University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Portsmouth and the English Civil Wars

Dr Fiona McCall teaches a third year special subject on the British Civil Wars.  Below she looks at events in Portsmouth which give it a good claim to be considered the place where the Civil War broke out.

Hampshire saw considerable action during the First Civil War (1642-6), being sandwiched between the area of Parliamentary control in the South and East, and the South-West, which was controlled by the Royalists for most of the first war.   One of the first major sieges took place here at Portsmouth, and one of the last, further north at Basing. Other notable actions occurred at Winchester, at Alton church, Cheriton, and just over the county borders at Farnham and at Arundel Castle.

In fact, whenever there was a battle for power, Portsmouth was likely to become involved.  Portsmouth’s strategic significance had been recognised since the middle ages, due to its convenient location, capacious deep-water harbour, and the protection offered by Portsdown Hill. [1] A great chain placed across the harbour could, when necessary, close it off to outside shipping. [2] The early-Tudor fortifications which had impressed John Leland around 1540 had been further developed under the threat of attack by Spain in the years leading up to the Spanish Armada of 1588. [3] At the end of the sixteenth century the fortifications included the Square and Round towers, and ramparts known as the Great Platform and the Long Curtain, all surrounded by earthworks. The street plan was much like that of Old Portsmouth today.

Map of Old Portsmouth, 1584, http://www.memorialsinportsmouth.co.uk/old-portsmouth/images/1584.gif

However, away from Portsmouth itself, Portsea Island was little inhabited, with three-four miles of open cornfields and woods between Portsmouth and Portsbridge, and only three parishes: Portsmouth, Portsea and Wymering.  Southsea castle had been built by Henry VIII in 1544, but between Portsmouth and Southsea there was no settlement; Southsea was a waste of marsh and common, some of it below sea level and subject to inundation. [4]  Apart from some repairs to Southsea Castle in the 1630s, Portsmouth’s fortifications did not change significantly between the reign of Elizabeth and the start of the Civil War, although Charles I’s interest in developing naval power can be seen by his controversial efforts to extend payment of Ship Money in the 1630s.

Detail from a map of Hampshire published by Christopher Saxton, c. 1575, http://www.geog.port.ac.uk/webmap/hantsmap/hantsmap/saxton1/sax1smaf.htm

The English Civil War is usually said to have begun when King Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham on the 22nd August 1642.  But conflict had looked inevitable since the 18th June, when the King rejected the Nineteen Propositions, an ultimatum sent by parliament.  Over the summer of 1642 the opposing sides competed to raise military support in the counties, and several skirmishes took place before the oft-quoted start-date.  The siege of Portsmouth, which began with George Goring’s declaration for the King on Portsmouth on the 2nd August 1642, has some claim to be the place where war broke out, due to its strategic significance, and the course of events here nicely demonstrates the qualities associated with each side: reckless cavalier audacity contrasted with the solid military strength, technical competence, ample resources and sense of purpose which led to the ultimate, and some say inevitable, victory for parliament.[5]  Several of those destined to play a leading part in the Civil Wars were involved, including the earls of Warwick and Essex, Sir William Waller and naval commander Browne Bushell on the parliamentary side and, against them, the thirty-four year old Colonel George Goring, the commander of the Portsmouth garrison.


George Goring (right) with Mountjoy Blunt by Sir Anthony Van Dyke, 1635, National Portrait Gallery, NPG 762

Goring been described as a ‘complex’ personality: quarrelsome, erratic, immature and treacherous, yet also, as remembered by Clarendon, ‘winning and graceful in all his motions’, courageous, modest, pleasant and witty. He had fought in the low countries during the Thirty Years’ War, and was left permanently lame and in pain from an ankle injury incurred during the Siege of Breda in 1637, a fact which may partly explain his fondness for drink.  On a visit to the Isle of Wight in 1639 it is said he and his companions ‘drank and shot, shot and drank, till they were scarce compos mentis’. In late 1641, this ‘consummate actor and superb public speaker’, having convinced parliament of his loyalty, tricked them into sending him £3000 to repair the defects of Portsmouth garrison, whilst at the same time remaining in clandestine contact with the King and accepting an equivalent sum raised from the sale of the Queen Henrietta Maria’s silver plate and jewels.[6]  Goring’s deception only became clear when, on the 2 August, he summoned all those in Portsmouth capable of bearing arms to assemble in support of the royalist cause, or leave the town.  Most took the oath of allegiance to the king, but several refused.  According to a contemporary account there were then about three hundred men in the garrison, and another hundred townsmen able to bear arms.  [7] But Parliamentary sources suggest local support for the King was weak; according to Godwin, more than half left within the first ten days; one captain was killed by his men when he attempted to persuade them to support the royalists. [8]

