Did you know people used to think Felixstowe's Landguard Fort was in Essex?
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Century's old Landguard Fort at Felixstowe kept Britain’s shores safe for hundreds of years.
While there have been a number of fortifications on Landguard Peninsula since the reign of King Henry VIII, the current fort you see can was built in 1744 and has been modified in subsequent years.
Over the years, it has played a significant role in protecting Britain during various wars and battles, including World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Disarmed in 1956, the fort is now Grade I-listed and open to visitors.
A number of rooms within the fort are filled with fascinating artefacts galore – but did you know there are also a number of volunteers who dress in period costume, re-enacting what life was like at Landguard Fort back during various conflicts?
One of these re-enactors is Roger Brookes, who volunteers at the fort on weekends and teaches guests about the Dutch invasion of 1667.
A life-long lover of history, Roger has long been keen to share his expertise with others and has spent years doing living history displays. “Over the years, I developed an interest in the late 17th century and early 18th history, especially in relation to fort and coast. This was partly inspired by Doreen Rayner and the members of the History and Museum Society. In 1986, we held the very first Darrel’s Day at the fort and I think this was the first time the public was allowed into the fort,” he says.
Roger has two adjoining rooms that have been set up with 17th century artefact, where he says visitors are welcome to go in and learn about the Dutch invasion, and what life was like in the fort at that time. “I usually have muskets there and do firing demonstrations occasionally. The talk depends very much to my reading of the visitor’s interests, but primarily I aim to educate and amuse,” he says.
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But before we find out what life was like at the fort, it’s important to understand what the Dutch invasion was, and how important it was to British history.
What was the Dutch invasion of 1667?
“Briefly, the British and Dutch were competing over trade in the east - namely India and the East Indies. The British attacked the Dutch fleet, after British settlers had been massacred in the East Indies, and succeeded in beating them. This was known at the first Dutch War,” he explains.
“After having rebuilt their fleet in 1667, they captured the HMS Royal Charles in June, which they renamed and used for many years. When it was eventually broken up, the ornate gilded stern decoration was removed and put in the Rijksmuseum which can still be seen today.
“Between June 19 and 24, the Dutch sailed up the Medway, burnt our ships and attacked Upnor Castle, causing a lot of damage. When Pepys visited a few days after he was surprised how little damage the Dutch had inflicted on the local civilians and was told that the British soldiers had done more looting and damage when they arrived. Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel De Ruyter then took the Dutch fleet up the coast and on July 2 landed a large force at Felixstowe.”
Fortunately for the fort however, the tide was the wrong way, and the Dutch were unable to get any of their large vessels close enough to bombard the fort.
“Their intention was to capture Landguard Fort, which would have given them command of the river and enable them to stop any ships entering or leaving Harwich, Ipswich, and the River Stour – which was a principal shipbuilding area. Although the fort would have been unable to withstand a siege, it was able to repel all attacks.”
Landguard Fort’s governor at the time, Nathanial Darrell, was defended by 400 musketeers – and the fort itself had 40 canons and a gun crew comprised of 100 men. The fort was up against 1,500 Dutch marines and 500 sailors.
A bloody battle ensued – and the English fired continuously up until 10pm that night before the Dutch eventually retreated. 150 Dutch sailors were killed, wounded or captured - as opposed to just 10 casualties suffered by the English.
Landguard Fort was actually the site of England’s last opposed seaborne invasion of England, and the Royal Marine’s first land battle. Further hostilities were ended by the Treaty of Breda, which was signed on July 31, 1667.
What was life like at the Landguard Fort during the 17th century?
According to Roger, life for a common soldier at the fort would’ve been pretty grim. “Only a few years before the attack, they were petitioning the King for unpaid wages as they were living on ‘rye bread and the poorest type of Suffolk cheese’, and soldiers were getting ill and dying of starvation.”
A few years later however, food did improve. “In the 17th century, it was normal to have only two meals a day,” explains Roger.
The first and main meal would’ve been consumed around 11am, and the second later in the afternoon. “Meals would’ve mainly been meat with a few root vegetables and herbs. Although as they were on the coast, fish would also have been eaten. Any wild animal or bird would have been considered fair game to eat, too. The main drink would have been ‘small beer’ from their own brewhouse – but all of this would depend on them being paid and able to purchase the food.”
When it came to sleeping, 17th century soldiers at the fort slept in the barrack block. “It’s unlikely that common soldiers would’ve had a bed though, as there were only 20 beds for 100 soldiers. So instead, they would’ve made themselves comfortable on the floor or a chair. It is also likely that the huts had no means of heating.”
Water would’ve been sourced from an aqueduct by the cliffs about half a mile away, as the fort was built on the marshes and there was no well.
“For many years, the fort was considered to be in Essex, and it was easier to row across in a boat than travel by road as Felixstowe was merely a hamlet,”
And in terms of clothes, there weren’t many options. “It is unlikely the average soldier would’ve had more than the clothes he stood up in, and anything he did have would have been carried in his pouch, or ‘snap sack’, which was a bag worn across the body.”
For those who were stationed at the fort, their main priority was of course keeping Landguard Fort and the rest of the coast safe from any possible attacks. But how did they do this?
“As long as the gate was kept shut and defended, they would’ve been fairly safe. The fort at this time was made of earth and wood able to withstand cannon fire for some time. It was surrounded by a dry moat with shingle at the bottom. The fort was designed to be star-shaped, so that the four corners would have a clear line of fire along the walls. Cannons would also have been mounted there.
“Gunners would have stayed with their guns firing at the enemy artillery and chain-shot at infantry as they attacked. The musketeers would have been all around the fort, but ready to move quickly to wherever there was an attack, with the largest number in a position to protect the gate. Pikemen would have been ready for hand to hand should the enemy manage to scale a wall or break through the gate. For most of that day until support was seen on the cliff tops and the Dutch started to withdraw, the average soldier’s main feeling would have been fear of serious injury.”
For anyone who fancies getting involved with the fort and finding out more, Roger adds: “We’re a friendly bunch and always welcome new volunteers at Landguard Fort. Pop down and have a word if you’re interested!”
Landguard Fort is now open until the end of October - every day during the school holidays, and from Thursday to Sunday at other times.
To find out more, visit landguard.com