Walmer Castle in Kent was constructed as an artillery fort in 1539-40 under the orders of Henry VIII. It became the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in the eighteenth century. The post of Lord Warden was created at a time when there was no formal navy; the Warden was in charge of five port towns on the southeast coast of England and required to supply ships for The Crown. Over the years, the Castle was gradually modified from a military fortification into a private residence. Various Prime Ministers and prominent politicians have been appointed as Lord Warden; today the role is an honorary title.
The Duke of Wellington accepted the role in 1829. The Marquis of Camden wrote to him in August of that year, in a letter marked “most private” respecting the position:
I learn from my neighbour Lady Aboyne, that Lord Liverpool becomes weaker after every attack & cannot be expected to live long.
Upon the idea that you may not be aware of some circumstances relative to the office of Warden of the Cinque Ports – I think it right to inform you, that altho’ the salary was abolished in 1817, the office still exists, that a very trifling salary is annexed to it, but it gives the possession of Walmer Castle & the patronage of Dover…[MS 61 WP1/949/20]
The incumbent previous to the Duke of Wellington was the second Earl of Liverpool who died in December 1829. During the first half of that year, the Duke corresponded with him respecting the practical matters of the handover. Liverpool instructed Wellington that he would write to the servants “to say that at present you continue them” [MS 61 WP2/220/28]: we don’t know for how long this was the case. He also had the furniture valued and on 8 July 1829 Wellington sent Liverpool a draft for £1136 10s to cover the cost; that’s over £125,000 in today’s money! [MS 61 WP2/220/49]
The Duke felt the Castle required some repairs and initially it was unclear who was going to foot the bill, since this was not a private home but an official residence in consequence of his position. The Duke dealt with the matter in his customary honest and matter-of-fact manner:
There is no doubt that the Ordnance both built and repaired this Castle; and the discovery would be made if the old books were searched, and it is certainly true that in my time we painted Deal Castle on the application of Lord Carrington. But I see the objections to such a system. If Walmer Castle is repaired at the expence of the Ordnance, the other buildings occupied as houses by the officers of the Cinque Ports must be repaired equally. It is true they have salaries. But I don’t think that would signify. It would not make the line sufficiently clear.
I think then that the best arrangement would be, that I should give the house the repairs necessary to keep the house wind and water tight under the sanction of the Treasury, to be executed by the Ordnance and paid by me, and with the permission to charge to my successor a certain proportion of the expense. Of course I must pay for the ordinary casual repairs.
Let me know if you concur in their mode of proceeding and I will put it in train accordingly. It is absolutely necessary to do something this autumn or the house will fall down.Wellington, Walmer Castle, to [Henry] Goulburn: the arrangements for repairs to Walmer Castle, 22 Jul 1829 [MS 61 WP2/220/54]
The Duke in fact had a guest at Walmer before he had stayed there himself. In May 1829, the Duke of Rutland wrote to Wellington respecting his:
“most kind and friendly offer of Walmer Castle as a styptic to my hayfever.”[MS 61 WP1/1019/24]
At the end of his visit he again writes to the Duke, now in glowing terms concerning the residence:
I cannot quit this place, without endeavouring to impress upon you my sense of your kindness in [?persuading] me, with three friends to occupy your Castle. The alteration which even a sojourn of five days here has affected on me is marvellous and I go away as well as I can desire to be. I am quite convinced that if I had been here early in the month of June I should have entirely escaped the unpleasant visitation of Hay Fever.
You will be delighted with this possession. It is perfect of its kind, and I anticipate that your residence here will place you in a state of perfect independence of health and strength. I never saw a place better kept. The pasture is beautiful, and the garden admirably cropped – all possible credit is due to the house keeper and gardener, for their strict attention to their duties. I am convinced they must be excellent servants.Letter from the Duke of Rutland to Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, thanking Wellington for allowing him to use Walmer Castle, 6 July 1829 [MS 61 WP1/1030/32]
And Rutland was right in his prediction. While the Duke had grand residences at his disposal – Apsley House in London and Strafield Saye in Hampshire – he clearly had a soft spot for the Castle and he stayed at Walmer every autumn from his appointment as Lord Warden until his death in 1852 at the age of 83.
Why did Wellington like Walmer so much? It appears that its coastal location was a significant factor. In 1832 the Duke reported to Lord Melville that the combined fleet was visible from Walmer Castle: the strategic position may have appealed to his military training. [MS 61 WP1/1238/15]
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sea air was considered to have great health benefits. As we have already heard, the Duke of Rutland found his visit worthwhile. The Duke’s attempt to persuade Lord Rosslyn to visit paints a picture of a seaside idyll:
Our weather here is delightful, and is improving daily. Possibly it might do you good to pass a little time near the sea. I should be delighted to see you and you might come to Margate by the steam boat with ease. Your own carriage might meet you there or I could send mine for you.
Copy of a letter from Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, to Lord Rosslyn [MS 61 WP1/1186/24]
The Duke was always keen to have visitors at Walmer and entertained on a grand scale. Snippets from various letters give us hints about the sort of events he hosted.
In February 1832, the Duke wrote to Lord Kenyon enclosing a letter he had written to him in November the previous year and neglected to send; note the reason for the delay:
You wrote to me in November last a letter which I received when I was at Walmer Castle. I immediately wrote you an answer which I never closed, principally because my house was full of company at the moment and I was much occupied…
[MS 61 WP1/1216/12]
Despite entertaining extensively, from a personal perspective he preferred a simple existence and lived and slept in a single room:
It is fitting perhaps, since the Duke was so happy at Walmer, that he ended his days there in his modest room.
The Duke’s body was embalmed and he lay in state at Walmer until 10 November; approximately 9,000 visitors made the pilgrimage. He was later transported to London by military escort.