Late in 1345 this view of Portsdown Hill from the keep roof would have revealed a foreboding image. Edward III had announced war with France for its crown in 1337, and he had won a decisive naval victory at Sluys – for the formidable land battle ahead, Portchester was to be the launch point for this march, whose ultimate victory was set to go down in history. Gathering on the old Roman road on the chalk down were the troops who were to make up the approximate (and arguably) 10,000 soldiers who accompanied him on his journey across the Channel to France. Portchester Castle housed the king and his sixteen-year-old heir, Edward, who has of course come to fame as The Black Prince, and the king who never was.
The castle was used as not only the launch point for Edward’s thousands of ships, but the base for his secret plans. Nobody but his very closest knew where he intended to land, and he had all known foreigners on English soil, who were not allies, imprisoned, so they could not spy for the French king. It was to be months of waiting, well into 1346, before all the ships, men, horses and victuals for the journey were ready. Of course, English weather didn’t help the intended launch either, and there was some delay at the start of the year due to this.
Finally, in summer, Edward’s war party got moving, and the rest is history.
It’s still a beast now, but in its heyday Portchester was a particularly spectacular beast – its keep is (still) 100 feet high, which is a medieval skyscraper. According to this list Portchester’s keep makes it the joint 6th tallest castle in the UK. There has been a fortress of some degree here since the Romans, and, according to the English Heritage audioguide at this site, it also assisted in the downfall of Richard II, due to the excessive funds he used converting it into a palace. Not bad for an old guy.
The Romans built the still-spectacular walls that surround the castle – the most intact example north of the Alps says EH. Probably the only reason the walls are so well-kept is that the site was still is use by the Anglo-Saxons after the Romans fled, and became a right fortress in the Norman and early/middle Plantagenet eras, and remained in use after this on occasion as a prison in many centuries. As its sister Roman site up the coast, Pevensey, it also became a garrison in the 20th century.
Unlike most of the castles in my HWIP, Portchester gets to be itself. It’s also a site which, excepting Richard II’s grand palace buildings, seen to the left of the keep above, is fairly in keeping with how it looked on that fateful day (for the French at least) in 1346. Portchester, like Rochester, has a first floor entrance too, like many Norman castles, and (though there is a 12th century entrance in the far right-hand doorway, which leads to other rooms) the remains of an external staircase is also visible – the diagonal holes in the front facing brickwork in the centre of the image. Just behind that front wall is a dungeon, and Richard II’s palace is basically all the buildings to the left of the keep.
Portchester was granted by William the conqueror to a William Maudit, whose family owned it until Henry II took it into possession. Being a royal castle, it would rarely have been occupied but by a constable, as kings owned many castles, and travelled between them often.
There is one spiral staircase in the keep, which leads to three main levels, and finishes at the roof. It also goes right down to the basement, however, I’m not sure if the staircase always did that, considering it would be a major security risk were the gatehouse and inner bailey breached… You will have to excuse some of my grainy pictures, I have little patience for photography.
And some warm fuzzies come with these stairs, as there is no doubt whatsoever that Edward III and his son both would have traversed these steps, and wandered about (and likely resided) in the keep with many of their generals.
The room below is the first room you enter in the keep. All main rooms are about the same size, and there are two on each floor. There is a possibility there were some more comfortable arrangements than what can be seen now, but since its decline as a fortress and increased use as a prison, there was little use in keeping the building comfortable.
And so, Portchester still stands, as looming as ever, on a peninsula opposite Portsea Island, as it did in 1346 (only a little bit more ruined). One of the most interesting and important turning points in military history relating to the battle that was to follow in August 1346, that of Crecy, where The Black Prince won his spurs (which is a literal meaning, by the way, of when a squire has earned a knighthood) is the very likely addition of guns to the war party.
Longbows are still at the forefront of this battle’s history, and rightly so, but there seems to be gathering evidence about the existence of primitive guns at this battle, which may have caused the severe confusion that happened at this bloodbath. So if Edward III ordered these weapons to be transported with the war train, then these guns would have been taken to Portchester first, to be loaded to ships. This castle could have been the launch of modern gun warfare in Europe, and so that’s a rather fine epitaph if ever there was one, for good or ill.
Oh, and a line of holes for the monks’ toilets (there was a short-lived monastery inside) that used to be within the walls. Always love those.