Parliament responded swiftly when news of Goring’s treachery reached them on the 4 August. The earl of Essex was dispatched with a sizeable military force, who soon occupied Portsdown Hill.  The size of the parliamentary forces can be gauged from a news-letter report of mid-August which reported about 240 cavalry and 500 foot soldiers ranged against Goring’s ever-dwindling numbers.  Under the command of the earl of Warwick, parliament was gathering a naval squadron of ships off the coast to seal off the harbour.  The royalists were dismayed to discover around the 9th of August that their own solitary vessel, the Henrietta Maria, had been seized from under their noses under cover of darkness in a daring raid by a naval officer, Browne Bushell, without any shots being fired.

View of Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, etching by Wenceslas Hollar, 1643, British Museum Print Q, C.100

Sensing that their situation was deteriorating, the royalist garrison immediately requisitioned into Portsmouth all available food resources on the Island, including 2000 acres of standing corn, 1000 cattle and more than 1000 sheep.  Bread, cheese, eggs, poultry and bacon were taken from nearby farms, ‘forcing poor and rich to come away and beg for bread to keep them alive’. [9]  Luckily for the hapless inhabitants, the blockading parliamentary squadron took pity on them, ferrying them out of harm’s way from Langstone harbour to Hayling island, accompanied by several hundred cattle and sheep attached by ropes to the boats and swum across.  On the 12th August, Goring’s forces at Portsbridge, said to number only eight men, were forced to retreat into Portsmouth. Hundreds of men were then set at work to set up guns taken from the Henrietta Maria to fire down on the town.  Royalist morale was sinking: a member of the House of Commons reported that soldiers escaped down the walls on a nightly basis.

Next, the parliamentarians brought in their big guns.  On 18th August the royalist defenders observed ‘much digging of pickaxes and driving of carts’ across the harbour at Gosport. Goring’s gunners fired on them, but caused minimal damage or injury, and soon two gun platforms had been established.  A parley took place on 27th August in an attempt to persuade the royalists to come to terms, during which Goring and Sir William Waller were each entertained in the opposing headquarters, and on the 2 September one of Waller’s trumpeters even presented Goring  with a brace of bucks (venison) as a token of friendship.  But the same afternoon, when it was clear Goring was not going to surrender, the bombardment from Gosport was stepped up.

St Thomas’s Cathedral tower, rebuilt after the Restoration.

The tower of St Thomas’s church (now the cathedral), was the best lookout for miles around, so was always likely to become a target: during the Civil Wars many churches would be destroyed or damaged in course of the conflict.  On the 3rd September, shots from Gosport hit the church bells and destroyed the church tower and nave, as well as many other houses in Old Portsmouth.  The medieval church was ruined, its rebuilding only financed and completed at the end of the century.


Southsea Castle

That same night, parliamentarian forces turned their attention to Southsea castle, a compact building ‘strangely and marvellously praised of all men that have seen it’, with an enceinte of angled walls three-four yards thick, designed to withstand most onslaughts.[10] But by early September there were only a dozen royalists remaining in the castle, and the commander was reportedly drunk.  At least four hundred parliamentary soldiers assaulted the fortress using scaling ladders, all the while singing psalms, against increasing harassment from the guns of Portsmouth garrison, once Goring got wind to what was happening.  Browne Bushell’s brilliance once again demonstrated, and the castle captured, the drunken royalist commander Captain Challoner was said to have drunk ‘the King and Parliament’s health in sack with our officers’.  The mayor of Portsmouth and other officers, knowing the game was up, promptly fled Portsmouth Garrison.  The next day, Sunday morning, Goring negotiated generous terms of surrender under threat of firing the large stores of gunpowder and ammunition still held in the Square tower and other magazines.  Thus on the 7 September the defenders were allowed a dignity not always accorded to Civil War siege defenders, of riding out with swords, pistols and personal possessions.

