The view from the Castle
The history of Portchester cannot be traced back much
before the latter part of the 3rd Century, A.D., when the existing Roman Fort was constructed on the present site.
Despite extensive excavations in the area, and a local legend of it having been occupied by a British Chieftain, no evidence
of an earlier human settlement has so far been unearthed. The earthworks to be seen outside the walls near the Landgate
were not, as was once thought, thrown up by Ancient Britons,
but were erected by the Romans as an outer defence line and subsequently added to and improved in medieaval times. It is
probable that the area had been used by the Romans as a base camp or settlement in connection with the Roman Fleet for
quite a while before the walls of the Fort were built. It was only when the threat of the Saxon invaders became acute, that
the line of Forts known as "The Forts of the Saxon Shore", came into being as permanent
defences. The Fort at Portchester was constructed to form part of that line, and it was
known as Portus Adurni, or thought to be.
No traces of any stone built Roman structures within the confines of the Fort have yet been discovered, but it can be
supposed that they would have erected some type of Temple during their occupation and if so it would have been dedicated
to Mithras. This temple could conceivably have been on the site of the present Church. An antiquarian, a certain John
King, states in his "Monumenta Antiqua" which is now in the British Museum, that in 1777 he found traces of a Roman
Temple under the foundations of the present Church Tower. Although nothing further appears to have been discovered to
substantiate this claim, there is in the Church a small stone coffin said to be Roman for a child, and this is reputed to have been found beneath the Nave during reconstruction during
the last century.
The Romans finally abandoned the Fort during the late fourth century, and from the fifth century onwards, it was
occupied by an extensive Saxon community. In the seventh century, Christianity was spreading throughout the countryside
and the Fort, like many of the others, was probably used as a Saxon Mission Station. Whilst there is no evidence for this
belief, it is generally considered that the Saxons built a Church in Portchester and legend has it that this
was destroyed by a raiding Viking party. This Church would probably have stood where the present Church stands. The Saxon Church may
have been constructed of timber and wattle in which case no trace would be left of it when the Norman Canons erected their edifice. Certainly no sign of a Saxon Church has so far been
discovered within the Fort.
That there is no mention of a church at Portchester in the Domesday Book does not necessarily mean that no such church
existed, for the Domesday Book, Which Was drawn up in 1086 at the command of William the Conqueror, listed only those
churches which were a source of profit to the Crown. In this survey Portchester is shown as a rural Manor, and a Hall is
mentioned Which could have referred to a church. The foundations of a wooden buttressed hall and an aisled hall have
been unearthed during excavations in the centre of the Roman Fort. Also, Portchester had belonged to the Bishops of
Winchester for quite a long time before 904 A.D.
The Normans, at the beginning of the 12th century, commenced the erection of the Castle, under the orders of
Henry 1st, and in 1133, at the instigation of Henry Blois, Bishop of Winchester and Abbot of Glastonbury, he gave a
Charter to the Augustinian Monks of Normandy.
This Charter, 'Granted to God, and the Church of the Blessed Mary of Portcestre, and to the Canons regularly
serving there, the Church of St. Mary, there founded by him, with the land and titles belonging to the Church, for the benefit of the souls of his father and mother and William, his
brother, his ancestors and successors, and for the prosperity and safety of his Kingdom. Dated at Burnham on our passage
overseas, 1133. The Wording of this document seems to show that the church was already erected and functioning in 1133
with the monks in possession. It is possible however that it may have not been completed.
The Church is looked upon as one of the finest Romanesque churches in Wessex and the most precisely dated. It is
also one of the few that are faced in ashlar inside and out.
The Canons did not stay long at Portchester, for they were moved away between 1145 and 1153, to a more spacious
house at Southwick and there built a new Priory. The Monks probably became an embarrassment when it was decided to
improve and strengthen the defences of the area and make the Castle more secure. Papal Bulls issued by Pope Eugenious II
in 1145 and 1153 were addressed to the Priors of Portchester and Southwick respectively, setting forth that the Pope received
the Churches and the Priories under his protection. The Priors and Canons still came to Portohester to hold services
in the Church, for it served as the Parish Chur'h and the Castle Chapel, but gradually the Church and the Monastic
buildings, including the South Transept, were demolished and the stones stolen or removed. Some were taken for the new
Castle buildings and some for the building of houses in the village. The Church suffered severely and was probably
neglected until it was partially restored by Queen Elizabeth the First.
