Portchester Castle


Portchester Castle

If you're visiting Portsmouth, put Portchester Castle at the head of your to-do list. Strategically and scenically located overlooking Portsmouth Harbour, Portchester Castle has played a key role in some of the most dramatic events in England's history.

Portchester Castle lies within Portus Adurni, an old Roman fort. It now boasts the best extant example of Roman walls in Northern Europe which still rise to over 20 feet. Portus Adurni was built as part of the Saxon Shore Forts, a series of coastal defences which endeavoured to protect the land from Saxon invasion.

Excavations in the 1960s revealed that Portus Adurni was extensively occupied towards the end of the 3rd century. Carausius hailed from Belgica and had earned himself a name for honourable service, first as a helmsman and later in the military. He was therefore commissioned to clear the waters of the troublesome Saxon and Frankish pirates by Emperor Herculius. Carausius agreed but kept a card up his sleeve. First he waited for the Saxons to stock up on booty but then failed to turn it all over to the Roman Empire. Once his secret was out, he fled to Portchester and promptly declared himself Emperor of Britain. With a price on his head but the backing of Britain, things were looking good. That is until Carausius was murdered by Allectus, an assistant who now took his title. The fort at Portchester was then reconstructed in expectation of Roman revenge. The prediction was correct and Allectus spent a mere three years in power before being defeated by Constantius.

However, the fort which was built at Portchester in the 3rd century remains here to this day. Square in shape, the outer walls are 6m (20feet) high, 3m (10feet) thick and enclose an area of 36,000 sqm (9acres). The walls were constructed out of coursed flint bound together by limestone slabs. At the Roman departure, Portchester Fort was occupied by locals until the arrival of the West Saxons who went on to occupy it between the 5th and 10th centuries.

The arrival of the Normans brought architectural advances to Portchester. William Maudit was given the land and he commenced building in the fort's north east corner, completing the bailey and first part of the keep. Portchester Castle continued to grow and the keep was raised another two stories by the next century. When William's Maudit's son died, Portchester Castle became the fortuitous property of the crown. With its excellent location, it provided protection over the harbour but also an excellent point of departure for attacking troops. As such, Portchester Castle would retain its favour with royalty over the centuries for various purposes.

In the late 1120's, Portchester Castle belonged to one William Pont de l'Arche. He brought new changes in the form of an abbey but unfortunately practically all that remains of this today is the church. Henry II as Duke of Normandy and King of England found Portchester Castle very useful and availed of it to store and ship his gold between the two countries. Under King John of England, the revolt of the rebel barons led to Portchester Castle's capture. Although, the rise of Portchester town had led to the decline of Portchester Castle as a royal residence it was nevertheless repaired after the war.

During the 14th century, England stood on the brink of the 100 Years War and so Portchester was refortified. In 1346, Edward the Third came to Portchester Castle en route to France and the Battle of Crecy or as some have had it, the Battle to the End of Chivalry. Despite being outnumbered by the French, the English had superior weaponry and tactics on their side. Although the English were victorious, both prisoners and wounded were slain mercilessly against all codes of chivalry.

The constable of Portchester Castle, Sir Robert of Ashton (1376-81) built a tower in the north east corner. Later dubbed, Ashton's Tower, it served a two-fold purpose. Not only did it reinforce the Inner Bailey defences but quite conveniently created a larger and more comfortable living space for Sir Robert. More importantly, Portchester Castle was soon refortified with gun loops and gun ports so as to do battle in an age of gun warfare.

In 1396, Richard II signed a 28 year truce with France, an agreement which would bring him dividends. With monies now freed up, Richard II was free to build a new royal palace for himself at Portchester. Three years later, the efforts of 280 men had reconstructed the inner courtyard buildings to new and improved luxuriousness. Unfortunately for him, Richard II would never get to enjoy them. Having lost favour at home, he was captured and imprisoned in Pontefract Castle where he died.

In 1415, Henry V departed from Portchester Castle for the famous Battle of Agincourt. However, the 15th century saw Portchester Castle playing second fiddle to Portsmouth which was now on the rise as a dockyard and harbour. Although its days as a fortification to be reckoned with were over, Portchester Castle was still put to use. In the Civil War it served to house troops and then again as a prison in the 17th and 18th centuries. On your visit, keep a look out for the historic graffiti they left behind!

Portchester Castle was given to the Department for Environment in 1926 and is now managed by the English Heritage. Entrance to the grounds is free but it's well worth the price of the ticket if not for the history then just for the fantastic views over Portsmouth Harbour.
Portchester Castle Photo