The Romans built Portus Adurni, a fort, at nearby Portchester in the late third century. The city's Old English name "Portesmuða" is derived from port, meaning a haven, and muða, the mouth of a large river or estuary. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has a warrior called Port and his two sons killing a noble Briton in Portsmouth in 501. Winston Churchill, in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, says that Port was a pirate and he founded Portsmouth in 501.
The south coast was vulnerable to Danish Viking invasions during the 8th and 9th centuries. In 787, it was assaulted and conquered by Danish pirates, and then during the reign of Æthelwulf, King of Wessex in 838, a Danish fleet landed between Portsmouth and Southampton and the surrounding area was plundered. In response, Æthelwulf sent Wulfherd and the governor of Dorsetshire to confront the Danes at Portsmouth, where most of their ships were docked. They were successful although Wulfherd was killed. In 1001, the Danes returned and pillaged Portsmouth and surrounding locations, threatening the English with extinction. The Danes were massacred by the survivors the following year and rebuilding began, although the town suffered further attacks until 1066.
Norman to Tudor
Portsmouth was not mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086, but Bocheland (Buckland), Copenore (Copnor), and Frodentone (Fratton) were. Some sources maintain it was founded in 1180 by the Anglo-Norman merchant Jean de Gisors.
When King Henry II died in 1189, his son Richard I, who had spent most of his life in France, arrived in Portsmouth before he was crowned in London. When Richard returned from captivity in Austria in May 1194, he summoned a fleet of 100 ships and an army to the port. He granted the town a royal charter on 2 May, giving permission for an annual fifteen-day free market fair, weekly markets, and a local court to deal with minor matters, and exempted its inhabitants from paying an annual tax of £18. Richard granted the town the arms of Isaac Komnenos of Cyprus, whom he had defeated during the Third Crusade in 1191, reflecting a significant involvement of local soldiers, sailors, and vessels in the holy war. The 800 anniversary was celebrated in 1994 as the city's founding.
King John reaffirmed the rights and privileges awarded by Richard I and established the permanent naval base. The first docks were built by William of Wrotham beginning in 1212. John summoned his earls, barons, and military advisers to the town to plan an invasion of Normandy. In 1229, after a declaration of war against France, III assembled a force described as "one of the finest armies that had ever been raised in England" by historian Lake Allen. The invasion stalled and returned from France in October 1231. In 1242 Henry III summoned troops to invade Guienne, and in 1295 I sent supplies for his army in France. By the following century, commercial interests had grown and its exports included wool, corn, grain, and livestock.
Edward II ordered all ports on the south coast to assemble their largest vessels at Portsmouth to carry soldiers and horses to the Duchy of Aquitaine in 1324 to strengthen defences. In 1336 a French fleet under the command of David II of Scotland attacked the English Channel, ransacked the Isle of Wight and threatened the town. Concerned, III instructed all maritime towns to build vessels and raise troops to rendezvous at Portsmouth. Two years later, a French fleet led by Nicholas Béhuchet raided Portsmouth, destroying much of the town. Only the stone-built church and hospital survived. After the raid, Edward III exempted the town from national taxes to aid reconstruction. Upon Edward III's death in 1377, his grandson II was crowned, and the French landed in Portsmouth in the same year. The town was plundered and burnt, but its inhabitants fought back and defeated them, which led the French to retreat and raid towns in the West Country instead.
A map of Portsmouth in around 1540.
Henry V built the first permanent fortifications of Portsmouth. In 1416, a number of French ships blockaded Portsmouth, which housed ships that were set to invade Normandy. Instead, Henry gathered a fleet at Southampton and invaded the Norman coast in August of that year. Recognising the town's growing importance, he ordered a wooden Round Tower to be built at the mouth of the harbour, which was completed in 1426. Henry VII rebuilt the fortifications with stone, assisted Robert Brygandine and Sir Reginald Bray in the construction of the world's first dry dock, and raised the Square Tower in 1494. During his reign, Henry VII made Portsmouth a Royal Dock, and was England's only dockyard to be considered "national" at the time. Although King Alfred may have used Portsmouth to build ships as early as the 9th century, the first warship recorded as constructed in the town was the
, built in the dry dock in 1497.
In 1539, Henry VIII built Southsea Castle, financed by the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in anticipation of a French invasion. He also invested large sums of money into the town's dockyard, and expanded its boundaries to 8 acres (3.2 ha). Around this time a Tudor defensive boom stretched from the Round Tower to Fort Blockhouse in Gosport, as a protection to Portsmouth Harbour.
