By early in 1641 the dispute between King Charles and Parliament had been rumbling on for a decade whilst both parties manoevred themselves into the best possible position should civil war eventually break out. Portsmouth with its ready access to the continent and as home to the navy was always likely to be a subject of interest to each protagonist. Crucial to the affairs of the town would be the position adopted by it's Governor, Colonel George Goring, a man of whom Clarendon wrote "...on account of his private vices of drunkenness, cruelty, and rapacity, and of his political intimidity and treachery, scarcely anyone was more unworthy to be entrusted with any important matters for counsel or execution." Whilst this analysis of his character was not far wide of the mark it ignored the remarkable position that Goring held in the eyes of the King and Parliament.
As Governor, Goring had the responsibility for deciding to which side Portsmouth would show allegiance. He had been Governor since 1639 following a colourful career in both his private and public life. His military prowess on the battlefield has been the subject of much debate but it cannot be denied that he could be an able commander capable of flashes of brilliance. One historian said that 'we cannot lightly dismiss a man who put to flight half the immense allied army at Marston Moor.....He had the makings of a great leader of men'. Despite this assessment Goring was more than capable of undermining his own authority during outbreaks of licentious behaviour.
Several tales of Goring's drunkeness have been passed down, but perhaps the occasion related by Sir John Oglander will sufficiently describe his character. Oglander tells of the time that Goring, together with Lord Portland and his brother Nicholas came to Portsmouth and 'drank and shot, shot and drank, till they were scarce compos mentis'. They then travelled to the Isle of Wight where they continued both shooting and drinking. Oglander notes that 'The Powder that was shot...in the space of 8 days was better worth than £300'. This then was the man in whom the immediate future of Portsmouth was entrusted.
George Goring was in a most privileged position early in 1642; one he exploited with duplicity. He was a favourite of the King's wife Queen Henrietta Maria, to whom he guaranteed safe passage through Portsmouth should the necessity arise, and was prepared to consider the approaches by a group of disaffected army officers who were plotting to give the King military support. Goring understood that his support for them would bring him the rank of Lieutenant-General and when this failed to materialise he divulged details of the plot to members of the Lords. Before long the Parliamentarians heard of the plot and called Goring to account for his association with it. With typical dexterity he acquitted himself and emerged with his governorship confirmed.
By this time it was becoming apparent that if Portsmouth were ever to be attacked the existing defences were quite inadequate and Goring appealed to Sir John Oglander for financial assistance to rectify the matter. Meanwhile, Parliament, having heard of his need for constructional materials, promised him £3000 'to relieve the great necessities and defects at the garrison of Portsmouth'. Before long however Goring's rumoured connection with the Queen re-surfaced and he was summoned to London to once again swear his allegiance to the Parliamentary cause. Dealing with several accusations individually he convinced the members that he remained loyal, leaving London with applause in his ears and further funding for the defences.
Despite the ringing endorsement from Parliament Goring remained in contact with the King, assuring him of his support. There is even evidence that the Queen sent him £3000 which, if true, would have meant that Goring was now receiving funds from both sides and that both sides trusted that he would remain loyal to their cause. This state of affairs lasted until the middle of 1642, the trust of the King even surviving another endorsement by Parliament. The King meanwhile commanded Goring to take control of all the gunpowder in Portsmouth, gave him use of the Henrietta Maria, a pinnace of 68 tons, and told him to build any fortifications on Portsea Island that he might see fit. The status of Goring's allegiance can be seen in a letter of 25th July 1642 in which the King urged Goring to show 'the utmost care and vigilancy in discharge of a trust so important to the safety both of us and our whole kingdom'.
The receipt of such a prestigious letter seems to have convinced Goring that the time was right to publicly declare his support for the King. Goring was in any case under further pressure from Parliament to travel to London to explain his association with men known to support the King. He could defer his decision no longer and wrote saying he had been advised that Parliament was acting illegally and as he had received a commission from the King he could not leave town without his permission. The recipients of the letter were left in no doubt about the loyalty of the author; the King however was less than pleased with the declaration as he was not yet ready for war.
