Portland Castle

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Portland Castle
Dorset, England
Uk dor portcastle.JPG
The entrance to the castle
Type Device Fort
Site information
Owner English Heritage
Open to
the public
Condition Intact
Site history
Built 1539 (1539)
In use Until end of Napoleonic Wars

Portland Castle is one of the Device Forts, also known as Henrician Castles, built in 1539 by Henry VIII on the Isle of Portland to guard the natural Portland anchorage known as the Portland Roads. The castle lies at the far north of the island, on the edge of the village Castletown, which was directly named as such from the castle. Its sister castle, Sandsfoot Castle is found across the harbour, west of Weymouth. It remains Dorset's only intact medieval castle, and one of the best-preserved 16th-century Henrican castles across the country.[1]

The castle has a diverse history beginning with its construction by Henry VIII to protect the anchorage from French and Spanish attack. It was involved in the English Civil War and later in the First and Second World Wars as a seaplane base and for the D-Day preparations respectively.[2] Portland Castle experienced its only real action during the English Civil War 1642–1649. Being an historic Royal Manor, Portland naturally supported King Charles and was a Royalist stronghold. It is now under the care of English Heritage, and is open to the public during the peak season, usually closing in November until April. In 2007, it was announced that Portland Castle attracts 25,000 visitors a year.[3] In 2014 it received a Certificate of Excellence 2014 from Tripadvisor.[4]

The castle was designated by English Heritage as a Grade I Listed building in May 1993. It is one of three buildings on Portland to be Grade I Listed.[5] Additionally, in October 1981, the castle had become scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance.[6]

The Captain's House, which is within the grounds of the castle, was designated a Grade II* Listed building in May 1993.[7] The gateway and curtain wall to the south east of the house became Grade II* Listed at the same time. It dates from the mid-16th century and is a surviving section of a former curtain wall with moat.[8] Located around 23 metres (75 ft) south of the entrance to The Captain's House is a War Department/Admiralty boundary marker. Dating from the mid- to late 19th century, it is one of many markers of its kind to be found on Portland, and this particular example has been Grade II Listed since May 1993.[9]


Original construction and use (1539–1583)[edit]

Plan of the castle

The castle was one of a chain of south coast coastal artillery forts built by Henry VIII between 1539 and 1540. The area today known as Portland Harbour was a weak point, and so Portland Castle was built, along with the sister castle Sandsfoot Castle, which was built to the west of Weymouth. The entire harbour fell under artillery range from both castles. The English Channel had increasingly become busier as trade flourished, and by the early 16th century the sheltered waters of Portland Roads was seen as essential refuge for merchantmen, as well as naval vessels. However the traders themselves were often attacked by French privateers.

The main threat of invasion though was from the forces of France and Spain, backed by the Pope, after Henry VIII's divorce to his first wife led him to declare himself as the head of the Church in England. With the Dorset Coast recognised as an essential part of the anti-invasion measures, Lord Russell, one of the king's leading advisors surveyed the coast in April 1539, and the map he prepared included the proposed sites for Portland and Sandsfoot Castle.[10]

The work on the castle commenced during the summer of 1539, and was in a defensible state by December 1540. The castle's total cost amounted to £4964.19s.10d., which would convert to around £5 million in modern terms. The early garrison consisted of a captain, the original being Thomas Mervin, four gunners and two other personnel. In 1545 John Leweston was appointed captain of the castle, as well as lieutenant of Portland. At this time one use of the castle was to store treasures taken from the convents. Despite all the initial years of tension and suspense of an expected invasion, it wasn't long until the castle fell into neglect and decay. By 1574, Sandsfoot Castle was falling to ruin, while Portland Castle's two platforms were decayed. No part of the castle had been repaired or renewed since it had been first constructed. With no work done, another survey in 1583 saw further deterioration in both castle's fabric, and Portland Castle's iron gates, wooden drawbridge and glass windows were all broken.[11]

Threat of Spanish invasion, and neglect of castle (1584–1636)[edit]

Portland Castle Cannon Battery

Between 1584 and 1586 there was a threat of invasion from Spain, and as a result £228 was spent to overhaul Portland Castle. During the crisis of 1588, when the Armada sailed up the English Channel, the second battle between the English and Spanish occurred off Portland Bill on 23 July 1588, where the Armada were defeated. The castle was bolstered ready to repel the attempted invasion by the Spanish. A short time after 1588, Sir Walter Raleigh became captain of the castle, though his absence meant that a deputy was left in residence. The lack of decent weapons meant the castle was left rather defenceless. In 1596, with the Spanish still a threat, the garrison consisted of a captain, two porters, six gunners and five soldiers.

