In August 2019, Folkestone & Hythe District Council (F&HDC) purchased the historic building and grounds to secure them as a community asset for the future.
Westenhanger Castle is a scheduled monument consisting of a fortified & moated 14th century quadrangular castle with a grade I listed manor house and barns.
The estate has changed hands many times over the years and has a number of interesting (and even royal) owners.
From 1897 the owners of the castle was Folkestone Racecourse. For construction of HS1, the castle was transferred to the Ministry of Transport.
In 1996 the Forge family bought the castle and worked with what is now Historic England to consolidate the stonework and prevent further deterioration of the manor house, castle walls and associated buildings.
In 2002 they went on to acquire the medieval barns, which stand intact outside the inner curtain wall.
How it looks today
The 14-acre property is based around the original moated quadrangle with the remains of curtain walls, towers and a gatehouse that had a drawbridge.
The manor house is still the roofed north east corner of the castle and has been conserved and sympathetically added to so that it can be used as a hospitality venue for weddings.
The 16th century major barn is now in excellent condition. Its roof is of rare hammerbeam construction and has short, wall-mounted horizontal beams which look like wooden brackets, and which themselves support arched braces and struts. Hammerbeam roofs were typically found in grand Tudor palaces such as Hampton Court - this type of roof has only ever been found in one other barn in the whole of England.
Looking to the future
F&HDC's development proposals for a new garden town, Otterpool Park, will see the castle and area to the south of it - formerly part of the deer park - reunited as public park.
This park, including the former racecourse pond, will form the centrepiece of the town and will be closely linked to the new town centre.
It is intended that the historic medieval barns will also be brought back into use, as part of a 30-year plan to give the castle a sustainable future as a community asset.
Idyllic Events, who currently lease part of the estate, will continue to manage the maintenance of the grounds and castle on behalf of the council.
History of the castle
Sir John de Criol
The earliest known record of castle comes from 1343, when Edward III granted Sir John de Criol license to 'crenelate' (provide a wall of building with battlements), which suggests there was already a sizeable property in situ. By the 1380' the castle had a strong curtain wall built around the site and strengthened with towers.
Sir Edward Poynings
In 1509 the manor, known variously as Westenhanger and Ostenhanger, came under the ownership of Sir Edward Poynings. He embarked on a significant programme of expansion, but died in 1522 before work was complete. His sons continued their father's work and in 1540 exchanged Westenhanger with Henry VIII for estates elsewhere.
The king desired the castle chiefly for its hunting park but made changes to the house created within the walls by the Poynings to create accommodation fit for royalty. He created royal chambers that included garderobes (lavatories) and improved the kitchens by building three great hearths to roast meat. He extended the deer park and repaired the drawbridge over the moat.
The Smythe Family
In 1585 Queen Elizabeth I transferred the estate to Thomas 'Customer' Smythe. He continued to improve the accommodation which may have been damaged by a fire. In 1588, the castle is said to have been a command centre for the 14,000 troops, who were to defend the south coast from the Spanish Armada. By the middle of the 17th century the house was one of the biggest and most imposing mansions in Kent.
Sir Thomas Smythe (son of Thomas 'Customer' Smythe) was very active in commerce and exploration. Under him the English Virginia Company commissioned three ships that entered Chesapeake Bay, North America on 13 May 1607. As result of this, the first permanent English-speaking settlement was established at Jamestown, Virginia, a key step for what later became the United States of America.
To commemorate its 400th anniversary, a full-sized replica of the ship Discovery was presented to the castle by the Jamestown UK Foundation on 19 December 2008 and currently resides within the grounds.
17th and 18th century
The next generation of the Smythe family was ennobled as Viscount Strangford but they fell upon hard times . The castle estate was sold and by 1701 much of the mansion had been pulled down. Over the coming centuries the story of the castle was often one of neglect and decay. Ownership as a farm changed several times, with the mansion reducing in size as materials were taken from the site for other building projects. By the late 18th century it had been converted into the Georgian style farmhouse of today. The barns were more useful and so were preserved. The magnificence of the large barn is good reminder of the lost grandeur of the site.
Myths and legends
Many stories surround the castle, including that the estate was once owned by King Canute in 1035. There's even a myth that the ghost of Rosamond Clifford, King Henry II's mistress, sometimes walks along the top of the wall between the square tower and the dovecote at midnight.
Further historic information
For further in-depth details about the castle, visit the National Heritage List for England. The Westenhanger Castle Conservation Management Plan can be read for further information on the site's development