Better known for its naval history, sea battles and imperial power, “Pompey” also lays claim to some mindboggling legendary connections. Here are five Portsmouth legends they don’t tell you in the guidebooks.
Portsmouth and King Arthur
Not the most obvious place to associate with King Arthur, Portsmouth is an unlikely bridge between ancient Arthurian legend and the tantalising possibility that maybe, just maybe, he was a real person.
In the poem ‘Geraint Mab Erbin’, an ancient Welsh lament, local prince Geraint is killed in battle by Saxon invaders at a place called Llongborth. In later Welsh romances, Geraint appears as a full blown legendary figure, but this early poem is notably different. Mourning the loss of the prince and the flower of British chivalry, the poem reads as a genuine elegy to the Devonshire prince.
Part of it reads:
In Llongborth Geraint was slain,
A brave man from the region of Dyvnaint,
And before they were overpowered, they committed slaughter.
The location of Llongborth is not entirely clear, but since the name translates as Haven of Ships, some historians identify it with the massive haven at Portsmouth Harbour. As for the Arthurian connection, another stanza stands out:
In Llongborth I saw Arthur’s
Heroes who cut with steel.
The Emperor, ruler of our labour.
Yes, Arthur is mentioned in the poem fighting alongside Geraint – and for the first time is described in any Welsh poem as an emperor. A 6th-century battle in which a real prince dies alongside an Emperor called Arthur. Could it really have happened? Is there any corroborating evidence?
Interestingly, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has this brief entry for the 501 AD:
Port and his two sons, Bieda and Mægla, came with two ships to Britain at the place which is called Portsmouth. They soon landed, and slew on this spot a young Briton of very high rank.
Is it possible that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles actually tells of the death of that same young prince mentioned in the poem ‘Geraint Mab Erbin’? And if so, what does that say about the supposed presence of Arthur?
This is the first Mystery of Portsmouth!
The Holy Grail
Since we’ve started with King Arthur, we may as well go the whole hog and mention a theory from the deceased local historian Victor Piece Jones who wrote a most tantalising pamphlet in 1998 called ‘Glastonbury, Myth or Southern Mystery?’
Jones pieces together writings from numerous sources, including the unreliable historian Geoffrey of Monmouth to put forward the idea that Jesus Christ came to England during his twenties and made friends with locals in what is now Havant – these days a former English market town more famous for its neighbour, Leigh Park, one of the largest council estates in Europe.
Through a series of ingenious arguments, Jones argues that Jesus was given a gift of a wooden cup when he left Havant to return to the Holy Land. It is said that this was the vessel from which he and his disciples drank communion wine at the Last Supper, and it was into this cup that drops of Christ’s blood were gathered as he died on the cross. After Christ’s death, so the legend goes, Joseph of Arimethea visited Britain to return the cup that later became known as the Holy Grail. He returned it not to Glastonbury as many think, but to Havant, otherwise known as Avalon.
This whacky take on the Grail myth declares in all earnestness that the Grail now lies hidden on nearby Hayling Island, a seaside resort. The fact that there is a first-century Romano-British temple on the island neither confirms nor disproves the possibility… but at least adds a certain amount of spice to the tale.
This is the second mystery of Portsmouth!
Perrex and Ferrex
At the head of Portsmouth Harbour stands Portchester Castle, a Roman fortification built on the site of an ancient British settlement. Originally known as Caer Peris by the Britons, there is a legend that it got its name from two warring Celtic brothers – Ferrex and Perrex.
The story goes that the two brothers went to war for control of the land after the death of their chieftain father, King Sisil. Ferrex was defeated in the first battle and escaped to France, from where he returned to challenge his brother once more. This time, things went even worse for Ferrex. Perrex slew his brother then went on to build Caer Peris – Perrex’s Castle – on that site where the Romans would later build Portchester Castle.
The story doesn’t end there, however. Perrex’s mother had always loved Ferrex more, and in punishment for murdering her favourite, she and her ladies stole into Perrex’s room as he slept and “cut him all in pieces”.
True or not? It’s the third mystery of Portsmouth!
Along the top of the great chalk ridge of Portsdown Hill that overlooks Portsea Island is a massive grave, known locally as Bevis’s Grave. Bevis was a popular fictional hero of the Middle Ages, whose exploits included being sold to pirates after his mother tried to kill him, working for King Hermin of Egypt (or Armenia), defeating the giant Ascapart, winning Hermin’s daughter in marriage and exacting vengeance on his father’s murderer.
In fact, the grave is 4,500-5,500 years old – far older than the mediaeval romance and its original occupant remains unknown. However, one further fact does tantalise. A later hurried burial uncovered on the site revealed a man with his head pierced by an iron spear. Since iron was a material from a much later era, is it possible that this ancient grave of former kings was used by the Britons in retreat after the death of Geraint?
It’s the fourth mystery of Portsmouth!
Lights in the Sky
Strange lights in the sky have been seen by humankind for many years, and UFOs are the modern expression of this ancient mystery. Portsmouth has its share!
In fact, the first UFO sighting to be investigated in the UK by the MoD happened over Portsmouth.
On 1st June 1950, an RAF pilot reported seeing a bright shining disc-like object in the sky, flying eastwards over the Portsmouth area. Four independent radar operators at RAF Wartling confirmed an object travelling at 1350-1650 knots moving towards and then away from the station.
Since this mysterious sighting happened over the naval dockyard at Portsmouth, the Ministry of Defence set up an investigation group – the wonderfully titled Flying Saucer Working Party.
The investigation looked into all aspects of this and other sightings, but finally concluded there was nothing to investigate. Yet, others who worked at the radar station complained the group never intended to investigate, but were more interested in suppressing reports of UFOs.
For those who are convinced of the truth of UFOs, it was a classic cover-up.
True or not true? It’s the fifth – and by no means the last mystery of Portsmouth!
Though there are countless mysteries, legends and myths throughout England, Portsmouth is not usually considered a centre for folklore. But the truth is that folk tales grow wherever there are folk – and they take on new shapes and meanings as the centuries go on. Portsmouth can claim its fair share of legends and ancient stories – as well as some new ones, too!