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. On the 2nd August 1642, The siege of Portsmouth, which began with George Goring’s declaration for the King has a strong claim to be the place where war broke out, due to its strategic significance and earlier date of the initial siege by the Parliamentarians.
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.
The siege of Portsmouth was the siege of a Royalist garrison in Portsmouth by a Parliamentarian force under command of Sir William Waller conducted in the early part of the First English Civil War against Goring’s garrison. The siege resulted in Portsmouth falling to Parliament after a little under a month of conflict. This occurred between 10 August and 7 September 1642.
On the Royalist side Lord Goring 500 men and 1 ship (the ship was the Henritta Maria, captured by a group of sailors led by Captain Browne Bushell), on the Parliamentarian Sir William Waller and John Urry 600 men, 2 cannons and 7 ships.
In the lead up to the war, Portsmouth was viewed as highly valuable by both Parliament and the king. The Fortifications of Portsmouth were so strong that after it was captured by Parliament and properly garrisoned, it was suggested by some that it would take as many as 40,000 men to seize it. Its governor at the time was George Goring who managed to convince both sides of his loyalty and as a result received funds from both the king and Parliament.
In 1641, Goring began to work on the town’s defences By November, Parliament had received reports that the work was focused on the landward side and this along with other claims that were brought into question his loyalty to Parliament resulted in Goring receiving a summons to Parliament to explain himself. With his defence, Goring was not only able to convince the House of the innocence of his actions but received its applause and further monetary payments.
Goring declared for the king on 2 August. Parliament managed to implement a sea blockade on 8 August under Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick. On land, the Parliamentary forces were able to assemble on the top of Portsdown Hill on 10 August.
According to a contemporary account, there were then about three hundred men in the garrison, and another hundred townsmen able to bear arms. 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.
Goring’s preparations for a siege were far from comprehensive. Not only was his work on improving the defences incomplete but the town’s stores held supplies for as little as two days. Between 10 and 12 August, the Portsmouth garrison raided the farms of 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’.
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.
The Parliamentarian forces responded by landing a force with two cannons at the southeast of the island and ferrying women, children, cattle and sheep across Langstone harbour to Hayling Island. At this point, Goring’s forces peaked at about 500 men. The Royalist defences on the bridge over Portsbridge Creek were attacked by 20 Parliamentarians on the evening of 12 August. The defenders numbering just eight put up little resistance. One was captured while the other seven managed to escape. The Parliamentarians also took the small fort to the north of the bridge.
With the Parliamentarian forces now on Portsea Island, a few sallies by Parliamentarian forces resulted in indecisive skirmishes, which resulted in a handful of casualties for both sides, along with a similar number of prisoners, some of which were exchanged. Desertion was soon a problem for the Royalist force and by 15 August, the Royalist garrison numbered just 200, of which it was thought half would desert if given a chance. By comparison, the Parliamentarian besiegers numbered some 740 men in total. During this phase of the conflict, several parleys took place, but aside from prisoner exchanges, nothing was achieved as a result.
The conflict was not entirely limited to battles ashore. On the night of 15 August, Parliamentarian forces under Captain Browne Bushell captured the Henrietta Marie in a cutting out operation, its gun were used in the early days of the siege from Portsdown hill. At around the same time, the force blockading Portsmouth from the sea rose to number seven ships.
Meanwhile, the Parliamentarian forces began to prepare a firing position in Gosport under the direction of John Meldrum. The Royalist forces attempted to bombard the position but their shots had little effect. The Parliamentarians opened fire on the city with two cannons from the works on 20 August counter-battery fire from Portsmouth’s guns again had little effect.
The cannon on the rest of the works opened fire on 2 September. On the 3rd of September, shots from Gosport hit the church bells of Old Portsmouth cathedral and destroyed the church tower and nave, as well as many other houses in Old Portsmouth. The medieval church was ruined, its rebuilding was only financed and completed at the end of the century.
By the start of September, the Royalist garrison of Southsea Castle consisted of only a dozen men. On the night of 4 September, a Parliamentarian force of 400 infantry equipped with ladders and backed by cavalry set out to attack the castle. Although the force was spotted and fired on by the guns of Portsmouth, they were able to make it to the seaward side of the castle. Simultaneously, a small party approached the main gate and called on the castle to surrender. Captain Challoner was at the time somewhat inebriated and asked them to come back in the morning.
At around this time, the guns of Portsmouth once more opened fire on the assaulting force, and the Parliamentarians responded by scaling the walls and capturing the castle without further opposition. A significant Parliamentarian garrison was then installed in the castle to keep it from being recaptured.
With the fall of Southsea Castle, the Royalists suffered further desertions with their forces falling to just 50–60 men, many of whom lacked training. Negotiations over the terms of surrender started at 10:00 on 4 September, with a final agreement being reached by 19:00. Under the terms of the agreement, the garrison was granted safe passage and all prisoners were released except for Parliamentarian deserters.
Goring chose to go via sea to Holland. The Royalists were in part able to obtain such favourable terms due to the threat of detonating Portsmouth’s gunpowder reserves, including 1,200 barrels stored in the Square Tower. A couple of days were allowed for Goring and the garrison to settle their affairs and Parliament came into formal possession of the town on 7 September at 06:00.
Factoid 1) The first death of the Civil War was recorded in the Alverstoke Parish Register on August 1642 as Peter Baker. He had unwisely lit his lantern to help him continue his work on the firing the platform when struck by Royalist counter-battery fire from Old Portsmouth.
Factoid 2) Sir William Waller fought in many further battles during the English Civil War, his victory at the nearby village of Cherition to the East Of Winchester secured South East England in 1644.
Factoid 3) After the end of the Civil War, Portsmouth was among the first towns to declare Charles II king and began to prosper. The first ship built in over 100 years, HMS Portsmouth, was launched in 1650; twelve ships were built between 1650 and 1660. After the Restoration, Charles II married Catherine of Braganza at the Royal Garrison Church.
A big thank you to the University of Portsmouth History Blog, and of course, a bit of Wikipedia – for the help with the writing of this blog!