of the island. Situated off the South Coast of England, in the Solent, the Isle of Wight gave the would-be-invader of the mainland a huge strategic advantage. With sheltered harbours, plentiful fresh water and good agricultural land, it was the perfect place for an invading army to regroup and refuel before launching a major assault on England.

Carisbrooke Castle from the road (author's own photo)
 Repelling the French
In medieval times, the French were keen to gain control of the Isle of Wight (IOW). During the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453 – you do the maths!) occupying the IOW would have given them control of the waters around the south coast of England.
Between 1336 and 1370 they raided the island five times. But in 1377 they became bolder still. Key to defense of the IOW was Carisbrooke Castle. The French invaded in strength to the north, laying waste to Yarmouth and Francheville, before laying siege to the castle. The attacking force used trebuchets, ladders and crossbows but the story goes that they were defeated by a lone English bowman, Peter de Heynoe.
View from the ramparts of Carisbrooke Castle (author's own photo)
De Heynoe watched from the ramparts and picked out the French commander. With a single arrow he slew their leader, leaving the French force in disarray and they subsequently abandoned their attack. Later, the castle was further fortified and the French continued to raid until the early 15th century.

The Threat in Tudor Times
During the 16th century at various times both the French and the Spanish posed threats at various times. King Henry VIII decided it was time to invest in the Island defenses and built coast forts at Cowes, Sandown, St Helens and Yarmouth – sometimes using stone from dissolved monasteries. Carisbrooke Castle became used as a munitions store.
Priory Bay - IOW
One of the many beautiful coves to be found on the island -
as good a reason as any to invade!
(Author's own photo)

It was during one of these skirmishes between the English and the French, that the Mary Rose was lost in 1545. From his viewpoint at Southsea Castle, looking across the Solent with the IOW clearly visible, King Henry VIII watched his flagship lead the attack on galleys of the French invasion fleet, only to see the Mary Rose founder and sink.
During Elizabeth I’s reign, an example of the key position played by the IOW was the dramatic sight, on the morning of 26 July 1588, of the Spanish Armada sailing in waters off the islands coast.
“This morning began a great fight between both fleets…[which] were out of sight by three in the afternoon.”
Sir George Carey. (Captain of Carisbrooke Castle under Elizabeth I)

            Trivia alert! George Carey was the grandson of Mary Boleyn (sister of Anne Boleyn), and Elizabeth I’s cousin
A Palmerston fort viewed from Southsea Castle, on the mainland,
looking across the Solent with the Isle of Wight clearly visible.
(Author's own photo)
The Palmerston Forts or Follies?
From the north coast of the Isle of Wight a number of marine forts are clearly visible, built in the waters of the Solent, with the purpose of protecting the Solent. These forts were built in Victorian times on the recommendation of the 1860 Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom. There was a parliamentary debate about whether the cost of their construction could be justified and the cause was championed by the then Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston. However, it seemed he jumped the wrong way because by the time they were completed the French threat of invasion had passed, and the weapons technology with which they were equipped was outdated – hence the nickname Palmerston’s Follies.

My husband in the foreground on a 'walk to the fort' -
traversing a gravel path that becomes visible only at extreme low tide.
Palmerston fort in the background.
I find these forts fascinating. They are clearly visible in the Solent and have a definite ‘presence’. At certain times of the year the tide is low enough to ‘walk to the fort’ – along the seabed – I’ve done this a couple of times and it has a biblical feel about it, with the sea lapping at your ankles on either side.


  1. I think James May forget the other problem with invading the Isle of Wight: all the pirates (and privateers, smugglers etc.) It was an international centre for such trade for centuries.

    Thanks for the post - it takes me back a bit!

    1. I've often wondered how much smuggling still goes on in and around the island.
      Thank you for visiting, VH,
      G x


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