Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Southsea Castle, King Henry VIII and the Mary Rose

Did King Henry VIII stand on this spot to
watch the Mary Rose sink...
‘Your Highness’s new fortress here…may be called a castle, both for the compass, strength and beauty…and marvellously praised of all men that have seen it.’
Sir Anthony Knyvet, 22 Oct 1544

Southsea Castle (centre, in the distance to the left of the lighthouse)
Seen form Southsea Common.
            On a perfect summer’s day, I fed my history addiction by visiting Southsea Castle and then the Mary Rose museum, Portsmouth.
Indeed, Southsea Castle is perhaps most well-known for being the place from which, on 19th July, 1545, King Henry VIII witnessed the sinking of the Mary Rose. My aim was to revisit the spot where Henry stood…

The Mary Rose - flying green and white Tudor pennants.
Southsea Castle was built to Henry VIII’s own design, in 1544. He was concerned about a French invasion of Portsmouth and positioned his new castle, or fortress, at a strategic site overlooking the Solent (the stretch of water between the mainland and the Isle of Wight). It commanded a stretch of deep water where ships passed closest to shore on their way into the important naval base of Portsmouth.
The entrance to Southsea Castle.

Henry appointed Sir Anthony Knyvet, Governor of Portsmouth, to oversee the construction. Knyvet took care to report regularly to his majesty. In one letter, some idea of the pressure to complete the build is hinted at when he bemoans a 10 day period in June 1544 when the weather was too poor to ship building supplies over from the Isle of Wight. Just a week later he reports construction will be far enough advanced, 12 days hence, to support weaponry.  However, on 8th July he wrote again, anxious to correct the king who had been told the castle was fully defensible, “the which [sic] is not.” Again, supplies seem to have been the problem:
“Only a small quantity of gunpowder and the two sacres [small brass canon firing 6 pound shot]had been delivered, along with a good store of bows, arrows, bills and pikes.”
The keep - an original part of Henry's Castle.
Keen as he was to have the new fortification finished, Henry was slow to send money for wages and materials, and Knyvet was forced to apply for more funds on several occasions. Over the six months it took to build Southsea Castle  3,000GBP was spent, of which 1,300 GBP came from the dissolution of the monasteries.
‘I dare say your Majesty had never so great a piece of work done and so substantial, in so little time, as all skilful men that have seen it do report.’
Sir Anthony Knyvet.

When completed Knyvet wrote to Lord Wriothesely, the High Chancellor, that never had such a fortress been built at so little cost. He also hoped the king would be pleased “which was of his Majesty’s own device” – that is to say, Henry himself had been responsible for the design.
Standing on the ramparts, looking west across the entrance
to Portsmouth harbour.
Over the centuries the castle has been adapted and expanded, to meet changing defence needs. Indeed, Charles II visited in 1683 to inspect improvements made by his chief engineer, Sir Bernard de Gomme. Charles’ coat of arms can be seen carved in stone above the castle’s entrance.

It is hard to imagine how Southsea Castle looked in Tudor times but part of Henry’s original castle can still be seen at the keep, as well as East and West gun platforms. The keep, its walls up to 3 metres thick, was blissfully cool inside on the hot summer’s day of my visit. Whilst I’m not convinced I found the exact spot where King Henry VIII stood on that fateful day in 1545 – I hope the photos give some flavour of the view. Most of the photographs were taken from the ramparts – which were built in the early 1800’s as canon placements during the Napoleonic wars.
View from the keep over-looking the Solent.


  1. If you stood at every possible position, you would have stood in Henry's footsteps. ;) I suspect you did.

  2. Hubs and I had a good walk round (sufficient to get blisters on the bottom of my feet!) so fingers crossed I got close to the actual spot. The sense of history there was amazing - more so - dare I say it, than at the Mary Rose museum - but more of this next week.
    Thank you for commenting.
    G x

  3. Grace - Many thanks for your good wishes about the book. Having looked at your blog it appears we share the same interests - History and cats (I have 2 - brother and sister RSPCA rescue kittens) Particularly fascinated with medieval history - the Tudors are a firm favourite. Never visited Southsea castle but it sounds fascinating. Henry VIII must have felt totally gutted having witnessed that wreck. Best wishes Dee Lynston

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Dee. Indeed, what's not to love about history and cats. I also find cats are very conducive to writing productively - they do so like to snuggle up against a leg and then look most affronted when moved.
      kind regards, Grace x

  4. Great post and photographs thanks for sharing. Here at the Queens Hotel we are delighted to be in close proximity to superb local attractions including Southsea Castle, The Mary Rose Museum and Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Our very best wishes to you and all your readers.

  5. Often have lunch at Henry's castle. I always love the walks around old Portsmouth and it is a terrific place for a historical writer to sit and contemplate the next novel.
    Lovely blog Grace.


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