16th Century Portsmouth

By Tim Lambert

If we visited Portsmouth in the 16th century we would probably be surprised by its small size. Most of Portsea Island was covered in farmland or wasteland. In the Southwest of the island was a little walled town. In 1500 it probably had a population of 1,500 or less. By 1550 it was not more than about 2,000 and in 1600 still only about 2,500. In Tudor Times Portsmouth was growing but it was still a small and unimportant town.

In Tudor Portsmouth there were 3 main streets, High Street, St Thomas’s Street and Penny Street. In the middle was the parish church, The Church of St Thomas. (It was not made a cathedral until the 20th century). Many houses were made of wood and glass windows were a luxury. Chimneys were also a luxury.

However, glass windows and chimneys became more common as the 16th century went on. Houses divided into several rooms were also a luxury. Poor people usually lived in just one, two, or three rooms. The plague was common. It struck in 1563 and it killed 300 people.

The Round Tower dates from the 15th Century. In the 16th century, there was a capstan by the Round Tower with a massive chain strung across the harbour mouth to Gosport. The chain could be lowered to allow friendly ships in and raised to keep enemy ships out.

Henry VII built the Square Tower at the end of the 15th century. In the Early Tudor Times, the area called Point or Spice Island was a wasteland outside the town walls. No houses were built there till Queen Elizabeth’s reign. What is now Southsea Common was a marsh in Tudor Times but Henry VIII built Southsea Castle in 1539-44.

In 1212 a stone building called the Domus Dei (House of God) was built at Portsmouth. It was a hospice for pilgrims. However, Henry VIII closed the Domus Dei and it was used as an armoury. Later it was made part of the military governor’s house. Most importantly Henry VII created Portsmouth Dockyard in 1495. It had the world’s first dry dock.