King John, of Magna Carta fame, is known to have stayed at the Castle early in the 13th century and may have
worshipped in the church, though this is doubtful and the church was probably neglected until the reign of Queen
Elizabeth the First.
In the 14th century, in the reign of Henry the Fifth, troops embarked for the wars in France from
Portchester, notably for the Battle of Agincourt.
The fortunes of the Royal Borough of Portchester diminished, and Portsmouth, an unimportant fishing village at the
mouth of 'the harbour, came into prominence. The increasing size and draught of ships precluded them from navigating the
upper reaches of the harbour.
Portchester Castle was one of the Royal Residences of Queen Elizabeth the First, and Sir Thomas Cornwallis, Groom
Porter to Her Majesty and Governor of the Castle, persuaded her to finance some of the more urgent repairs to the structure
of the church.
The chancel was rebuilt and much reduced in height and length in the process, and the southern transept roughly
blocked off. It is fairly evident that Cornwallis intended to rebuild this transept later, but it was never done.
The Church was again allowed to fall into disuse, and in the reign of Charles the Second, was used as a prison camp
for Dutch prisoners of war, taken by Admiral Blake in the English Channel in 1653.
The conditions in which these men were kept was such that as a protest they set fire to the church. The damage
done could not have been so very great, as it was forty years before the parishioners petitioned Queen Anne in 1705 for a
grant in aid to make good the damage done.
The petition to Queen Anne set forth that "The parish church, in the late war, being by your Royal Uncle, our late
Sovereign King Charles the Second, made use of, together with the Castle of
Portchester, for securing prisoners of war,
was by their means set on fire and the greatest part ruined."
The Queen ordered a sale of timber from the "Windsor Forest, and from the proceeds made a grant of £400 for the
repair of the church.
The church was restored and in 1710 when the building was re-opened, the list of expenditure included the following
£3 10s. "for a hogshead of strong beer to drink the Queen's health," and £20 for the
Queen's organist and his "eleven musicians, vocal and instrumental."
The church was again used as a prison during the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century, when the French
prisoners of war were held in Portchester in very large numbers. When the War was over, before they were evacuated, they
were employed on works of restoring the church, whitewashing
the walls and painting the pews and pulpit blue and white.
Various repairs were carried out in 1824 and the expenses were defrayed "by fitting up and selling three pews at the
west end for £15 each."
In the 1880's, the church was in a deplorable condition, and an extensive restoration was
The nave was renovated at a cost of £400, and the chancel, tower and belfry were restored by the lay rector and the Lord
of the Manor.
In 1951 over £400 was raised by a Fete held in the Castle Grounds and this was mainly devoted to correcting the
tendency of the south wall to lean outwards, and to eradicating the death watch beetle from the roof.
This restoration of the Parish Church was the memorial to all those men and women of Portchester who died in the
1939-1945 war, and a plaque has been placed on the south wall of the church to commemorate this.
The church is in several ways different from the usual Norman church, but the main difference is of height. The
general effect is of a low squat building as opposed to the more usual lofty Norman buildings.
This was probably to ensure that the building did not project above the surrounding castle walls, and thus interfere
with the sentry's view.
The Lych Gate was built in 1897 and was restored to mark the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of King George the
The Yew Tree was bought and planted by the French prisoners of war, to replace the one destroyed by the fumes
of their kitchen fires. The tree was probably planted in 1816, and cost the prisoners the then quite considerable sum of one
shilling and three pence.
The west doorway is most elaborately carved; above the capitals on either side are symbolical figures, on the left
"Pisces" — the fish, being symbolical of Christ, and on the right "Sagittarius", half horse, half archer, being the arms of
Stephen who usurped the throne on the death of Henry the First.
Above the doorway are three recesses; the central one is pierced by a window, but those on either side are filled with
richly sculptured panels. The central window formerly held mediaeval glass, but this was sold piecemeal in 1899 to make
way for the present window and to raise funds.
The churchyard contains many old tombstones, some beautiful, some rather gruesome, and the bodies of many
Naval men are at rest here.
On the south wall can be traced the point at which the cloisters joined the wall. Thei doorway which led from the
Church to the western end of the cloisters, is now 'the entrance ito the new annexe added in 1974, and which consists of a
Meeting room, with facilities for refreshments, a choir robing room and toilet.
The original line of the southern transept and of the chancel can be traced on the tower.
The vestry, which stands on the site of a small chapel, was built in the year 1864.
