When viewed from the Solent, Hurst Castle remains an awesome sight even today. The massive Victorian gun batteries seem to stare out menacingly from the wind-swept shingle spit which curls away towards the Isle of Wight. In common with many fortifications, the origins of Hurst Castle came well before Victorian times, the use of 'castle' in its title giving some clue as to when more modest structures occupied the site.
The western entrance of the Solent, narrowing to less than a mile between the mainland and the Isle of Wight, has always been strategically important due to the natural harbours at Southampton and Portsmouth. As artillery improved in the early 16th century it became possible to defend this area against enemy shipping by locating gun emplacements on opposite shorelines, thus creating crossfire. When Henry VIII's break with Rome occurred, England's natural enemies of Spain and France posed a potential invasion threat. Henry's response was to improve England's coastal defences by building a chain of small concentric castles from the River Humber in the north-east, to Milford Haven in the south-west. The bulk of these fortifications were situated in the south and south-east where the risk of invasion was deemed highest. Hurst Castle was one of these purpose-built military defences.
Work commenced c1541 and appears to have continued for some three years. Hurst Castle was more sophisticated in its design than many other castles of that time, and this suggests that it was one of the later ones to be constructed. The core of Henry's Hurst Castle still survives, although alterations to the internal arrangements have been considerable over the years. Comprising of a twelve-sided central tower or keep, it was surrounded by a curtain wall incorporating three semi-circular bastions, spaced symmetrically around its perimeter. The entire structure was then surrounded by a defensive moat, which no longer survives due to infilling in the mid-19th century. Despite never being fully armed, Hurst Castle had the capacity for 71 heavy guns arranged on six different levels, making it a very powerful proposition to any potential enemy fleet.
Little changed at Hurst Castle over the next 250 years, even with several short periods of neglect it was never allowed to become completely ruinous due to its strategic position. During the English Civil War the Parliamentarians held Hurst Castle, and it subsequently became a temporary prison to Charles I prior to his execution. In 1786 the first of several Lighthouses were built outside Hurst Castle, but the current lighthouse incorporated into the rear of the Victorian west wing is a later replacement. The first significant modifications were made to Hurst Castle with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century.
Extensive remodelling of the keep was put in hand, and the roofs of the bastions strengthened to accommodate the heavier ordinance of the time. In 1852 work was approved for further additions and alterations to Hurst Castle, including the installation of two large batteries built predominantly from shingle and earth. These were positioned to the east and west, and were capable of holding a further 29 guns. Three caponiers were also added at the base of the curtain walls, projecting into the moat to provide covering fire in the event of a landward assault (only one survives, just to the side of the main entrance).
By far the greatest impact on Hurst Castle was made with the advent of the Crimean War. Technological advances in artillery, especially that of the explosive shell, soon rendered the recent improvements wholly inadequate. In 1861 radical alterations were commenced to equip Hurst Castle for modern warfare. Over the next 13 years the recently constructed gun batteries were removed, and the massive casemated east and west wings were constructed. Once completed and armed, Hurst Castle carried 10 x 38ton RML's (rifled muzzle loaders), 15 x 18ton RML's, 5 x 12ton RML's, and 3 x 64pdrs, and could accommodate a garrison of some 131 officers and men. No further structural alterations were made to the main fabric of the buildings, but armaments were constantly reviewed as weapons technology continued to advance. By 1956 Hurst Castle had passed into care as an ancient monument, and is now open to the public under the guardianship of English Heritage.