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Southampton Town Walls and Castle

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Southampton's Bargate on the City walls.

Southampton, Hampshire, UK, has been, for well over a thousand years, one of the biggest ports in Great Britain, and even the world. The Romans had a defended settlement called Clausentum, and the Saxons later built a port on the banks of the Itchen called Hamwih1, and was probably one of the largest ports in Europe at the time. In the 10th Century, during the reign of Athelstan, the local people moved to where the modern town of Southampton is. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, the river Itchen was beginning to silt up, making shipping hard. Secondly, Viking raids were wreaking havoc at the time. In AD 981, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle notes 'seven ships came and ravaged Southampton'. This was during the time of a king who became known as Æthelred the Unready. Most of the citizens were killed or taken prisoner by the Vikings, as Hamwih was an undefended town. The new town was built with defensive ditches and earthworks around it.

The Normans

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the Normans moved into the area, and St Michael's Church was started in 1070. The ditch was also defended with a number of wooden towers and a gateway, known as the Bargate, in the north. The walls were built in stages over 300 years, with the Bargate and Eastgate built first. Until 1290, only an earthen bank and rampart ran between them. The western walls were not built until after the French Raid of 1338, and were not completed until 1380. The walls stretched for one and a quarter miles around the town, including eight gates and 29 towers. Now, roughly half of the walls, 13 of the original towers, and six gates survive.

Southampton had no stone in the local area that was suitable for building the town walls, and so all the limestone needed was brought over from Bembridge and Quarr on the Isle of Wight. This must have been quite a task, considering the size of the sailing ships of the time; yet there was an incentive, as ships arriving at port paid a duty, which was reduced according to the amount of stone they brought.

The Bargate

The main entrance to the walled town of Southampton was through the Bargate at the northern end of the town. Since Henry II, many of the Kings and Queens of England have passed through the Bargate. By 1175, a simple square stone tower had been built, and the arch completed. There was a ditch in front of the gate with a bridge over it and ramparts on either side. Between 1260 and 1290, the ramparts were replaced by a stone wall. Round drum-towers were built on either side of the gateway and a hall was constructed on the first floor. The façade between the towers was added by 1420, with battlements and machicolations2. The ditch was filled in 1771, when the road through the bargate was paved. The shields were added in the 17th and 18th Centuries, showing crests of the families who ruled Southampton at the time; the shields of St George and St Andrew were also added at this time.

On either side of the Bargate are two lions, reflecting the local legend of Sir Bevis of Hampton, the mythical founder of Southampton. The first lions were put up in 1522, when the Bargate was decorated for the visit of King Charles V of Spain. The original wooden lions were replaced by the current lead lions in 1743. There were also two painted panels hung on either side of the gateway showing Sir Bevis and Ascupart, which are now preserved inside.

On the south side of the Bargate are three archways, a statue of George III dressed as the Roman Emperor Hadrian, made in 1809, and a sundial from 1705. There is also a 17th Century bell, which would be rung in times of emergency. The Bargate was a toll gate, and every cart carrying goods into and out of Southampton had to pay a tax. Inside the Bargate can be found the remains of a cell, as the Bargate's hall was used as a courtroom, until the Magistrate's Court at the Civic Centre was built.

Arundel and Catchcold Towers

On the north west corner of the walls lies Arundel Tower. It was built in 1290. It is 60 feet high, and was named after either Sir Bevis' horse Arundel or Sir John Arundel, who was a Governor of the town's castle. It was also nicknamed 'Windwhistle Tower'. As there were insufficient troops to effectively man the walls, each of the Guilds had a duty to maintain and defend part of the wall. Arundel tower and the nearby walls were the responsibility of the Shoemakers, Curries, Saddlers and Cobblers Guild. There is a gun tower adjoining the tower, which was built in Tudor times.

Near Arundel tower is Prince Edward Tower, built in the early 1400s specifically to carry cannon. It is believed to have some of the earliest gun ports in the country. Prince Edward Tower was also known as Catchcold Tower, and was the last part of the town wall to be used in the defence of Southampton during the second world war. Just south of Catchcold Tower lies a set of steps. This is Forty Steps, which were built in 1853 and led down from the wall to the sea. From here people could walk along the shore to the southern end of town. All along this area, the river Itchen lapped against the walls, until a small promenade was built in the first half of the 19th Century. At the top of the stairs is a row of houses called Forest View, as it used to look over the water to the New Forest. It was in this area that Jane Austen lived between 1806 and 1809.

