Portland & Sandsfoot Castles

Portland & Sandsfoot Castles

One of the uses to which Henry VIII put the wealth taken from the monasteries was the protection of south-coast harbours with forts built to house heavy guns. Dorset had two of these ‘castles’, Sandsfoot and Portland, built in 1539—40 to protect Portland Roads and so placed that their fire could cross. Portland Castle still survives intact (but for the lead roof over the gun—room) since it remained in use as a fort till Napoleonic times and afterwards served as living quarters. Its main battery of five guns was placed under cover, and on the east side was a platform for more artillery. The main two-storeyed building contained quarters for the governor and garrison, and the stores and magazines; and a moat (now vanished) surrounded it on the landward side.

Plan of Portland Roads
Plan of Portland Roads

Sandsfoot had a very different design, and so much of it has disappeared that it is not easy to make sense of what remains. The plan shown here is an attempt at reconstruction, based partly on one which appeared in Delamotte’s Weymouth Guide of 1789 (though even this is uncertain). It seems to have had, like Pendennis in Cornwall, a large open gun-platform surrounding the southern part of the main building, though all trace of this and of the main gun—room has now vanished. The under-cover battery had, as at Portland, five guns, but so placed that only two of them could be brought to bear on any one target. Here too there was a courtyard, the earth ramparts of which may still be seen, surrounded by a moat; but the angular bastions at the corners are probably of Armada or Civil War date. Being placed on a forty-foot cliff exposed (before the Breakwater was built) to erosion by the sea, Sandsfoot fell into a ruinous state in the later seventeenth century. In 1701 Weymouth Corporation was allowed to take its stones to repair the town bridge.

In Henry’s time the main batteries at Portland and Sandsfoot probably mounted ‘cannon’, which were the heaviest guns, throwing a shot of 42 or even 60 pounds. It was not easy to make guns of this size strong enough to take the powder charge needed to drive such a heavy ball, and under Elizabeth I it was more usual to employ ‘demicannon’ or ‘culverins’ (thirty— and eighteen—pounders) which shot further and harder. The full range of the demicarmon was about a mile, and of the culverin rather more. Besides the ship—sinking batteries, the forts were armed with light swivels and wall-pieces which could be used as man-killers for close defence, and the upper battlements of Portland were designed for these.

Henry VIII’s. forts are an interesting half-way stage between the stone castle of the Middle Ages and the open gunnery forts of Elizabeth I’s time and later, with their thick earth ramparts and geometrical angles. They were an experiment which was soon dropped, since it was found better to mount guns on open ramparts where they could fire freely over a wide arc and where the gunners were not choked and blinded by the fumes and smoke of action which filled Henry’s gun-rooms.