In today’s blog we are discovering the famous Portchester castle, set to the east of Fareham on the outskirts of Portsmouth. Join us as we discover a medieval fortress with a huge tower keep and a castle that was taken under royal control in 1154.
We don’t know exactly when the romans built the fort but it would have coincided with some of the oldest roman coins that were excavated here which date around the mid-3rd century, that coincidently places it right around the time that the Roman general Marcus Aurelius’ Carausias was sent here to rid the English channel of threat by Frankish and Saxon Pirates. Found during excavations at Portchester and minted by Carausias, it seems likely that this all coincides with the rumour that he built the fort here. Carausias was one of Britain’s rebellious powerful emperors that basically had control over many different British provinces between 286 and 293. There are 9 Saxon Shaw forts stretching along the southeast coastline which takes you from Portchester, to Brancaster. Here it’s believed to be known as Portus Adurni, and was corrupted to Port Chester later on, then as time went on, Portchester was the new name it was known as.
The fort itself departed from traditional Roman military design. In the earlier centuries, Roman forts had used a traditional ‘playing card’ configuration which had relatively weak defences as it was intended the army would march out and attack any enemy rather than endure a siege. By the time of Portchester’s construction, the Romans had modified their approach and instead the fort was built with much stronger defences with a stone curtain wall augmented by twenty semi-circular towers. These substantial defences would have enabled the garrison to withstand a siege. It is possible this enhanced design reflected the reality of military cutbacks as the British garrison was redeployed elsewhere.
Portchester was abandoned in the early fifth century when the Romans withdrew from Britain as, without the presence of the neither navy nor deliveries from the Imperial supply chain, it simply ceased to have a function. Then in 904, King Edward later converted the site into a fortified burh (this is what’s known as a fortified town) and following the Norman Conquest, a castle was constructed in the north-west corner. The castle saw regular use during the Hundred Years War but thereafter it declined and by the seventeenth century was only used as a prison.
Following on from the Norman Conquest, Portchester was granted to William Maudit and it was more than likely him who rose the castle. The Roman Walls were utilised to form the perimeter around the Outer Bailey whilst a moat and timber barrier were used to separate the north-west corner of the fort which then became the Inner Ward. Thereafter the castle passed through marriage to another William, who commenced rebuilding the Inner Ward defences of the Castle in stone which included raising the Great Tower during the 1120s and 1130s. William also built St Mary’s church to serve as an Augustinian Priory that he founded within the walls although by 1150 this community had relocated to Southwick.
Portchester Castle was taken into Crown control in 1154 by Henry II. He spent modest sums enhancing the accommodation and regularly used these facilities as he travelled to and from the continent. Throughout the medieval period, Portchester was a royal stronghold and served as a good place for monarchs travelling to and from France. Henry II used it regularly and kept important prisoners here. The castle was prepared for a siege in 1173 during a rebellion against the King but no action was recorded. Further upgrades were then made during the reign of King John who regularly hunted in the nearby Forest of Bere.
As the Hundred Years War petered out, Portchester Castle was neglected and by the 1450s it was reportedly ruinous. Some repairs were made during the reign of Henry VIII and it hosted a Royal visit in 1535. King John came often, and expanded the royal apartments. Edward II rebuilt much of the defences in the 1320s when threat of a French invasion loomed. The last major rebuilding was by Richard II in the last years of the 14th century. Richard built a lavish suite of royal apartments, rebuilt the great tower, and the Land gate entrance.
The castle was requested to be of accommodation to 500 prisoners of war and It served this purpose well and was leased by the Government throughout much of the eighteenth century for the same purpose and by 1747 over 2,500 men were confined within the castle. The last prisoners of war left the castle in May 1814 and four years later the site was abandoned by the army. The military and prison facilities were demolished thereafter and the site remained abandoned until placed into State care in 1926.
The fort is remarkably complete, with walls enclosing a square area some 9 acres in size. Portchester is the best-preserved Roman fort north of the Alps. The wall still stands to its full height and is reinforced with U-shaped bastions projecting outwards. There were originally 20 of these bastions, but only 14 survive due to later alterations to the wall defences.
The castle presents an extraordinary glimpse into English history, from Roman to Saxon, medieval kings to prisoners of war. The Roman and medieval features are remarkably well-preserved and really give a sense of how Portchester must have looked at different points in its long history.
The castle stands in the north-west corner of the fort, and though it is large it seems almost lost within the huge outer walls of the fort. The castle is defended by a ditch and curtain wall laid out on an L-plan. Around the exterior of the outer bailey are medieval ranges. The impressive Ashton’s Tower was built between 1376-1381 by a castle constable named Ashton, and the imposing south range was remodelled in the early 17th century by the last constable of Portchester Castle, Sir Thomas Cornwallis.
The south and west of the inner bailey are occupied by the remains of a royal palace built by Richard III from 1396-1399. In the south range were the royal kitchens, extravagant porch, and the great hall, where business was enacted and entertaining took place. The west range was used for royal apartments, with a Great Chamber for the king himself.
The most impressive feature of all is the Great Tower, standing at 30 metres high which is almost 100 feet high, the tower was begun in the early 12th century, with a second stage added in the mid-12th century and the top level added in the 1320s.
The views once you’ve climbed the spiral steps from atop the castle tower are simply stunning. You can look down on the royal apartments below, and the walls of the Roman fort that encircle the site. As well as beautiful views of Portsmouth Harbour and on a good day this is fantastic to see.
The Great Tower was converted for use as a prison during the Napoleonic Wars. Thousands of prisoners were kept in the tower, and extra floors had to be inserted in order to provide enough space. Incarcerated inside the Castle’s keep these poor souls have left much evidence of their experience of British hospitality – this includes wall paintings and graffiti, some of which you can see on all the different floors with markings. Apparently, the bones of those that died and were buried in the nearby mud-flats and occasionally surface in the ebbing tide.
You’ll find Portchester Castle at the end of the originally named Castle Street, passing through the village of Portchester with its charming 18th and 19th century buildings. And when you come here it’s worth bringing snacks or a picnic or take a visit to the nearby onsite coffee van named Claude at the Seahorse coffee bar. It’s worth taking some time to explore the outer walls of the fort, where you can easily make out Roman bricks in the walls. And admiring the views of the harbour and surrounding coastlines.
Till next time.