Standing inviolable on its rock, roughly half a mile off the Guernsey coastline, Castle Cornet has protected the island for eight centuries. Here, to celebrate its 2017 re-opening (on 31st March), we offer insights into the castle’s colourful passages of history; peek at some of the incredible panoramas it offers; and serve up some of the activities families can have fun doing once they’ve left the luxury of the Duke of Richmond or Old Government House, and passed through the castle’s formidable gatehouse…
Inhabited during the Neolithic period, Romans used the islet Castle Cornet sits on as a natural harbour to control the trade routes. And it remained an important site, with King John (of Robin Hood fame) building its ramparts to form England’s first line of defence when he lost Normandy to the French in 1204. Named after a local merchant family who perhaps contributed generously to its construction, the first castle consisted of a southern tower, a western tower, a gatehouse and a chapel.
This was clearly not enough, however, as the French repeatedly pillaged the Channel Islands – with as many as a quarter of St Peter Port’s population being killed in a 1294 ambush – which didn’t end until the castle was eventually conquered. Holding it for seven years, it wasn’t until Godfrey d’Harcourt reconquered it that the castle was properly invested in. This meant a large Keep, Great Hall, Barbican, Gunner’s Tower and curtain wall were all built to ensure history didn’t repeat itself.
Further fortified by military men such as Paul Ivy, famous for introducing contemporary Italian ideas into England’s defensive repertoire, the castle truly enters history’s foreground in the 17th century. Thanks to a Guernsey that supported parliament and a governor, Peter Osborne, that flew the King’s flag, the castle was besieged by its own subjects 1643-1651. And later, in 1672, the medieval keep was blown to smithereens in a storm that threw the governor onto an outer wall. Since then, no governor has lived in the castle, perhaps superstitiously preferring the comfort and safety of St Peter Port.
During the 18th century the castle became outmoded as a military machine (with artillery becoming powerful enough to hit it from Guernsey’s high ground) but also grew more important as a military base. Despite this, the Germans occupied the castle from 1940-1945 and filled every square inch with guns. This was due to the fact Hitler became obsessed with the idea that Britain would do anything to get Guernsey back, and so fortified the island out of all proportion to its strategic value.
Finally gifted to the islanders by King George VI in 1947, as a mark of gratitude for their loyalty, Castle Cornet has since been transformed into a giant museum. Whether visitors watch the Napoleonic noon-day canon being fired or take a leisurely stroll around the ornamental gardens, it’s the museums that form the obvious centrepiece of the castle. Visit the Story of Castle Cornet for Spanish gold, skeletons and other treasures; the Maritime Museum for wrecks and nautical wisdom; or the Militia Museum for military medals, weapons and tales of derring-do – whichever you choose, you won’t be disappointed.
If Castle Cornet’s lively history and engrossing museums have caught your imagination, why not book a few nights at the Duke of Richmond or Old Government House, where elegant surroundings, unparalleled service and beautiful views combine?
Images Courtesy of Visit Guernsey. St Peter Post & Castle Cornet from the webcam at the OGH