Portchester Castle

Portchester Castle

Keep - Portchester Castle

Keep - Portchester Castle

Portchester Castle is a medieval castle built within a former Roman fort at Portchester to the east of Fareham in the English county of Hampshire. It is located at the northern end of Portsmouth Harbour. The strategic importance of Portchester has been recognised since at least the 3rd century when a Roman fort was established on the site of the later castle. Though it is uncertain exactly when the fort was constructed, it is thought that it was built by Marcus Aurelius Carausius on the instructions of emperor Diocletian between 285 and 290. It was one of several forts built along the British coast in the period to combat raids by pirates. Portchester was probably a base from which the Classis Britannica, the Roman fleet defending Britain, operated. It is the best preserved Roman fort north of the Alps. Local legend states that late in his life Pontius Pilate was brought here by galley as a final refuge. Although the Roman army retreated from Britain in the early 5th century, it is unlikely that the fort was ever completely abandoned, although its use continued on a much smaller scale. A 10th-century hall and tower were discovered within the fort, suggesting it was a high-status residence during the Saxon period. In 904, Portchester came into the possession of King Edward the Elder and the fort became a burh to help defend the country against Vikings.


It is uncertain when the castle was built, although it was probably in the late 11th century. In the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, the manor of Portchester was granted to William Maudit, an associate of William the Conqueror and a powerful magnate, and it was probably he who built Portchester Castle. The form of this early castle is uncertain, although Maudit was probably responsible for creating the inner ward in the north-west corner of the fort. At this point it would most likely have been defended by a wooden palisade and a moat, with the original Roman stone walls of the fort acting as the defence of the outer bailey. Maudit died in about 1100, and his property passed onto his son, Robert Maudit. He died in 1120, and a few years later the family estates came into the hands of William Pont de l'Arche through marriage to Robert Maudit's daughter. Although the castle was still unrecorded in this period, it was probably at this point that it was rebuilt in stone. The evidence for this is that the stonework of the castle is similar to that of St Mary's parish church, which was built in the 1130s in the outer bailey. The church was built for an Augustinian priory which Pont de l'Arche established within the castle in 1128. Other buildings would have been planned for the priory, although almost no trace of them survives. As the community moved to a new site at Southwick between 1147 and 1150, the buildings may never have been completed


William Pont de l'Arche probably retained possession of Portchester Castle until his death in 1148, although who inherited it is uncertain. It may have passed to William Maudit, a descendant of the Maudit who most likely founded the castle, or Henry Maudit, William de l'Arche's son. The earliest extant reference to the castle is in a grant from 1153 in which Henry Plantagenet, later King Henry II granted the castle to Henry Maudit. Regardless, when Henry ascended to the throne in 1154 he took over possession of Portchester Castle. It would remain in royal control for several centuries. More records survive from the castle's period as a royal fortress than the previous period; the royal accounts provide details of the castle's condition and structure. For instance, as only small sums were spent on the keep during the royal tenure, it is assumed that it was largely complete, and in 1183 the Rolls record that there were royal apartments separate from the keep. Henry II regularly visited Portchester, and it featured in his dispute with Thomas Becket. It was here that Henry met with the Bishop of Évreux who spoke on Becket's behalf. The castle was also used as a prison for important people, such as the Earl of Leicester. When Henry II's sons rebelled against him with the support of some leading barons in the Revolt of 1173–1174, Portchester was made ready for war. In preparation to defend the castle, catapults were made and it was garrisoned with ten knights, later increased to 20.


