Southsea Castle was one in a series of forts constructed for King Henry VIII in what was the most ambitious scheme of coastal defence since Roman times.
The castle was built in great haste in 1544, prompted by Henry VIII’s fears of a French attack on Portsmouth. It was said to have been designed by the King himself, incorporating the latest continental ideas on the layout of artillery forts. It was not long finished when, on 18 July 1545, a French invasion fleet did indeed approach Portsmouth after landing on the Isle of Wight. Henry VIII mobilised his fleet and was at Southsea Castle for the Battle of the Solent the next day. However, it was to be a dark day for the king; his much-loved flagship – The Mary Rose – sank during battle.
The castle was to be an active military base for over 400 years, where life had its fair share of ups and downs. In 1627, for example, the keep was gutted by fire. Then in 1642, at the outset of the English Civil War, the Royalist commander was almost too drunk to surrender when a large Parliamentary force surrounded the castle. The Parliamentarian soldiers clambered over the walls, and the garrison surrendered with no loss of life.
Later there was to be loss of life, when seventeen men, women and children died in 1759 after an accidental explosion blew up a large part of the castle. The building became so dilapidated that it was nearly demolished. However, in 1814 Southsea Castle was completely renovated to accommodate extra guns and a larger garrison in time of war.
The castle’s key position guarding the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour meant that whenever danger threatened it was right in the front line. Even when it was used as a military prison during Victorian times, its guns still had to be ready for action. Not until 1960 was the castle finally withdrawn from active service and purchased by Portsmouth City Council.
Today it’s a popular visitor attraction – providing a much more welcoming environment to anyone on the approach. It houses displays telling of the castle’s history, as well as a shop, top-quality restaurant and even a much-loved microbrewery. Though it still features some historic cannons, today the ramparts are used instead for enjoying the view out to sea.