The general impression is of length and narrowness, but there is a rather lovely beauty about the plainness and
comparative severity of the design.
The font is genuine Norman, and one of the oldest in the country. The modern base seems to have been added early
in the last century. The carving is said to represent the Garden of Eden. A small stone panel believed to be a copy
of part of the missing lower half of the font is preserved in the Vestry, and the carving on it is a crude representation of the baptism of Christ.
The painted wall panels are well worth noting, that on the south wall bears the arms of Elizabeth the First, and the
date 1577, and was erected to commemorate the restoration carried out in her name by Sir Thomas Cornwallis.
The large panel on the north wall bears the arms of Queen Anne, and the date 1710, and commemorates her
"bounty" in financing the restoration of the church, after it had been damaged by the Dutch prisoners of war setting it
The high doorway, long bricked up, on the North wall of the Nave, had a high pediment or canopy over it on the
outside, and this doorway is considered to have been intended as a Royal entrance to the Church. When the Kings or the
Constables of the Castle with the Court dignatories and attendants moved in procession from the Castle to attend Divine
service they could pass through without hindrance to their banners and standards.
The monument set in this doorway was erected by the parishioners as a mark of their love and respect for the Rev.
Thomas Longlands, the Vicar of this parish for 52 years, who was responsible for much of the restoration work carried
out at that time.
The small "squint" window on the north side wall now contains a modern stained glass window to the memory of the
late Captain Alfred S. Russell, D.S.O., R.N., 1897-1945.
The east and west end windows now contain good examples of 20th century stained glass. The east window is
in memory of a 2nd Lt. of the Leinster Regt., the lower window in memory of William Stares, who died on April 18th,
The rather peculiar feature of the south wall, the two arches, one superimposed on the other, formed part of the
eastern doorway leading to the cloisters. For some unknown reason, this doorway was re-sited westward and lowered.
Eventually it was finally blocked up, the arc'hes being left in situ to avoid weakening the surrounding wall structure.
At this point, on both sides, there was originally a rood screen and lesser altar.
The belfry contains three bells, one tenor dated 1589, bearing the inscription "Obey God and the Prince," a second
tenor dated 1632, with the impression "In God is my Hope," and a third, a treble, dated 1633, bears the initials of the
bell-founders of the church, "R.V, I.H. and W.W."
Of the southern transept only the blocked arch remains; the window inserted in it is Tudor.
The small wall pillars in the northern transept are a modern restoration; the older work can be plainly seen above.
The roof here is the oldest in the church, dating from the time of the Elizabethan Restoration.
In the east wall of the Transept is the archway which formerly led to a small chapel, now the site of the
vestry. The carving on this arch and around the windows should be noted.
The sanctuary was much reduced in size at the time of the restoration. The altar window is modern and on the right
of the window is a bust of Sir Thomas Cornwallis of painted alabaster, but the colours have faded greatly.
The piscina built into the east wall is Norman, while over the vestry door can be traced the faint outlines of a
The oak reredos (altar screen) is modern, and was made locally in the early twentieth century, from local oak. The
communion rail's, however, are Elizabethan.
The chairs and the embroidered cushions are also com- paratively modern, having been made by parishioners and
presented to the church early this century.
The "relics" lying within the sanctuary were found under the nave in 1885, and are rather interesting; the grave slabs are
both 12 century; one has carved on it a cross in the shape of a Crusader's two-handed sword, and probably marked the
resting place of a Crusader returned from the Holy Land about the year 1160.
The other has upon it an Abbot's staff, and is probably earlier, about 1140, and is believed to have marked the resting
place of the first Abbot of the Monastery.
The tiny stone coffin is Roman, and is hollowed out to hold the body of a young babe.
The bench end is Elizabethan and probably of the 16th century.
There is a legend of a very beautiful set of communion plate, in distant times, but no trace of it has ever been found.
Quite possibly it was sold to pay for the restoration of the church at some time.
There are three sets of communion plate at present in use; one was given in 1852 to the Church by a former Vicar,
the Rev. Thomas Longlands, one was given as a memorial to one of the Church Servers who was killed during the last war
(1939-1945), and the other was given in 1954 in memory of two sons of Mr. and Mrs. Cooper, of
The old Elizabethan pulpit sounding board is now used as the Vestry Table.
The Church Registers date from the year 1604, while other documents which survived the years and are kept in the
Vestry and an Elizabethan Book of Remembrance dated 1589.