In 1545, from Southsea Castle, he witnessed his flagship Mary Rose sink with the loss of about 500 lives, whilst going into action against the French fleet in the Battle of the Solent. Some historians believe that the Mary Rose turned too quickly and submerged her open gun ports, whereas others argue that it sank due to its poor design. Over the years, Portsmouth's fortifications were rebuilt and improved by successive monarchs. In 1563, Portsmouth suffered from an outbreak of a plague, resulting in about 300 deaths out of the town's population of 2000.
Stuart to Georgian
In 1623, Charles I (then Prince of Wales) returned to Portsmouth from his travels in France and Spain. Five years later, Charles' unpopular military adviser, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, was stabbed to death in an Old Portsmouth pub by war veteran John Felton. Felton never attempted to escape and was caught walking through the streets when soldiers confronted him, to which he responded: "I know that he is dead, for I had the force of forty men when I struck the blow". Felton was then hanged, and his body was chained to a gibbet on Southsea Common as a warning to others. The murder took place in the Greyhound public house on High Street, which is now private and called Buckingham House; it bears a commemorative plaque.
Most residents, including the mayor, supported the parliamentarians during the English Civil War, although its military governor, Colonel Goring, supported the royalists. The town became a major base for the parliamentarian navy and was blockaded from the sea. Parliamentarian troops were sent to raid it by land in the Siege of Portsmouth; the guns of Southsea Castle were fired at the royalist garrison in the town. Across the harbour, parliamentarians in Gosport joined in the assault, with their guns damaging St Thomas's Church. On 5 September 1642, the remaining royalists in the garrison at the Square Tower were forced to surrender after Goring threatened to blow it up with gunpowder. In return, he and his garrison were allowed safe passage.
Under the Commonwealth of England, Robert Blake used the harbour as his base during the First Anglo-Dutch War in 1652 and the Anglo Spanish War of 1654. He died within sight of the town returning from Cádiz. After the end of the Civil War in 1646, Portsmouth was among the first towns to declare II as king and subsequently began to prosper. In 1650, the first ship to be built for more than 100 years, HMS Portsmouth, was launched. Between 1650 and 1660, twelve ships were built. After the restoration of Monarchy, Charles II married Catherine of Braganza in the Royal Garrison Church. During the latter half of the 17th century the town continued to grow; a new wharf was constructed in 1663 for military use, and in 1665 a mast pond was dug out. In 1684 a list of ships docked in Portsmouth gave evidence of its increasing national importance; the town was the only place of naval rendezvous in England at the time. Between 1667 and 1685 the town's fortifications were rebuilt; new walls were constructed with bastions and two moats were dug, making Portsmouth one of the most heavily fortified places in the world.
In 1759, General James Wolfe sailed from the harbour to Canada on an expedition to capture Quebec which, though successful, cost him his life. His body was brought back to Portsmouth in November that year and received the highest naval and military honours. Two years later, on 30 May 1775, Captain James Cook arrived on board HMS Endeavour after circumnavigating the world. On 13 May 1787, eleven ships left to establish the first European colony in Australia, marking the beginning of prisoner transportation, and in the same year, Captain William Bligh of HMS Bounty set sail from the harbour. After the mutiny on the Bounty on 28 April 1789, HMS Pandora was dispatched from Portsmouth to bring back the mutineers for trial. The court martial opened on 12 September 1792 on board HMS Duke in Portsmouth Harbour – of the remaining ten men, three were sentenced to death. In 1789, a chapel was erected in Prince George's Street and was dedicated to St John by the Bishop of Winchester. Around this time, a bill was passed in the House of Commons regarding the creation of a canal to link Portsmouth to Chichester, but the project was abandoned.
The city's nickname Pompey is thought to have derived from the log entry of Portsmouth Point, contracted to "Po'm.P." (Po'rtsmouth P.oint) as ships entered the harbour. Navigational charts use the contraction. However, a historian argues that the name Pompey may have been brought back from a group of Portsmouth-based sailors who visited Pompey's Pillar in Alexandria, Egypt, in around 1781. Another theory is that it is named after the harbour's guardship, Pompee, a 74-gun French ship of the line captured in 1793.
