The changing fortunes of Southsea Castle

2 September 2018

Like most of Henry VIII’s castles, Southsea is a short squat affair. Even as I got closer, it didn’t look any more like my idea of a castle but, of course, today was by no means my first visit. Probably, with a little more warning of today’s walk, I’d have done some research and found something different to look at in Southsea. F.G.O. Stuart took several photographs of the place I could have recreated if I’d had copies on my phone. Still, the castle was there and I had time on my hands. Besides, even familiar places can hide surprises.

As it happens, the photograph I took as I walked towards the castle is not dissimilar to the one Stuart took all those years ago. He had a bit more sea in his and, as always, seems to have taken it from a much higher point than I can manage, but we must have been standing on more or less the same spot. Since Stuart’s day the fence along the edge of the grass has been removed and a small bandstand put up but, other than that, not a great deal has changed other than the clothes on the people walking along Southsea seafront.

The name Southsea was actually first recorded on a royal plan in 1577. Before that Southsea Castle had several other names, Chaderton Castle, South Castle and Portsea Castle, after the island of Portsea on which Portsmouth, Portsea and Southsea all stand. Although barely recognisable as an island due to modern roads, Portsea is a low lying island of  around nine square miles, divided from the mainland by the narrow waters of Portsea Creek. In Henry VIII’s day, this made it strategically important and the obvious place to build a fortress.

The castle was built at Henry’s behest in 1544 as part of his Device programme to protect against invasion. From above it’s a pleasingly symmetrical shape, a square keep in the centre with rectangular gun platforms on either side and angled bastions to the front and rear. This bastion style of fort, evolved with the advent of cannons. Of course, from the esplanade, where I was walking, it just looked like a big square slab with a flag on top and a lighthouse behind.

The design of the castle was, according to Sir Anthony Knyvett, the Governor of Portsmouth at the time, “of his majesty’s own device.” Building began in early 1544, with Knyvett, Richard Dawarden, the Dean of Chichester and John Chatterton, the captain of Portmouth garrison overseeing the work. The master mason was Thomas Bertie and the chalk stone and timber used to build it were shipped across the Solent from the Isle of Wight. It cost in excess of £3,100, with more than a third of the money coming from the dissolution of the monasteries. The lighthouse that dominated my view as I climbed the grassy hill to get to the castle gate, was not part of the original design. It was added in the nineteenth century.

At the top of the hill I paused briefly to look out towards the sea and then back the way I’d come. From here Southsea and the City of Portsmouth were laid out before me and, had I been on the roof of the castle, I’d have had a panoramic view of the coast, proving Henry chose a great place to build.

Fear of imminent attack meant the building work was undertaken with great urgency. The annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1533, had caused a rift between the king and both Pope Paul III and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was also Catherine’s nephew. France and Rome declared an allegiance against Henry in 1538 and the pope was vocal in encouraging both countries to attack England. By July 1544 two cannons had been mounted on the site and the building work was completed in October. Chatterton was appointed castle Captain. He had a team of eight soldiers, twelve gunners, a porter, seven brass artillery pieces and eight iron guns.

Just as I was about to go through the castle gate I spotted a small door off to the right. Intrigued, I went over to have a closer look. The arched brick doorway had a wrought iron gate across it and it was dark inside. After much peering through the bars I couldn’t really make anything out but, using my phone to take a photo, I discovered there were steps leading to what appeared to be a storeroom of some kind.

Finally I walked through the same gate Henry must have passed through when he first visited the castle back in July 1545. The work was completed in the nick of time. When Henry arrived the Frecnh were preparing to invade. Across the Solent Admiral Claude d’Annebault had amassed two hundred ships and was landing troops on the Isle of Wight. From the castle Henry watched his fleet making a sortie and his prized flagship Mary Rose being sunk. In the end, apart from this brief battle and the loss of Mary Rose, the invasion came to nothing and the French ships moved further along the coast within a few days.

The threat of invasion remained nothing but a threat. By the early 1600’s, the castle was empty of both guns and gunpowder.  In March 1626 a fire broke out, destroying most of the internal wooden buildings. In the harbour several ships, believing the castle was filled with gunpowder that would surely explode, ran aground in a panic to escape. The fire damage went unrepaired until 1635. By 1640, work had barely been completed when another fire broke out and yet more internal buildings were destroyed.

The next threat did not come from foreign shores. In 1642, during  the English Civil War, Parliamentarian forces, led by Colonel Richard Norton attacked the castle. Inside, Royalist Captain Challoner had just eleven men and fourteen guns. Norton had four hundred infantry and two cavalry troops. It was a rather one sided affair but, surprisingly, no blood was shed. Anticipating an attack the garrison had positioned their guns to point inland but the Parliamentarians stormed the moat on the seaward side in the early hours of the morning. The garrison surrendered which left the town of Portsmouth unprotected and with no choice but to surrender too. Norton then installed his own garrison in the castle to keep it from being retaken.

