Portsmouth provides a superb
natural harbour, strategically sited in relation to the continent of
Europe and protected from prevailing south-westerly winds by our island.
We believe that as early as 400bc there was a Dockyard at its head
around what is now the Porchester area where the ancient Britons had a
Around 287AD, the Romans made the fortress their main naval base and
built Portchester castle. 600 years later, King Alfred is thought to
have built his fleet in this area using Portchester castle as his base.
In the early 13th century there was a creek and a millpond in Portsmouth
that ran from the harbour just north of what is now Gunwharf. King John
kept his ships here and vessels were pulled up at high tide and allowed
to ground. At low tide, a wall would be built across the mouth of the
creek to keep out the returning tide.
In 1212, King John commanded the sheriff of Southampton “to cause our
docks at Portsmouth to be enclosed by a good and strong wall……..……….and
use as much despatch as you can, in order that the same may be completed
this summer lest in the ensuing winter our ships and galleys and their
rigging should incur damage by your default”. Storehouses were built
against this wall and there we have as near as we can paint a picture of
the first dockyard in Portsmouth. No royal ships were built yet but the
King’s sailing vessels and galleys were frequently under repair with
timber brought from the forest of Portchester. Skilled carpenters and
shipwrights had to be recruited from the Cinque ports.
John’s dock did not have a long life. In 1228 it was seriously damaged
by the sea and was filled- in. In 1265, Portsmouth was burnt and cargoes
in the port were seized by the barons of the Cinque Ports who resented
the growing importance of the village.
Towards the end of the 13th century, Edward II divided the shores of
England into three sections, appointing one third of his ships to each
part. Portsmouth became the headquarters of the southern division under
the command of Sir William de Seybourne, the first man in England to be
called an admiral.