Goring became a leading royalist commander, notorious in the West Country for the plundering depredations of his ill-disciplined troops.  Browne Bushell returned to his native Yorkshire, but changed sides, becoming renowned for leading royalist privateers in daring raids against parliamentary shipping in the North Sea. He was finally captured and executed for treason on the 28 March 1651, using the same block and axe which had been used on Charles I.  [11]

No 1, Lombard Street, Portsmouth

In an age when communication by sea was often superior to inland transport, the capture of Portsmouth and the control of the navy gave parliament a distinct advantage.  Besieged ports could be relieved by sea and prisoners transported away from the zone of conflict. Naval successes under Admiral Blake during Commonwealth and Protectorate period became the foundation for Britain’s naval supremacy, and the great period of expansion for Portsmouth continued under the later Stuart Kings.  Some late-seventeenth-century buildings survive from this period near the Cathedral at 1,3,& 5 Lombard Street, and in St Thomas’s Street opposite.

Portsmouth 1662

The Maner of the Queenes Maties. Landing at Portsmouth by Dirk Stoop, Lisbon, 1662, showing the arrival of Queen Catherine of Braganza and what the fortifications at Portsmouth looked like in 1662.


[1] A. Temple Patterson, Portsmouth: A History (Bradford-on-Avon, 1976), 10, 16, 20.

[2] G.H. Williams, The Western Defences of Portsmouth Harbour 1400-1800, Portsmouth Papers No. 30, December 1979 (Portsmouth City Council).

[3] The Itinerary of John Leland , in about the .years 1535-1543, ed. Lucy Toulmin Smith (London, 1907).

[4] Williams, Western Defences, 30, 36.

[5] See Clive Holmes, Why Was Charles I Executed? (London, 2006), chapter 4, 71-92.

[6] John Webb, The Siege of Portsmouth in the Civil War, Portsmouth Papers No. 7, July 1969 (Portsmouth City Council), 4, 7.

[7] A Declaration of the Passages of the Taking of Portsmouth, (London, 15 September 1642).

[8] G.N. Godwin, The Civil War in Hampshire (Alresford, 1973), 11.

[9] Webb, Siege of Portsmouth, 15.

[10] Ibid., 18-19.

[11] Jack Binns, ‘Bushell, Browne’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, January 2008.


I am indebted for this account to different issues of the Portsmouth Papers including:

John Webb, The Siege of Portsmouth in the Civil War, Portsmouth Papers No. 7, July 1969 (Portsmouth City Council).

Margaret J. Hoad, Portsmouth – as others have seen it: Part I 1540-1790, Portsmouth Papers No. 15, March 1972 (Portsmouth City Council), 6.

G.H. Williams, The Western Defences of Portsmouth Harbour 1400-1800, Portsmouth Papers No. 30, December 1979 (Portsmouth City Council).


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  1. Students tour seventeenth-century Portsmouth | - October 29, 2018

    […] On the 18th October, as part of their special subject on the British Civil Wars, third year history students went on a walking tour of Old Portsmouth, taking in the house where the Duke of Buckingham was assassinated in the high street (shown here), St Thomas’s Cathedral, which had its tower flattened by Parliamentary cannon fired from Gosport, and the seventeenth-century bedroom in the Portsmouth Museum. The cathedral contains an elaborate funeral monument to the Duke, and behind the cathedral are some seventeenth-century houses.  Two of the students here are writing dissertations related to seventeenth-century history, Tom Austin (centre) is working on the role of the navy at Portsmouth in the first Civil War, a topic which has been surprisingly under-researched.  Although Charles I was interested in developing the navy, as seen by his controversial attempts to raise more ship money, most of the development of the dockyard had to wait until after the Restoration.  This is the period Ian Atkins (fourth from the left) is studying, for a dissertation on Samuel Pepys’s naval innovations.  If you are interested in reading more about Portsmouth’s role in the Civil Wars, see my previous post. […]

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