Southsea - the history behind the spooky

Liz Barnett takes a trip to Southsea to discover the history behind the spooky <br/><br/>Castle that has protected the Solent for centuries

Over 400 years ago King Henry VIII had a feeling in his waters, “The French will invade” he cried, and quickly ordered that a fort be built on the land at Southsea to protect Portsmouth Harbour and to defend the eastern entrance to the Solent. Taking inspiration from the Italians and their geometric fort designs, Southsea Castle was the next evolutionary step for forts in Britain. It may not have been as intricate as the ones seen in Italy, but the significance of developing this design over the previous circular model was great. Made with strong, structured lines the fort enabled cannons to be shot from every direction causing maximum destruction to any approaching enemies.

The battle of the SolentThis castle, or ‘device fort’ as it is now known, joined a series of constructions to line the south coast in a bid to fight off any unwanted visitors and sure enough, just a few months after the castle was finished, the French began their attack. The story goes that, on July 18 1545, the French fleet landed on the Isle of Wight with Portsmouth in their sights. The British were greatly outnumbered but Henry VIII’s beloved ship, the Mary Rose, was on hand to help out and the Battle of the Solent commenced. Perhaps spurred on by the lack of casualties in day one or most probably in a bid to impress the King, the newly appointed commander of the Mary Rose, Sir George Carew, decided to sail towards Southsea Castle after firing shots at the French to show off to the King standing on the shore. Sir Cadew soon realised his mistake when he spotted a sandbank up ahead and ordered his untrained crew to swerve sharply. In a cruel twist the Mary Rose capsized before sinking beneath the waves, a tragedy that perhaps could have been avoided if it were not for the open gun ports and King Henry was forced to watch his pride and joy become a part of the seabed. Standing at the fort today you can really imagine the scene, the King watching in horror as his crew perished in front of him.

Battle beatenDespite its uneasy start, Southsea Castle went on to be a successful military base for another 400 years. Not without its ups and downs of course, one of which was a devastating fire in 1627 that ripped through the keep and another being the storming of the walls by Parliamentarians during the English Civil War some 15 years later. In 1759 things became more serious when an accidental explosion killed 17 men, women and children, it is said to have started when some embers from the kitchen fell down to the gunpowder storage below and it was so badly destroyed that there was talk at the time of demolishing the whole site.

Rising againThankfully, a decision was made to start restoration, something that Andrew Whitmarsh, Military History Curator at Portsmouth Museum and Records Office, has spent much of his time researching. “When you look at the castle today much of what you see has been changed over the years, although the structure still remains pretty much the same, the inside has been altered and adapted to ensure maximum defence.” There is a long cycle throughout the castle’s history whereby defences were knocked down and rebuilt during times of conflict or neglected during times of peace and it wasn’t until 1814 that the restoration was finally completed. Andrew says: “During the civil war the castle was captured by soldiers coming through the moat and climbing over the wall, so in 1814 a decision was made to dig a tunnel surrounding the moat so that British troops could shoot any enemies in the back as they tried to come through.” Along with the tunnel, the north wall was also renovated to incorporate a larger garrison aimed at fitting in several hundred men. “Although the new garrison would have been able to accommodate around 200 troops, it wasn’t always full to capacity. The area in which Southsea Castle was built was a derelict, boggy and isolated space and for the times when it was home to the few invalid troops, not fit enough to go to sea, but strong enough to keep the castle, it must have been an eerie and atmospheric place to stay. Because of its sunken structure you can really feel some of that atmosphere as you walk around today.”

Relive historyDue to its positioning, Southsea Castle has been at the front line of every battle to commence its shores, even when it was used as a military prison during the Victorian era, the guns still remained poised for attack. Andrew explains: “The castle at Southsea was built for one role only and that was to protect the dockyard at Portsmouth. If the dockyard was attacked and either destroyed or captured then that would have been a devastating loss to the British army and the country. “In the early 19th century, further forts were built along the Solent to help defend the dockyard, which meant that any approaching ships would have to sail through a bottleneck lined with defences.” The castle was finally withdrawn from active military service in 1960 when it was purchased by Portsmouth City Council and turned into a fantastictourist attraction. “There was an awful lot of work done to bring Southsea Castle back to the way that it was during the 19th century.“The various modernisations that had been constructed over the years were removed and today you can walk around the castle experiencing what it would have looked like over 100 years ago.”Southsea Castle is a superb place to visit at any age; it provides a wealth of British history and is the ideal attraction for the perfect family day out.

what’s onSouthsea Castle plays host to some excellent family events throughout the year. Don’t miss a weekend of fun filled education and re-enactments on May 8-9 and August 22-23.

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Also visit onMay 1-3: Heavy Horse WeekendMay 16: Unity DayMay 23: Alacrity DayMay 30-31: Rocky AppealJune 6: Tenacity DayJune 19-20: Moonlit MemoriesJune 21-27: Portsmouth FestivitiesJuly 31: Warburtons PicnicAugust 15: Thai FestivalAugust 22: BASICS eventSeptember 5: Multi-Cultural FestivalSeptember 12: City of Portsmouth Scouts Fairvisit castle fieldDuring the later part of the 18th century a wall was built around the castle and its surrounding grounds to defend any attacks that could have been coming from further down the river. Loop holes were inserted to allow for guns to be fired at the enemy before it reached the castle. A part of this wall can still be seen today where the grounds, now known as Castle Field, are used as a site for further attractions and events.

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