Here to return to
CARISBROOKE, CORFE, AND PORCHESTER
THE famous saying, “They little know of England who only England know,” is less an epigram than a platitude. It may be true that England’s greatest achievements are to be found on seven seas and five continents, but it is even more obvious that the ordinary Englishman knows less than a little about his own country. Its castles are a case in point. The names of some are household words, others are hardly known at all; and those that are forgotten are often the most ancient or the most impressive, whether in ruins or in repair. To the thousands who will boast that their country possesses Warwick, the names of Warkworth, Hurstmonceaux, Raglan, and Bodiam, may be empty sounds.
The castles which are so little known, however, are often enough those that have played small part in English history. Their towers may be majestic, their ruins striking, but any historic importance they possess is due to one spectacular incident or qualification. Porchester, for instance, in the later years of Roman Britain, protected the vast harbour at the end of Stane Street; Carisbrooke was the “narrow chase” of Charles Stuart’s captivity; and Corfe is spoken of as the place where the young Saxon King Edward was murdered.
None the less, throughout the Middle Ages the harbour now called Portsmouth was of vital importance and necessarily well defended. The Roman system of roads connected it with London by way of Chichester and the Weald as well as through Southampton and Winchester. The Norman invasion magnified tenfold every motive that existed in the time of the Saxon isolation for communication with the Continent, and no harbour to which a Roman road still led could remain unprotected or unused. The Norman rulers also made such effective defensive measures that we can imagine the Danish pirates spirited, rather than frightened away, from the scene of English history.
That is the raison d’être of Colchester keep, and partly of the Tower of London. Nearer to our subject, Farnham Castle had some of its yearly dues remitted on account of its duty of defence against the Vikings; and Porchester also protected its harbour from these attacks. Besides, as a royal castle, it was a resting-place for kings on their continental journeys, particularly when Winchester rather than London was the capital of the Angevin Empire, and later during the intermittent French wars.
Obviously the Normans did not adapt the walls of Porchester to their uses because they found them standing; for Richborough, without the harbour it once guarded, was neglected by them. But Porchester was in a splendid military position on a tongue of land projecting into the harbour, so that two of the walls of the square Roman fort were washed by the sea, and at a short distance from the landward walls a broad ditch — perhaps the remains of an earlier fortification — cut across the approaches. Allowing for necessary repairs and a few mediæval alterations the walls enclosing the outer ward to-day are of the original Roman workmanship in flint concrete, with occasional projecting bastions. On the eastern curtain two bastions flank the mediæval water-gate (for it was part of the strength of Porchester that it could easily be relieved or provisioned from the harbour), but the south-east corner bastion has been undermined by sea-water, and the north-western corner is occupied by the keep.
In this angle of the Roman fort a castle grew up in the twelfth century, and it was kept in repair as a protection for Portsmouth Harbour until the end of the Hundred Years’ War. After that it lapsed to private tenants, who occasionally leased it back to the Crown, when it was wanted as a place of internment for prisoners of war. So the history of Porchester is less glorious than instructive.
The first documentary mention of a castle at Porchester occurs in a grant of 1153, but as the royal treasure was removed there for a time in 1163, we can imagine that it was already of some strength. The keep, of which the lower part appears to be of the early twelfth century, confirms this documentary evidence of its strength. It has none of the domestic graces that make the White Tower at London as much a palace as a citadel, and military requirements weighed more heavily with its builders. The keep dominated the castle and the plain in which it stood. It consisted of a basement and two floors to which (as at Corfe) two further stories were added at a later period. It had a fore building leading to the second story, from which a spiral staircase gave the only access to the basement; and while there are some good windows in the upper part of the present keep, the original building must have been remarkable for its dark and musty interior.
The only other remaining Norman work is the curtain wall of the inner ward, forming a square bailey in the corner of the original enclosure. The domestic buildings ranged along the western and southern walls of the inner ward include a hall built by Richard II, the royal living rooms, and a building which may have been used for the Exchequer; but the buildings on the eastern side of the ward were erected in seventeenth-century Gothic by Sir Thomas Cornwallis.
In the south-eastern corner of the outer ward is a Norman church built in the time of Henry I for a royal foundation as the priory church of a new house of Austin Canons. For some reason or other the site was found to be inconvenient by the Canons, who abandoned it, but the church was kept well enough repaired. In a petition to Queen Anne it is stated that in the reign of Charles II the church, having been used to keep prisoners of war, “was by their means set on fire and for the greater part ruined,” but however great the damage, it has since been made good.
