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