01. Ancient Mysteries of Portsmouth
The earliest accounts of Portsmouth
Most historians agree the little Hampshire village of Portchester is the father of the city of Portsmouth, and was already an ancient settlement when Portsmouth was a muddy island with a few fishing and hunting communities scattered across it. Portchester’s Roman castle (the best preserved example north of the Alps) dates back to the 3rd Century, and was built as part of the Saxon Shore defences designed to protect Britain from marauding Saxon invaders. But even back then when Portus Adurni was new (as the Romans called Portchester Castle), the settlement at Portchester was already ancient.
Before we jump into the mysteries and legends of Portchester, let’s look at what we know for sure about the village and castle, at the point it emerges from the mists of myth into history.
Portchester – Heart of an Empire
The man in command of Portchester Castle and the rest of the Saxon Shore castles just after they were built in the 3rd Century was also the commander of the Classis Britannica, the Roman Fleet that protected the English Channel from pirates. Carausius had started as a Belgian pilot and fighter, but proved so effective as a leader of men that he rose through the ranks of the fleet. A brilliant sea fighter, he had impressive success in quelling Saxon and Frankish piracy in the English Channel, both in Gaul and Britain and was given control of the fleet.
However, rumours soon began to circulate around Rome that Carausius often would wait for Saxon pirates to make raids before he engaged with them – thus enabling him to help himself to the treasure they had stolen, and keep it for himself.
Whether this was the gossip of jealous rivals or true, the effect was that in 286, Roman Emperor Diocletian sentenced Carausius to death. This proved to be a tactical error, because Carausius was still in Britain at the time. When Carausius heard he was being recalled to Rome to meet his fate, he realised he had nothing to lose, declared Britain a separate empire equal to Rome, and drove off Roman attacks.
Secure in his independence behind his forts, Carausius set about creating a rival state to Rome. He minted his own coins from high quality bullion that he hoped would boost his credibility over his Roman rivals and set about running an independent Britannia.
This early version of Brexit came to an end after his betrayal in 293 by his treasurer, Allectus, and Britain was once again taken back under Roman Imperial control.
Carausius’s story is a pretty exciting early history… but there are many more myths and legends. They include bloodthirsty betrayals, murder, a giant, the Holy Grail… and even King Arthur himself!
The Myth of Ferrex and Perrex
Ancient chronicler and recorder of unreliable histories, Geoffrey of Monmouth, wrote in his History Of The Kings Of Britain in the 1200s that the original British name for Portchester was Caer Peris. He tells the following story as to how it got its name:
491 BCE, two brothers lived in terrible rivalry. They were the sons
of King Sisil “The Fox”, who founded the town of
Silchester, and was so successful a leader that he was declared
supreme chieftain of the area.
Though he had been a great chieftain, he hadn’t been able to control the bitter rivalry between his two sons Ferrex and Perrex, and after he died, they went to war with each other to gain control of their father’s lands. Ferrex, his mother’s favourite, was forced to retreat to Gaul by Perrex after a fierce battle. When Ferrex raised an army and returned to fight his brother, things went wrong for him again. This time, Perrex defeated and slew his brother.
Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us Perrex set about founding the fortified town where the Roman Portchester Castle would later stand, naming it Caer Peris – that is, Perrex’s Castle.
This is not the end of the story, however. Perrex’s mother, Idon, enraged at the fate of her favourite son, stole into Perrex’s room while he was asleep, and with the help of her maidens “cut him all in pieces.”
This is not a recommended model of motherhood.
Gurguntus and Beline
Another mythical beginning to Portchester is told by a later historian, Stow, who attributes the founding of Porchester to Gurguntus, the son of Beline in the year 375 BCE. However, Stow also says the same thing happened in Norwich with the same people in the same year – so it might be that he got a little bit muddled.
Nothing much more is offered about this supposed founding of the fortifications – however, it should be said there are many archaeological remains dating back to the pre-Christian era in the area. So, whether there’s any truth in these early myths or not, there’s no doubt there was early settlement and the building of defensive structures in the Portchester long before the Romans came.
Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Pompey (or Cymbeline’s sons, anyway)
The next mention Geoffrey of Monmouth makes of Caer Peris brings is to the First Century, during the period the Romans were still quelling the troublesome and rebellious Britons, after the Roman invasion in the year 43.
This account involves a young British king, Guiderius, the son of one king Cunobelinus, otherwise known as Cymbeline to anyone who knows their Shakespeare.
“After the death of Cymbeline,” writes Geoffrey, “the government of Britain fell to Guiderius, his son. This prince refused to pay tribute to the Romans, for which reason Claudius, Emperor of Rome, marched against him.”
The story goes that Hamo, the commander of the Roman forces made an attack on Caer Peris, and “began to block up the gate with a wall,” probably with the view of starving the inhabitants into surrender.
In the fighting that followed, Hamo killed Guiderius.
However, this was not the end of the matter. Guiderius’s brother, Arviragus, mightily enraged, took command of the Britons. They fought so desperately under him that they drove the Romans back to their galleys.
Once more, this was not the end of the matter. Later, when the Britons had departed, Claudius assaulted the fortification again, and this time he took it for Rome.
The rest, as they say, is history. Literally.
King Arthur and the invasion of Portsmouth
Another ancient story about the defence of Portsmouth takes us fully into the realms of Arthurian Romance.
Many of the early King Arthur stories date back to a time when Britain was being invaded by Saxon tribes, just after the Romans had left Britain’s shores as the Empire came under increasing attack at the centre.
The reality or otherwise of King Arthur is hotly debated. Whether Arthur was an imaginary folk hero spoken about around British camp fires to keep up British morale hundreds of years later, a soldier in the battles that occurred between the Britons and the Saxons, a vestige of a sungod (the twelve battles he fights that push him further West, his death, disappearance in the west and subsequent promised return are an interesting echo of the twelve months of the year, sunset and sunrise) or something else, doesn’t really matter for this book. The stories that have been woven around this most enigmatic of figures who stands on the boundaries of history and mythology are as rich in story detail as he is elusive in fact. But what’s great about Arthur is the amazing amount of stories this figure has inspired.
From soldier, through war leader, to king and finally emperor of a vast land, the legends about Arthur are increasingly embellished by the romance writers of the Middle Ages. In fact, the first description of Arthur as “emperor” is found in connection with Portsmouth. It’s in a poem dedicated to the death of another Celtic hero of Welsh literature – Geraint mab Erbin, that is, Geraint son of Erbin.
Geraint was a popular figure associated with southwestern Britain and South Wales in the late 6th century. He became most famous for an entirely fictional romance written about him in Welsh called Geraint and Enid, which mimics a similar 12th Century poem by French mediaeval poet Chretien de Troyes.
But Geraint had been around in literature long before this romance, and older poems speak about him as a real person. Thus, the very much earlier poem Geraint son of Erbin appears to be a true lament for the death of a British hero, killed in battle.
The location of the confrontation is given as Llongborth – meaning “haven of ships”, which writers and historians have identified with Langport in Somerset – or with Portsmouth harbour. The poem tells of the slaying of Geraint, a Celtic prince, by the Saxons in the 6th Century.
Could the ancient poem really be Portsmouth-related? Is there any other evidence of a battle in the 6th Century in Portsmouth in which a British hero was killed?
Interestingly enough, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles also contain a mention of the invasion of Portsmouth for the year 501 , as follows:
Port and his two sons, Bieda and Mægla, came with two ships to Britain at the place which is called Portsmouth. They soon landed, and slew on this spot a young Briton of very high rank.
Is it possible that the poem Geraint mab Erbin actually tells of the death of that same young prince mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles? And if Geraint a figure of myth was real, is it possible there was an Arthur after all?
It’s circumstantial evidence, but there are plenty who are convinced it’s true!
