Portchester Castle  Still digging!
Portchester (Portus Adurni) has been the site of habitation before the Romans. Today it is best known for its Norman keep but the outer walls are essentially intact and Roman, being one of the constructions of the "Saxon Shore" fortifications. Within the walled area, excavations in 1965 revealed a gravelled parade ground from the 1600's, wattle and daub from the Saxon period and beam slots from wooden buildings of the Roman period dated to the late 300's from coins of Carausius and Allectus. A number of subsequent medieval inhumations were also found.



Archaeology volunteers, Portchester 1965. allo, allo! examination of a medieval skeleton with Barry Cunliffe
Volunteers  at Portchester carefully examine the evidence  after all the hard work has been put behind them. The long arm of the law reaches back 2000 years.

It may be from Portchester that emperor Vespasian  in the 1st century A.D. embarked for the seige of Jerusalem after subduing S.E. Britain & the Isle of Wight. A clump of trees near Portchester is said to be where St. Paul landed, now known as Paulsgrove.

Pre-Roman Settlement

British coinsHigden a Christian monk at Chester recorded  in A.D. 491 that there was a British camp at Portchester  (called Caer-Peris). Higden also stated that there were two brothers here, Ferrex and Perrex sons of Sisil  who fought each other, Perrex (Peris) being the victor. As a result Perrex was crowned king.  He founded and fortified the town where Portchester Castle now stands calling it Caer Peris after himself. However the murder of Ferrex was avenged by his mother Idon, "who with her maidens when he was asleepe, cut him all in pieces and after this the land was divided into three kingdoms" .
"After the death of Cymbeline (Cunobelinus*) the government fell to Guiderius (Caractacus), his son. This prince refused to pay tribute to the Romans, for which reason Claudius, the emperor of Rome marched against him (A.D. 43-48). Hamo, the commander of the Roman forces made an attack on Caer Peris and began to block up the gate with a wall" (probably a seige to starve the British). But in a battle Hamo killed Guiderius upon which his brother Arviragus took command and under him they pushed the Romans back to their galleys. Later in the absence of defenders, Claudius assaulted Caer Peris and took it".

[*circa A.D. 5-10 to 40-43 Shakespeare's Cymbeline ("Old King Cole") is the only king whose memory has survived in British tradition through Geoffrey of Monmouth. A Roman writer refers to him as "Rex Britanniarum" which signified defiance of Rome, however he never provoked war. He controlled the Trinovantes a tribe centred on CAMVLODVNUM (Colchester) and all south-eastern Britain except the Iceni in East Anglia]

Late Roman period

In the Comes Litoris Saxonica (Count of the Saxon Shore) in  282 Saxon long boats were reported in the Channel.
By 286 Carausius, a Belgic seaman, was sent by Rome to supress pirates  having obtained the command of the Saxon Shore, but he himself  became a pirate by capturing the plunder and enriching himself. Carausius escaped to Britain with his entire fleet, welcomed by the Britons and the only remaining Roman legion, and declared himself  emperor of Britain.
Carausius minted his own coins, probably at nearby Bitterne (CLAVSENTVM).
About 1942 two skeletons were found at Portchester with coins in the skull which were probably placed under the tongue to pay Charox to ferry them across the River Styx.
Carausius made Portchester his naval station and dockyard and  established his power after he defeated a Roman fleet, such that his independence had to be accepted by the Roman emperors Diocletian and Maximanus as Augustus of Britain. During the reign of Carausius, Pevensey (Anderida) and Portchester (Portus Adurni) were strengthened.

Portchester Aerial view

                              The outline of the 1965 excavations can be seen as a N-S linear structure in the SW quarter of the castle grounds

However he had a brief reign, when a  "friend" & subordinate, Allectus murdered him in 293. Three years later the Caesar, Constantius Chlorus crossed the Channel, Allectus being forewarned, assembled a fleet at Spithead  and on the first news of the Romans being at sea under Asclepiodotus he pushed round the Isle of Wight into the main channel to intercept them. Owing to dense fog he failed in his purpose and Asclepidotus having effected a landing burned his ships. Thereupon Allectus also landed his fighting men, fought the Romans and was defeated and fell, Britain was then restored to The Roman Empire. From now on the Romans kept a garrison at Portchester.

