Daily Archives: 25 April, 2010

Portchester Castle #1 – the outer bailey

Portchester Castle lies at the top of Portsmouth Harbour. And, luckily, just over a mile from my house! Originally built by the Romans, and subsequently inhabited by the Saxons and Medieval Kings, today the Castle is open to visitors.

It’s unknown exactly when the first work on the site was carried out. The Romans called the area Portus Adurni, are thought to have built the first fort at Portchester in the 3rd Century AD. Goodall suggests a date of between 285 and 290 AD, while Cunliffe has written about evidence of a small settlement prior to this date. The outer Bailey is the main remaining part of the Roman Castle. It is easily recognisable, constructed from flint and mortar, and remarkably well preserved. There is ample evidence of the different occupiers of the Castle in its stonework. Roman flint, Norman and Medieval stone blocks, and later Georgian and Victorian repairs carried out in red brick. The Roman works in particular were an incredible achievement, with none of the machinery modern builders would rely on. That they are still standing now is testament to their skill.

The Flint Wall of Portchester Castle

The Flint Wall of Portchester Castle

The original walls were some five feet thick and twenty feet high, and include features such as crenellations and fire steps.

Crenellations

Crenellations

There are also large circular bastions in each corner. The Castle also has substantial outer defences – one two sides it faces the sea, and a system of moats on the landward sides. There is an excellent plan of the Castle here.

The Castle’s location is extremely important. Located in the middle of the South Coast, opposite France, and at the top of a well defended harbour, it was an ideal base for travelling to the continent, for defending the local coastine, and assembling armies. The English Armies that sailed to Crecy and Agincourt were assembled at Portchester. As time passed by the top of Portsmouth Harbour silted up, and Portchester was eclipsed by Portsmouth. But in the middle ages, Portchester was a crucial settlement. And naturally, a village soon grew up near the Castle, along the approach road.

After the fall of the Roman Empire the castle was probably taken over by the indigenous english. The area received its current name around the 6th Century AD. Ancient chronicles describe how a Saxon Warrior landed and captured the fort. For the next 4 centuries the Castle was in Saxon hands, and the current Watergate is largely of Saxon origin.

Watergate

Watergate

Over time extra bastions have been added, as well as latrine chutes and several gates. In particular, latrine chutes can be seen on the south wall, where the old Priory once stood.

Latrines

Latrines

On the north side we can also see a nasty looking archway, where the defenders would have been able to pour boiling hot oil onto any attackers attempting to scale the walls.

Arch

Arch

After the Norman Conquest the Castle was handed over to one one of William’s trusted Lieutenants. The Domesday Book shows William Mauduit as being the owner of the Castle. This was part of William’s policy of handing Castle and manors to trusted Frenchmen, in order to control the english population.

The large Keep was constructed in the early 12th Century. It now stands at over 100 feet high, after various phases of construction. The Keep was the main stronghold of the castle, surrounded by the inner bailey and then the outer bailey (more on the inner bailey at a later date).

The Keep

The Keep

Located close to the Forest of Bere, a prime hunting area, the Castle was also used by many English Kings as a hunting lodge. Nowadays the Castle is surrounded by trees and other buildings. But for many years it would have been by far the biggest building for miles around, a powerful status symbol of the local lord, and by definition the King. The building of the Round and Square Towers at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour in the 15th Century, and later Southsea Castle in 1544, largely made Portchester obsolete. Redundant as a fortress, it served as a storehouse and a Prison over the following centuries.

My next post will look in detail at the inside of the Castle – in particular the Church, the Inner Bailey, and the Keep.

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Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, Local History, Medieval history, out and about, Uncategorized

The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne

The Battle of Verdun has long been regarded as perhaps the sharpest Schwerpunkt of the Great War. In an attempt to bleed the French Army dry, the Germans launched an offensive on the strategic fortress of Verdun. There was no other aim than to lure the French into losing so many men that they could not carry on the war. In fact, the Somme Offensive – another byword for attrition – was launched early in an attempt to relieve the pressure on Verdun. Yet Verdun is almost completely overshadowed by the Somme and Ypres in the British understanding of the First World War.

The title is perhaps slightly misleading, in that the book focuses much more on the general conduct of the Great War than it might suggest. This is not surprising, as it is in fact part of a trilogy of books by Horne focussing on the long rivalry between France and Germany – the Franco-Prussian War, and the 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 Wars. The latter two books cover the wars in general, but choose Verdun in 1916 and Dunkirk in 1940 as the apex of the French experience.

Horne is a master of the close study of the military leader – here, in paticular, he paints lucid and telling pictures of men like Joffre, Falkenhayn and Petain. Horne’s grasp of the big picture, and the personality of command, is clear indeed. Horne also delves into describing contemporary France in detail, a wise move that puts the conduct of the French Army into suitable context. It is very important to immerse yourself in the military culture of a nation if you want to understand the actions of its armies. Here Horne considers the impact of French society on her army, the hstorical legacy of Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian War, the French Army’s belief in the offensive reform, and the effect of the Grand Quartier General.

Criticisms? It does show its age. Having been written in the 1960’s, it is stil couched very much in Great War mythology. Historians of that era were prone to compare the World Wars, and conclude that the First World War was much bloodier. Modern Historians might be more critical, and challenge such assumptions. And given that this is such a masterful study, it is a great shame that it is not referenced properly. Clearly a lot of research went into the writing of this book, and it is a pity indeed that the reader cannot see the sources that went into Horne’s conclusions. This is not to dispute Horne’s integrity – far from it – but a modern book would suffer from a lack of referencing. One other annoying habit is that of including a wealth of French quotes, without a translation – back in the 60’s every Historian might have been fluent in French, but in the twenty-first century it does seem a rather snobby trait.

Between 21 February and 15 July 1916 the French Army suffered over 275,000 men and 6,563 officers as casualties. On the German side, almost a quarter of a million men were lost. But, crucially, the French had sent 70 Divisions into battle at Verdun; the Germans ‘only’ 46. Thus Falkenhayn’s strategy of bleeding the French dry backfired horribly – the French had certainly not ‘won’, but the German’s for their part could not afford anything over than success. Horne calls Verdun the ‘worst’ battle in History, and also the First World War in microcosm – arguments that are hard to dispute.

This is a very enlightening book indeed. It is of its time, but in its time it was a classic, and still stands up remarkably well.Perhaps a reworking – or better still a new book on Verdun – would be interesting to see?

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Filed under Book of the Week, World War One