Isle of Wight

Carefree short breaks & holidays

A ship sailing past The Needles © IW Tourism
 

History

Cannons point out to sea from the esplanade at Cowes Royal Yacht Squadron

Cannon at Cowes © IW Tourism

The story of the Isle of Wight reflects national history and illustrates something of the Island's unique character. It has at different times been conquered or settled by various peoples just like the mainland.

Its vulnerability to invasion gave it a national strategic importance and it achieved national fame as the prison of a king and the home of a queen. For the past 8,000 years it has been separate and different, with both sea and land playing a significant part in the Islanders' lives.

You will be amazed at the treasures waiting to be explored from the Island's rich and varied history. There are excavation sites where dinosaur bones dating back over 120 million years have been uncovered. You can follow in the footsteps of the ancient Island peoples and explore remains left by Stone, Bronze and Iron Age communities.

Evidence of Roman occupation can be found in several locations, including the remains of two Roman villas featuring well preserved baths and the famous Medusa mosaic floor.

The Isle of Wight is like a condensed chronicle of England. Key moments in history are brought vividly to life through a wealth of historic buildings. In Carisbrooke Castle you can almost feel the despair of an imprisoned Charles I, rounding the battlements on his daily walk. You can see the strategic role the Island had to play in the defence of England by its fortifications by Henry VIII through to Lord Palmerston.

There are centuries-old manor houses, working water mills and a wealth of religious buildings. There are places where Tennyson wrote poems, Capability Brown created spectacular gardens and Marconi worked on his radio inventions. No trip would be complete without seeing Queen Victoria's favourite residence, the magnificent Osborne House near East Cowes.

As a result of the Queen's royal approval, many artists, poets, and writers lived on or visited the Island during the 19th century, including painter Joseph Turner, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and the poets Tennyson, Keats and Priestley.

Roman Times

When the Romans invaded, the Island had already seen thousands of years of human history and successive peoples and cultures had left their mark. Flint tools, pottery and the bones of slaughtered animals remind us of the Island's Stone Age inhabitants. Their Bronze Age successors buried their dead in round barrows which still survive on the Island's downs to this day. Iron Age peoples left behind a hill fort on Chillerton Down and quantities of pottery, much of it on sites later occupied by Roman villas.

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, the Island of Vectis, as the Romans called it, was subdued by Vespasian, the future emperor. There is no evidence of any military operation on the Island: the conquest seems to have been a peaceful surrender to the inevitable by the local chiefs. During Roman occupation, the Island remained a rural backwater. However, some of the native landowners adopted Roman culture and were wealthy enough to have villas built. At least seven Roman villas are known to have existed on the Island, and these were centres of prosperous farm estates which probably sold surplus grain and wool in mainland markets. Two of these villas — Newport Roman Villa and Brading Roman Villa — are now open to the public.

Medieval Times

The gatehouse at Carisbrooke Castle

Carisbrooke gatehouse © IW Tourism

The Norman Conquest gave the Island its most impressive medieval building, Carisbrooke Castle , which still stands as a fine example of a medieval castle. After the conquest, William gave the Lordship of the Island to his relative William FitzOsbern. FitzOsbern began the building of a castle at Carisbrooke on an easily defended site in the centre of the Island. It was a symbol of Norman authority and a stronghold from which the potentially hostile population of the Island could be controlled.

The Lordship was hereditary and the castle remained in private hands until 1293, when Countess Isabella de Fortibus, the last survivor of the De Redvers family, was persuaded on her death bed to sell the castle, together with all her lands and rights on the Island, to King Edward I for the sum of £4,000.

The castle is now in the care of English Heritage and open to the public. Its design is a typical Norman motte and bailey. The motte with its shell keep, the curtain wall, the gatehouse with drum towers and machicolation (a hole above the gate for dropping rocks or boiling water on invading armies), the great hall, the two medieval wells: these features make Carisbrooke an excellent resource for a castle study. A model in the castle museum shows how the castle may have looked in 1377 when the French invaded the Isle of Wight.

Tudor Times

Events like the French raids demonstrated the need for adequate defence; a need that became more urgent with the development of Southampton as a commercial port and Portsmouth as a naval base. Fears of invasion, and awareness of the Island's vulnerability to invasion left us with many examples of Tudor defence.

Yarmouth Castle is an interesting example of a coastal fort. It is just one of a chain of defence works that ran from Milford Haven in the west to Hull in the east, built by Henry VIII in response to the threat of invasion from France and Spain.

Later, fear of Spanish invasion, even after the defeat of the Armada, resulted in the building of a system of outer defences at Carisbrooke between 1597 and 1602. These defences against cannon brought the old medieval castle up to date.

The museum in the castle displays examples of Tudor-style furniture as an illustration of domestic life in Tudor times. Unfortunately, the Tudor mansion, which once stood in the castle courtyard as the residence of Sir George Carey, is now only a shell and reveals little of the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by Carey as captain of the Island.

The Making of the United Kingdom

From the point of view of local resources, the obvious focus is King Charles I's imprisonment as Carisbrooke Castle. It illustrates something of the conflict between monarch and parliament and between parliament and army; it illustrates the impact the conflict had on individuals, and shows how different people could sincerely and conscientiously hold different points of view.

At the outbreak of the civil war, the Island had quickly come under the control of parliament. Nevertheless, in November 1647, the king took refuge on the Island after escaping from Hampton Court Palace where he was a prisoner of parliament. He was apparently hopeful that the Island's governor, Colonel Robert Hammond, might be won over by the royalist cause.

Hammond however, remained dutiful to his employers, finding it impossible to satisfy simultaneously the requirements of parliament to whom he owed his loyalty as the governor, the army to whom he owed his loyalty as an officer, and the king to whom he owed his loyalty as a subject.

At Carisbrooke Castle the rooms where Charles I was held prisoner can still be seen. In fact the king's first bedroom is now used as the castle's education room. You can walk the ramparts as the king did for exercise, and visit the bowling green specially laid out for his recreation by Colonel Hammond.

Accounts of the king's unsuccessful attempts to escape come to life when linked with the actual locations of the events.

These accounts include one by his page, Henry Firebrace who described how the king became stuck in his window after trying to escape from his bedroom one night. After nearly a year on the Island, the king was taken back to the mainland to face trial, and was executed in London in January 1649.

Victorian Times

The grounds at Osborne House

Osborne House © IW Tourism

Queen Victoria chose the Island for her family retreat. She bought the Osborne estate, and by 1846 the old house had been replaced with the Italianate villa seen today, designed by Prince Albert and incorporating the latest technology of the day.

Government affairs soon followed the queen to Osborne House, and the modestly furnished home had to be enhanced and made appropriate for receiving foreign heads of state. Osborne provides a unique resource for studying Victorian taste, Victoria's role as queen and Empress of India, and Victorian family life — albeit the life of a rather unusual family.

Queen Victoria gave the Isle of Wight her seal of approval. To this were added attractions of scenery, climate and greater accessibility as communications improved. As the population of the Island grew, so did its tourist trade. Railways were built, the network extending to the remote south and west. Ryde, Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor grew from tiny villages of fishermen and smugglers into fashionable seaside resorts replete with piers, promenades and rows of bathing machines.

Away from the coast, farming still dominated the lives of most Islanders. Farmers and agricultural workers lived in villages and hamlets scattered throughout the Island, growing corn and keeping dairy cattle and sheep. Two of the watermills and one of the windmills that once ground Island grain into flour still survive and are open to the public. The buildings are pre-Victorian, but the processes are relevant and they were still part of the rural economy through the Victorian era.

Osborne House is now is the care of English Heritage and is open to the public.