At the Top of the Harbour (Portchester Castle)

About a month ago, I posted this picture of the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour on Facebook. I was standing on a meeting place of old and new, on the edge of a modern outlet shopping centre, Gunwharf Quays, but below the figure head of HMS Marlborough, a nineteenth century navy ship. As the name suggests, the site has a long history and remnants of that past are tucked between the designer outlets and cafes–there’s another figurehead, from HMS Vernon who, like Marlborough, ended her long service as an accommodation hulk moored just off the edge of the quays. The torpedo school which stood on this site once also took the name of HMS Vernon, and there are other little echoes here and there–an old crane, a grand military gate, a little low guardhouse tucked in the shadows of the modern blocks of flats which rise above the shops now.

Portsmouth has always been the home of the Royal Navy–even today, two-thirds of their surface fleet is based here. Looking at the narrow harbour mouth below, you can see why–the existing shape of the land here has been refined and fortified so much over the centuries that by the early nineteenth century it was believed to be the most fortified city in the world. The city itself is built on an island (although several major roads now cross the narrow channel dividing it from the mainland). It’s a huge, vital, and often rowdy city.


Much of the more recent history of the city is focussed around the harbour mouth, which is where you can also find the historic dockyards, home to the Tudor Mary Rose and Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory. A couple of weeks ago, though, Mum and I went in search of a much older part of Portsmouth’s history. The harbour has been defended for a very, very long time–the first known fort here was the Roman Portus Adurni, built at the top of the harbour in the third century.

Portus Adurni still stands, albeit in a modified form. For the last thousand years or so, it has been known as Portchester Castle. The old Roman walls form the outer bailey of the later Norman castle and are pretty much as the Romans left them, beyond various later repairs. Below you can see the east wall and one of the towers by the Watergate. Here is the very top of the harbour and from the keep within you can survey the whole harbour–no wonder the fort has stayed in use for sixteen centuries.


The water would have once come up to the walls, of course, but is now a rather breezy path around the outside (built in the 1920s as an employment scheme during the Great Depression). Looking north, you can see the chalk pits on Portsdown Hill and the faint outlines of Fort Southwick, another 19th century fort. It was from Southwick House, up on that hill, that the D-Day landings were planned.


The south wall, where we found a bench and managed to eat our lunch without any of it blowing away.


When the Normans took over the fort in the eleventh century, they built a castle of their own in the north west corner. The stone keep dates from the 12th century and is over 100ft tall (and, yes, you can climb all the way up it, and yes, of course we did). The lower complex to the side were royal apartments built for Richard II–Portsmouth was a favoured royal port. Shakespeare lovers might also appreciate that it was in this keep that Henry V was informed of the Southampton plot to depose him–the conspirators had failed to realise that Edmund Mortimer, the man they planned to crown in his place was loyal to Henry. Mortimer informed Henry of the plot, and the three traitors were tried and executed in nearby Southampton before Henry set sail to invade France. Shakespeare’s version of the confrontation is a fabulous piece of character work–here is the cold, ruthless Henry of the start of the play, showing why you do not fuck with Plantagenets. 

(Here’s Kenneth Branagh giving it his all, if you don’t know the scene).

There’s more to the history of the keep than medieval glories, though. Although the castle remained in use as a fort until the seventeenth century, technology was overtaking it. With modern fortifications now guarding the harbour mouth, it was becoming obsolete. Then, of course, came the Napoleonic wars and the castle was given a new purpose, as a prison. The top of Portsmouth Harbour was one of the three major British sites for prison hulks where captured soldiers and sailors from Napoleon’s armies were held (the other major sites were at the two other great navy bases of the UK–Chatham and Plymouth). Accounts disagree about how appalling the conditions on the hulks were–some claimed prisoners were kept in squalor, others that the conditions were far superior to non-military prisons of the time.

A lot of prisoners were held at sites across the world, and one of the rooms in the keep has a map of the world showing where the British held their prisoners. It was also an international war, and the prisoners were not all French–other nationalities included the Spanish, Danes, Americans, and over 2000 black and mixed race prisoners of war from the Caribbean, who were held at Portchester Castle. Their story began with the capture of Guadeloupe by the French in 1794, during the Revolutionary Wars. The French ended slavery on the island and promptly recruited many of the newly free to fight against Britain, which still embraced slavery. They fought in racially integrated units across the Caribbean, embracing the ideals of the French Revolution, and when the British took a large fort on St Lucia, they sent the entire garrison back to Portsmouth as prisoners. Notable captives of colour included General Marinier, commander-in-chief of the French on St Lucia, and his wife, and Captains Lambert and Delgrès, the latter of whom deserves a multi-season costume drama all of his own–he went on to be released back to the French, and was sent to Guadeloupe where he continued to fight the British until Napoleon announced that he planned to reinstate slavery. Delgrès then led the resistance against the French in Guadeloupe until 1802 when, trapped and refusing to surrender, he deliberately blew himself, his surrounded garrison, and as many French troops as he could take with him.


Displays in the keep tell the stories of some of the black prisoners and what their lives during and after their imprisonment. They were not treated with the same respect as other soldiers. In particular, the officers were not released on parole to live in British towns, as white officers generally were, but kept in the castle and on the hulks. Many struggled with the cold, damp conditions in the castle, not least because none of them had arrived with warm enough clothes for an English winter and concerns about their health eventually led the authorities to move most of them onto two prison hulks which were thought to offer warmer quarters.

English Heritage has a detailed article about the Caribbean prisoners at Portchester which is worth a read.

More about Louis Delgrès


Looking down from the top of the keep, the original Roman layout is more apparent. You can also see the parish church of St Mary. During the early years of the Norman castle, there was a monastery within the walls. It moved to a more salubrious spot within thirty years, but the church remained. Above its tower, you can see the harbour mouth, where this post began. 


The keep from the churchyard. There’s a little tearoom behind the church and so we sat here with a cup of tea and enjoyed the sunshine.


The church door.

It was a fascinating place, with so much history associated with these quiet ruins, but I’m going to end with a story which Mum told me. We had made it to the top of the keep, and had the place to ourselves–and the wind. Although we’ve both been to the other end of the harbour countless times, we’d never seen it from here, so we were busy trying to pick out familiar landmarks. Then Mum turned back to the north, waving inland, and said, out of nowhere, “Of course, what you have to imagine now is Uncle Bob–my Uncle Bob, not yours–coming over Portsdown hill up there one night during the war and seeing the whole of Portsmouth burning in front of him.”

Even the best fortified port in the world isn’t safe against bombing from the air. Portsmouth was hit hard during the Blitz–I don’t know which night it was when my great uncle saw it burning, but Mum did tell me why he was there. Uncle Bob was a fireman in Haslemere, thirty miles inland. They didn’t have a motorised fire engine, but when they got the call that night, they loaded all the firemen in the town into the back of someone’s truck, and drove south as fast as they could to relieve the local firefighters who had been working through the night to put the flames out. Between June 1940 and May 1944, Portsmouth was bombed 67 times. 900 people died and about 3000 were wounded. 6625 houses were destroyed and another 6549 severely damaged.

After the war, they rebuilt, of course. These days it is still a navy city, but the old historic dockyards are now a tourist attraction. The formidable sea defences built and rebuilt to defend against threats from the French after Agincourt to the French led by Napoleon (and a few others in between, but mostly the French) now form a pleasant wall top walk from the harbour mouth to the seaside attractions along the coast at Southsea. When we arrived in the old Roman fort of Portus Adurnithere were families picnicking in the shade of the Roman walls and a lunchtime concert was playing in the church built and abandoned by twelfth century monks.

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