The Royal Citadel

Grey brick walls climbing into the clouds, steep green banks wrapping around and heavily guarded arches preventing entry. 

Or at least that is how it had always seemed growing up in this city endowed with military history. Plymouth’s guardian and protector, a constant chasing the evolution of the growing city. 

The citadel has always been a pocket of mystery, not easily open to the general public, so I wanted to sit down with someone who didn’t just see the high walls and green banks, but someone who’d experienced the heart of it: my father.

Some things never change, the importance of Plymouth comes with the harbour and the sea. Due to this significance, kings such as Edward III and Henry VI stressed this with the construction of a castle, which soon fell into decay, and was soon replaced by Drake’s fort in the Elizabethan era. 

This fort esteemed by Drake himself to be capable of withstanding large-scale attack for prolonged periods of ten to twelve days, “without one pennie charge to her Majestie; in which time the countrie might come to their releefe”. This captures the sheer scale and prowess that they had in mind for the scope of the construction of such fort.

In 1665 Drake’s Fort began to evolve further with the construction of the Citadel, which was built with the same intention of the defence of Plymouth, but also to keep the city in check.

However, I found it entertainingly ironic when I learned that the Citadel was the first fortress to fall into the hands of William of Orange during the Glorious Revolution. 

It may have been a bit overly ambitious on that front, considering that historically the garrisons of these forts and citadels have been consisting of the Plymothian’s themselves.

After this, up to the 19th century, not many improvements to Plymouth’s defences were made, until the Royal Commission recommended the construction of further forts (one of these being Crownhill Fort) with slight improvements to be made to the Citadel.

Plymouth monument
Plymouth Monument

The Citadel now stands roughly how we see it today, high and mighty. 

Currently the home to 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery, and having sheltered the march of many service personnel. Andy Peters, former WO1 in the Royal Engineers who served for many years in 59 Independent Commando Squadron, Royal Engineers (the full name of 59 as he keeps reminding me), but more importantly, my father. 

I don’t think he expected me to question him on the Citadel during our dinner, which doesn’t usually consist of much substantial conversation. Try to imagine his face lighting up, the grin, as he got the chance to relive his youth. Despite my attempt to stay on track with the topic, he was much better versed in Crownhill Fort, as that is where he spent a lot of his time due to it being the home for 59.

He told me of the Citadel’s presence during the Second World War, and how it accommodated and prepared troops and equipment for the D-Day Landings in 1944. 

We then moved onto his own experience with both the Citadel and Crownhill Fort. He stressed the use of the fortifications, the banks, and the sea during the physical training that 59 would do in tandem with 29. I am still perplexed at his fond recollection of this memory. 

The Royal Citadel differed from other modern bases, as its ageing architecture and infrastructure made it starkly different. With many of its old and original elements being intact, and with building regulations not allowing improvements, Andy suggested that it did not come with the modern comforts and fittings that other bases had provided.

Andy Peters' beret

However, despite these complaints it was explicit that he found the history nothing to sneer at, but something to celebrate. He suggested that the history and age of this building clearly showed some superiority over what is built today, as it still stands and is still used as a testament to this. 

The position and strategical architecture of the Citadel still stands the same purpose as it did, and he credits and commends the use of it as the reason it still stands in such the quality we can see today.

In 2016, there was a media spell that suggested the Citadel would be sold off and transformed from the bastion into a commercial residence. My father found the heritage of the Citadel to be of great importance when discussing the potential futures of the Citadel, calling it an “absolute outrage” if it were to be sold. 

He believed this heart of heritage should stay as it is.

The high walls, moats and embankments making for excellent areas of physical training which you would not get at the average modern base, and the history only making the Citadel a more valuable token to the military and the city. 

He is not alone in this opinion, in 2016 the regiment themselves ran a £10,000 Crowdfunder appeal, showing that 29, who inhabit the Citadel, value its heritage as much as my father, who trained with 29 in the Citadel during his time in 59.

The Citadel has always been an anchor in Plymouth as you walk along the sea front with your ice cream or fish and chips. It is not hard to imagine what high walls have had to keep out over the centuries, but speaking to my father and hearing his stories and memories within the Citadel, I was able to glimpse past the heavy gates, climbing walls and tumbling green banks. 

Linked to my father for his invaluable green beret, inarguably his favourite thing in the world, potentially even above me. Plymouth’s Grey Guardian: a castle to a fort, William of Oranges’ first fortress, the harbour and city’s grand defence, but for so many, this history is a mystery waiting to be explored.



Interview with Andrew Peters, WO1 59 Independent Commando Squadron, Royal Engineers, 07/06/2020. 

Worth, Richard Nicholls, History of Plymouth: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, 1 edn (Plymouth: W. Brenden, 1890).

Unknown, 'Restoration will enhance Royal Citadel’s offer to the community, says departing CO', Plymouth Magazine, October 2016 [Accessed 08/06/2020].