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Norris Castle

A Grade I Listed Building in East Cowes, Isle of Wight

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Latitude: 50.7631 / 50°45'47"N

Longitude: -1.2705 / 1°16'13"W

OS Eastings: 451544

OS Northings: 96196

OS Grid: SZ515961

Mapcode National: GBR 89S.3M2

Mapcode Global: FRA 8772.6VX

Plus Code: 9C2WQP7H+6Q

Entry Name: Norris Castle

Listing Date: 17 August 1951

Last Amended: 6 January 2017

Grade: I

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1267468

English Heritage Legacy ID: 418622

Location: East Cowes, Isle of Wight, PO32

County: Isle of Wight

Civil Parish: East Cowes

Traditional County: Hampshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Isle of Wight

Church of England Parish: East Cowest St James

Church of England Diocese: Portsmouth

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West Cowes


Marine villa, c1799-1804, by James Wyatt for Lord Henry Seymour.


Marine villa, c1799-1804, by James Wyatt for Lord Henry Seymour.

MATERIALS: coursed and squared sandstone and Bembridge limestone with flint galletting set into Roman cement mortar. Slate roof coverings.

PLAN: an elongated linear plan comprising, from south-east to north-west; a semi-circular bastion, substantial three-storeyed round tower, single-storeyed service wing, two-storeyed enclosed courtyard, and another semi-circular bastion. The building is longer than it is wide in order to maximise the impression of the Castle from the Solent.

EXTERIOR: the Castle stands centrally and towards the north-east edge of the landscaped park, its principal façade overlooking lawns which plunge straight down towards the sea. The main residential wing stands at the south-east and is dominated by a substantial three-storey round tower with an additional attic storey, a crenelated parapet and a circular stair turret. The tower has five bays of round windows, or oculi, to the attic and then round-headed sashes to the lower three storeys, progressively increasing in height down to the ground floor. Adjoining the round tower is the remainder of the residential portion of the Castle; a square two-storey block with three square towers, each of three floors, projecting on the north-west side. Extending to the north-west is the service wing and enclosed service yard with battlemented parapets and towers along each length. The Castle stands on a battered plinth at basement level, separated by a bold roll moulding from the ground floor above. There are lead rainwater goods and flashings, clay chimney pots to the roofs, and an early C19 weathervane to the stair turret.

The south-west elevation serves as the entrance front. The residential wing is formed of five bays on this side; four bays of round-headed sashes and, at the centre, a projecting entrance porch with a four-centred arch and embattled parapet. This leads to a Gothic doorway with a studded timber door, side lights formed of pointed lancets, and a fanlight under a four-centred arch. The fifth bay is a projecting two-storey tower with an additional attic storey; one of three towers in the five-bay return wall that rises above the service wing. It contains two round-headed sashes and an oculus to the attic storey. The service wing is a single storey high on this front. It comprises seven bays; six bays of six-over-six sashes and a projecting squat double-height tower at the centre. The tower is approached by a stone staircase and has a square-headed doorway containing a studded door with three rectangular lights, and an oculus above. This wing has an embattled parapet behind a lean-to roof covering a corridor between the residential wing and enclosed service yard. The service yard is positioned in the centre of a substantial two-storey block with a basement. It projects outwards from the elevation with a two bay return wall on the south-east side. The block is nine bays long with square towers projecting at each angle, a substantial tower with a four-centred carriage arch projecting at the centre, and a crenelated parapet. The carriage arch contains studded timber double doors beneath a sash window set into a room above. The rest of the block has an irregular fenestration comprising round or squared-headed sashes and oculi. At the north-west end the Castle is five bays wide with round or square-headed sashes and terminates in a projecting semi-circular bastion. A small round-headed doorway containing a studded timber door is positioned in the centre of the north-west wall of the bastion.