In Portsmouth, Goring knew that he would have to explain his decision to the town's people and so he convened a meeting on Tuesday 2nd August 1642 to which all who were capable of bearing arms were summoned to attend. A local pamphleteer was present to record the occasion and published on 13th August a tract purporting to be the text of the speech that Goring delivered. The pamphleteer set the scene before reiterating the text as follows:-
"Gents and Fellow Soldiers,-
"The occasion of calling you together is to let you understand and know His Majesties Pleasure and your duty concerning this town and fort, which his Majesty will expect to find a place of singular trust and fidelity, and therefore hath commanded me to put in such a posture, that we may be able and ready, not only to maintain his Majesties right in this place against any that shall dare to attempt the contrary, but also that this place may be fit for the guard and safety of his Majesty's person; and I trust I shall not need to urge many reasons to persuade or win you to a cheerful and willing obedience herein; if we do but call to mind his Majesty's goodness and bounty to us, and also in how great and how many obligations we stand bound unto his Highness, for we are not only tied to obedience to his Majesty's commands, as we are his subjects, but in a more particular relation we are his servants, and do receive a recompense or reward for our service from his Majestie.
"So that all those benefits and privileges that we enjoy are from his Majesties bounty and goodness; for our bread and drink and all that we have derived and cometh from him, and in his happiness and welfare our lives, liberties and fortunes do consist.
"And for you that are behind of your pay, although the Parliament hath made some promise to see you satisfied, yet such is the care and goodness of his Majestie towards you that he hath provided you money which I have in my custody to distribute amongst you, so soon as you have subscribed to some few words and conditions in writing which I shall tender unto you, testifying your religious, honest, faithful and ready intention to serve his Majestie in this business. Neither will I constrain or force any to stay in the town against their wills or free pleasure, but every man of what condition soever shall have free liberty to go and come, and with wife and children, servants and goods, in safety and peace. And let every man assure himself that for his faithful service herein his Majestie will not see him unrewarded."
"Having thus ended, some of the soldiers gave a great shout; the rest were discontented, and a great distraction was suddainly in the town."
That the local population should be distracted is hardly surprising. The townspeople were not overtly political but still tended towards support for Parliament, almost as an act of pragmatism, since by this time Parliament had the support of the navy which would naturally be withdrawn from a Portsmouth that supported the king and that in turn would have serious financial implications for traders and craftsmen alike. In the event only a few members of the community decided not to take an oath to the King, many others presumably fearing that if they left the town their homes would be ransacked.
On 4th August information reached the House of Commons that Goring had tendered an oath of allegiance to the King. As might be expected they were both angry and dismayed that a fortress as strong as Portsmouth would no longer be available to them. They immediately despatched the Earl of Sussex with the instruction, that if Goring should prove obstinate he was to lay siege to the town. In a very short space of time the slopes of Portsdown Hill were awash with Parliamentarians and their supporters such that Goring had great difficulty getting any information in or out of the town. By the 10th August two troops of horse under the command of Colonel Hurry and Sir William Waller had joined the the assault force.
The exact numbers of men on either side are not known for certain but it is estimated that Goring could call upon a garrison of probably fewer than 400 men with perhaps another 100 on the island. It seems likely that many of these men had not benefitted from the large sums of money said to have been given to Goring and promised to them by him. More money was said to have arrived in Portsmouth on 9th August but this seems unlikely as the Parliamentarians had virtually sealed off the island by then. Goring's preparations for a siege were soon shown to be woefully inadequate, the repair to the defensive works had not been completed and there was barely two days worth of victuals in the town. The arrival of a squadron of ships at Spithead effectively cut off any chance of re-supply by sea. Clarendon suggests that Goring had fallen victim to temptation and squandered the money he had received 'on good fellowship, or lost it at play'.
With the preliminaries out of the way the siege of Portsmouth could now begin in earnest. The first move came from the Parliamentarians who set up a covert action on the night of the 9th or 10th August when they sent one or more long boats into the harbour under the command of Brown Bushell with the objective of capturing the Henrietta Maria, Goring's sole naval vessel. The operation was a stunning success with barely a shot being fired, the ship's crew being easily overcome and the Henrietta Maria was sailed to Fareham dealing a massive blow to Goring's pride and prestige.