Later in 1623 Sir Richard Morryson carried out a detailed inspection of the castle and its physical state. He found the ceiling and joints of the castle was ready to collapse after decay, and the report also noted that there were 13 guns of various sizes. There were also 54 muskets, although 34 of these were classed as unserviceable.[12] The castle's deterioration was largely down to the sea, and in addition to this the keep's roof had become in such a poor state that it was recommended it be replaced by a sloping tiled roof, rather than a flat lead roof, as guns were no longer mounted on the top of the keep. One half of the lodgings for gunners were in a state of decay, and the moat around the courtyard was overgrown. The moat was also in need of repair, where a bank acted as a sea wall. In 1636 two more long-range guns were added to the castle.[12]

The castle's role in the Civil War and Anglo-Dutch Wars (1642–1681)[edit]

Portland Castle from the harbour side

As a Manor, the Isle of Portland was a Royalist stronghold, and upon the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Parliament forces took control of the island and the castle. However a year later the castle was taken over by a party of Royalists, who had achieved the task through deception, as they had been disguised as Parliamentary forces. In 1644 a Parliamentary campaign within the West Country led to a four-month siege before the castle was relieved by the Royalists. As the Navy were now loyal to Parliament, it was seen as vital that the Royalists should not control the anchorage of Portland. Another unsuccessful attempt to take the castle occurred in 1645. The castle, along with the Corfe and Sherborne Castles, were the only ones remaining in Royalist hands within the region. Through the succession of battles and ruses that saw Portland Castle captured and recaptured several times, the Royalists were consistently hopelessly undermanned and inadequately armed. Overall Parliament forces held the castle for two brief periods of the war.

In April 1646 Colonel Thomas Gollop surrendered to Vice-Admiral William Batten. The Royalist garrison were allowed the "honours of war" and marched out with their personal weapons, colours displayed and drums beating. Portland's surrender was bloodless, and on remarkably generous terms. The majority of the garrison were likely to have been local men, as only five men set for the Royalist headquarters at Oxford. After the war had ended the castle was maintained by the Commonwealth, and in 1651, in addition to a gunner and gunner's mate and two quarter gunners, there were 100 soldiers of various ranks attached to the castle. In 1653, as a measure to stop the Royalists from rising again, orders were received to destroy all military works on Portland, except for the castle.[13]

During the First Anglo-Dutch War in 1653 the castle played an important role protecting the anchorage. A three-day sea battle occurred off Portland. The castle was used as a prison for prominent Royalists around this time, and the future Duke Lauderdale, a Scottish Royalist, was confined there after the Battle of Worchester between 1655 and 1657. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, he rewarded Portland's loyalty in the Civil War by a special Royal Grant Fund, giving back to the Islanders royalties on stone taken from the crown quarries. The Grant is still made today, as it has been renewed by each successive monarch. In addition to this the royal coat of arms was erected over the castle gateway, and in 1665 a warrant was issued for the castle's repair on the onset of the Second Dutch War. By 1679 the castle had 16 guns, although all of them required new carriages and platforms.[13]

The 18th century and final armament (1702–1805)[edit]

By 1702 the castle had fallen to a very dangerous condition, while Sandsfoot Castle had become a total ruin. In 1715 it was noted that the lower and upper keeps needed to be replaced. Two years later and the armament was reduced to seven guns. In 1725 the main role of the castle was to protect trading vessels against privateers.[14] This muted state of affairs continued during the 18th century.[15]

Towards the end of the 18th century, the castle had become even more deteriorated, as no repair had been made to it for 30 years. The roof was reported to leak, and the timber in places were much decayed. During the 1790s, King George III made many visits to Weymouth and Portland, particularly the fashionable seaside resort of Weymouth. Whenever the king visited Portland the guns of the castle would be fired in salute. With the threat of an invasion from Napoleon the castle's armament was considerably increased. In 1805 it was listed as having six 24-pounders, six 12-pounders, and two 9-pounder guns, however this turned out to be the last time the castle was armed.[15]

The castle as a marine residence (1816–1869)[edit]

Portland Castle from within the castle grounds

In 1816 the castle was granted to the Reverend John Manning as a marine residence. By 1816 the war with France was over, and there was less of a need for coastal defences. The state of the castle at this point was very much that of dilapidation, and a considerable sum was spent by Manning on renovating it, both inside and outside.[15] The changes, still seen today, included enlarged windows and battlemented walls around the garden. Manning died in 1826, and in 1834 his son, Captain Charles Manning, was granted the castle. He too lavished attention on the castle, and installed a collection of fossils, weapons and examples of his skill as a wood-carver.[16]

