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Isle of Man Castletown and Castle Rushen

Castle Rushen .jpg

Castletown was the original capital of the Isle of Man, before it was moved to Douglas in the mid C19th. It still has many large and splendid buildings, especially around the Market Square.

Castle Rushen was built by the Norse rulers of Mann in the C12th as their power base in the south of the island. A settlement quickly grew up round the walls of the castle, which became the capital of the Isle of Man.

The town sits at the mouth of the Silverburn Burn.


Breakwaters were built to provide safe anchorage for fishing boats.


There is little fishing now, but small pleasure boats still moor in the inner harbour at the mouth of the Silverburn Burn, reached under a narrow swing bridge.


Queen Street with its brightly painted houses is the main road into the town from the south.


The old part of the town is around Castle Rushen and Market Square.



The tall monument in front of Castle Rushen is the Smelt Monument erected by public donation to the popular Lieutenant General Cornelius Smelt, who died in 1832. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough money for the statue.


Arbory Street is the main shopping area, with a selection of small family run shops.



Narrow alleyways run down to the shore.


Castletown Railway Station is on the edge of the town. Built of the local limestone it is a splendid building dating from 1874 and retains its goods shed and other station buildings. Trains regularly pass here.

Castletown Stn.jpg

Castletown passing .jpg

Limestone for the castle and many other buildings was quarried at Scarlet Point.


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Castletown cont...

Tynwald met in the castle until the start of the C19th when it moved to what is now the Old House of Keys, just off Parliament Square. It later moved to Douglas when that became the capital. The Old House of Keys is now in the care of the Manx National Trust and has been restored to what it would have looked like in 1866 with the original assembly room with the speaker’s chair at the head of the table.



The Old Grammar School overlooks the breakwater and across to the Langness Peninsula. Built around 1200 as the Chapel of St Mary, this was the first church for the new settlement of Castletown and is the oldest roofed structure on the island. It became a grammar school in 1701 and a new extension was added. In 1931, the school was closed as numbers were falling and the building was in poor condition. Manx National Heritage acquired the building in 1950 to save it from demolition. It is now part of Manx National Trust and is preserved as a Victorian schoolroom.


The Nautical Museum on Bridge Street overlooks the Silverburn Burn. Captain George Quayle, a member of the powerful Quayle family, lived in the big house next to it.

He was a politician, business man, founded the the first Isle of Man Bank and inventor. He had three strong rooms in his house opening from secret doors on each floor and fitted with amazing ‘Heath Robinson’ warning devices which rang bells if an unauthorised person tried to get in. There were stories that he was a smuggler, although those are now disputed. The carriage shed next to the house was converted into a boathouse for Quayle’s yacht, The Peggy.



The boat was built in Castletown in 1789 to carry both cargo and passengers. She was the first vessel to be fitted with ‘sliding keels’ which made her more manoeuvrable and able to carry more sail, thus making her faster. This was the time of the Napoleonic Wars and French privateers were attacking shipping into Liverpool and Belfast. She was armed with eight small cannons.

The room above the dock was turned into cabin room designed to resemble the stern cabin of a warship of the Nelson era. The room contains several hidden cupboards and a secret doorway which gave access to the boat deck below.


After Quayle’s death in 1835, Peggy was abandoned in the boat cellar and the sea gates were blocked off. The dock gradually became filled in with soil and forgotten.

The Peggy was discovered in 1935 and her importance recognised as the only surviving example of a Manx clipper built in the C17th and C18th. The Peggy is currently in Douglas undergoing conservation, after it was discovered that humidity and salt water had lead to corrosion of the iron nails and the keel was found to be bending and distorted.. It is hoped she will be returned to the Nautical Museum by 2025.

Above the cabin room is the sail loft , used by George Quayle as a workshop. His lathe and telescope are displayed here, along with sail making equipment.


Other rooms have basic information about George Quayle along with model boats and other nautical artefacts.


