The Twin defenders, Portland and Sandsfoot castles
Mark Burrows looks at the twinned castles of Portland and Sandsfoot and their different outcomes
Published in January ’16
With no little assistance from artist Hans Holbein’s portraits, of all the English kings it is perhaps Henry VIII who is most easily evoked. The man who might have been remembered for his scholarship, sporting and musical abilities is not the king most perceive today. Nor is Henry best remembered for building magnificent palaces. Notorious for having six wives of whom two were beheaded, Henry is controversial for excommunicating himself from the Catholic Church and instigating the terminal vandalism of a multitude of monastic edifices. But this can detract from the military leader. Henry had only ever experienced tenuous peace with France, that big enemy across the channel. Like many of his medieval predecessors on the English throne Henry too held ambitions to wear the French crown. He led two invasions of France that achieved little despite winning a number of battles. The potential enemy had swollen following the Reformation of the English Church: the ranks of Catholic Europe were perceived as posing an invasion threat justifiable on religious grounds. And there was yet more prompting Henry’s response that oversaw changes to the English military. Henry also needed to engage on the battlefield with the Scots as well as buttress diplomatic efforts to keep the status quo in Ireland. He updated armour and introduced field artillery and siege guns that were all state-of-the-art. For the seas Henry established a permanent navy and equipped his ships with canons, switching the emphasis from boarding enemy ships to sinking them. Additionally, Henry built a string of forts.
Bloated and semi-crippled by septic leg sores and an old leg wound, evidence suggests that towards the latter stages of Henry’s reign and life his judgement became increasingly contaminated by paranoia. Perhaps his introduction of England’s first statutes against “wichecrafts enchauntments or sorceries” in 1542 is revealing. France, always a genuine enemy, had become a more serious threat following the alliance of 1538 between King Francis I and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Thirty fortifications known as Device forts or Henrician castles were consequently erected along the south coast to protect against invasion. Two were to stand opposite each other across Weymouth bay. When he decided to build the forts Henry was in his late forties with less than a decade to live. He had already been married three times. Catherine of Aragon had been divorced, Anne Boleyn executed, and Jane Seymour had died giving birth to the future Edward VI. By the time Portland castle was built Henry was yet to marry Anne of Cleves, a brief and ill-judged liaison that was to last a mere six months before divorce without consummation. When Sandsfoot was completed Henry had been briefly married for a fourth time. Another error of judgement, Henry’s wife Catherine Howard was thirty years younger than her ailing husband, and her neck was severed by the executioner’s axe.
Back then, with a combined population typically estimated to have been a mere 448 in 1542, Melcombe Regis was distinct from Weymouth. A simple rope-assisted ferryboat transported people and goods across the haven now known as Weymouth Harbour, and Portland was accessed by a simple causeway. Though the threat of invasion maintained some co-operation all three communities were far from united. Squabbles escalating into violence were commonplace over who had harbour rights, various port duties and payments. Weymouth and Melcombe Regis comprised of a handful of streets, the latter an embryonic grid layout of today’s town centre, and it is believed that expansion and structural development of both communities had been stymied by destructive Gallic raids. Tudor life here was also menaced by microbes. The plague had persisted since the mid 14th century, and outbreaks of this and other diseases continued to undermine small population growth. The Buckler family from Radipole had paid a terrible price for their compassion in 1562. Eight members died of the plague contracted from a doomed stranger they had cared for.
A paucity of details of Tudor life in Weymouth, Melcombe Regis and Portland could be down to the dissolution of the monasteries: many were seized and sold, given as gifts or dismantled for building stone and timber. Others were abandoned to decay. Clerics, especially monks, had long been the most active of chroniclers of local events. But many records of these well-informed eyewitnesses were lost or destroyed during the dissolution. Melcombe Friary was closed in 1539 not long after John Leland had recorded what he saw in what was probably his first visit to the communities. As the King’s Antiquary Leland undertook several journeys around the country to catalogue the nations historic sites and buildings.