Ancient Burials and Brutal Deaths on Portsdown Hill
Staying on the theme of slain ancient warriors, it’s worth noting that at the top of Portsdown Hill as you head east toward the cutting where the A3(M) now slices through the chalk cliffs at the Havant end, around 1816, a tantalising discovery was made by labourers. Local historian Lake Allen tells the story in his 1817 History of Portsmouth:
Some labourers being employed in quarrying chalk during the month of September last, accidentally broke into a tumulus situated on the South side of the hill near the telegraph. The form of it appeared to be a parallelogram, extending East and West about 100 feet, in breadth about 20 feet, and in height 6 feet. In this tumulus or Barrow were discovered the remains of twelve bodies, some placed in cists, others laid only on the surface of the chalk, and covered by heaping the surrounding soil on them. The skeleton that was last discovered occupied a grave distinct from the others, but evidently too short for the stature of the person interred; loose flags were placed on it, their ends resting on the chalk. The radius and ulna were laid across the frame; the latter was the only bone entire, and was rather shorter than that of a well proportioned man. The occipital bone bore marks of petrifaction, and at the juncture of the temporal with the parietal bone, on the right side, was found inserted an iron head of a spear.
What became of these relics I do not know. But is it possible that the spearhead found in this body was none other than the one used by Porta to slay Geraint mab Erbin? It’s too much of a coincidence, surely..? And since we can’t examine the orginals, how can we ever know? But a man in a tomb, killed by an iron spear, hurriedly buried under loose flagstones by a vanquished army… is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to at least wish it were true?
Another archaeological site with mythical connotations lies near the one described by Lake Allen on Portsdown Hill. Again, heading east toward the motorway bridge, in the fields north of the road is the site of an ancient burial mound, Bevis’s Grave.
This was a giant long barrow – around 88m by 25m long with ditches to north and south. These days, it is largely buried, with only a part of it rising about half a metre above the ground. Nevertheless, it is actually about 4,500 to 5,500 years old. Part of an antler, probably the remains of a pick, was excavated from the ditches, along with sherds of late Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery.
In fact, the whole area along the crest of Portsdown Hill is rich in archaeological sites. Nearby is an area of early medieval burials, including two Saxon burials and eighty Christian graves dating from the 8th and 9th centuries. Who knew, as you take your dog for a walk or drive down into Havant that you are surrounded by so many relics of the deep, distant past?
So, back to Bevis. Who was he? And why is this his grave?
Bevis was a mediaeval knight from a Middle English romance called Sir Bevis of Hampton from around 1324. (Those of my generation will understand when I say I don’t believe that anywhere in the text is a mention of a companion or squire called Sir Butthead.)
Here are the bare bones of the romance:
Bevis is the son of Guy, count of Hampton (aka Southampton). Guy’s young wife, a daughter of the King of Scotland is unhappy in marriage and asks a former lover, Devoun, Emperor of Germany, to kill her husband. He happily sends an army to oblige and Guy is murdered in a forest. Fearful that their ten-year-old son Bevis will seek revenge, she decides that he, too, must die.
Saved by a faithful tutor, the young Bevis is later sold to pirates. After many adventures, Bevis ends up at the court of King Hermin, which is situated either in Egypt or Armenia – the writer is a bit vague on the details of where exactly. Bevis is involved in numerous exploits, including the defeat of Ascapart, a legendary giant from English folklore, and falls in love with the king’s daughter, Josiane. The king then sends Bevis on a mission to deliver a sealed letter to King Bradmond of Damascus. Bevis, not realising the letter requests Bradmond to execute him duly delivers it. He is imprisoned, escapes, finally wreaks vengeance on his stepfather and claims his inheritance. However, he is then separated from Josiane, and both are forced into false marriages, until in the end they are reunited at last.
It would make a great movie.
So, there it is. Though the barrow’s original inhabitant is long forgotten, a wonderful story has filled it with fresh life.
And that is the nature of legends, after all.
Hayling Island – home of the Holy Grail?
Whilst we are looking at ancient mysteries and the Celts, let’s have a look at another figure from the Roman era who some legends say came to Britain. That is none other than Jesus Christ.
