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Royal Connections: City of Portsmouth

Portsmouth comes from the Old English Portesm?ða, which translates to: “mouth of the harbour called Portus.” It was a city founded in the year 1180 by John of Gisors, a Norman lord. Before that, it was known to have been a Saxon fort called Portus Adurni in the Roman era and later, in Anglo-Saxon England, it became Portchester Castle. During the Norman Conquest of 1066, it is believed that the Norman invaders destroyed Portsmouth. By the time of John of Gisors, Portsmouth was a young city and it had a population of only 200 people.

Richard I

A 19th-century rendering of Richard I of England, by Merry-Joseph Blondel.

Upon returning to England after his captivity at the hands of Duke Leopold V of Austria, Richard I immediately took possession of Portsmouth. It is there in 1194 that the king gathered an army and fleet, thus taking the town from the initial owner, John of Gissors. In addition to taking control, Richard granted the fledgeling town a Royal Charter, which had an array of benefits. The Royal Charter granted the town the right to host a fifteen-day fair every year, to have a local court to handle the legal aspects, and the ability to hold a weekly market. Best of all, Portsmouth was exempted from paying an annual tax. Due to the king’s generosity, Portsmouth possessed more money and was able to blossom into a city as well as a hub of commerce.

John I

Due to his ongoing war with France, John I utilised Portsmouth as a headquarters and a permanent naval base. Most importantly, it was a base of operations from which John could invade Normandy (a land that he had lost to the French). He, therefore, granted a second Royal Charter which maintained the rights and privileges set down by Richard I. The remuneration owed to the king in exchange for the charter was a Palfrey (a riding horse) and a sum of 10 marks. John’s son, Henry III and grandson, Edward I would hold Portsmouth as a naval base by which to launch attack on France. Edward I’s son and heir went on to issue a third Royal Charter, which still survives to this day.

Edward III

In 1338, Portsmouth saw a great devastation as a French fleet under the leadership of Nichols Béhuchet masqueraded as English ships. As they arrived in the harbour, they waved the English flag and none of the citizens realised the truth until it was too late. The French mercilessly burned down the town as well as slaughtered the majority of the population. Edward III exempted all the remaining citizens from taxes in order to rebuild the town. In response to the tragedy years before, Henry V refortified the town and constructed a tower in 1418, calling it the Round Tower. The cannons were set to fire on enemy ships at any time.

Henry VII & Henry VIII

Henry VII undertook the task of further fortifying Portsmouth. While initially there was a Round Tower, the king built the Square Tower and a dry dock in the year 1494. The construction of a dry dock allowed warships to be built and repaired, thus making Portsmouth a significant location. It was from then on a naval port.

Due to the dissolution of the monasteries after his breaking with Rome, Henry VIII had a great deal of money in his grasp. He had the dry dock, built by Henry VII, expanded by Robert Brygandine and Sir Reginald Bray. In 1545, Henry witnessed the sinking of his highly-esteemed flagship, the Mary Rose in the Solent. Over 500 lives were lost that day.

Portsmouth in the Tudor era.

Portsmouth in the Tudor era.

The Stuarts

During the reign of Charles I, Portsmouth regained some of the importance and significance that it had lost over the years. After his execution, the city was a stronghold for Royalists during the English Civil War but it was conquered by the Parliamentarians during the Siege of Portsmouth. When Charles II came to the throne, he charged Bernard de Gomme with refortification of Portsmouth, which would take several years.

George III

After the Stuarts, George I and George II had very little to do with Portsmouth. Much like his forebears, George III did not interact much with the town. He was known to visit the town with his wife, Queen Charlotte upon occasion. In 1772, the mayor of the town, John Carter was officially knighted by George III and in 1794, the king witnessed the launching of a gunship, “The Prince of Wales.”

Victoria I

Queen Victoria’s coronation portrait by George Hayter.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, Portsmouth was a location she visited about once every few years. She often went there for naval reviews, to perform knightings and to visit with her most adoring subjects. In 1897, the queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee and raised a total of £15,000 that was donated for an addition to the hospital.

Edward VII

In the year 1890, Edward VII, then the Prince of Wales, was present for the opening of a brand-new town hall. On 28 January 1901, on the steps of the town hall he announced his ascended to the throne of Great Britain and became Edward VII.

Elizabeth II

In the year 2005, Portsmouth celebrated the 200th anniversary of the legendary Battle of Trafalgar, which was an impressive victory for Great Britain. In June of that year, The Queen was present at a Fleet Review and a mock battle was staged once evening had arrived.

Image Credit: via Wikipedia [Public Domain]; Tudor Map of Portsmouth via Wikipedia [Public Domain]; Queen Victoria via Wikipedia [Public Domain].