Portsmouth: Graham Gendall Norton Introduces a City That Has Faced Invasions and Foreign Adventures since Roman Times

By Norton, Graham Gendall | History Today, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Portsmouth: Graham Gendall Norton Introduces a City That Has Faced Invasions and Foreign Adventures since Roman Times


Norton, Graham Gendall, History Today


TWO THOUSAND YEARS RISE AND FALL with the tide as it swirls through the narrow channel at Portsmouth Point and into the harbour. The city is sited at, and named after, the mouth of a port, Portchester, around four miles further north. The great harbour is roughly shaped like a balloon: Portchester sits on top of it, Portsmouth is at its narrow mouth. Portchester has Roman origins, from around the first century An, though the castle, which still survives, is of late third-century origins, part of the 'Saxon Shore' defensive system. Portsmouth is tile only British city on an island site, Portsea Island, which until the twelfth century was fiat farmland; a lord of the manor, Jean de Gisors, founded a new town around 1180, laying it out on a regular pattern centred on today's High Street in the old town. Five years later he founded a chapel, dedicated to 'the glorious martyr' St Thomas of Canterbury. This chapel was basically complete by 1188. By 1320, it was a parish church in its own right. The oldest building in Portsmouth, its surviving choir and transepts date from its founding. The cathedral (as it became in 1927), and its recent additions--the nave completed in 1991, the latest, the great bronze west doors of 1997--provide some of the milestones in the city's history.

The cathedral survived the Blitz, which much of the High Street did not: in the worst raid, January 10th, 1941, 171 were killed, and 3,000 homes were destroyed. On that date too, the great Victorian town hall, today's Guildhall, was gutted. It has been reconstructed, but, alas, without the original dome.

Charles II married Catherine of Braganza in Portsmouth in 1662--not in the parish church but at Government House. This was the residence of the military governor then sited in and around the medieval Domus Dei, the only part of which still remaining, the half-ruined Garrison Church, is Portsmouth's second oldest building. Charles authorized the rebuilding of the parish church tower as its medieval predecessor had been shattered by Parliamentary gunners firing across the water from Gosport after Portsmouth had declared toe the King. The tower was completed, as was the nave, in the early 1690s. Since 1710, the tower has been surmounted by the great gilded 'Golden Barque' weather vane (now a replica). Charles also ordered Bernard de Gomme, a Dutch engineer, to co-ordinate, improve and add to the fortifications of the town in accord with the latest Continental ideas.

Portsmouth had had defences since the end of the fourteenth century: earth ramparts, wooden defensive structures, a moat. In 1415 the first stone structure was added: the Round Tower by the narrowest point on shore of the entrance to the harbour, just west of the Old Town. The Square Tower (1494) is close by, at the western end of the High Street, as is the Sally Port from which naval officers and others went out to their ships, with a clutch of plaques and monuments marking today's city's world-wide links: to Australia--the First Fleet convicts departing for Sydney in 1787--and to Walter Ralegh's Virginia.

1494 also saw Henry VII ordering the building of the world's first dry dock, which was completed in 1495 by Sir Reginald Bray. But it was with the accession of Henry VIII that Portsmouth burst into life as the navy expanded and further fortifications were added. The Mary Rose, Henry VIII's great ship, was launched here in 1511. She immediately saw service in wars against France and the Scots, and was upgraded to 700 tons and refitted with superb bronze cannon, each an individual work of art. War with France commenced again in 1544, and on July 15th, 1545, a French invasion fleet appeared before the town but was forced to withdraw. In the course of the battle, the Mary Rose sank, most likely through keeling over suddenly so that water rushed through her open gunports. The Cowdray engraving taken from a now-lost contemporary painting shows her two top-masts pathetically just above water, a survivor calling for help under the still-flying flag of St George, and drowned men everywhere. …

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