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Not worth defending?

Bill Hoodless tells of Christchurch’s involvement in the invasion scare of 1539

This astonishing map extract from 1539 provides a detailed defence plan for Poole Bay and Poole Harbour. Beacons were to summon the local populace to the invasion point and new blockhouses were to house cannon. Notes about ease of landing justify the enhanced defences being suggested. Beyond the military advice, however, there is an attractive depiction of trading vessels and fishing boats. These combine with touches such as the deer at Handfast Point to demonstrate a realm worth saving.

Christchurch had its part to play in what was a year of great importance for King Henry VIII. His concerns included ensuring the Royal succession, dissolving the monasteries and, not least, the very real risk of invasion. The complete break with the Roman Catholic Church had taken place with his excommunication by the Pope in 1538, while the balance of power had greatly shifted because of a peace treaty the same year between France and Spain. As those countries, the main Catholic powers of Europe, were no longer at war, he knew that one or both of them would begin to see England as the natural enemy and could well seek to invade.

Henry’s plan was to stop any invasion fleet before it was able to land an army. On the orders of Thomas Cromwell, his chief minister, an extraordinary mapping operation of the south coast was carried out in great haste and the drawings displayed at his enormous Whitehall Palace. Although the final maps were pictorial, showing ships and fortifications in some detail, they were also usefully factual, with sea and coast measurements. The key aim was to identify landing points, anticipating how an invasion commander might think. Such beaches were highlighted by exaggerating their size, and sites for possible forts were added in appropriate locations. Although the work is diagrammatic and inaccurate, it still shows the high local level of shoreline vulnerability and the crying need for defence measures.

The King began building forts and castles to protect all the major ports and harbours along the threatened coastline. The able-bodied were assembled and the fleet made ready, and weapons and mercenary fighters were obtained from abroad. Warning beacons were put in working order and manned. There must have been great nervousness in the countryside – it was bad enough that the King was dissolving the monasteries and removing their medical, food and accommodation assistance to the poor, but now an invasion was expected!

Nearly 500 years ago, Christchurch was shown pictorially on the edge of the map as a very small town. In great contrast, we can also see a large warship and an enormous beacon at Hengistbury. But scale and accuracy were unimportant – the whole emphasis was to look south and to defend the country from the French and/or Spanish.

Christchurch is a named town (spelt ‘Crechurche’) on the 1539 Dorset and Hampshire defence map. Certainly, Poole and Christchurch Bays were ideal for ships to make landings, both then and now. The map was intentionally orientated in the opposite direction from normal. With the north point at the bottom, it means that you are looking defensively to the south and out to sea, thereby stressing the needs of the times in a direct fashion. Colour was used on the map to provide a violent depiction of the scene, with galleons sailing, beacons blazing and guns guarding key areas. A beacon comprised a strong vertical pole or poles with a fire basket on top, side struts to aid stability and a ladder giving access to light it and maintain the flames – a hazardous task indeed. Since they are shown in some profusion locally, the threat of invasion here was taken most seriously.

The Priory was portrayed as a small fraction of the size of the nearby beacon at Hengistbury Head, so emphasising the defence requirement. The Head, which at the time was known as Hednes Buria or Hensbury Ende, then lay within the estate of the canons of Christchurch. As happened during the invasion scare of World War 2, no-one would have worried about getting owners’ consent for military installations such as beacons or forts; after all, if the country was under threat, it made no sense to suffer delays in arranging the defences.

The formidable Mary Rose was Henry VIII’s favourite warship, built in 1510 and re-built in 1536 at 700 tons. Although lost in 1545, it is still shown here in the 1546 Anthony Roll of the 58 ships of the King’s Navy.

The map’s annotation reads, in translation from the 16th-century English: ‘From Christchurch to Bournemouth is seven miles and fair landings within a quarter of a mile of the land and draws four fathoms of water.’ From a discussion with the National Maritime Museum, it appears that this probably means one of two things. First, it could be saying that within a quarter of a mile of the coast, ships could find good ground for anchoring. Or it might mean just that ships could approach within a quarter of a mile of the shoreline without running aground, and be close enough to land parties in boats or barges. Either way, the King was being told that these towns were likely to be an attractive location in the eyes of an invasion commander. The four fathoms relates well with the depths shown on the current Admiralty chart if due allowance is made for coastal erosion since the 16th century.

The galleon shown in the map as near to Christchurch and flying the flag of St George is likely to be over 200 tons but still one of the smaller ships in the Navy, although there is provision for six guns in the stern. The larger fighting ships would have had an additional mast and two fighting tops on the main mast.

So what did the map mean for Christchurch? Perhaps the first thing to note is the placing of the beacons. The most effective local beacon is the one shown at Hengistbury Head because of its 360-degree view from the top and its proximity to the town. Here was an ideal position from which to summon local defenders. Other things over a wider area can be gleaned from this astonishing map. For example, by the Bourne Stream is noted ‘Bowurnemothe wer ys feyer landing’ (Bournemouth, where is a fair landing) and a beacon is placed on what is now the town’s East Cliff.

The West Tower of the Priory Church provided an excellent vantage point for a beacon on Hengistbury Head. The outlook in 1539 would have been much the same as today except for the housing and boats..

Although the landings near Christchurch were clearly to be defended with the aid of a beacon warning, this seems to have been a policy to defend the nation rather than the town itself. No fort was ever planned or built here. Henry’s new forts were generally placed to confer a benefit on a major habitation or to protect a military city like Portsmouth, which was extremely well-defended. The line had to be drawn somewhere in such matters and one might think that Christchurch was relatively expendable. Indeed, Prior Draper had described it to the King in most unflattering terms in his efforts to keep the Priory Church for the townspeople rather than see it demolished as part of the Dissolution: ‘That where the said place is situate and set in a desolate place of this your Realme and in a very bar[r]en Countrey out and farr from all high wayes in an angle or a corner.’

As Christchurch was such a small, poor place, why incur the cost of a fort? Also, it did already have its own inland castle, which, as it was not destroyed by the Parliamentarians until 1652, might have been regarded as a good defence structure in Henry’s time. On the other hand, it was described in 1540 as being ‘far gone in decay’, an impression probably not mitigated by its reported use at the time as a pig enclosure! One is forced to the conclusion that the town did not matter enough to justify the expense of a shoreline fort.

However, Christchurch played its part in combating the invasion scare in two main ways. First, the Prior surrendered a lot of property and goods to the King’s Commissioners, so enabling funds to be raised for defence purposes. Secondly, the firing of the beacon overlooking the town would have drawn many defenders, including men from the town itself, to any battle on or near a local beach. At a national level, the threat was very real and the defences which followed the mapping were an effective deterrent: the King had succeeded in his primary duty of preserving the whole country from attack.

Double Dykes at Hengistbury Head. Due to the easy beach and low cliff, this was an obvious landing point for an invasion commander, but one which was highly visible to a beacon working party on the headland..

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