The Captain's House, not to be confused with the house at the bottom of Mallams near Fortuneswell and Chiswell, is a large detached house, adjoining Portland Castle. It was built between 1816 and 1835, on site of and partly incorporating walls of former outbuildings to the castle. It was the Master Gunner's residence before it came into the Manning family in 1816, when it is assumed that the major reconstruction took place. The site was occupied until then by brewhouse, stable, and sutler's house.[17]

Return to military use and use during both World Wars (1869–1945)[edit]

Following Captain Manning's death in 1869, the castle was returned to military and naval use. The War Office decided to use the castle as an army residence. For a number of years it was the home of the adjutant of the Verne Citadel. With the increasing development of Portland Harbour as a naval base, and its activities in World War I, a Royal Naval air station was established beside the castle in 1917, for seaplanes flying anti-submarine patrols. At this point the castle itself was in use as an ordnance store, and after it was in use as accommodation for the Royal Naval Air Service. Later during World War II, from 1943, Portland and Weymouth were busy preparing for the D-Day invasion and many American troops arrived within the area. The castle became both living quarters and offices for both British and US military personnel.[18] In addition to this part of the castle was used as an ordnance depot.[19]

The castle had other coastal defences added to it during the war, and a World War II pillbox was once located at the seaward side of what is now Portland Castle's car park, overlooking the small sandy beach. It was constructed in 1940–41, of concrete, and had five or six sides, along with a protected entrance. However it was later demolished and there are now no traces of the structure. In July 1998 it was noted that a photograph in a display at All Saints Church, in Easton village, shows the pillbox when it was in existence.[20]

The castle's opening to the public (1955-)[edit]

In 1952 the castle was opened to the public for the first time in its 400-year life. After standing empty for some years the castle was restored by the Ministry for Public Building and Works. It was then restored by English Heritage, who took over the site themselves, and opened it to the public in 1955.[21] The decision was made to show as much of the Tudor form as possible, and so English Heritage stripped out the remaining 19th and 20th adaptions within the interior, which removed much of the residence created by the Manning family, along with evidence of the castle's later wartime use.[22]

In 1984 the castle became an English Heritage Property in Care, although the Captain's House was still home to the Captain of the adjacent RNAS Portland. With the closure of the establishment in the late 1990s, the house, including the gardens and courtyard, once again became part of the castle.[23] The castle is also used as a wedding venue.[24]


Built of Portland Stone, the castle displays the skills of Tudor masons, as well as the quarry stone selectors, as the quality of stone varies from bed to bed within different parts of the island. The ashlar selected for the castle was also used in rich merchant houses and other wealthy persons, around that time in Weymouth and Portland. It was described as the finest. The castle is among the smallest of the nine major castles built by Henry VIII. It is in similar design to Deal and Walmer in Kent, and Hurst and Calshot Castles in Hampshire, and is centrally planned with a round tower/keep as its nucleus. It has a low profile offering less of a target, with a traditional rounded wall facing the sea, designed to deflect incoming ordnance. It originally had three tiers of firepower. As an unusual feature the outer gun platform does not span around the entire keep. The land side was moated. Sandsfoot Castle was not segmental in shape, but had a rectangular block behind a polygonal gun platform.


The angled entrance of the castle, leading into the Great Hall.

The castle's entrance once opened over a moat, and was probably the site of a drawbridge. The entrance passage to the castle was built at a sharp angle, to avoid cannonballs being fired into the hall. A Gothic porch was added in front of the original entrance during the 19th century.[25]

The Great Hall was the principal room on the ground floor of the castle. In Tudor times its original function was to be the main living quarters, and a fireplace is still within the room. One prominent feature within the room is a central post, for the support of the above floor. A timber and plaster partition separates the hall from two small rooms, and from the 18th century both were used to store goods and military equipment.[25]

The remaining gun room of Portland Castle.

The gun room was the location of the main armament, and today remains open to the sky, however it was originally roofed over, which provided another floor for an upper gun platform. At one side of the room was once some wooden stairs, which gave the garrison access to the upper gun deck. The curving outer wall features five gun casemates. The gun-ports had iron hinges in the sills for wooden shutters, and large vents that were designed to carry the smoke from the guns out of the stone parapet above. Today English Heritage displays an assortment of smooth-bore, muzzle-loading guns of the 18th and 19th centuries, on reproduction carriages within the casemates. In the centre casemate is a replica 16th-century saker, a gun whose muzzle was around 3.5 inch calibre. In addition to these other items on display include a garland of cannon shot, and reproductions of a gunners' rammer, worm and sponge.