Porchester Castle was a silent eyewitness of the conflict between Church and State in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It was there that the Bishop of Evreux met Henry II to mediate between him and St. Thomas à Becket over the constitutions of Clarendon, and eight years later Henry found himself again at Porchester, publicly declaring his innocence in the matter of the Archbishop’s murder, in the presence of the Papal Legates. King John, that much-travelled monarch, was often at Porchester. He was there when the Pope’s interdict was promulgated in England. But John must be chiefly remembered by his missive to the barons of the Exchequer, “that we lent our brother, the Earl of Salisbury, at Porchester, ten shillings to play.”
After the reign of Elizabeth the castle was used chiefly as a prison. Norden, in 1609, said the castle was then ruined “by reason the leade hathe been cutt and imbezeled.” The hall he described as “verye fayer and spacious,” the other rooms being “maine spacious but dark and malincolie,” and he wanted one tower lowered “because it annoyeth the reste of the howse by reflexe of the chimneye smoake,” which appears to be a simple method of curing the smoke evil, though it would hardly commend itself to Londoners to-day. But Porchester was not to degenerate quietly into a useless ruin. It was filled with Dutchmen after Blake’s sea victories, and with Frenchmen during the Napoleonic wars. It is almost incredible that about five thousand Frenchmen were stowed away there at one time.
The suggestion that Porchester should then be used as a naval hospital produced a protest, which was a curious comment upon the lot of the French prisoners, but perhaps the report of 1855 was a slightly jaundiced view. “A building ruinous and falling to pieces,” it ran, “badly ventilated . . . badly lighted, the site low, bleak, with miles of exposed mud before it, difficult of access, and containing within its walls the parish church and churchyard, there could scarcely be chosen a less desirable place for the proposed hospital.”
The writers of that report on Roman walls and Norman keep were practical but surely very unimaginative people.
Carisbrooke also goes back to very early beginnings, and it has been brought to a more picturesque decline. The site of the castle was anciently the chief stronghold on the Isle of Wight, and fortified in all probability by the Jutes. Some, who place their simple faith in the most disputed passages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, identify Carisbrooke as the “Wihtgarasburh,” where Cynric and Cerdic defeated the islanders in 530, and where Wihtgar himself was buried.
Certainly the chalk spur on which Carisbrooke stands is a natural position for defence, and the castle buildings cut right across well-defined earthworks of an earlier date. This was the form of the Conqueror’s castle, which was probably surrounded by wooden stockades with some stone buildings.
After the Conquest the lordship of the island with the castle of Carisbrooke was alternately vested in short-lived or rebellious families and resumed by the Crown. The Fitz Osborns, for instance, were enfeoffed at the Conquest and deprived in 1078 for complicity in the conspiracy of Ralph Guader. The de Redvers, to whom the grant was made by Henry I, built most of the stone part of the castle. Baldwin de Redvers, an adherent of Matilda, raised “a castle stately, built of hewn stone and strengthened by great fortifications,” against Stephen; but the wells ran dry, and he submitted without putting his work to the test of war. In 1293 the line ended in a woman, Isabel de Fortibus — a very capable woman, herself an active builder, who left her mark on the castle. After her death the castle was held by the monarchy for long periods, and its military works were kept in repair until late in the seventeenth century.
The early works were probably begun by William Fitz Osborn and carried on by the Conqueror. They dictated the form of the present castle by constructing an artificial mound of chalk rubble at the north-east corner of an oblong bailey enclosed by high chalk banks. The chapel of St. Nicholas, near the centre of the enclosure (restored in 1904 in memory of King Charles) was in existence at the time of the Domesday survey. The domestic buildings were ranged along the north bank, and the defences were probably wooden stockades until the de Redvers replaced them by stone walls. It was in this early castle that William the Conqueror personally arrested his half-brother, Odo of Bayeux, Earl of Kent, and sent him prisoner to Rouen, with the successful quibble that he laid hands, not on the consecrated Bishop, but on the rebellious Earl.
History, however, moved slowly on this small island, dwelling apart from the larger world of mediæval England. Carisbrooke only endured one siege, and that in the late fourteenth century, so that the improvement in its fortifications went on undisturbed. The de Redvers built the polygonal shell keep on the mound, approached by a flight of seventy-one steps from the bailey, and constructed stone curtain walls around the bailey. The original Norman entrance on the west side was considerably altered and strengthened by subsequent lords and governors of the castle, being ultimately defended by a narrow passage containing three archways with portcullises, fronted by a gatehouse with towers. The fourteenth century is a late period in the history of English castellation, but these and other improvements (such as the fore building added to the keep) were begun in 1334 “by command of the King for fear of invasion of the island,” and the King’s fears were not ungrounded. In 1377 the French landed in force, destroyed the town of Francheville (where Newtown now stands) and besieged Carisbrooke. They were beaten off, some say the invaders were annihilated; but at least the brief military history of the castle was not inglorious.
The next scare was the Armada. Carisbrooke was hastily prepared for defence by a levy en masse of the islanders, but the danger passed by. It was after the defeat of the Armada that Elizabeth called on the engineer Gianibelli, who made a long outer line of defence with bastions and ravelines according to the latest methods of warfare, to protect the castle.