King John often stayed at Portchester Castle and was there when he heard of the loss of Normandy in 1204. The Forest of Bere was nearby, making Portchester a popular place for the king to stay recreationally. Portchester was also the departure point of missions to France in 1205 and 1213 as John tried to recover Normandy from Philip Augustus, the King of France. John's trips to France ended in defeat. After signing the Magna Carta in 1215, John appealed to the pope to annul it. As a result, his opponents were excommunicated in September. At this point, he laid siege to Rochester Castle and the rebels turned to France for help. The barons offered the throne to Prince Louis, the oldest son of the French king. Louis' campaign was initially successful and he captured London and Winchester before Portchester Castle surrendered to his forces in June 1216. John died on 19 October 1216, and nine days later his eldest son was crowned King Henry. Louis' fortunes took a turn for the worse, and Portchester Castle was recaptured in the spring of 1217. There was a stalemate between Henry III and Louis until the English victory at the Battle of Lincoln on 20 May. After his supply lines with France were cut in August, Louis was bribed to leave England. Henry tried to recapture Normandy, which was lost by his predecessor, until conditions in England forced him to abandon them in 1259, and Portchester was a frequent departure point for troops on campaign.


For most of the century little attention was paid to the castle's defences, however towards the end of the century a wooden tower was built to reinforce the eastern Roman wall. During the reign of Edward II (1307–1327), a French invasion was anticipated and Portchester garrisoned. The Crown spent more than £1,100 repairing and reinforcing Portchester Castle between 1320 and 1326. The buildings of the inner ward were remodelled and the outer gatehouses extended. Despite the expensive work undertaken by Edward II, a survey of 1335 recorded that many of the castle's buildings were in a ruinous state, and the south wall of the Roman fort had been damaged by the sea. Although he infrequently stayed at Portchester, in June 1346 Edward III assembled his 15,000 strong army there before leaving for France on the campaign that ended in victory at the Battle of Crecy. Further work was carried out in the 1350s and 1360s when the domestic buildings within the castle were reordered and the sea wall repaired. Between 1396 and 1399 the royal apartments that stand today, albeit in a ruined state, were built for Richard II under master mason Walter Walton.


In 1415, King Henry V was making preparations at Portchester Castle for a campaign in France, part of the Hundred Years' War between the two countries. While at Portchester in July a conspiracy, known as the Southampton Plot, to overthrow Henry was uncovered. The Southampton Plot of 1415 was a conspiracy to replace King Henry V with Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March. It was at the castle that he arrested the conspirators: Richard of Conisburgh, 3rd Earl of Cambridge, Henry Scrope, 3rd Baron Scrope of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey. The nominal principal, the Earl of March, informed King Henry of the plot on 31 July, stating that he had only just become aware of it. Richard, Scrope, and Grey were promptly arrested. The trial took place in Southampton, on the site now occupied by the Red Lion Inn. Grey was beheaded on 2 August and the two peers on 5 August, both in front of the Bargate. Satisfied, Henry sailed for France on 11 August.


In the 15th century the nearby town of Portsmouth some 6 miles away grew to become a significant economic centre and an important port. It took over from Portchester as a place of military importance, and the castle entered a period of decline. A survey from 1441 noted the castle was "right ruinous and feeble". Despite its state, when Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, landed in England in 1445, Portchester Castle was selected as her port of arrival. The castle was allowed to continue to languish until the last decade of the century when attempts were made to repair the castle's buildings. When Henry VIII visited with Queen Anne Boleyn in October 1535, it was the first time in over a century that the reigning monarch had been to the castle. Between October 1562 and June 1563, the English occupied the port of Le Havre on France's northern coast. During this period the castle acted as a military hospital for those involved in the conflict with France. With relations with Spain worsening, Elizabeth I made Portchester Castle ready for war, anticipating a Spanish invasion. By 1603 the castle was in a fit state for Elizabeth to hold court there. Sir Thomas Cornwallis was made constable and remodelled the buildings along the eastern side of the inner bailey. A royal survey from 1609 documents the castle's improved condition, noting that the buildings built by Cornwallis contained "four fair lodging chambers above and as many rooms for office below".


