Southsea Castle

The Battle of Hastings was a ferocious and bloody battle that left, by some estimates, 6,000 dead, but it wasn’t the end of the struggle for William. He still had a deeply hostile and resentful populous to pacify. Fortunately, he had some cutting-edge military technology at his disposal. William introduced the vanquished populous to a new innovation bought over from the continent: the castle. 

Initially Norman castles were simple, hastily constructed affairs. They consisted of a motte (an earthen mound) and a bailey (a flattened area surrounding the motte). The earthen mounds had steep sides rendering them difficult to attack. The bailey was often enclosed by a wooden palisade and wooden buildings were often constructed upon the motte. The castles could be quickly built and easily defended. It was this innovative military tactic that allowed the Normans to conquer and pacify the vast territories they did.  

Despite the great advantage of these castles attackers soon recognised the Achilles heel of the wooden palisades: fire. A sturdier construction was needed. Soon the wooden palisades and buildings were being replaced by stone keeps and enclosures. These new sturdier castles took more time and were more expensive, but were harder to attack. As the stone buildings grew in size they became too heavy for the handmade mottes, so they became the keeps, the last stronghold of the castle. The Tower of London, arguably the most famous example, became the first stone keep in England.  

As the use of stonewalls and keeps increased, attackers were forced to modify their tactics. Their three options were to dig under the walls, climb over the walls or break through the walls. In response castle designers adapted their designs again. Gatehouses were built to strengthen the entrances. Parapets and turrets were added to aid defence of the walls. Sometimes even moats were dug to stop attackers approaching the walls. As this arms race soldiered on, eventually a completely new design of castle emerged: concentric castles. 

Early attackers to concentric castles were likely celebratory upon penetrating the castle’s outer wall, at least initially. But undoubtedly their merriment would have been extremely short-lived. Beyond the first wall was a second, higher wall. Along its top were positioned archers raining arrows upon them. They were now stuck between the two great walls with nowhere to shelter. They were trapped in what was aptly dubbed ‘the death area’.  

As time wore on a more peaceful era emerged, negating the need for such grand fortresses. In response castles began to be built, and adapted, more for comfortable accommodation – as well as great displays of wealth. 

Until not long ago I was only familiar with the Medieval castle designs described above. But Henry VIII’s questionable marital liaisons and belligerent behaviour reignited hostilities with the great European powers of France and Spain. This created a renewed need for defence. But technological advances rendered large, flat walls easy targets and flimsy resistance against the period’s ferocious fire power. A new approach was needed. The solution was short, solid, squat, cylindrical constructions. I first encountered this alternative style when I visited the wonderful Deal Castle. I was immediately won over. Look at how unusual it appears from the air:  

Deal Castle

As you can see it’s made from a series of squat concentric circles. In fact, whether intentionally or not, from the air it’s shaped like a Tudor rose. Henry built around forty such forts along England’s southern coast. Many have since been destroyed. Many have been converted for accommodation or other such uses. There are around twelve, in various states of repair, open to the public. I’ve posted about some previous trips here and here. 

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One such castle, Southsea Castle, is situated in the town of Portsmouth. Across the water, on the Isle of Wight, is Yarmouth Castle. My intention of visiting these two castles was the motivation behind my Isle of Wight trip. This post, and the next, is about my visits. 

Southsea Castle was built to defend the incredibly important port of Portsmouth. It’s believed Henry himself played a role in its design. His adoption of the latest design innovations from the continent resulted in a departure from the rounded concentric forts, such as Deal. Southsea possess angled walls, increasing flanking capacity. Another defensive innovation was the manner in which the courtyard featured four walls, confusing any would-be attackers. The castle was hastily constructed in less than six months during 1544. The swiftness was owed to the ongoing threat from a French attack.  

The French attack never arrived. As is the case with many of Henry’s castles, Southsea didn’t see any action until the English Civil War broke out in 1642. It was not long after war broke out that a Parliamentarian force surrounded the castle. The Royalist commander of the castle, Captain Challoner, was too drunk to surrender and rather cheekily asked them to come back in the morning. Ignoring his inebriated request they approached from the undefended sea side and climbed over the walls in the early morning. The garrison of twelve men wisely surrendered to the four hundred besiegers with no loss of life. It was the only time the castle was captured.  

The castle served as an active military base for over 400 years. Military service ended in 1960, but easily could have done so sooner. Due to its dilapidated state, Southsea was nearly demolished in 1814. Thankfully it was instead renovated with the addition of more guns and a larger garrison. Today it’s is free to visit. I assumed this meant there wasn’t that much to see, but I was wrong. The castle is still complete and there’s plenty to see and do. I was quite surprised. I would happily have paid to visit, so it’s definitely worth visiting for free.  

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About lanceleuven


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