The north-east elevation forms the principal façade, facing the Solent. The Castle is built into a slope and is therefore taller on this side with a continuous basement level lit by round-headed sashes beneath the roll moulding. At the north-west the block forming the enclosed service yard is the same as on the south-west front, except that there is a round-headed sash in place of the carriage arch. The attached service wing is six bays wide and a single storey high above the basement, with a projecting tower at the centre with an additional attic level. The tower has narrow side turrets, round-headed sashes to the ground floor and oculi above. Further to the south-east is the residential wing, which projects considerably from the main elevation and stands on a high terrace. The north-west return wall contains three bays; two towers flanking a central bay with a large four-centred arched window and a smaller round-headed sash above. There are four bays to the main elevation of this wing, which are progressively recessed until they meet the round tower at the south-east. The fenestration comprises round-headed sashes and a four-centred arched doorway leading out onto the terrace. The doorway contains a glass panelled door with side lights and fanlights, resembling that to the entrance on the opposite side of the Castle. A large semi-circular bastion continues the level of the terrace, surrounding the round tower at the south-east.

INTERIOR: the main entrance on the south-west of the RESIDENTIAL WING of the Castle leads to a hall passage with a vaulted ceiling divided into sections by transverse arches. At the far end of the passage is a doorway leading out onto the outer terrace. Immediately to the right of the entrance is the library, which contains original integral curving wooden bookshelves designed by James Wyatt and a stone fireplace. Occupying the ground floor of the round tower is a circular drawing room also with Wyatt-designed bookshelves and a fireplace with an overmantel mirror. On the left of the entrance is a study with a fireplace, then the main staircase and dining room. A mezzanine floor containing a bedroom and dressing room has been inserted into the study, probably in the mid to late C20. The dining room has a fireplace with an overmantel mirror. The fireplaces on this floor are original c1799 designs formed of a four-centred arch with an elongated trefoliated pattern in the spandrels. There is wainscoting to the windows (many of which contain original plate glass), original panelled doors with decorative keyplates and fingerplates, oak floors, dado rails and cornices decorated with foliage patterns, as well as C19 brass chandeliers with flame shades throughout several of the rooms in this wing.

A stone staircase with a mahogany handrail and iron balusters leads up to the first floor of the residential wing. It is lit by an oval lantern light. The first floor landing is separated into sections by transverse arches and there are suites of bedrooms on each side with marble fireplaces and cornices, and one C19 overmantel mirror. Next to these bedrooms are dressing rooms and bathrooms with C19 sanitary ware, including ‘the Kaiser’s bath’; a canopy bath regularly used by Kaiser Wilhelm as a guest at the Castle in the late C19. The first floor of the round tower contains a sitting room with marble fireplaces whilst the second floor, approached via a spiral stair turret, contains the principal bedroom with marble fireplaces and a C19 sink with legs. There is an original curved doorway providing access from the stair turret out onto the battlemented roof.

The basement of the residential wing was not inspected but contains several store rooms, a boiler room and ‘swimming pool room’. An early C19 ice house with a domed ceiling is built into the outer terrace, and is approached from a passage on the north-east side of the Castle.

The SERVICE WING has a long corridor running along the south side leading from the residential wing to the enclosed courtyard. On the north side of the corridor at ground floor level is a butler’s pantry, staff room, morning room with a fireplace, and a kitchen. The basement was not inspected but contains a store room, billiard room, wine cellar and boiler room under this wing.

The service wing leads to the lower ground floor (basement level) of the ENCLOSED COURTYARD via a stone staircase. The central courtyard was covered in the early or mid-C20 with a steel-trussed roof, which carries a galleried walkway. It has a paved stone floor. There are ranges of rooms on each side of the courtyard: store rooms, lavatories and a kitchen at lower ground floor level; a living room, pantry, bedrooms and dressing rooms to the ground floor; and bedrooms, dressing rooms and lavatories to the first floor. These include original doors and a marble fireplace. The original kitchen on the lower ground floor has a C19 cast-iron cooking range, an inglenook fireplace, fitted wooden dresser and shelves, a wooden sink and possing tub. A water tank is situated beneath the courtyard.