The Castle

Sadly, very little remains of the castle now; but it was once quite splendid. By 1153, a motte and bailey3 castle with a timber palisade had been built; and the palisade was soon replaced by a stone curtain wall. The castle included bridges, quarters for visiting royalty, the castle quay, and a shell keep. Many of its citizens were wealthy merchants; and one of them, Gervase le Riche, paid a lot of King Richard I's ransom after his Crusades. Sadly by 1286, the Castle was described as ruinous, and had been of no use in the repeated French attacks on the port. Richard II ordered repairs, fearing more French attacks. The tower was rebuilt in a cylindrical design, much taller than before.

Richard the Lionheart spent his only Christmas in England as king at Southampton Castle in 1194 (many of England's monarchs including Henry II, Henry V and Queen Elizabeth I often stayed in Southampton Castle); yet by the end of the 16th Century, the castle had started to fall into decay. In 1804, the ruin was bought by the Marquis of Lansdowne, who used the stone to build his gothic house. This was demolished in 1818 and by 1902, commercial development had removed the last traces of the motte. A block of flats now stands on the area.

There are some remains of the castle - part of the outer bailey wall survives - and along the outer wall by the sea, there is Castle Watergate and Castle Vault, leading from what was Castle Quay. It was through Castle Watergate, a gateway defended by portcullis4, that Royal passengers entered the castle, and it was also from here that the king's cargo was unloaded and stored into Castle Vault. There were actually two vaults, the other being under Castle Hall. The surviving vault was built in 1193 and is 55 feet long, 20 feet wide and 25 feet high. It is the only part of the castle to remain intact.

At the southern end of the tower lies the Garderobe (toilet) Tower. This was built in 1252, and was three floors high. It was said to be one of the best flushing toilets of its time. On the first floor there was a long, narrow room with a row of seats where one could discuss last evening's supper with friends, as the waste fell into the latrine channel below. It was then flushed out by the rising and falling tide. Sadly, only the latrine channel remains.

The Arcades

South of the Castle lies the Arcades. There are, in fact, two layers of medieval wall. This is because the most recent wall has been built onto the walls of earlier houses belonging to wealthy merchants; and it also is the only example in England of machicolated arcades. After the French Raid of 1338, Edward III ordered a town wall to be built but the merchants were unwilling to lose their sea front warehouses. They resisted for a long time; yet by 1380, they were forced to build a wall on the front of the houses, incorporating the houses into the wall. This was a compromise, as the merchants kept their sea front properties, and the king's wall was finally completed. The remains of one of the early houses, built in 1160 and known as 'King John's Palace', can be entered through the free Tudor House museum off of St Michael's Square.

West Quay and West Gate

This area was known as the West Quay, and was the busiest part of Southampton. The Quay stretched out into the river Test, where ships unloaded their cargo. This was still part of the shore until the 1920s, when land was reclaimed to build the western docks. Imported goods from all over Europe were unloaded in the area, including wine. Wool was the main export commodity to depart from here. It was from this quay that the Pilgrim Fathers actually left Southampton to go to America in 1620, in the Mayflower and Speedwell; however, due to the Speedwell's poor condition, it was abandoned at Plymouth, and the Mayflower travelled to America alone.

The Westgate was built in 1380, and was the only access to the Quay from the town. Inside the gate was a double portcullis; 'murder holes', where weapons can be dropped from above; and cannon. The angled gun ports are quite rare in England. This gate was the second most important in the town, after the Bargate. It was through this gate that Edward III and his bowmen left for France and the Battle of Crecy in 1346; and in 1415 Henry V passed through with his troops to embark on the second largest fleet ever assembled at Southampton en route for France and the Battle of Agincourt. Only the fleet assembled for D-Day was bigger. The Pilgrim Fathers also passed through this gate.


Sadly, most of the south wall was demolished in 1804. However, the Watergate survives, which was built halfway along the south wall. Before the Watergate you come to the Woolhouse. This was built in 1401, and is the only medieval warehouse in Southampton still in use. It is now the city's Maritime Museum5. Further along, and next to Watergate, is the ruins of a building known as Canute's Palace. It was built for a merchant in the late 1100s, long after Canute had died6.

The Watergate was the main entrance onto Town Quay. It was built immediately after the raid in 1338, and had a large drum-shaped tower on its western side. Town Quay, built in 1411, was equipped with a crane, and, like the Bargate, the Watergate had a charge on all imports and exports. In 1403 and again in 1438, the tower was leased for the annual rent of one red rose - though the leasees were responsible for the repair of the building and its defence in time of war.