When a  house was being built about 1900 by a Mr. Harry A. Evans in a field he had purchased at Portsea Island, workmen found  broken pottery and a burial urn  in the upper end of what was previously called Lump's Lane (now Lump's Fort rose garden). Pottery was also found  in the nearby cemetary. In the urn were almost 1000 Roman coins which may represent a hoard hidden by an officer who had been ordered back to Rome and never returned, but this could just as easily be pillaged money.The coins were from  the reigns of Trajan (98 -117 A.D.), Antoninus pius(138-161) and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus(121-180) but most of about 350 A.D.

In 410 an appeal from Britain ("The groan of the Britons") was made to Honorius (395-423) the emperor in the West. Honorius  who had ruthlessly persecuted the Christians, replied "let the communities look after themselves"

After Vortimer, (Vortigern's son) had died, Ambrosius Aurelianus, one of the last Romans, became king after  the British king Vortigern1 Arthur, the legendary British hero is believed to have fought and lost a battle near Portchester under Ambrosius against the Saxons or Jutes.

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 501 A.D:
"In this year, Porth and his two sons Bleda & Maegla came to Britain at the place called Portsmouth (Portesmutha) and there they killed a young British man of very high rank" 

Portchester Casle from the air looking north. This battle may have taken place on Portsdown Hill nearby or  at Portchester. The Anglo-saxon Chronicle states that the battle took place at Longborth ("The haven of the ships"). The young man of high rank may have been (St.)Geraint  from Cornwall killed in the battle which was led by Arthur at Portsmouth (according to a Welsh poem)3.
The Saxons arrived in two large "galleys" under the command of Porth and his two sons.
Twelve Saxons were killed. At least five  burial sites occur on the Portsdown Hill one being predominantly a cremation cemetary, two being primary barrow burials the other two predominantly inhumation cemetaries2.
At one cemetary, three tumuli occur just east of Fort Purbrook, each measured at 6 metres diameter (1965) with large flints on the surface indicating the bedrock had been excavated from beneath the soil which here is about 110cm thick.
In 1816 "workmen opened two barrows a few yards east of  where Fort Purbrook (a Napoleonic fort, one of "Palmerston's Follies") now stands on Portsdown. They contained twelve skeletons of men most probably slain in battle. Some were in cists, others were just laid on the chalk and covered with surrounding soil. Embedded about three inches into the top of the skull of one of the bodies was the top of an iron spear or pike, and beside another a spear head".
However some later reports suggest these remains are Iron Age. In 1966 an Iron Age encampment with a deep surrounding ditch was excavated at  Hoylake just to the West. An Iron Age burial was found at the George public house and a burial mound between Hoylake and the George which now lies under a house.
One report suggests  Bleda may have settled his family at Bedenham and Maegla at Elson.
The Saxon chieftain Cedric who had landed on the River Itchen in 495 A.D. was supported by Kentish and Sussex tribes as well as Porth and his two sons to campaign against the Britons under Nazanleod. Nazanleod fell with ?5000 of his army.
From 495 to 645 A.D. there was peace but in 645 Cenwalh, king of the West Saxons having put away his wife, a princess of Mercia caused her brother Penda to declare war and drove Cenwalh from his kingdom.
A battle which gave Penda possession of Portchester appears to have been fought on Portsdown Hill, just uphill from Paulsgrove. Remains of what are believed to be Penda's camp are still to be seen at the place called Rocker's Corner near the road leading to the village of Southwick.
All along the bottom of the Portsdown Hill between Cosham and Portchester are traces of ancient encampments.

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1. Acts of the Kings of England, William of Malmesbury
2. Britain in the Dark Ages, Ordnance Survey, second ed.
3. The Realms of Arthur, Helen Hill, 1970.
4. The Observer colour supplement, 1965.
5. Google Earth.

© Copyright  Tim Midgley 2002 revised 12th August 2023.