Thursday, February 7, 2013

History: The Portsmouth Chain

Protecting important harbors has been an ongoing nautical pursuit for centuries. Often it meant deploying ships and men that could be better utilized elsewhere. But England, being an island nation, was one of the first modern countries to use a more efficient and ingenious strategy.

Known as the Portsmouth harbor chain, the length of enormous metal links was stretched across the "haven" or mouth of Portsmouth harbor during the reign of Henry VIII some time in 1518 or 1519. King Hal had established the English Navy a few years prior and had declared Portsmouth, with its deep water, wide entry and dry dock built by his father, the navy's home port. The problem was that England's enemies, and France in particular, knew the strategic importance of Portsmouth harbor and had staged raids upon it throughout the Medieval and early Renaissance period.

As this article at The Portsmouth News online indicates, Bishop Fox of Winchester had written to Henry's Lord Chancellor Wolsey that "if war were intended against England, the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth are too feeble for defense" in 1518.

Bishop Fox's assessment was, of course, backed by historical data. The French sacked the town repeatedly in 1338, 1369, 1377 and 1380 with the Black Death devastating Portsmouth in between just for good measure. Henry V, whose decisive victory over the French at Agincourt put a stop to that nonsense - at least for a while - was the first English king to fortify Portsmouth harbor with wooden towers. Henry VII rebuilt these in stone and it was from these towers that the chain was strung.

The enormous metal links were obviously too huge to raise and lower by hand, so capstans were built to do the job. The chain was lowered into the water to allow ships to pass over it and raised to block entry.

Despite the placement of the chain, the French continued their attempts to sack Portsmouth. In July of 1545, one of those attempts resulted in the loss of Henry VIII's beloved galleon of war Mary Rose. The king witnessed the sinking of the ship and the loss of her 500 sailors from Southsea Castle, which he built at Portsmouth with money from all those monasteries he ransacked.

Today, as The Portsmouth News piece points out, only a fraction of the great Portsmouth harbor chain has been recovered. The search goes on, however, for the rest of this particularly English bit of nautical history. As the writer notes: "it must be somewhere."

Header: Two links of the Portsmouth harbor chain c 2011 via Wikipedia (click over to TPN article to see a picture that really shows how very large the links are)


Timmy! said...

Well, if it was "dismantled in the 17th century" as the article says, then it could have been melted down and used for other things, so I'm not sure I would agree with his conclusion that "it must be somewhere"... At least not in its original form, Pauline.

Pauline said...

Excellent point, Timmy! A lot of items - and big ones too, look at the pyramids in Gaza - have been cannibalized for other uses. Why not the chain after all?

Charles L. Wallace said...

Fascinating, Pauline, and thank you. I've never "been down to Pompey", but my dad was for a short time, back in the war.

You see, he was a Boatswain's Mate and Coxswain... thankfully (for him, and for me as well) while he drove landing craft, instead of being assigned to the Normandy Invasion, he and his guys placed and moved anti-submarine netting (kinda similar at least in thought to The Portsmouth Chain).

For the most part, they were at Rosneath and Helensburgh, in Scotland, but during the run-up to D-Day, they found themselves way down in Portsmouth, worrying about finding beer, Limeys bumming smokes off them, and Buzz Bombs. Good stuff.