Henry Loves his Big Guns

When you visit the Tower of London, one of the most popular artefacts on display is a suit of armour owned by none other than Henry VIII himself. The local guides, also known as the “Beefeaters”, love pointing out to visitors the fact that the king had designed his own armour in a way to show off some of his “private” parts, featuring them in a much larger size than they would naturally have been. This was typical King Henry VIII: he wanted to be bigger and more important than any other man or king. Unfortunately for him, England was not an important country in Europe during his time, so he decided to become a superpower and the way to do this, he decided, was to build himself some big guns.

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Henry VIII invited specialists from all over Europe to build him new canons and he created the second largest artillery force in the continent. This process was the beginning of the evolution of the English navy, making the English ships’ artillery better than those of any other navy and helping his daughter Elizabeth to win over the Spanish Armada decades later.


When Henry broke away from Rome in what we call today the Reformation, things became more complicated with the powerful Catholic neighbours, Spain and France, and the potential of an invasion increasing. This was a great opportunity to show off his new powerful canons so Henry set upon building a series of fortifications in the south of England and as part of that process, built two forts to protect the Falmouth harbour. They were all part of what was known as Henry’s device. This was the first time the crown had developed a national defence strategy, as it was usually a task he left to the local nobles. Pendennis Castle and its nearby sibling, St Mawes, are the best examples to survive this project.

You could say that the name Pendennis Castle is actually misleading since Pendennis (or its sister St Mawes Castle) were in fact artillery forts rather than castles. They were garrisoned by a small number of soldiers and were never lived in by any noble.

But why build two castles in one place? In 1537, the Spanish fleet attacked two French ships near the Falmouth fort. The English were shocked about how easy it was to reach the shores of their island and so they built Pendennis on one side and St Mawes on the other side of the river mouth, protecting Falmouth harbour, and more importantly, the Carrick Roads. Although they were built at the same time, St Mawes was built with more artistic and decorative aspirations, whilst Pendennis was built in a much simpler fashion.

The castle was built in 1539 to 1545 and was never really tested although it kept being upgraded every time there was a potential invasion. (the Spanish Armada, Napoleon, WWI and WWII). So today in one visit, you can learn about the evolution of the coastal defence in the last half millennia.

Sometimes the castle was actually performing the opposite function of what was intended: this was thanks to its first captains, the Killigrew family, who held it for Henry. They were supposed to help protect the area from pirates, but it seems they themselves were actually the pirates. You can read more about it in my Pendennis Castle stories.

The most important events to happen at Pendennis Castle occurred during the Civil War in the middle of the 17th century when Falmouth became an important supply harbour for the royal side. Queen Henrietta Maria stayed with her son, the future Charles II, in Pendennis during the last period of this war before they escaped England in 1646. Finally, Pendennis became one of the last two royal strongholds in the country along with Raglan Castle. It was sieged in 1646 when it was packed with royalist soldiers with their families who fought under the command of 70-year-old John Arundel. The siege took five months: when their food ran out, they were forced to surrender (not before about 300 soldiers died from hunger). You can read more about this siege in my Trerice stories (the home of John Arundel).

During WWI, Pendennis became the command centre for the entire artillery posts in the south, a role it continued to play in WWII so it was equipped with the latest artillery. In 1956, it was disbanded and a year later, it was opened to the public. For more information: Pendennis Castle official website

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English Heritage at its best

Chasing Castles Review

We visited Pendennis Castle on a wet and windy day at the beginning of our Easter break. To be honest, it was probably the best place to visit in such terrible weather because most of Pendennis’ exhibitions are indoors. I have written several times about the great ways the English Heritage manages its properties and Pendennis is a good example of this. There are several different exhibitions in it, so we could easily spend two to three hours here, even though it was pouring with rain outside.

Most of the exhibitions are located in the new garrisons that were built during the Georgian days (and it is also where you can find the coffee shop and restaurant). The second floor includes an exhibition about the world wars, whilst close to the restaurant they had an interesting presentation of Tudor guns and armour. Since it was Easter, there was also a room where children could do some seasonal drawing and painting.

The one display we did not really enjoy (but to be fair, it was not really what we were searching for) were the modern guns in the half moon batteries. The combination of guns,  wind and rain was a bit too much.

To sum things up, the English Heritage has managed to take Pendennis Castle and turn it into an extremely interesting place to explore, packed with “entertainment” elements for every member of the family. I am sure that if we had visited the castle on a nicer day, we would also have appreciated the magnificent views and the paths around the castle, but even without them, we still managed to spend over three hours here. Since the castle is located so close to the centre of Falmouth, which is one of the tourist hubs of Cornwall, I really believe that Pendennis should be on the itinerary of any visitor to the area.