The north-west bastion is approached from the courtyard by tall C19 timber-boarded double doors under a four-centred arch. It contains a series of storerooms at ground floor and basement level set against the semi-circular inner wall. A stone stairway leads down to the basement, where there are four cellars with brick barrel vaults; probably storage for meat, fruit and vegetables. At the centre of the bastion, opposite the cellars, is a circular cold storage room. It has a brick domed roof with a circular aperture in the crown closed by a removable perforated bronze cover.

Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that the following are not of special architectural or historic interest: the C20 internal partitions to the bedroom and dressing room of the mezzanine floor above the study of the residential wing; the later C20 sink and kitchen units; the later C20 toilets and sinks; and the later C20 electric wall heaters.


During the reign of King Edward I, land in Whippingham Parish was held by Richard le Noreys, the spelling changing over subsequent centuries through Norreys and Norres to Norris; the place name of a house that appears on C18 maps. In 1795 Lord Henry Seymour (1746-1830), a retired politician, purchased what was then a small farm. Plans for a villa estate were probably being drawn up the following year when it was noted that the grounds ‘will shortly be ornamented with the house of Lord H. Seymour’ (Tomkins 1796 in Ettwein Bridges Architects 2016, 25). The architect James Wyatt (1746-1813) was appointed to design a castellated model farm, and the main house, Norris Castle, constructed from c1799 at a cost of £190,000. The house was built just to the north of the earlier farm which was subsequently demolished. It is shown in a sketch of 1804 overlooking the Solent (Ettwein Bridges Architects 2016, Appendix A). A landscaped park with an oval loop of carriage drive was created from former fields and is shown on the 1810 OS map (Grade II registered). The inclusion of a watercolour view of Norris by Humphry Repton in the 1805 edition of Peacock's Polite Repository suggests his likely involvement in the design (Carter et al 1982).

James Wyatt had been appointed Surveyor General and Controller of the Office of Works in 1796 and, in 1800, became architect to George III. In 1796 he produced a design for Shoebury Castle, Essex, which although unexecuted was important in the development of his secular Gothic Revival work and the English Picturesque. It had a linear plan with a castellated circular tower on one side, attached to a battlemented two storey block and service wing with square towers. The Castle would have formed an irregular and scenically massed composition dominating the north bank of the Thames Estuary. A similar plan was adopted (although on a much larger scale) at Norris Castle by c1799, and at Pennysylvania Castle, Portland, Dorset in 1800. These designs may have been influenced by Wyatt’s work for the Office of Works at Windsor Castle. He was also engaged in remodelling a castellated country house at Plas Newydd in Wales at this time, which had a terrace garden overlooking the Menai Strait. Norris Castle was increasingly covered in ivy from the 1820s, gaining an antiquated appearance, described in topographical accounts, to add to the picturesque composition: ‘Witnessed from the sea, it has a most imposing and even romantic appearance, and many would suppose, from its venerable aspect, that it had endured the ‘wear and tear’ of many centuries’ (Gwilliam 1845 in Ettwein Bridges Architects 2016, 28).

The owner of Norris Castle, Lord Henry Seymour, and his younger brother, Robert Seymour (1748-1831), shared an interest in farming and gardening, and, after 1790, a substantial income provided by sinecures in Ireland. This subsequently funded building work and agricultural improvements upon their estates (Robert’s estate was at Taliaris, near Llandeilo, Wales). The model farm at Norris housed livestock with the resultant manure being used to fertilise an attached kitchen garden. Engravings indicate that the surrounding park served as pasture for cattle, sheep, and a muster of peacocks.

