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The history behind the walls at Portchester Castle

PUBLISHED: 10:21 10 February 2014 | UPDATED: 10:22 10 February 2014

Bastions on the curtain wall. Credit: English Heritage Photo Library

Bastions on the curtain wall. Credit: English Heritage Photo Library

English Heritage Photo Library 2007. All rights reserved. http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/professional/archives-and-collections/nmr/enquiry-and-research-services/terms-and-conditions

If walls had ears, those at Portchester Castle could tell countless tales of mystery, murder and mayhem

The inner gatehouse, bailey and keep. Credit: English Heritage Photo LibraryThe inner gatehouse, bailey and keep. Credit: English Heritage Photo Library

There can be few edifices that can claim a presence at many of the most key moments of almost 2,000 years of British history. But, tucked away in a pretty village lined with historic houses, at the head of Portsmouth Harbour, the occupants of Portchester Castle have been staring out to sea since the days when its flint walls were patrolled by soldiers of the Imperial Roman Army. Through all the tumultuous times of the Saxons, who used it to keep the marauding Vikings at bay, the bloodshed of the Norman Conquest, the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses, when thousands of soldiers were crisscrossing the ‘narrow sea’. The buccaneering roistering of the Tudors, and the shenanigans of the countless prisoners-of-war held here before and during the Napoleonic wars, Portchester Castle has seen it all. No wonder they say the place is haunted.

There can be few edifices that can claim a presence at many of the most key moments of almost 2,000 years of British history. But, tucked away in a pretty village lined with historic houses, at the head of Portsmouth Harbour, the occupants of Portchester Castle have been staring out to sea since the days when its flint walls were patrolled by soldiers of the Imperial Roman Army. Through all the tumultuous times of the Saxons, who used it to keep the marauding Vikings at bay, the bloodshed of the Norman Conquest, the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses, when thousands of soldiers were crisscrossing the ‘narrow sea’. The buccaneering roistering of the Tudors, and the shenanigans of the countless prisoners-of-war held here before and during the Napoleonic wars, Portchester Castle has seen it all. No wonder they say the place is haunted.

As Dawn Champion, who is the area manager for the South East, English Heritage, which now maintains Portchester, which is actually a castle within a fort, says: “It’s one of those places that, if you stick a pin in a timeline of English history, you will find something happening there.”

These happenings were first set in motion by the fort’s founder, one Marcus Aurelius Carausius, a Roman who, in around 280AD, was charged by the Emperor Diocletian to clear the North Sea of the barbarian pirates then plaguing it. In doing so, however, Carausius appropriated much of the pirates’ wealth; which might have been the reason that a plot was hatched to kill him. Catching wind of it, Carausius declared himself the emperor of Gaul and Britain. From whence springs the first mystery; did he build the fort as a stronghold against the pirates, or the Imperial Army itself? It made little difference because Carausius was still assassinated in 293AD by a follower who then proclaimed himself the ruler of Britain. It took a full-scale invasion by the army in 296AD to bring the fort back into central Roman authority, where it stayed until the decline of the empire.

Today the walls of Portus Ceaster, to give the castle its Roman name, still rise to their original height of 20ft as they did in Carausius’s day (the upper levels and parapets are medieval) and it is renowned as the most complete Roman fort this side of the Alps. “It has the best Roman walls in Northern Europe,” says Dawn. “They were constantly maintained because they were useful. Lots of others were allowed to fall into ruin.”

We next see Portchester in the hands of the Saxons, who defended the Kingdom of Wessex from Viking attacks from here, and by the time of the Normans, in the late 11th century, a keep and inner bailey had been established. The keep was then made taller not once, but twice, so that by the 12th century, it stood at its full height of 100ft and was, according to Dawn, “the tallest building for miles around, making a really strong statement”.

Just as a towering skyscraper might encapsulate power, wealth and influence for today’s barons of commerce, so it was then for kings, such as Henry II, who regularly stayed in the castle’s apartments. It even featured in his notorious dispute with Thomas Becket, for it was here that Henry met with the Bishop of Evreux, who was pleading the latter’s cause.

Henry’s son and Robin Hood’s nemesis King John also favoured Portchester, as he liked to hunt nearby. It was here when he heard that he had lost his lands in Normandy, and the castle became the departure point of various missions to France to try to recover it. Edward II was also partial to Portchester - so much so that he was prepared to part with £1,100 to repair and reinforce it, a truly princely sum in those days. Another Plantagenet aficionado was Richard II, who built some very lavish apartments for himself there. Unfortunately, he never got to see them because, in the meantime, he had fallen into the hands of his regicidal cousin Henry IV. Throughout the 14th century, the castle was used to assemble the troops for some of England’s most famous medieval battles, notably Edward III’s Battle of Crecy and Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, celebrated by no less a figure than Shakespeare.

Even though medieval methods of warfare were outdated by the days of the Tudors, Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I still visited and maintained Portchester Castle, but by the 17th century it had morphed into somewhere not so much to keep people out, as a stronghold to keep them in, and many of the prisoners captured in the succession of wars then racking Europe were held here in what Roman historian Edward Gibbon, who was then in charge of the Hampshire militia, described as “loathsome” conditions. Look closely at the walls in the keep and you can see the names of the prisoners and dates etched in the stone, as they carved their own epitaphs.

A short walk across the grounds brings you to St Mary’s Church, and if you go on a Wednesday or a Saturday, you might be lucky enough to meet Jenny, one of the enthusiastic volunteers in the church’s teashop. If the audio guide tells you everything you need to know about the castle, Jenny is a font of wisdom about the church. Buy yourself a slice of one of their delicious homemade cakes or “soup and rolls in winter, afternoon tea on the lawn in summer” and sit back while Jenny tells you how the priory, part of what is now a church, was built early in the 12th century from Isle of Wight stone and given to a community of priors by Henry I. They weren’t that grateful, though, because 20 years later they “just upped and went to nearby Southwick” says Jenny. “We’re not sure why, but it could be because they needed more land for their crops and vineyards.” Whatever the reason, the priors’ departure was the villagers’ gain, because St Mary’s has served ever since as the parish church of Portchester; which had grown up outside the Roman walls. The rest of the priory buildings have long since disappeared, but you can still see the markings on the Roman walls where their latrines had once latched on; which is just the sort of detail that schoolchildren lap up.

“These days it’s all about making it real for people,” says Dawn. “Ten years ago we would have been very focused on the buildings. Now we want to understand the characters who inhabited them. It might be the best preserved Norman architecture in the country, but people are more interested in hearing about the prisoners who rioted because of the conditions they were held in. Kids love that kind of stuff, it makes history come alive for them.”

What’s more, Portchester is, to use Dawn’s words “a very robust site. Families can spend hours here in summer, letting the kids run around.”

Certainly, on the day we visited, a minibus from Cheam School had disgorged its charges and the chambers echoed with the voices of parents calling their little ones as they tore round the keep.

And Portchester does them proud, because it’s a castle that lives up to its name. There are deep moats, a long, spiral staircase to climb up, a view at the top for miles around and, we pondered, as we watched the winter sun go down behind the ghostly grey walls of the fort, lots of murky, mysterious, murderous history. What more could you want?

Plan your visit

Portchester Castle, Church Road, Portchester, PO16 9QW

www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/portchester-castle

02392 378291
Open: Sat & Sun, 10-4 throughout January
Prices: Free to English Heritage members, £5 for adults, £3 for children aged 5-15.

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