The first known fortification on St Patrick’s Isle came after the arrival in 1098 of the invading Viking chieftain known as Magnus Barefoot. The Chronicles of the Kings of Mann and the Isles tells us that Magnus saw to the erection of two wooden prefabricated forts, one now believed to be in the South of the island and the other on St Patrick’s Isle. It is likely that the rampart of this fort would have been topped by some sort of wooded fence or paling (=Peel), the possible inspiration of the eventual name of both the Castle and the Town.
The visible stonework in the Castle includes the remains of buildings belonging to the Celtic monastery, possibly dating from the 6-8th centuries and the 13th century cathedral of St German and later buildings allied to it. Other buildings include a medieval armory and barracks. These are protected by fortifications consisting of 14th century flanking towers, linked by 15th century curtain walls. The latest military construction took place in the early 19th century during the Napoleonic wars and later in the 1860s during the time of Napoleon III. It is considered that a vestige of Magnus’s fort was found during the final phase of the excavations of 1982-87, when rough stonework of a rampart was uncovered at a depth of 5 metres beneath the surface, just inside the present curtain wall to the north of the Cathedral.
It is believed that Irish missionaries came here about the year 550, disciples of St Patrick and probably not, as local legend has it, led by him, but by St Carmane (or German). This would be a suitably isolated spot for monks of the Christian Celtic Church to choose. At the highest point of St Patrick’s Isle stands the 50ft (16m) Round Tower. This is of the type seen at monastic sites in Ireland, where the towers tend to taper towards the top, unlike Peel’s which has vertical sides. Though its top is battlemented, it once had a conical roof, like those in Irleand. The Tower would have acted as a belfry, as a lookout place and as a place of refuge. Nearby are as many as three keeills or chapels, the largest being St Patrick’s Church, which was enlarged in the 12th century, possibly with the intention for it to be a cathedral. Until about 1500, it acted as the Parish Church for Patrick, when St Peter’s Church in Peel became the parish church for both Patrick and German.
Irish sagas record St Patrick’s Isle suffering a Viking attack, but modern belief is that it was another St Patrick’s Isle, that near Dublin, which is indicated. It is likely that the settlement of the pagan Vikings about the year 800 would witness the decline of sites such as this monastery, possibly followed by destruction during later invasions.
However, it is likely that once the Vikings were Christianised, St Patrick’s Isle once again became a holy place when the diocese of Sodor, with its cathedral, was established here. St German’s Cathedral was built of the local red sandstone from across Peel bay about 1230, replacing a previous church. This was alongside the residence of the King and capital of the Viking Kingdom of Mann and the Isles.
After the Isle of Man passed into English suzerainty in the early 14th century, the fortress we see today was created. Firstly, about 1390, the sandstone keep – the peel tower which eventually was to give its name to the town – was built, along with the so-called ‘Red Curtain’, the adjoining sandstone curtain walls. This was to compensate for the weakness of the defenses at this point, so easy of access at low tide. Flanking towers were also built and later, the rest of the curtain walls. These are nicknamed ‘The Green Curtain’ after the slate used, which was quarried from an area just outside the Castle, at the northern most part of St Patrick’s Isle.
Peel Castle was garrisoned as the administrative centre of the Northside of the Island, with Castle Rushen controlling the Southside. In addition to its governmental role, Peel Castle was used as prison. One of the best known political prisoners was Edward Christian, the Earl of Derby’s Lieutenant Governor of the Island. Christian was one of the leaders of the 1643 protest about tithes. The Earl very cleverly calmed the large crowd of protesters who had gathered to meet him at The Green at Peel – today a public car park and grassy area along Peel Promenade. Christian, whose revolutionary reforms included election of the members of the House of Keys, was arrested and charged with treason. He died in 1661, during his second period of imprisonment in Peel Castle.
The Cathedral crypt became notorious as the Bishop’s prison, housing Sabbath breakers for short periods. This crypt was, and remains, dank, dark and cheerless, conditions which made long sentences unnecessary. Those incarcerated had been caught, possibly by their neighbours, desecrating the Sabbath or special saint’s days by playing the violin, making hay or by fishing. Meanwhile, just to the north of the Cathedral, in the most sheltered area of the Castle, the English Lords of Mann, the Earls of Derby, built their private apartments. The Cathedral continued its role until 1785, when it saw its last enthronement of a Bishop. Even then in a bad state of repair, its final humiliation came in 1824, when the remaining roof timbers collapsed in a violent storm, leaving the Cathedral as we see it today.
Save for the construction of a revetment for two heavy guns, plus a guardhouse and powderhouse about 1816, the Castle was abandoned until a revival of the garrison was necessary in the 1860s because of the scare caused by the renewed predatory ambitions of France. Today’s ruinous state of the former Lord’s apartment buildings is due to their being used as a quarry for the construction of these defenses.
There was some refurbishment at the behest of Sir Henry Loch, the Island’s enlightened Lieutenant Governor 1863-83. His period of duty coincided with the burgeoning of both the tourist trade and the fishing industry, both of which became so important to the livelihood of Peel’s inhabitants.
There have been several archaeological excavations carried out in Peel Castle. By far the largest was carried out 1982-87 by Liverpool University archaeology group at the behest of the Manx Museum and the then Government Property trustees. This was a ‘teaching dig’ in which the public were invited to take part, supervised by qualified archaeologists. A large number of volunteers, mainly local residents, but people from Britain and some from abroad, including the USA, also took part.
The many important finds included a cache of silver coins dating from around 1030, an extensive burial ground with several hundred graves, which included that of the so called ‘Pagan lady’, buried with her beautiful necklace, signs of Magnus Barefoot’s fort of 1098 and many details of the Lord of Mann’s apartments. An unexpected bonus as a claim to fame is the finding of the British Isles’ earliest human flea. The dig progressed through the ruined buildings to the north of the Cathedral, revealing details hitherto unseen for centuries. Overall, the outcome of these excavations was a much greater understanding of the role of Peel Castle in the Island’s history.