With all of the King Arthur, English Civil War and tin mining history in Cornwall, it’s easy to forget about the county’s connections with King Henry VIII and the Tudors. St Mawes Castle, sitting atop a hill across the estuary from Falmouth, reminds visitors of this rich part of Cornish history.
St Mawes Castle is one of the best-preserved examples in the entire country of Henry VIII’s coastal artillery fortresses. Part of a chain of forts built between 1539 and 1545, it also happens to be one of the most elaborately decorated, with carved 16th century motifs like gargoyles and sea monsters dotted around its impressive structure. The castle was designed to counter any invasions from Catholic Spain and France during a particularly threatening time under Henry’s rule. It was built with a four-storey central tower and three round bastions that jut out, forming gun platforms. Had there been an attack, it would have operated in partnership with its sister castle of Pendennis which also still stands proudly on the other side of the estuary on the edge of Falmouth.
The castle honours its Tudor history, as well as its Civil War history as it was held by Royalist supporters during the conflict, eventually surrendering to a Parliamentary army in 1646. It was also redeveloped and refortified in the 1850s during fears of a war with France and later again in the Second World War as the country prepared for possible German attacks. But now it’s a popular tourist attraction operated by English Heritage and still sports stone carvings with Latin inscriptions in praise of Henry VIII and his son Edward VI around its environs.
There’s plenty to see at the castle, from the stunning sea views and the impressive grounds to the guardhouse and the dank oubliette that used to keep prisoners captive. Of course, the gun platform and bastions are must-sees for military enthusiasts, as are the cannons that are peppered around the structure. Wander the old kitchens, gunpowder store and Tudor Blockhouse, which is built into a rock-cut platform on the shoreline. The castle’s interiors may be closed, however, so check the English Heritage website before visiting. Booking ahead is also essential before you embark on a fascinating journey into Cornwall’s rich Tudor past.