Jerome, Earl of Portland, was dismissed from the Governor ship of Carisbrooke as a Royalist and Papist, in 1642, to be replaced by one Colonel Hammond, and Parliament spent £246 in repairs to its walls and gatehouses in 1658. It was to this castle, so favoured by Parliament, and to its rebel governor, that Charles was persuaded to entrust himself, rather unwillingly, when he fled from Hampton Court. He was held at first in the Constable’s lodgings, but, on his attempting to escape, when he found hospitality a disguised captivity, his quarters were removed to a small chamber between the hall and the north curtain. He again attempted to escape, but he desisted just in time, for there is a suspicion that the good Hammond, having got wind of the venture, was waiting outside to shoot him in the very act of escaping. Despite these associations with their father, the Council of State, in 1650, sent the young Duke of Gloucester and the Princess Elizabeth to Carisbrooke, where they were housed in the chambers Charles had occupied; and there the tragic little Princess declined and died, being found with her head pillowed on her Bible, a gift from the unfortunate King.
The history of Carisbrooke has not been stirring, but the fortification of the castle was long maintained. Edward I found it sufficiently valuable to negotiate with Isabel de Fortibus for the transfer of it while she lay on her deathbed, and, whether royal or baronial, the possessors of the castle have taken care to preserve it. So its domestic architecture is in every style; it em bodies towers and bastions of the Elizabethan period with a keep of the twelfth century. Its most tragic and most famous associations are at the close of its history, for its decline has taken place only in the last two hundred years.
Corfe, in Dorset, a third castle on this short strip of coast, is also a striking reminder of the Civil Wars. Corfe commanded the promontory known as the Isle of Purbeck, but until the Conquest there was no fortification on the spot, for William the Conqueror negotiated for its possession with the Abbess of Shaftesbury. Consequently the Corfe Geat, where, according to the Chronicle, the young King Edward the Martyr was murdered in 987, must be identified with another spot.
The site was ideal for a castle, protected on three sides by the natural steepness of a chalk down, at the base of which two rivers forked on their way to Poole Harbour. The castle was Norman and Edwardian in three wards crowned by a keep. The keep, probably erected by Henry I, was massive, its walls not weakened by interior galleries or chambers; but only one of its walls re mains. Its wards were surrounded by admirably constructed curtain walls with projecting round towers, and the gatehouse was protected by drum towers and portcullis; but the towers are now crooked and breached, and the gatehouse is gutted.
Here Baldwin de Redvers held out for Matilda before he re tired to the Wight, but its military importance was never great. To many monarchs, to John especially, it was more valuable as a prison. Duke Robert was brought here after Tenchebrai, and Edward II before he was removed to Berkeley Castle. But John starved to death twenty-four French knights at Corfe at one time; his executions were massacres. In one case he put a mother and her son together in one dungeon to die of starvation. The account of their end is one of the most revolting stories in the mediæval chronicles. In another case, a prophet, one Peter de Wakefield, who foretold the end of John’s reign, was kept at Corfe to see the outcome of his prophecy. In the predestined year John gave England in fief to the Pope, and the prophet, who had scored a technical victory undoubtedly, was dragged to death at the heels of wild horses.
Such were the incidents in the history of Corfe. It was a place of great strength, unlikely ever to be tested seriously in local warfare, and it was geographically remote from the strategic centres of the country. By Elizabeth it was granted to Sir Christopher Hatton, and in 1635 it was sold to Sir John Bankes. Its future might have been equally uneventful, and Corfe might have been an admired show-place to-day, but that Dorset suddenly acquired an accidental strategic importance in the Civil Wars. It lay between Oxford and the Royalist stronghold of the South-west. Sherborne and Corfe were the keys to the northern and southern communications with the Cornish peninsula. Twice an inglorious Roundhead army attacked Corfe, which was defended by Lady Bankes. The best accounts of the siege are Royalist, and they tell of the Parliamentarians “filling their men with strong waters even to madnesse,” and of their “cowardly leader who had, like Cæsar, been the only man that came sober to the assault, lest he should be valiant against his will.” But they did not prevail until one of the garrison turned traitor, and, pretending to introduce newly-recruited defenders, placed all the important posts of the castle in the hands of the enemy.
The House of Commons ordered £10 to be given to the Captain who gave the news of the taking of Corfe, and £10 to the messenger who brought it. Corfe was ordered to be “slighted” or dismantled; an order which was carried out very thoroughly, as we see by the disordered ruins. Heavy charges of gunpowder were used, and also the older device of burning props beneath the undermined towers. The Buttavant Tower has been half blown away, the drum tower of the gatehouse thrown forward, and the encircling walls and bastions thrown down or turned askew.