The garrison would have used the gun room for sleeping. One of these barrack rooms served as a common room, including a fireplace, whose stone and brick hearth still remains. The rooms were lit from above via roof lights, and in the 18th century these partitions were removed to allow greater space for handling the guns. The gunners were moved to new quarters. A latrine for them was once situated to the right of the door into the gun room, near the gunners' quarters.[26]

The angled entrance of the castle, leading into the Great Hall.

On site of the upper gun platform features a wall-walk today, although this is not original. During the castle's active state four guns could have been mounted on the roof behind the embrasures, and these openings are wider than the gun-ports below. This provided a better field of fire. The wall-walk looks across over Portland Harbour.[27]

The room labelled as the Gunners' Quarter or Store remains unclear on its original use, however it may have served as quarters for the castle's porter, or as a store. After 1716 it was used as alternative barrack accommodation. In 1937 a cloakroom was installed off the entrance passage of this room. Today the room displays 17th-century pikes, breastplates and helmets, as well as reproductions of gunner's tools, including a rammer, a ladle, a sponge, and a small carronade type gun in an embrasure.[28]

The castle's kitchen was originally a smaller room than to what is seen today, and English Heritage have added a dresser, table and benches to give an impression of how it may have originally looked. In one corner is a large fireplace of Tudor origin, used for cooking, and a circular brick-lined oven was inserted in the 19th century. In 1716 the decision was made to divide the kitchen into three rooms - a panty, cellar and kitchen.[29] Above the doorway of the kitchen, within the gun room, is an external bell, installed during Victorian times, and this was probably for summoning servants.

The upper hall was initially the captain's hall in Tudor times, and the two small rooms within the hall would have been servants' rooms. The general layout of the room is similar to the Great Hall below, and in Victorian times the room became a dining room.[30] The Captain's Chamber may have been the quarters for the master gunner in Tudor times, however it is more likely that it was the captain's private chamber, situated next to the only latrine on the first floor. During the early 18th century, the room became a dining room, although again by 1937 it had become a bedroom once again, with a dressing room beyond.[31]

The three-gun battery at the south of the castle.

Within the drawbridge chamber, the pair of long loops with circular openings at the top and bottom may once have been for the chains of a drawbridge. The chamber room would have housed the winch for raising and lowering the bridge.[30] The privy was the only latrine within the residential quarters, and the discharge shaft can be seen from outside.[32] Within the east wing of the castle are two rooms, above the kitchen, and these were both bedrooms. In Tudor times the rooms may have been the lieutenant's quarters. By 1937, when the Royal Navy used the castle, the room had become a sitting room.[33]

Exterior and Courtyard[edit]

Portland Castle's outer gateway, with the coat of arms of King Charles II.

From the sea shore the castle's three tiers of gun embrasures, and the compact architectural and symmetrical composition of the castle can be seen. Unlike the other castles from Henry VIII, Portland Castle received little attention to close defence, aside from the moat which was filled in at an early date. The castle was later protected from the landward side by a moated enclosure.

To the rear of the castle is a walled courtyard, which was added to the original castle. It is now a garden, however it was once part of the castle's defences. The three-gun battery on the south dates from the same time as the walled courtyard.[34]

Within the courtyard was once an early 18th-century house where the sutler lived, who sold provisions to the soldiers of the garrison. The house was located next to the outer gateway. The gateway itself has the coat of arms of Charles II above it, which was inserted in the original Tudor niche following the Civil War. It is made of lead and still retains some original colouring.

The Captain's House now houses the ticket office, shop and tea room. It was once the governor's brew house and stables, before being enlarged to create the master gunner's house. It was further improved by the Mannings in the 19th century, and then became the residence of the officer commanding HMS Osprey. The interior has been greatly altered over the decades.[22]

The Governor's Garden[edit]

Plans show that there's been a garden at the castle on and off for almost 300 years. It is believed that the garden was for the growing of fruit and vegetables as well as providing some rest and recreation. But after the Second World War the garden was abandoned.[35]

