The Newport Tower is a 28 feet (8.53 m) stone tower on top of a hill on Aquidneck Island, overlooking Narragansett Bay in Newport, Rhode Island. The plan of the structure is slightly ellipsoid. The diameter from southeast to northwest is approximately 22 feet 2 inches (6.76 m) but is approximately 23 feet 3 inches (7.09 m) from southwest to northeast. Its age and builders have never been firmly established.
During the past 2 ½ centuries there have been many interpretations of the Newport Tower. It has been described variously as (1) a 17th century windmill,(2) a fortification built by the 10th century Vikings, (3) a 11th century castle built Welsh Prince Madoc,(4) a 14th century religious shrine built by the Knights Templar, (5) a watch tower built by Bronze Age Irish Celts, (6) a monument built by 14th century Chinese explorers, (7) a 6th century Irish monastery, or (8) an astronomical observatory designed by Elizabethan scholar, Dr. John Dee, in 1583.
This enigmatic structure was the focus of Episode 12 of the first season of “America Unearthed” on History Channel H2. Scot Wolter, a forensic geologist, who hosts the series, focused on evidence that linked the design of the tower to the traditions of the Medieval Period Knights Templar and Colonial Period members of Freemasonry. The tower does share certain architectural traits with medieval towers associated with the Knights Templar. It contains a special keystone that was used both by medieval master masons and later leaders of Freemasonry. Wolter freely admitted that those similarities alone factors do not prove that it was built by the Knights Templar.
Wolter carried out several scientific studies, which analyzed the astronomical aspects of tower’s design and the locations of unusual stones placed in its façade. Some tests backed up Wolter’s theories on alignments with the sun and planet Venus. Others didn’t.
Until previously unknown information becomes available, or a time machine is invented, the interpretation of the Newport Tower remains in the realm of theory and speculation. However, there are historical and architectural facts about the structure, which are rarely mentioned in biased discussions about its origins found on the internet. They give support to several of the alternative theories.
The origin of Rhode Island’s name suggests that the Newport tower existed prior to English settlement of the region. While sailing along the coast of what was to become New England in 1524, explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano passed Narragansett Bay and named Aquidnick Island, “La Isola di Rhode,” the isle of Rhodes.
The isle of Rhodes guarded the entrance to the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt during Greco-Roman times. It contained a lighthouse that was tallest structure of its time. Verrazano described a structure on the island that looked like a “Norman villa” and also reminded him of the lighthouse on Rhodes. He labeled the region around the bay, Noremvega.
“Norem” is a Scandinavian family name, also found in Normandy, France. Normandy was conquered by Vikings in the 10th century. “Vega” means meadow in Italian and Spanish. Verrazzano was Italian explorer employed by the King of France. Northern Normandy and southeastern England were the centers of Templar activity prior to the order’s suppression by the Pope. Both regions were in the Kingdom of England at that time.
A map of North America created by cartographer Geraldus Mercator in 1567 labeled the region around Narragansett Bay as Norumbaga. It shows a town with towers on Narragansett Bay. Norumbaga may be Mecator’s misinterpretation of Noremvega.
Dr. John Dee was a brilliant scholar, navigator, author, political advisor and occultist in Elizabethan England. He never sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, but was asked by Queen Elizabeth to provide legal proof of England’s claim on North America. Dee first provided her with credible evidence that fishermen from Bristol, England had landed on Newfoundland in 1484, eight years before the voyage of Columbus. In 1580 Dee elaborated the legend of Welsh Prince Madoc. In his report to Queen Elizabeth, Dee wrote, "The Lord Madoc, sonne to Owen Gwynned, Prince of Gwynedd, led a Colonie and inhabited in Terra Florida or thereabouts in 1170.”
On August 5, 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed Newfoundland for Elizabeth I, the Queen of England. He erected a modest monument near the shore of St. Johns Harbor to confirm the land claim. At that very same time, John Dee was traveling to Poland, where he would live for several years.
During the late 1700s the Newport Tower was usually labeled by locals as “the old mill” or Benedict Arnold’s Mill. Benedict Arnold owned the property immediately prior to the American Revolution. Newport, Rhode Island was founded in 1639. Some 17th century documents seem to indicate the presence of a structure at the Tower’s location, but they are very vague.
According to a study of English wind mills by the National Trust–UK, most English windmills date from the mid-1700s to the early 1800s; the majority being built between 1780 and 1820. Some windmills that were built in England, date as early as the 1200s. Very few windmills were built anywhere in the North American colonies of Great Britain. All that have been documented were built out of wood and rested on a single, large tree trunk.
In its current form, the Newport Tower is very vulnerable to lateral stresses. Its stone rubble columns are far too narrow in diameter, and too weakly bonded, to safely support forces such as the unbalanced weight of a wind mill or the force of high winds on a tall wooden roof. Approximately, 2/3 of the structure’s weight is in the second level. Even a minor earthquake could cause it to collapse. This structural characteristic suggests that someone in Newport altered its architecture, no matter what its original function was. It is likely that the original tower was braced by wooden or masonry structures that are no longer visible.
