The Origins of Gosport by Philip Eley
The popular belief amongst modern Gosportonians is that the town of Gosport was founded in the middle of the twelfth century by either King Stephen who reigned from 1135 to 1153, or his brother Henry de Blois who was Bishop of Winchester between 1129 and 1171, who granted the right to hold three market days each week and two fairs each year.
Legend has it that Stephen was caught up in a great storm in the Solent but, being miraculously rescued by local fishermen, called the site of his landing God's Port.
This story is frequently taught as fact in local schools, is embodied in the motto "God's Port our Haven" added in 1946 to the Borough crest, and underlies the design of the latest Borough logo.
Clearly these stories strike a popular chord but can we, over 800 years later, separate fact from fancy? Here we attempt to do just that by examining the historical evidence.
Where is Gosport ?
In 1922 the Borough of Gosport consolidated two separate, but intimately linked areas; Alverstoke which covered over 3,000 acres, and the much smaller Gosport. Technically the names referred to two separate manors, but the manorial system had disintegrated some seventy years previously.
Professor Beresford writes of medieval new towns "there were characteristic forms which the interior plans of planted towns reveal especially the...grid-forms of streets. There were also characteristic positions for new towns to take up, in relation to older settlements. It has been shown that a planted town was likely to have a small area ...; it was likely to lie near the edge of an existing parish; and it was likely to be surrounded by the territory of the rural village from which the site had been taken. It was also unlikely, in the first instance, to have a town church with full independence; the typical situation is dependence, as a chapelry, on the parish church of the village within whose limits the new town had been set."
Given that there was indeed a chapel in the town by 1284 (it was in ruins by the 1530s) it is as if Professor Beresford was describing Gosport in the above paragraph. Of course the street map on which we are basing the theory is not medieval; could the town have in fact been laid out in the 17th century ? In Gosport the names of South Street, High Street and North Street were in use before 1640 but that is not of much help in this context. However it is almost self-evident that to lay out a new street plan requires that the land already be in the hands of a very small number of co-operating people.
There are many well-documented cases of new villages being laid out on estates under the control of the Lord of the Manor, but a pre-requisite of that was the copyhold system of land tenure under which each tenant held his land on a lease; in Gosport (and Alverstoke) that had not been the case since c1260 when the then Lord of the Manor had given outright ownership of the land to his former tenants in return for a yearly quit rent of 4d or 6d an acre.
The outcome of this generosity was to fragment the land holdings; in 1301 for example the 24 acres of Gosport overrun by the sea was owned by sixteen different people. From 1284 the almost unbroken series of rent accounts of the Manor of Gosport suggest no one person held more than eight acres at his death. They also show continuous occupation; the yearly rent of £6 10s 8½d (representing between 260 and 390 acres) was normally not in arrears.
Finally we return to Professor Beresford who found that planned towns were founded throughout medieval England between 1170 and 1256 with a subsequent long gap until 1613. Thereafter sufficient documentary evidence exists to put their foundation dates beyond doubt. He also found that the Bishops of Winchester were responsible for six new towns, four of which were in Hampshire, all founded after the year 1200. The Manor of Alverstoke was administered by the Bishop of Winchester for the benefit of the Priory of St. Swithuns until 1284 when the Bishop was gained complete control.
To summarise, we know that a place called Goseport was in existence by 1241; a planned town with a chapel was laid out on the site probably before 1264 and no earlier than 1170, which, incidentally, was the year before Henry de Blois died.
Can we be more exact ?
he final piece of evidence, on the face of it, solves all the problems, but raises another question. In August 1204 Godfrey de Lucy, Bishop of Winchester, made a grant of "... all the profit that reasonably results from the newly built town at the haven in the Manor of Alverstoke except the Bishop's court and chapel, and the parson's court" to St. Swithun's Priory Cathedral in Winchester. This almost certainly refers to what came to be called Gosport. What is puzzling is that Godfrey did not secure a charter to hold markets or fairs as happened in the other towns which the Bishops founded and which would have tended to increase the very profits he was granting to the cathedral.
There are two possible reasons for this. The Bishop owned nearby Fareham for his own profit, and a new market town within a few miles would have taken some of its trade; more importantly, closer to Gosport than Fareham was the new Royal town of Portsmouth. To threaten the prosperity of that place would have been an insult to the Crown.
Why here ?
If we accept that Bishop Godfrey founded Gosport at the beginning of the thirteenth century we need look no further than the few hundred yards across Portsmouth Harbour to see the reason why. We know that Godfrey was responsive to commercial pressures; he founded New Alresford in 1200 in order to capitalise on his creation of a canal on the River Itchen north of Winchester.
We also know that he was aware that the town of Portsmouth, granted a charter in 1194, was prosperous enough to have built its own church, as he was called upon to undertake an act of consecration at the church of St Thomas (now the Cathedral) in 1196. He had also visited the area in 1200 and 1204. Clearly he was hoping to emulate the success of Portsmouth and take a share of their trade. In the event both places suffered from King John's loss of his French dominions in 1205.
What about the Legend ?
In 1811 the inhabitants of Gosport were looking for help in obtaining an Act of Parliament for their new Market House. Someone, probably Henry Slight a Portsmouth local historian, found a document amongst the Bishop of Winchester's papers which purported to be the original grant of markets and fairs to Gosport by Bishop "Blaise" (Henry de Blois). Slight, described by Sir Frederick Madden as "so ignorant that his histories are contemptible", may have found Godfrey de Lucy's document of 1204 quoted above.
The full text, in Latin, has additional grants and specifically mentions Bishop Henry and a fair (St Giles, Winchester). It may be that Slight's proficiency at reading and translating medieval Latin was not perfect, and that, picking out what words he could, he interpolated the rest, biasing the result towards what was required. The result was an article in the Hampshire Telegraph which has formed the basis upon which the legend has subsequently grown. The 1811 Act refers only to the grant of fairs and markets by the Bishop (first granted in 1717) suggesting that no one took Slight's "findings" too seriously at the time.
One of the hazards of historical research, particularly amongst the relatively uncharted waters of medieval times, is in the interpretation of documents which are incapable of independent corroboration.
The earliest absolute fact in all of the above is that a place called Goseport existed in 1241. Before that we have a single document which can be interpreted as suggesting a date, within a few years, of the founding of that place by Bishop Godfrey de Lucy.The earliest absolute fact in all of the above is that a place called Goseport existed in 1241. Before that we have a single document which can be interpreted as suggesting a date, within a few years, of the founding of that place by Bishop Godfrey de Lucy.
In the future, paradoxically, fresh evidence of the past may come to light which may or may not support that interpretation.