Once the Monarchy was restored, the castle was used as a prison and, in 1665, King Charles II employed Sir Bernard de Gomme to improve the castle defences. An earthwork glacis was built, the same one I’d climbed to get to the gate. The old gate was replaced and the central keep was redesigned. It was still built of wood.

Yet another fire wreaked havoc in 1759 when sparks from a cooking fire fell through gaps in the wooden floorboards onto gunpowder in the munitions store below. Seventeen people were killed, some of them women and children. After this a new powder store was built outside the castle. Over the next  twenty five years the castle became more and more dilapidated and there were suggestions that it might be better to abandon it altogether and build  a more modern fort further along the coast. This never happened and a further threat of invasion during the Napoleonic Wars saw it readied for action once more.

The castle was expanded in 1813 and the keep and interior Bailey rebuilt in brick. This at least removed the threat of yet another fire. At the same time a gallery was built around the castle edge and the moat was rebuilt. Inside the castle walls today, things look much as they must have back then. There are still rows of small cannons but the flower filled planters and prettily painted picnic benches make it hard to imagine this as a military establishment or the fear of invasion.

The invasion never did come and, for a brief time, the castle was used as a military prison. By 1850 though, there were yet more worries about a French invasion due to the new shell guns and steam ships.  Brick gun emplacements and earthwork batteries were built and the castle was stocked with new guns. The Crimean War came and went and still no invasion came. When the war ended Queen Victoria gathered Naval ships in the Solent for a review of the fleet. A mock attack was launched on the castle by naval gunboats. Some amongst the crowds gathered to watch thought this was a real attack and chaos ensued.

Worries anout invasion continued and, in the 1860’s, new gun batteries and underground magazines were built to the sides of the castle along with a defensive wall. Perhaps the door I found led to one of the magazines?  The castle itself was left to slowly decline. It wasn’t until the First World War that it became a garrison once more, housing the Hampshire Royal Garrison Artillery Teretorials and, later, the Hampshire Royal Garrison Artillery Volunteers. An anti aircraft gun was installed to combat the threat of zeppelin raids.

Between the wars the castle became something of a tourist attraction. It remained in military use but visitors came to watch the garrison carry out practice firings. The castles’s last stand, in a military sense, came with World War II. It was occupied by a range of units including coastal artillery from the regular army and home guard and protected by barrage balloons. Living conditions for the men were less than ideal and the castle was hit by several incendiary bombs but, for once, there was no fire damage.

After the fall of France in 1940 several French warships made their way to British ports, including Portsmouth. On 23 June, amid fears that the ships might leave and fall into German hands, the castle was ordered to prepare to fire on them should they try to depart. The French destroyer Léopard, seeing a gun levelled at it, aimed its guns at the castle. No shots were fired but the situation became very tense. Finally, on 3 July, British forces boarded the ships and seized them, ending the confrontation. After a lifetime of threats that came to nothing much, this was the last time the castle was used in a military capacity.

In 1960 the obsolete castle was sold to Portsmouth City Council for £35,000. It was restored and many of the more modern features removed. In 1967, it was opened as a museum. Hopefully we will not have need of it again any time soon.

Early on a Sunday morning may well be the best time to look around inside the castle as I had it all to myself. Unfortunately, I didn’t have as much time as I’d have liked to look around though. In less than half an hour the fast boys would be returning so I thought it was time to leave the castle behind and head back towards the Pyramids.

After a couple of quick shots of the lighthouse I climbed up the embankment on the east side of the castle. At the top I had a far better view of the castle as a whole. It gave me a better sense of the scale of the place and the importance of its position.

The day was slowly getting warmer and, enjoying the sunshine, I strolled slowly along the walls that may or may not be the same ones built in the 1860’s. I passed a young man sitting on a bench drinking beer. It seemed a little early in the day to me and I was dismayed to see the pile of litter and cans strewn at his feet. Part of me wanted to tell him to pick them up and put them in one of the nearby bins but I knew this was probably unwise so I just walked on.

The Pyramids swimming complex was now right in front of me at the bottom of the slope. The promenade below was beginning to fill up with people. With one last look back towards the castle, I started my descent.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

6 thoughts on “The changing fortunes of Southsea Castle”

    1. I can’t imagine actually owning a cannon. Can you fire it? The castle is bristling with them but I’m not sure they’re in working order.

      1. Yes I can fire it and have many times. It’s old, probably from the 1800s and is on the smaller side but very heavy cast iron. It’s about a foot and a half long and has come down in the family for generations. It’s very loud!

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