The castle passed out of royal control in 1632 when Charles I sold it to Sir William Uvedale. Since then, Portchester Castle has passed through his successors, the Thistlethwaite family. The castle did not witness fighting during the English Civil War, though for a short time in 1644 it was garrisoned by Parliamentarian dragoons. One of the roles castles commonly filled was that of a prison. From the late 17th century onwards this became Portchester's most important function. In 1665, 500 prisoners from the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667) were held at the castle. Some were housed in the church in the outer bailey. They damaged the building by setting it on fire. The church was not repaired until some 40 years later. Between 1702 and 1712 the Crown leased Portchester Castle from the Uvedales to incarcerate prisoners from the Spanish War of Succession. The first detailed accounts of the prisoners' conditions come from the middle of the century. It was last used in the 19th century as a gaol for over 7,000 French prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars. Hospital Lane (formerly Seagates Lane), which flanks the western side of the castle, was the location of the prison hospital which survives today as Portchester House, a private residence. Those that died in captivity were often buried in what are now tidal mudflats to the south of the castle, their remains occasionally disturbed by storms.


The Roman fort was laid out symmetrically. Around its perimeter were 20 regularly spaced D-shaped towers, of which 16 remain. The Roman walls stand to a height of 6.1 metres, though the upper parts are medieval. The original building technique, using flint and courses of flat limestone slabs, or double courses of brick, is still clear, especially along the south wall. Set midway along each wall was a gate, the two main ones to the east and west (the Watergate and Landgate respectively, both substantially rebuilt in the 14th century). The two secondary postern gates were to the north and south. Roman remains inside the fort have been largely destroyed by ploughing and later occupation, but several Saxon buildings have been excavated. The parish church of St Mary, in the south-east corner, is the only surviving building of a short-lived Augustinian monastery founded inside the fort in about 1128. The inner bailey lies in the north-west corner of the Roman fort and is surrounded by an L-shaped ditch and curtain wall. Around this courtyard, probably created in the late 11th century, are the shells of several grand medieval ranges. To the north are the foundations of a 12th-century building that served in the late Middle Ages as the constable’s residence. Ashton’s Tower, at the east end, was begun by a constable of that name who served here between 1376 and 1381. The ruined south range was completely remodelled in the early 17th century by the last constable, Sir Thomas Cornwallis.


Around the west and south sides of the inner bailey are the remains of a grand series of residential apartments built by Richard II between 1396 and 1399. The south range was the public and service wing, which contained the great hall, kitchens and entrance porch, the last still featuring its brackets for lamps. To the west were the inner royal apartments, including the king’s great chamber. The square Great Tower stands more than 30 metres high, and in the 12th century contained some of the most important apartments in the castle. It was built in three stages. As it was first completed in the 1130s, it rose to a point roughly level with the tops of the exterior buttresses. This structure was almost doubled in height probably within 20 years. Finally, the crown of the building was raised in the 1320s. The great tower was later altered extensively, especially during the Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815), when extra floors were inserted to lodge thousands of prisoners. The spiral stair in the south-west angle provided the only original access between floors. Faintly visible on the second-floor walls are the remains of an elaborate painted decorative scheme for an early 19th-century theatre.


An exhibition in the keep interprets the history of the castle and Portchester village, and displays finds excavated on site. The inclusive audio tour explains life in the castle over the centuries. Assistance Dogs are welcome, there are two taps with running water - one at church and one on drawbridge. Dog bins found on site. Wheelchair Access is via drawbridge and level, smooth grass. Ground floors of the Keep and exhibition within reach via a ramp. No access above ground floor level. Compacted gravel paths lead to the outer Bailey and Roman walls. Interpretation boards have large print. There are some exhibits available to touch. There are no toilet facilities on site. The nearest toilets are located in the large car park outside the castle walls.


Location : Church Road, Portchester, Hampshire, PO16 9QW

Transport : Portchester (National Rail) then bus or 20 minutes. Bus Routes : First service 3 stops nearby.

Opening Times : Daily 10:00 to 18:00; Until 17:00 October;  Weekends Only 10:00 to 16:00 November through February.

Tickets : Adults £5.80;   Concessions £5.20;   Children (5 and over) £3.40

Tel. : 02392 378291