The borough's coat of arms is attested in the early 19th century, as Azure a crescent or, surmounted by an estoile of eight points of the last
This design is apparently based on seals of the mayoralty used in the 18th century.
Industrial Revolution to Victorian
(launched in 1860) has been restored to its original Victorian condition.
Marc Isambard Brunel established the world's first mass production line at Portsmouth Block Mills making pulley blocks for rigging on the navy's ships. The first machines were installed in January 1803 and the final set for large blocks in March 1805. In 1808, the mills produced 130,000 blocks. By the turn of the 19th century, the town had the largest industrial site in the world with a workforce of 8000 and an annual budget of £570,000.
In 1805, Admiral Nelson left Portsmouth to command the fleet that defeated the Franco-Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar. Before departing, Nelson told the crew of HMS Victory and workers in the dockyard that "England expects every man will do his duty". The Royal Navy's reliance on Portsmouth led to it becoming the most fortified city in the world. A network of Palmerston Forts were built around the town as part of a programme led by Prime Minister Lord Palmerston to defend British military bases from an inland attack. The forts were nicknamed "Palmerston's Follies" due to the fact that their armaments were pointed inland and not out to sea. From 1808 the Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron, tasked with stopping the slave trade, operated out of Portsmouth.
In April 1811 the Portsea Island Company constructed the first piped water supply to upper and middle-class houses. It supplied water to approximately 4500 of the 14,000 houses, generating an income £5000 a year. HMS Victory's active career ended in 1812, when she was moored in Portsmouth Harbour and used as a depot ship. The town of Gosport contributed £75 a year towards the ship's maintenance. In 1818, John Pounds began teaching working class children in the country's first ragged school. In 1820, the Portsea Improvement Commissioners installed gas street lighting throughout the town, followed by Old Portsmouth three years later.
During the 19th century, Portsmouth grew and expanded across Portsea Island. By the 1860s Buckland had been merged into the expanding town, and by the next decade Fratton and Stamshaw had also been incorporated. Between 1865 and 1870 the council built sewers after more than 800 people died in a cholera epidemic. A bylaw stated that any house within 100 feet (30 m) of a sewer had to be connected to it. By 1871 the population had risen to 100,000, although the national census at that time gave the population as 113,569. A working-class suburb was constructed in the 1870s when around 1,820 houses were built on land owned by a Mr Somers. The suburb became Somerstown. Despite public health improvements, 514 people died in a smallpox epidemic in 1872. That year, on 21 December, the Challenger expedition was launched from Portsmouth, embarking on a 68,890-nautical-mile (127,580 km) circumnavigation of the globe for scientific research.
Edwardian to Second World War
At the turn of the 20th century, Portsmouth was considered "the world's greatest naval port" when the British Empire was at its height of power, covering a quarter of Earth's total land area and 458 million people. In 1900, Portsmouth Dockyard employed 8000 men – a figure which more than doubled to 23,000 people during the First World War. On 1 October 1916, Portsmouth was bombed by a Zeppelin airship. Although the Oberste Heeresleitung (German Supreme Army Command) stated that the town was "lavishly bombarded with good results", there were no reports of any bombs being dropped in the area. Another source asserted that the bombs were mistakenly dropped into the harbour rather than the dockyard. Throughout the war, around 1200 ships were refitted in the dockyard, making it one of the most strategic ports in the empire at the time.
Portsmouth was granted city status in 1926, following a long campaign by the borough council. The application was made on the grounds that it was the "first naval port of the kingdom". In 1929, the city council added the motto "Heaven's Light Our Guide" to the medieval coat of arms. Except for the celestial objects in the arms, the motto was that of the Star of India, referring to the troopships bound for British India that left from the port. The crest and supporters are based on those of the royal arms, but altered to show the city's maritime connections: the lions and unicorn have been given fish tails, and a naval crown placed around the unicorn. Around the unicorn is wrapped a representation of the Tudor defensive boom which stretched across Portsmouth Harbour.
During the Second World War, the city, particularly the port, was bombed extensively by the Luftwaffe in the Portsmouth Blitz.