A particular theory I stumbled over in an unusual pamphlet some time ago comes from the pen of a now-deceased local writer called Victor Pierce Jones. It puts forward the eccentric idea that the Holy Grail was, or is, buried at Hayling Island. In his book Glastonbury Myth or Southern Mystery, the author seeks to prove that “Jesus travelled from the Holy Land as a youth, lived on the south coast and was given a cup when he departed”- a cup which Joseph of Arimathea brought back to Britain after Christ’s death on the cross, “returning it to his first disciples and friends” in no place other than Havant – which is actually the “real site of Avalon”.
Further questions raised by the author include: “Did Merlin live at My Lord’s Pond, on Hayling Island? Did King Arthur find Excalibur at Havant? Was the Holy Grail found by Benedictine monks and a Knight Templar on Hayling – and is it still hidden there?”
Along the way, the author manages to
include many of the ancient sites already mentioned in this book and
some of its characters. King Arthur gets a look in, as does Bevis,
William the Conqueror and countless duplicitous Glastonbury monks.
Argued with a passion, it is quite joyous and, I personally think,
But that’s just me. The construction of the argument is a work of art, and for seekers after mysteries, it’s a slim volume with which you can fill your boots!
An Ancient Ghost, A Countess Beheaded
There are many ghost stories associated with Portsmouth and the surrounding area. Here is one from Warblington to whet your appetite:
Five hundred years ago at Warblington, by the ever-moving waters of Langstone Harbour once stood a magnificent castle, of which only a few vestiges remain, and on whose ruins in the 18th century, a farmhouse was built. In its heyday it was one of the chief guesthouses of the Earls of Salisbury. The ghost that haunts the site is that of the unhappy Margaret, Countess of Salisbury. She once lived here in great state, dividing much of her time between Warblington and Lordington Manor, near Racton, which was commissioned by her husband Richard.
Their children included Cardinal Reginald Pole, who was the last Catholic Archbishop of England during the period of the Reformation, in which Henry came into direct conflict with Rome. Cardinal Pole was unbending in his attitudes to Henry VIII and strongly criticised him for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He also warned against his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Sensing danger from the king’s growing impatience and anger with him, Cardinal Pole went into exile in France, where he finally denounced Henry to the other princes of Europe.
The ruthless tyrant Henry VIII attempted an assassination of Pole, but when this failed avenged himself by having Pole’s family arrested. His mother, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury was imprisoned in the Tower of London for two and a half years on trumped-up political charges. She was finally beheaded at Tower Hill in 1541, the last surviving issue from the direct male bloodline of the Plantagenet kings of England. Only one family member survived, her son Geoffrey Pole, who fled into exile in Europe. The Pole family was thus completely destroyed as a dynasty by their spiteful and merciless king.
of Margaret’s execution tell of a grisly end.
On the morning of 27 May 1541, in front of a crowd of 150 people, Lady Pole was led to the scaffold where she was expected to say a few pious words and submit to her fate. But the 67-year-old had no intention of going quietly. She refused to kneel or lay her head on the block, and told the executioner he would have to strike her head off where she stood. Guards roughly took her resisting form to the block, where the executioner raised his axe… and – thrown off his stroke by her defiance – swung the blade and struck her in the shoulder.
In agony, Lady Pole jumped up shrieking, gushing blood into her white hair. The executioner chased her, wildly swinging his axe. It took eleven bloody blows before she finally died. Legend in the Tower of London says that on the anniversary of her death, her ghost is seen in the night, her white hair streaming with blood from her many wounds – forever pursued by her phantom executioner.
After the destruction of the Pole family, the estate was forfeited to the Crown, and a few years later, Thomas Cromwell had Warblington Castle demolished. What was left of it then fell into decay and farmhouses were built over part of it.
A local story tells of a different sighting of a spirit at the site. It says that the ghost of the beheaded and tragic Countess Margaret Pole haunts the ruins, as she mourns the passing of her lost life and her magnificent home.
How the mighty may fall!
Please note – There are many more ghost stories to come in the pages of this book, but first, let’s discover the Lost Lands around Portsmouth…