In 1999 English Heritage launched the Contemporary Heritage Gardens scheme, with the aim of creating recreational areas at English Heritage properties. In 2002 the trust held a competition for a garden at Portland Castle, and this was won by designer Christopher Bradley-Hole.[36] The derelict remains of the original garden was transformed with a maritime theme. A working party of prisoners from the local prison ship, HM Prison Weare, helped clean the gardens up. Amongst the maritime-related installations was the erection of a bridge, resembling a pontoon. Bradley-Hole wished for the coastal weather to add to the effect of the garden, and so when the wind blows the grasses sway and rustle, catching the constantly changing light from the sea.[35] The garden was completed and opened to the public in the summer of 2002.[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/portland-castle-teachers-kit/portland-castle-teachers-kit-history.pdf
  2. ^ "Detailed Result: PORTLAND CASTLE". Pastscape. Retrieved 2014-08-17. 
  3. ^ http://watershedpr.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/PDF-of-brochure-outlining-project-for-the-Old-Engine-Shed.pdf
  4. ^ England. "Portland Castle Reviews - Isle of Portland, Dorset Attractions". TripAdvisor. Retrieved 2014-08-17. 
  5. ^ "1205262 - The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. 1993-05-17. Retrieved 2014-08-13. 
  6. ^ "1015326 - The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. Retrieved 2014-08-13. 
  7. ^ "1280817 - The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. 1993-05-17. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  8. ^ "1205280 - The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. 1993-05-17. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  9. ^ "1281849 - The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  10. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 15, 16. ISBN 1850747253. 
  11. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 17, 18. ISBN 1850747253. 
  12. ^ a b English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 19. ISBN 1850747253. 
  13. ^ a b English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 20. ISBN 1850747253. 
  14. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 21. ISBN 1850747253. 
  15. ^ a b c English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 23. ISBN 1850747253. 
  16. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 24. ISBN 1850747253. 
  17. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=451663&sort=2&type=&typeselect=c&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=None&district=None&parish=None&place=portland%20castle&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=
  18. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 26, 28. ISBN 1850747253. 
  19. ^ "Detailed Result: MONUMENT NO. 1413734". Pastscape. Retrieved 2014-08-17. 
  20. ^ "Detailed Result: MONUMENT NO. 1420378". Pastscape. 1998-07-14. Retrieved 2014-08-17. 
  21. ^ "Portland Castle". English Heritage. Retrieved 2014-08-17. 
  22. ^ a b English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 4. ISBN 1850747253. 
  23. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 28. ISBN 1850747253. 
  24. ^ "Portland Castle, Dorset - Wedding Venue Hire". English Heritage. Retrieved 2014-08-17. 
  25. ^ a b English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 5. ISBN 1850747253. 
  26. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 8. ISBN 1850747253. 
  27. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 12. ISBN 1850747253. 
  28. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 6. ISBN 1850747253. 
  29. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 9. ISBN 1850747253. 
  30. ^ a b English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 10. ISBN 1850747253. 
  31. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 10, 11. ISBN 1850747253. 
  32. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 11. ISBN 1850747253. 
  33. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 13. ISBN 1850747253. 
  34. ^ English Heritage (2000). Portland Castle. English Heritage. p. 14. ISBN 1850747253. 
  35. ^ a b "The Garden at Portland Castle". English Heritage. Retrieved 2014-08-17. 
  36. ^ a b "Detailed Result: THE GOVERNORS GARDEN". Pastscape. 2001-02-16. Retrieved 2014-08-17. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Stuart Morris, (2011), Dorset; The Royal Navy (illustrated): The Dovecote Press, Wimborne, Dorset: ISBN 978-1-904349-88-4
  • Andrews, E.A., and M.L. Pinsent, "The coastal defences of Portland and Weymouth," Fort, No. 9, supplement, 1981, pp. 4–43.
  • Colvin, H.M. (ed) (1982). The History of the King's Works, Vol. IV, 1485–1600, Part II.
  • Harrington, Peter (2007). The castles of Henry VIII. Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-84603-130-4
  • Stuart Morris, (1985, 2004). Portland, an Illustrated History. The Dovecote Press, Wimborne, Dorset: ISBN 0-946159-34-3
  • Lawson, Susannah (2002). Portland Castle. London: English Heritage. ISBN 1-85074-725-3
  • Morley, B. M. (1976). Henry VIII and the development of coastal defence. London: H.M. Stationery Office. ISBN 0-11-670777-1
  • Stuart Morris, 1998 Portland (Discover Dorset Series) The Dovecote Press, Wimborne, Dorset: ISBN 1-874336-49-0.
  • Palmer, Susann. 1999. Ancient Portland: Archaeology of the Isle. Portland: S. Palmer. ISBN 0-9532811-0-8
  • Stuart Morris, 2002 Portland: A Portrait in Colour The Dovecote Press, Wimborne, Dorset: ISBN 1-874336-91-1.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°34′06.1″N 2°26′48.48″W / 50.568361°N 2.4468000°W / 50.568361; -2.4468000