Portchester Castle: from Roman Fort to Prisoner-of-War Depot

English Heritage

Portchester Castle, Hampshire

Introduction to Portchester Castle
Portchester Castle stands in a commanding position at the north end of Portsmouth Harbour. It could be considered to be one of the oldest castles in England, with the outer walls originally part of a Roman fort.

The huge fort built here by the Romans in the late 3rd century AD remains the best preserved Roman fort north of the Alps.

Between the end of Roman rule and the Norman Conquest of 1066 there was a Saxon settlement within the fort walls.

After the Norman Conquest a castle was built in one corner of the fort, which grew into an impressive royal residence.

Medieval kings used Portchester to gather their forces before crossing the Channel. Most famously, in 1415 Henry V prepared at Portchester for the campaign in France that culminated in his victory at Agincourt.

From the 17th century until the end of the Napoleonic wars the castle served as a prisoner-of-war depot.

The prisoners of war left in 1814, and Portchester became a prison for military deserters until 1819.

The castle was taken into state guardianship in the 1920s.

Finds from Portchester Castle
Between 1961 and 1979 the castle was the scene of major archaeological excavations directed by Professor Barry Cunliffe. These produced thousands of finds and have transformed our understanding of Portchester’s long history. You can see a selection of finds here, ranging from prehistoric times to the 19th century.

Although the Roman fort was built in about AD 280, there is evidence of much earlier activity around Portchester. Excavations show that activity dates to the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age (about 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago).

This Palaeolithic flint handaxe is an all-purpose tool for cutting and chopping and dates to around 500,000 years ago.

There is also archaeological evidence to suggest that there was activity here in the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age (about 9600–4000 BC). This Mesolithic knife is made from flint and is broken at one end.

Excavations uncovered this greensand axehead from the Neolithic (about 4000–2500 BC). This forms part of a composite tool. Its wooden shaft and sinew binding would have rotted into the earth, but this sturdier material survives.

Petrology, a type of scientific testing, allowed archaeologists to determine that this greenstone could have come from Cumbria. It was probably brought in from local fields or dredged from the harbour with the flint used as building material for the Roman walls.

The many Roman objects excavated at Portchester help us piece together the story of the fort. This well-preserved netting needle is an example of a dual-functioning object. It could be a needle used for netting, but but it may be a large sewing needle. Recent research has suggested that needles such as this may have been used to hold together the elaborate hairstyles worn by Roman women.

This skull is of a man who was at least 59 years old when he died. He was buried in the Saxon cemetery at Portchester. The skull shows signs of Paget’s disease, which replaces healthy bone with much thicker, weaker bone.

As well as human remains, food waste such as these burnt hazelnut shells survives from the Saxon period. This shows that the inhabitants were using local wild resources.

This medieval finger ring has a very high gold content. It is simply decorated with incised patterning and appears to be completely unworn.

This complete lead papal bulla (seal) was found along the foreshore. It is a bulla of Pope Alexander III (c.1159–81). Alexander III was the pope who excommunicated Henry II in 1170 after the death of Thomas Becket.

There are also many post-medieval finds from Portchester. This is a Cross of Lorraine, consisting of one vertical and two evenly spaced horizontal bars.

It is a heraldic cross used by the Dukes of Lorraine (previously known as the Dukes of Anjou). This example was found in the inner bailey and is probably 18th-century.

A Prisoner-of-war Depot
Portchester first held prisoners during the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 1660s. Its final phase as a prison, during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1793–1815), saw the greatest numbers of prisoners at the castle – up to 8,000 at any one time.

The castle was used as a prison during all the major wars of the 18th century. During the War of Austrian Succession (1740–48) Portchester housed around 2,500 prisoners – about a quarter of all the prisoners of war in Britain.

During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, Portchester Castle was one of 12 main prisoner-of-war depots in Britain. Prisoners came from across the world, not just from France. This was a global conflict.

Despite being prisoners of war, those held at Portchester were allowed to practise crafts such as bone carving, making objects that they could sell to the public at a daily market within the castle.

These buttons were made by prisoners from animal bone. They are of a typical 18th-century design – the central puncture is surrounded by three perforations. A loop of metal would have been threaded through the hole to form a shank.

The prisoners were also allowed to take part in other activities, such as drawing and fencing.

This detail is from a document created at Portchester and awarded as a diploma of mastery in fencing to a prisoner, Louis Theodore Mangeon, a corporal in the Garde de Paris.

One group of prisoners, who were among a large number of French captives brought here from the Mediterranean in 1810, even transformed one of the rooms in the keep into a theatre.

Games were a popular way for prisoners to pass the time. These dice are some of many found at Portchester, dating from the mid-17th to 19th centuries.

Another game played by the prisoners was jackstraws. The premise of the game was to take your bone picker and use it to hook sticks from a pile one at a time without disturbing the rest.

A more familiar game, which was introduced to Britain by French prisoners of war, was dominoes. Boxed set of dominoes like this one were sold at the prisoners’ markets.

Card games were also popular. These bone playing cards made by prisoners of war have been hand-inked and are intricately decorated.

A pack of playing cards would have been liable for stamp duty, costing sixpence (2½p) per pack in 1711. By 1804, stamp duty had increased to 17 shillings and 6 pence (87½p). Money raised from stamp duty would have helped to pay for the war effort. The inks used on these cards could be easily wiped off, which may have been a means of avoiding stamp duty.

The prisoners included a group of about 2,500 mainly black and mixed-race prisoners, who were brought to the castle from the Caribbean in 1796.

Revolutionary France had declared an end to slavery in 1793, and across the Caribbean many free men of both African and European descent and indigenous people of the Caribbean fought for France against Britain.

After just over a year at Portchester, some of these men and women – like many 18th-century prisoners of war – were exchanged for captured British soldiers and sent to France. Many then served in the French army in the Bataillon des Pionniers Noir, and some eventually returned to the Caribbean. In 1798 at least 800 of the prisoners were still at Portchester – what happened to them later is as yet unknown.

Today, the amazing stories of Portchester’s prisoners are told in new displays in the castle keep.

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Contributors
Pam Braddock, Abigail Coppins, Rose Arkle

Visit Portchester Castle

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