Between July 1940 and May 1944, the city was hit by 67 air raids which destroyed 6625 houses and severely damaged 6549 of them. The air raids caused 930 deaths and wounded almost 3000 people, many of them in the dockyard and military establishments. On the night of the city's heaviest raid on 10 January 1941, the Luftwaffe dropped 140 tonnes of high explosive bombs, killing 171 people and leaving 3000 homeless. Many of the city's houses were damaged and areas of Landport and Old Portsmouth destroyed, with the future site of Gunwharf Quays being razed to the ground. On the same night, the Guildhall was hit by an incendiary bomb which burnt out the interior and destroyed its inner walls, although the civic plate was retrieved unharmed from the vault under the front steps. Following the heaviest raid on the city, Portsmouth's mayor, Sir Denis Daley, wrote in the Evening News:
We are bruised but we are not daunted, and we are still as determined as ever to stand side by side with other cities who have felt the blast of the enemy, and we shall, with them, persevere with an unflagging spirit towards a conclusive and decisive victory.
— Sir Denis Daley, January 1941
Portsmouth Harbour was a vital military embarkation point for the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944. Southwick House, just to the north of the city, was the headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander, US General Dwight D. Eisenhower. On 15 July 1944 a V-1 flying bomb hit Newcomen Road, killing 15 people.
Much of the city's housing stock was damaged during the war. The wreckage was cleared in an attempt to improve the quality of dwellings after the war, though before permanent accommodation could be built, Portsmouth City Council built prefabs for those who had lost their homes. Between 1945 and 1947, more than 700 prefab houses were constructed – some were erected over bomb sites. The first permanent houses were built away from the city centre to new developments such as Paulsgrove and Leigh Park, with construction of council estates in Paulsgrove being completed in 1953. In Leigh Park, the first housing estates were completed in 1949, though building work in the area continued until 1974. Developers still occasionally find unexploded bombs in the area, such as on the site of the destroyed Hippodrome theatre in 1984. Despite improvements made by the city council to build new accommodation, a survey made in 1955 concluded that 7000 houses in Portsmouth were unfit for human habitation. Following a controversial decision, a whole section of central Portsmouth, including Landport, Somerstown and Buckland, was demolished and replaced by council housing during the 1960s and early 1970s. The success of the project and the quality of the 70s homes are debatable.
Portsmouth was affected by the British Empire's decline in the latter half of the 20th century. Shipbuilding jobs fell from 46% of workforce in 1951 to 14% in 1966, drastically reducing the manpower in the dockyard. The city council attempted to create new work; an industrial estate was built in Fratton in 1948, and others were built at Paulsgrove and Farlington in the 1950s and 1960s, respectively. Traditional industries such as brewing and corset making disappeared during this time, though electrical engineering became a major employer. Despite the cutbacks made to traditional sectors, Portsmouth still remained an attractive place for industry. In 1968, Zurich Insurance Group moved their UK headquarters to the city, with IBM relocating their European headquarters in 1979. The population of the city had dropped from approximately 200,000 to 177,142 by the end of the 1960s. In the early 1980s, then Defence Secretary John Nott concluded that of the four home dockyards, both Portsmouth and Chatham would be closed. However, Portsmouth City Council won a concession, and rather than face closure, the dockyard was downgraded to a naval base.
On 2 April 1982, Argentine forces invaded two British territories in the South Atlantic: the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The British government's response was to dispatch a naval task force, and on 5 April, the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible sailed from Portsmouth for the South Atlantic. The successful outcome of the war had reaffirmed Portsmouth's significance as a naval port and importance to the defence of British interests. In January 1997, Her Majesty's Yacht Britannia embarked from the city on her final voyage to oversee the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong, which marked for many the end of the empire. She was later decommissioned on 11 December that year at Portsmouth Naval Base in the presence of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, and twelve senior members of the Royal Family.
In 2001, redevelopment of the naval shore establishment HMS Vernon began as a complex of retail outlets, clubs, pubs, and a large shopping centre known as Gunwharf Quays. In 2003, construction of the 552 feet (168 m) tall Spinnaker Tower began at Gunwharf Quays with sponsorship from the National Lottery. In late 2004, the Tricorn Centre, dubbed "the ugliest building in the UK" by the BBC, was demolished after years of debate over the expense of demolition, and controversy as to whether it was worth preserving as an example of 1960s brutalist architecture. It was designed by Owen Luder as part of a project to "revitalise" Portsmouth in the 1960s, consisting of a shopping centre, market, nightclubs, and a multi-storey car park. In 2005 the city celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, with Queen Elizabeth II being present at a formal fleet review and a staged mock battle. The naval base continues to be home to two-thirds of the surface fleet.