One can’t say that Castletown falsely markets itself. A small town of around 3,000 that sits fifteen or so miles south of Douglas, the centerpiece is Castle Rushen. From here, for centuries, the Isle of Man was governed. It makes for an easy, pleasant, and interesting excursion from my base in Douglas.
A bit of more ancient history first. The Isle of Man has been inhabited for more than 10,000 years, although very little is known of almost any of them until the 6th century CE, when Christianity came to the island. Even then, written records were either not kept or lost, so what we know of the next few centuries comes from later written histories of a largely oral tradition.
In 1079, Godred Croven created the Kingdom of Mann (the double n seems to be used almost interchangeably, though the older kingdom and hereditary titles prefer that spelling) and the Isles, establishing a permanent Viking presence on this strategic island in the Irish Sea. (Castle Rushen was actually begun in the 10th century, but the similarly named kingdom that built it was under more direct Viking control from elsewhere rather than being its own entity.) It is also during this Viking period that the island’s legislature, the Tynwald, was established, making it – according to the Manx government – the longest continuously running parliament in the world. I’ll get more into that in a later article.
The final Viking King of Mann and the Isles, Magnus Olafsson, died in 1265 without a direct heir. The island passed to Scotland, though for ten years the local Manx population fought unsuccessfully for independence. From here, the island changed hands between Scotland and England several times, before permanently becoming English in 1392. After a series of short rules, the Isle of Man was given to the Stanley family in 1405. The family would rule first as Kings of Mann and then Lords of Mann until 1736.
During this entire period, and for more than one hundred years following, Castle Rushen was the center of government here on the Isle of Man, and the House of Keys, the lower house of the Tynwald, sat directly across the street. The castle was at times home to the Lords of Mann, though some governed entirely in absentia. A visit – the single must-do here in Castletown – takes about an hour or maybe a little more, and guides visitors through several rooms of the castle, some with exhibits on the history of both the structure and island and others with period furnishings. In addition, some of the ramparts are open to walk, and to look out over the town. (Note: there are a lot of stairs and, as best as I was able to tell, no alternative method of seeing anything but the courtyard for those with mobility issues.)
As mentioned before, an early timber fortress was built here in around 947. It is unknown exactly when the stone walls were built, though as Magnus Olafsson died in Castle Rushen, it was between then and 1265. Subsequent Kings and Lords of Mann expanded the castle both for living space and defenses, with the last touches finishing in the 16th century with the addition of a large earthwork defensive system to repel cannon fire.
Castle Rushen was conquered on a couple occasions. In 1313 it was taken by Robert the Bruce who took the entire island for Scotland, though he pretty much ignored it after that. During the English Civil War, when James Stanley was fighting on behalf of the monarchy, the local captain of the militia made a deal with Cromwell and his forces, surrendering the castle without a fight. After the restoration, it was returned to the Stanley family.
Later years saw Castle Rushen used as a prison, most notably of Thomas Wilson, a bishop who wanted the local Manx Gaelic language used in religious prayer (and wanted the House of Keys to be elected rather than appointed), until 1891. A century later, in 1991, it reopened to the public as part of Manx National Heritage, becoming the museum it is today.
If the history and appearance of Castletown and Castle Rushen aren’t enough to convince you to take a half day to visit, the journey there might push you over the top. The Isle of Man is known for its trains (more on these in another article), and Castletown is roughly a half hour from Douglas on the amazing 150 year old steam train. It is a £13 round trip ticket in a restored but seemingly original coach, and a very fun experience. (There is also a bus, but a steam train is much cooler.)
I hadn’t realized just how far back the history of the Isle of Man goes. Even just taking the “modern” era of the Viking ages and since, the island and its rulers are a fascinating thing to learn about. I can think of no better way to do so than to take a visit to Castletown and Castle Rushen, the historical seat of the island’s power.
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