Star and Crescent Then and Now

Historian Richard Brooks asks what modern Portsmouth can learn from life in the Middle Ages.

The star and crescent are ancient symbols of Portsmouth’s civic identity. They decorated the seal on the charter that brought the city into legal existence on the 2nd May 1194. But that was over 800 years ago; surely we have come a long way since then? In material terms, perhaps. In other ways, people’s concerns remain similar. Many things we now take for granted evolved during the early Middle Ages, which was a less affluent time but not necessarily less moral or cultured. The simple beauty of the twelfth century arches in St Thomas’s Cathedral suggest the period when they were built was by no means as primitive or miserable as popular cliché might suggest.

The most striking feature of medieval Portsmouth, or Portesmue as it was known, is the lack of people. Today’s conglomeration is among the most densely populated in Europe. In the 1080s, William the Conqueror’s nationwide survey of who owned what, the Domesday Book, counted just over thirty adult males on Portsea Island, perhaps 150 people all told. Political stability and favourable weather may have trebled those figures by the 1190s. Portsea’s habitable area was smaller then. Salt marshes and tidal creeks pushed deep inland, their presence recalled by placenames such as Great Salterns or Lake Road. People clustered around St Mary’s Parish Church or St Thomas’s, just north of the Camber. Both churches were endowed in the late 1100s and stand today as evidence of an emerging sense of community.

Everyday life was frugal then, even for the elite. Fruit was a seasonal delicacy, reserved for high status celebrations. Corn and bacon captured in an early English naval victory at Damme, in modern Belgium, were compared favourably with King Arthur’s mythical spoils. In the absence of tea and oranges, people drank weak beer, without hops. Wine was for aristocrats, like the two tuns that Portsmouth’s city elders provided for royal use in 1222. Violence was endemic. Delayed in Portsmouth by adverse winds, Richard I’s Welsh and Flemish mercenaries fought each other, forcing the king to interrupt his hunting in Bere Forest to quell the riot. An age devoid of penal institutions, where every man (and some women) went armed, demanded the uncompromising punishments laid down in the early Customs and Usages of Portsmouth: dishonest tradesmen faced the pillory; thieves a range of mutilation, and homicides death by burning or drowning. If such penalties seem harsh, then consider the corrosive social effects of leaving unpunished the irregularities that contributed to the recent financial crisis.

Occurring within days of the charter, the brawls of May 1194 signalled Portsmouth’s emergence as England’s premier naval base. Ever since, local fortunes have fluctuated according to the defence budget. W.G. Gates, Portsmouth’s pioneering historian, listed fifteen royal visits in the 50 years either side of the charter’s issue. Kings of England were also Dukes of Normandy. Like modern ferry operators, they knew the shortest route ran between Portsmouth and Caen, although the passage took longer then. Richard I sailed from Portsmouth in May 1194, never to return; his brother John disembarked there in 1203, after losing his continental inheritance.

Portsmouth prospered at the national expense as John mounted futile expeditions to recover Normandy. In 1205, the Exchequer paid £350 for naval wages and a large mast, a sum representing several years’ income for Portsmouth’s working population. In 1212 John instructed William Brewer, Sheriff of Hampshire, to erect walls and penthouses around his esclusa, now underneath the entrance to Gunwharf Quays, to preserve his ships and related tackle. As usual, peacetime austerity followed wartime plenty. John’s fiscally challenged son Henry III paid off his ships, and filled in the dock, to make way for tidal mills.

People’s personal needs have left more visible remains. Portsmouth’s first hospital was founded in the year King John walled his dockyard. Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, endowed Domus Dei, or God’s House, to accommodate pilgrims, and help sick and infirm locals. The layout was functional, similar to other hospitals founded at the same time: a chapel to the east with an adjoining hall, now the chancel and nave of Old Portsmouth’s Garrison Church. Patients or guests were disposed either side in the aisles, leaving the centre free, as in a modern hospital ward. Funding was local, from legacies and rents.

Medical treatments were limited, but patients were cared for physically and spiritually, following the Salernitan Rule, a code of nursing practise not always observed today. When William Marshal, who ruled England following John’s death, fell ill with bowel cancer little could be done to save him, but he died in the arms of his son and best friend, as assured of salvation as anyone could be. His was an exemplary death, movingly described in his verse biography, a dignified end to which we all might aspire.

On a more mundane level, the thirteenth century was also interested in shopping. A major benefit of King Richard’s charter was permission to hold a free market every Thursday. More serious business could be done at the Fair held every August for fifteen days, open to all the king’s men from England and Scotland (sic), as well as from Normandy, Anjou, and Poitou. Only recently has Portsmouth once more become part of so wide a free trade area.

Commercial activity depended on local regulation to maintain quality and discourage fraud. By the late 1200s, the borough had a mayor and bailiff, two constables and two clerks, supervised by twelve jurors and a citizens’ ‘moot’. Formal arrangements ensured a smooth transfer of office every year. At a national level, trade benefited from the first flowering of the rule of law, something not globally assured today. Richard I’s father, Henry II, had instituted regular court sessions that evolved into today’s county courts. In 1225, Adam of Porteseye was one of the justices appointed to hear cases at Winchester.

These first steps towards freedom within the law sometimes faltered. When things went wrong, the tiny scale of civil society made it hard for the great and not so good to escape popular anger. Left to govern England during Richard’s absence on Crusade, William Longchamps, Bishop of Ely, provoked general outrage by his all-encompassing ambition. Gerald of Wales called him ‘the many-headed monster’. Fleeing the country dressed as a woman, William was unmasked at Dover by an importunate sailor on the razz, and imprisoned amid much ribaldry. Rehabilitated on Richard’s turn, it was Longchamps, as Chancellor of England, who set his seal on Portsmouth’s charter with its twin device of star and crescent. Symbols of civic identity, they are also reminders of the transience of political authority, a useful lesson still.

Photography by Richard Williams.