Castle of the Week 12 – Portchester Castle

Portchester Castle is in Hampshire, England. The site has been one of military occupation since the third century when the Romans established a fort there, as one of a series of forts protecting the south eastern shores of England.

The Romans probably built the fort as a strong defensive base for their fleet to repel sea borne barbarian attacks. They built a fortified perimeter wall with 20 bastions (defensive towers) and two main gates, the Land Gate and the Water Gate. The area enclosed is 3.4 hectares. There is much evidence of the Roman occupation; coins, pottery, jewellery and shoes.

After the Romans left Britain in the fifth century AD, the level of protection afforded by the walls was recognised by the native Saxons. They used the walls as a safe haven to establish a small town. There is evidence of timber buildings having been constructed, and of domestic and craft activities (whetstones, worked bone, and turned wood). Saxon occupation continued until the Norman invasion in 1066.

The Normans, following their invasion of England in 1066, recognised the site for its strategic importance in defending the calm waters of what is now Portsmouth harbour. They established themselves in the walled town in about 1080. The outer walls formed the bailey (outer courtyard) and they built a castle and a priory within the existing Roman walls.

The Norman castle was built in the northwest corner of the roman fort. The walls enclosed the inner bailey and the castle was separately defended by a moat and gatehouse. The keep was in the north west corner of the castle, access to the upper rooms was via a spiral staircase built within the thickness of the wall itself. The keep was doubled in height during the 12th century and was also maintained as a royal castle and was therefore a place for English nobility to visit.

The other buildings in the castle were rebuilt over the years. The gatehouse was extended outward from the castle from the 12th century onward to increase protection for the occupants. Each successive move resulted in the portcullis being resited and new drawbridge arrangements being constructed. In the early and mid-14th century the royal accommodation was extended and completely refurbished with a new kitchen. As such it became a self-contained unit within the castle.

The outbreak of the Hundred Years War with France in 1337 required all the southern coastal defences to be fortified. At Portchester the castle gates were extended (for the final time) and an additional wall built between the Watergate and the extended earthworks to the seaward approach. These defences proved to be sound as the castle survived attacks by the French, whereas the city of Portsmouth was heavily burned.

Finally the Hundred Years War was over in 1396 and King Richard was able to divert funds into improving the royal quarters to palace status. Once again the whole of the western side of the courtyard was rebuilt as a two-storey building with royal apartments and the King’s private chamber, a kitchen, a huge meeting/dining hall and three further chambers. The castle received royal visits from Queen Elizabeth I in the early years of the 17th century and there is some evidence of minor improvements being made for her stay there.

What can be seen today at Portchester Castle are largely the final 14th century building modifications to the Norman castle, and the 16th century improvements to the palace block.

Pictures by the author, Granite Q


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