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Castle Rushen

Castle Rushen, located in the ancient capital of the Isle of Man, was once the residence of the Kings and Lords of Mann. When built it was a statement of power, guarding the entrance to the Silverburn River. Its white limestone keep dominated the surrounding countryside and would have been visible from most of the south of the island. It is still one of the best preserved medieval castles in Europe.


The Vikings settled the Isle of Man from the C9th and established a power base in the west of the island on St Patrick’s Isle. By the 1200s, with increasing attention from England and Scotland, the centre of power moved to the south of the island.

The building of Castle Rushen is attributed to the Norse King Reginald who built a square stone keep surrounded by a bailey and ditch on a dry spit of land to the east of the Silverburn. The land to the west was very boggy making it a good defensive site. The kitchens, domestic buildings and stables were in the bailey. Gradually a settlement grew up under the protection of Castle Rushen. The Norse kings divided their time between Peel Castle and Castle Rushen until 1242, when they moved permanently to Castle Rushen.

Castle Rushen was developed by successive rulers between the C13th-C16th. It is a large and complex site. This plan comes from the Castletown website.


The oldest part of the Castle is the keep which was rebuilt in 1333.

Castle Rushen Keep.jpg

After the death of the last Norse King in 1265, the island was fought over and changed hands between England and Scotland several times. In 1333, the island was granted to William, First Earl of Salisbury, who was a childhood friend and courtier to Edward III. He was responsible for the rebuilding of the keep, adding a third storey, new gatehouse with a portcullis and a drawbridge on the north side.


He added additional towers on the sides of the keep. When William died a year later, his son became King of Mann. He was responsible for building the curtain wall which surrounds the keep.



This had firing platforms for cannons which were becoming increasingly important for defence. He also built the outer gatehouse with a barbican and ditch round the outside of the curtain wall.



In the early C16th, a stone faced bank or glacis was added to the south side of the castle to give extra protection from enemy cannon fire.


In 1405, Henry IV gave the Isle of Man to one of his staunch supporters, Sir John Stanley. The island became a hereditary right of the Stanley Family on payment of two peregrine falcons to all succeeding English monarchs on their coronation. The peregrine falcon still supports one side of the coat of arms of the Isle of Man.

The Stanleys were one of the wealthiest families in England and their rule lasted until 1736. Henry VIII conferred the title Earl of Derby on Thomas Stanley. On his death, his grandson assumed the title Lord of Mann, although the title King of Mann was still used in ceremonial proceedings until the 1600s. Most of the Stanleys spent little time on the island, leaving government and defence to their officials and soldiers, although Tynwald met in the castle grounds.

By the C16th, accommodation in the keep was poor, and in 1580, Henry Stanley, fourth Earl of Derby, ordered a new building on the curtain wall near the gatehouse. Called Derby House, this was used as accommodation for the Lord of Mann and his household. The ground floor was the servants quarters with the Earl and his guests using the upper two floors.


James Stanley, the tenth Earl of Derby died in 1736 with no heirs. The title of Lord of Mann passed to his cousin, the second Duke of Atholl. The third Duke of Atholl sold the right to the British Government and the island became a dependency of the British Crown, with the monarch as Lord of Mann.

Derby House became the home of the Lieutenant General, the Lord of Mann’s representative on the island, until they moved to Lorne House and then Douglas. Tynwald met here until it moved to the George Inn and later, in 1821, to the newly built Old house of Keys. The building was used as a courtroom until 1991.

The rest of the castle became a prison in the early 1700s and this is the reason the castle has survived. From 1765, fines from prisoners were no longer used for the maintenance of the castle and this led to serious structural deterioration. In 1816 there was major work undertaken on the keep to improve conditions. Between 1849-1864, Castle Rushen was also used as an asylum for the mentally insane. Warders were reported as spending much of their time taking Victorian sightseers round the prison

Conditions eventually became so bad, that an inspection in 1885 by the Chairman of the Commissioners for Prisons in England and Wales recommended a new prison be built. This opened in Douglas in 1891.

