Half a mile south of my house, on the shores of Portsmouth Harbour, is Portchester Castle.
Portchester Castle was first built by the Romans, who found the natural cove at the top of Portsmouth Harbour to be an ideal anchorage for ships, and built a substantial fort to defent their naval base. Most of the Roman walls survive to this day, and used by the Saxons to build a more substantial castle once the Roman Empire in England has collapsed.
When the Normans conquered England in 1066, William the Conqueror gifted land across the country to his loyal followers, both to reward them and to control the native Saxons. The Domesday book, a record of English land ownership in 1086, recorded that William Mauduit owned the Castle at Portchester, and had built a Norman Keep (tower) in the North West corner of the Roman walls.
In 1130, the Augustinian Order of monks founded a priory in the South East corner of the castle. The Castle was clearly not a suitable site for a monastery, as by 1145 the monks had moved a few miles north to the village of Southwick. However, they left behind a fine Norman church, that survives to this day.
The Medieval Kings of England often stayed at Portchester Castle. It proved a suitable location for hunting in the nearby Forest of Bere, and also for staying the night before sailing across the Channel to English possessions in France. King John often stayed at the Castle, Richard II built a magnificent Palace in the inner bailey (courtyard), and both Edward III and Henry V assembled their armies at Portchester before sailing to victory at the battles of Crecy and Agincourt.
After Henry VII founded the Royal Dockyard at Portsmouth, however, Portchester declined in importance. In addition, castles were no longer as fashionable to live in as mansions and country houses. Portchester still had its uses, however – in the late 18th and early 19th centuries it was used as a prison for thousands of French prisoners captured during the Napoleonic Wars.
The Castle is now a museum. The outer bailey is open to the public during daylight, and English Heritage run the Inner Bailey and Keep as a Museum. St Mary’s church, the remains of the priory, is still a functioning church and is open to the public. If you want to find out more about Portchester Castle, visit the English Heritage website, or take a look at the Portsmouth Paper on the Castle by Barry Cunliffe, which details the archaeological investigations at the Castle.