Only one surviving English windmill has an arched base. It is the Chesterton Mill built in the mid-1600s out of carefully interlocked ashlar masonry. All others have thick-walled, truncated bases. It was necessary to build “bottom heavy” windmills in order to prevent their non-symmetrical superstructures from turning the buildings over. See the attached slide show.
The asymmetrical arrangement of the existing (and filled-in) wall openings bear no resemblance to typical windmills. Closed window openings can be seen from the inside of the tower. What they do resemble are the slots in medieval fortresses for crossbowmen or the upper windows of chapels.
The Newport Tower may have been altered and repaired several times. Its oldest visible mortar was composed of seashell lime, crushed shells and sand. This white, chalk-like visible mortar was radio-carbon dated to the mid-1600s. The original stone masonry may have been laid with either clay mortar or no mortar at all.
The Newport Tower is an example of vernacular Romanesque style architecture. Romanesque architecture evolved from Classical Roman architecture and made extensive use of semi-circular arches. The style was prevalent throughout much of Europe in the 10th through the 12th centuries. Romaneque reached its most sophisticated level in Norman England and Normandy. In Normandy, it evolved into the Gothic style, which became popular in the 13th century, but never completely replaced Romanesque. Semi-circular arches were far less prevalent in 17th and early 18th century English architecture.
Several round, Romanesque, chapels were built in Europe during the 1100s and early 1200s. They were inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, whose description was brought back to Europe by Knights Templar and Crusaders. This was the exact same time period that the legendary Prince Madoc supposedly made two Atlantic crossings to establish a Welsh colony, but also when the Knights Templar were at the peak of their power.
If they were elements of the original Newport tower, its semi-circular arches eliminate many candidates for its construction. It is possible, though, that the arches on the Newport Tower may have been added at a much later date, if the tower was reconstructed by English colonists. The Bronze Age Celts, the sixth century Irish and 10th century Vikings did not build semi-circular arches. However, the Vikings, who became the Normans of Normandy, were masters at constructing arches. Most Viking and early Medieval Scandinavian structures were built out of wood. No semi-circular arches date from that period in Scandinavia.
Scandinavia does have some round public buildings that are masonry. The most famous is the Øester Lars Kyrka (Eastern Lawrence Church) in Børnholm, Denmark. It dates from around 1160 AD. King Erik of Denmark built Scandinavia’s oldest masonry tower in Helsingborg, Sweden around 1310. It was named the Kärnan Tornet (Kernel or Corn Tower.) It is rectangular and built of brick. This is the same time period, when Greenlander Scandinavians are linked with the Newport Tower. No structures in Iceland and Greenland from the Middle Ages contain semi-circular arches.
During the Medieval Period a chain of lighthouses were built on hilltops around the French port of La Rochelle. They were stone and the approximate dimensions of the Newport Tower. None had arched bases, however. See the attached slide show.
Relatively short, round stone towers form an architectural tradition in the northern tip of Scotland and Shetland Islands. They date from the Iron Age and were laid without mortar. These ancient towers overlook coasts and were originally the fortified homes of nobility. Many were adapted in the Middle Ages into lighthouses. Also, new lighthouses were built in the same cylindrical forms during the late Middle Ages. None contain arches in their bases. There is substantial evidence that some survivors of the KnightsTemplar moved from Normandy to Scotland, after their order’s suppression.
Was the tower originally both a lighthouse and chapel?
The dating of the oldest mortar on the tower in the mid-1600s is problematic for construction of a new windmill of a sophisticated stone masonry design. This was a time of great turmoil in both England and the colonies. Rhode Island was a struggling young colony. Newport was a small village. During this period, England first experienced its Civil War, then the regime of Oliver Cromwell, followed in New England by King Phillips War (1675-1678.) Much of the combat occurred in the vicinity of Narragansett Bay. In this insecure economic environment, it is not likely that an entrepreneur would have invested in such an expensive structure for a small, frontier village.
Verrazano’s description of a “Norman villa” on the crest of Aquidneck Island strongly suggests that there was some type of stone structure there, built by somebody, prior to English settlement. Its location would have been ideal for a lighthouse to guide trans-Atlantic voyagers to the safe harbor of Norremvega. The sophisticated arched support of the tower implies that the tower was more than a lighthouse. It could have been a round chapel with arched façades like those built in Europe during the late 1100s to late 1200s.
No evidence clearly stacks the deck in favor of one of the alternative interpretations of the Newport Tower. There will probably be no agreement between the proponents of conflicting theories until sophisticated forensic technology is utilized to understand the appearance of Aquidneck Island in 1524. What do you think?