Lord Raglan, the Lieutenant Governor instigated the restoration of Castle Rushen in 1902 as a heritage and tourist attraction. The Victorian additions were removed and it was restored to externally to its medieval appearance. It was formally handed back to the Isle of Man Government by George V in 1928. It is now in the care of Manx National Trust.

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Entry is through the barbican and outer gatehouse which has the ticket office and small shop.

A doorway leads into the main ward, a grassy area between the keep and the curtain wall. Derby House is on the right, but is not open to visitors as it is still the law court for the south of the island. The main ward contained stables, brewery, blacksmith, workshops and a mint in the C18th. Nothing is left of these buildings.


Stone steps lead up to the curtain wall with its walkway. Near them, steps lead down into the dungeon. The remains of the foundations of a small chapel can still be seen. This was built by the seventh Earl of Derby as it was more convenient for the family living in Derby House to use this than the original chapel at the top of the keep.


The inner gatehouse leading into the keep once once had a deep pit in front of it, crossed by a drawbridge but this has been filled in and it is reached up a ramp. The two portcullises are still there.


Between them, in the roof are three murder holes. Above is another guard room.


The ground floor guardrooms on either side of the gatehouse entrance were used as prison cells in the C18th. Bishop Wilson was imprisoned in one of them in 1722 following a dispute with the lieutenant General. A model of the Bishop is displayed in his cell, working on a translation of the Bible into Manx.

Inside the keep is a large central courtyard with a well and the remains of a large fireplace. This was originally the site of the medieval kitchen. Stone steps lead up to rooms on the first floor.


The ground floor of the keep has display boards with history of the castle. The upper floors were originally accessed by spiral staircase. The metal stairway referred to as the 'Prison Stairs' was added later. Pictures of the Stanley Lords of Man with their coats of arms are hung on the walls.


Some of the rooms in the keep are furnished as they might have been in the in the C16th and C17th. Off the main rooms are smaller rooms which were prison cells in the C18th and these now contain information boards.

The two main rooms on the first floor are furnished as they might have appeared in the C17th when the Earls of Derby were the Lords of Mann. The main room with its red and gold wall hangings and red velvet chair of estate was the Presence Chamber and was reached by the external staircase from the courtyard.


Next to it is the Lord’s private dining room, a small dark room with green and purple wall hangings. Off is a small garderobe.


On the opposite side of the presence chamber are the kitchens with cobbled floors and a large open fireplace. Food hangs from the ceiling and there are beer barrels and a few shelves for storage.


The rooms on the second floor are furnished as they might have been in the C15th. The Lord’s great chamber is basically furnished with a few wooden chests. The walls are hung with painted linen cloths, which provided protection against cold and damp. They were cheaper than tapestries and could be painted with images specifically related to the family.


The small room off the great chamber is the treasury, which was the most secure place in the castle. valuables and documents were stored here.


The king’s dining room has wall hangings with jousting scenes.


The three small windows are lined with velum, making the room very dark. Only the select few, like the Bishop of Rushen Abbey, would be entertained here. For other occasions, the first floor hall (now the presence chamber) would have been used. Benches were used apart from the King and most important guests who had chairs. Food was placed on the table for guests to serve themselves. On very special occasions, roast peacock would be served, with its skin and feathers sewn back on after cooking.


The small rooms off were used as prison cells in the C18th.

A spiral staircase leads up to the keep ramparts, with views of Castletown and the surrounding area.

Castle Rushen ramparts .jpg


In the south tower was the Medieval chapel, which now houses the clock mechanism and weights.

The clock is dated 1597, and is unusual as it just has one hand. It is thought to have been a gift from Elizabeth I.

Other rooms contain information about the history of the castle, personalities and the prison years.


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