Goring suffered a second setback when he decided that he did not have the resources to defend the only access by land onto the island at Portsbridge. A stout wooden barricade had been built across the road which was covered by several cannon and a small group of horsemen, but it was five miles from the town of Portsmouth and Goring feared that the enemy would simply go round Portsbridge and land troops on the shores of the island. He left a few soldiers with small arms at Portsbridge and withdrew the rest of his men and ordnance to Portsmouth, but not before carrying out a wide-ranging requisitioning of supplies from the inhabitants of the island which left many of them destitute.
The Parliamentarians meanwhile had established their headquarters at Southwick House, home of Colonel Richard Norton. On 12th August they organised an assault on the barricade at Portsbridge under the command of Sir William Waller and Colonel Hurry. The raid was successful and thereby opened up the whole of Portsea Island with it's bountiful supplies of corn. Waller now set about strengthening Portsbridge with six pieces taken from the Henrietta Maria, three facing north and three south. There followed something of a stalemate for the next couple of weeks with only an occasional skirmish before the town walls. On at least one occasion Goring showed that wasn't prepared to sit back and await the inevitable; he and Lord Wentworth went out of the town by night with a sizeable force and succeeded in capturing five Parliamentary sentinels whom they put to work strengthening the town walls.
By this stage Goring's problems were beginning to multiply. Morale was low within the town and members of the garrison were escaping at night; rumours of the imminent arrival of the King and his relief force were proving unrealistic; messages sent in and out of the town were intercepted by the Parliamentarians; Goring strongholds on the Isle of Wight were captured. Perhaps most worrying of all, the defenders could see across the harbour where defensive works were being prepared at Gosport which had formerly been a small fishing village. Goring ordered his gunners to fire on the site to little avail, as by the last week in August two gun batteries had been successfully completed.
On 27th August a trumpeter announced a parley; Sir William Waller and Sir William Lewis entered the town and dined with Goring whilst Lord Wentworth and Christopher Lewknor were entertained at the Parliamentary headquarters. Goring refused to accept the terms on offer and the bombardment of Gosport resumed. On Friday and Saturday, the 2nd/3rd September the Gosport gunners began lobbing shot across the harbour, causing significant damage to the tower of the church but killing no one. The barrage had a dual purpose, the first being to inflict damage and reduce morale in the town, but also to keep the garrison occupied whilst the Parliamentarians prepared plans to assault Southsea Castle, an essential element of the harbour defences. Though a mile outside the town walls, the Castle had remained under Goring's control but by early September could muster only a dozen men under the command of Captain Challoner.
This same Captain had come into the town during the Saturday and met Goring and shared with him enough drink for Challoner to be afterwards described as having 'more drinks in his head than was befitting such a time'. Challoner returned to the Castle with fresh supplies and retired to bed. Later that night a force of four hundred Parliamentary troops assaulted the Castle and, after a brief parley with a newly awoken Challoner, took it without casualties on either side and confined the garrison to quarters. Challoner's final act was to request the firing of three guns towards Portsmouth to let Goring know that the Castle was 'at another man's disposing; those being discharged, the town let so fly at us that I thought we should have been all cut off'.
The loss of the Castle left morale in the town so low that many officers and men escaped over the wall leaving no more than 60 men inside, and most of them were gentlemen and their servants who would have been unable to handle the big guns. On Sunday 4th September Goring called a Council of War at which it was decided to arrange another parley. The terms of surrender offered by the Parliamentarians were generous, partly because the Civil War had yet to turn truly violent, but also because there had been so few casualties. The siege was officially lifted on Wednesday 7th September when those who had fought for the king rode out of the town with their swords, pistols and personal possessions. Sir William Lewis was appointed Governor of Portsmouth which remained in Parliamentary hands till the end of the war.
Colonel George Goring took a boat and headed for Holland but that was not the end of his involvement in the Civil War. A few months later he returned and was given high command in the Royalist army where his unreliable behaviour was balanced by an ability in the field, best shown during the Battle of Marston Moor (1644). He adopted the title of Lord Goring in 1644 when his father, the 1st Earl of Norwich, was elevated to an Earldom. He returned one last time to Hampshire in 1645 but did not enter Portsmouth. Later that year ill health caused him to resign his position and he left for Spain, where he died in 1657.
"The Illustrated History of Portsmouth" by William Gates (pub. 1899)
"The Siege of Portsmouth in the Civil War" by John Webb (Portsmouth Paper No. 7, pub. 1969)
"George Goring, Lord Goring" - Wikipedia