Few vestiges of the Tudor period remain in the area today. The Tudor House in Weymouth’s Trinity Street is actually late Elizabethan though built in Tudor style. Shamefully a substantial Tudor area around Weymouth quayside was unnecessarily demolished by the local authority in 1959. This included a large Tudor house upon whose site was erected the eyesore council offices themselves currently awaiting the bulldozers. The two device forts are the remaining edifices from Henry’s reign.
Portland Castle, built in 1538 and now managed by English Heritage, has welcomed the public within its chunky carapace since 1955. It remains in excellent condition with the few changes over time being interior. Constructed with local Portland stone, the curved gun battery facing the sea bulges out from two flanks angled into a wide chevron. Both merchant vessels and Henry`s own naval ships were deemed vulnerable when anchored here, and the cost of the garrison of men was met by proceeds of sold monasteries. Eleven cannons initially protected the coastline and shipping anchorage known as the Portland Roads but there is no record of any shot being fired at enemy vessels.
In the reign of Elizabeth I the fort was strengthened as a precaution to the threat of a Spanish invasion in 1588, a prudent move considering that an important battle occurred off the Bill when the smaller English vessels were able to out-manoeuvre the bigger Spanish counterparts. In the following century the fort was busy. Re-captured by troops loyal to Charles I from Parliamentarians during the Civil War before succumbing to a Parliamentary siege, it also saw action during the first Anglo-Dutch war. When not involved in active service the fort was used as a prison. In the 18th century it was manned to protect shipping from pirate attacks before being equipped with more powerful canons with the onset of the Napoleonic wars. Subsequently the fort became a private residence for local clergyman John Manning in 1834 before reverting to military designation first as a seaplane station during World War 1 and finally as a base for D-Day landing preparations during World War 2.
Sandsfoot Castle, a blockhouse to be operated in conjunction with the Portland fort, is by contrast a ruin. Only a dilapidated shell remains at the cliff’s edge due to coastal instability pulling much of the fort into the sea, and the first of a series of repair works to fend off the inevitable was undertaken in 1584. The building of Sandsfoot Castle commenced in 1539 and was completed in 1541 at a cost of £3887-4s-1d. Portland stone and other now easily obtainable building materials were the constituents of fourteen feet-thick walls. Notably, significant stone was transported nearly fifteen miles from Bindon Abbey, a Cistercian monastery east of Wool, where it was sourced. Accommodating up to fifty men in a rectangular shape of two storeys and a dungeon, the fort’s octagonal gunroom abutting the far end was designed for heavy cannon installation. Like its operational twin at Portland, Sandsfoot saw no action against foreign enemies and only became engaged in fighting during the Civil War when it was seized by Parliamentarians from Royalist command. After a period when the dungeons were used as a coinage mint, the fort was decommissioned in 1665 following the restoration of the monarchy five years earlier. It became a store house in the latter decades of the 17th century before defeat was conceded to the forces of nature and the fort was abandoned just
before the 18th century. In 1837 a significant portion collapsed down the cliff, and having been purchased by Weymouth Corporation in 1902 Sandsfoot was closed to the public for safety reasons. Tudor-style gardens, however, were created between the fort and Old Castle Road in 1931 for public appreciation. Eventually a Heritage Lottery grant in 2011 enabled the roofless and floorless remaining section of Sandsfoot Castle to be sufficiently stabilised for opening to the public in time for the 2012 Olympic Games sailing events in Weymouth bay.
Sandsfoot has long since ceased to be ‘a right goodlye and warlike castel, having one open barbicane,’ as Leland described it on a later visit to the area. But today visitors can penetrate the ruin along a split platform that terminates at a viewing point where the gunroom once stood. From there they can now look across the bay to Portland just as Henry’s soldiers had once done, and appreciate why, with the limited firing range of the Tudor canons, two forts – one at each extremity – would have been required to stave off any invasion attempts. ◗