The Castle hosted numerous royal visits during the C19. In 1819, the Prince Regent visited and Princess, later Queen, Victoria stayed at the Castle with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, in 1831 and again in 1833. The Queen was even considering its purchase in 1839 and 1843 but instead bought the neighbouring property of Osborne House. She continued to visit Norris and mentioned it in her journals. For instance, in June 1845, the Queen noted: ‘After our luncheon…we drove over to Norris Castle. We have got it for lodging the King of the Netherlands, who is coming here tomorrow. We walked through all the rooms & I recognised with pleasure my old room & Mama's & my bedroom’ (Ettwein Bridges Architects 2016, 22). It continued to accommodate the family in the later C19, and in 1881 the Queen wrote: ‘[Myself,] Bertie, Alex, & the children… took tea out on the battlements [of the terrace]…it was so pleasant, the view over the sea lovely, & all the fine trees in the foreground’.

Lord Henry Seymour had a reputation for eccentricity and benevolence when he died, unmarried, in 1830. Norris Castle passed to Lord George Seymour before being bought by a newspaper tycoon, Robert Bell, in 1839. It was purchased in 1880 by the ninth Duke of Bedford, Country Life referring in 1898 to Norris being ‘a favourite home for the late Dowager Duchess of Bedford’. The Castle continued to serve as a place for royal relations to stay, often accommodating Kaiser Wilhelm (Queen Victoria’s grandson). After the Bedfords, the estate passed to Lord Ampthill and was sold several times in the early C20; to a Mr Densham in 1903, Sir Horatio Davis in 1910, Richard Burbidge, the owner of Harrods, in 1914; Edwin Parker in 1917; and Major Arthur Birkbeck in the 1920s. During the Second World War, Canadian troops were billeted at the Castle, either in tents within the grounds or within the Castle itself. In 1945 Major Birkbeck died and the estate was sold piecemeal before Mrs C Briscoe-George and her daughter, Mrs R Lacon, reunited the castle, farmland and woodlands. In 1977, the grounds were opened to provide a grandstand view of the Fleet Review, marking the Queen’s 25th Jubilee. The Castle was subsequently opened to the public for three days a week, for a couple of years.

A set of 1830 sales particulars records the uses of the interior rooms in the Castle at that time (see Ettwein Bridges Architects 2016, 22-24). Among the relatively minor alterations to the building during the C20 were: the insertion of a mezzanine floor above the study; the roofing of the service yard at the west end, installation of lavatories, basins and solid fuel stoves, and installation of some modern heating circuits and radiators. In 2015 the estate was sold and possible plans were drawn up for redevelopment; it remains in private ownership (2016).

Reasons for Listing

Norris Castle, designed by James Wyatt and built in c1799-1804 as a marine villa for Lord Henry Seymour, is listed at Grade I for the following principal reasons:
* Rarity: as an exemplar of a Regency marine villa;
* Architectural interest: as an outstanding secular Gothic Revival work by James Wyatt, being among the finest examples of his work in this style;
* Architect: as a design by James Wyatt, one of England’s most important late C18 and early C19 architects, who served as Controller of the Office of Works and architect to George III;
* Design: as a well-conceived Gothic Revival design with a bold asymmetrical composition, elongated linear plan and elevated position that fully exploits the surrounding picturesque landscape and dramatic marine setting;
* Construction: as a finely constructed building in Bembridge limestone and sandstone with flint galleting;
* Fixtures and fittings: for the fine interior rooms with Wyatt-designed integral bookcases, stone fireplaces, over mantel mirrors, a stone staircase with mahogany handrail, and cast-iron kitchen range;
* Degree of survival: the exterior and interior demonstrates a high degree of survival with relatively few later alterations;
* Historic interest: as an important design within the context of the English Picturesque movement and an example of the re-emergence of the Castle aesthetic during the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815);
* Historic associations: as a marine villa for Lord Henry Seymour in which the C19 monarchy and royal family regularly visited or stayed, including The Prince Regent, Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm;
* Group value: with the Grade I-registered landscaped park that provides the villa’s setting, the Grade I-listed model farm, and the Grade II-listed lodges, Pump House, Bathing House, sea wall (a 50m length), cattle shelters and watering ponds, as well as the adjacent Grade II* registered park and Grade I-listed house at Osborne.

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