God's House Gate and Tower

God's House Gate and Tower lie at the south east corner of the town. They were named after the nearby Hospice of God's House, the Maison Dieu, which was built by Gervase le Riche in 1196 for the use of pilgrims journeying from France to visit the tomb of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Only the gateway and St Julien's chapel, named after the patron saint of pilgrims, survive. The gateway was built in the late 1200s, and was originally very small; it was known as the Saltmarsh gate, as it led to the marshlands to the east of the town. After the 1338 French Raid, it was extended and a tower was built alongside it. The Gate was defended by portcullis, and in 1377, it was extended south in order to carry cannon.

Just outside the gateway is the Old Bowling Green, the oldest bowling green in the world dating back to at least 1299.

God's House Tower is a two storey building with a three storey tower, running alongside the gateway. It was built in 1417, and was one of the earliest forts built specifically to carry cannon. Here the town's cannon and powder were stored and from the top of the tower a lookout could keep watch for invaders. The tower also guarded the sluices that controlled the sea water, which flowed into the town ditches along the eastern side of the town. Since 1961, it has held the City's Museum of Archaeology7.

The Eastern Walls

Not much of the Eastern walls survive, except for a small part between God's House Gate and the Friary. This part of the wall was built after the French raid of 1338. North of God's House Gate and Tower stands the Half Round tower, built on the site of an old dove-cote.8.

Heading north along the walls, on the left is the site of Southampton's Franciscan Friary. The Franciscans came to Southampton in 1233 and settled the poorer side of town, the better to care for the poor and sick. When Nicholas de Barbfleet, Lord of Shirley, died in 1290, the Friars were given a spring that arose in the grounds of his manor. The friars built conduits that carried the water to the people of Southampton. The Friary was closed by Henry VIII in 1538, during the Dissolution. When the town wall on this side was built, the Friary was cut off from its orchards... and from many of the poor. In 1373, they were allowed to build a gateway through the wall, on condition they defended it. They used cannon and you can see a gun port on either side of the door.

The next tower north is the remains of the Reredorter, which was the Friar's toilet, built in 1291. The only access was through the Friar's Dorter or bedroom. The Reredorter projected over the wall, and the waste dropped into the drain below to be washed away by the Town Ditch tidal water. The ditch on the Eastern side followed the walls almost as far as the Bargate, and was built before 1225.

The North East Walls

Most of the eastern walls, towers and gateways north of the Friary were demolished as the town grew. The Eastgate, one of the earliest gates in the medieval town (along with the Bargate), was built around 1110 and demolished in 1774. It was originally just a free-standing tower with a gateway through it and ramparts on either side. The first stretch of wall linking it to the Bargate was built around 1260 and finished 30 years later. It was the responsibility of the Guild of Goldsmiths, Blacksmiths, Locksmiths, Pewterers and Tinkerers. The gateway led to St Mary's Church, half a mile away. The first Church of St Mary, built around 634 AD, was the church of the Saxon town of Hamwih. There have been six churches of St Mary on the site; the most recent was completed in 1955, after the previous church was destroyed in the Blitz.

The very north east corner of the walls was defended by Polymond Tower. This was a very strong drum tower, originally known as St Deny's Tower. It was enlarged during the reign of Richard II, and renamed Polymond after the Mayor of Southampton. A wall ran directly to the Bargate to the west, and contained two small interval towers. The original arrow holes were converted into gun ports in the 1380s.

In 1769, York Gate was cut into the wall halfway between Polymond tower and the Bargate. Unfortunately, it was not well built and it was necessary to demolish it in 1961.

The French Raid

The biggest catalyst in the building of the town's walls was the French Raid. On the morning of Sunday 4 October, 1338, shortly after the start of the Hundred Years War, a fleet of 50 galleys sailed up the Solent, landing French soldiers and Genoese pirates on the south shore of West Quay. With no walls to defend it, Southampton was unprepared and unprotected. Most people at the time were at church, oblivious to the fate awaiting them. The invaders attacked, killing, raping and looting. They burned many houses and many people of Southampton ran into St Michael's church for safety; yet this was broken into, and all inside were slain. The King's own wine supply at the Castle was among the losses.

In 1339, King Edward III visited Southampton and ordered that walls be built to 'close the town'. This started a massive programme of wall building that ended with the construction of the Arcades in 1380, after much resistance from the merchants. Over forty years later, Southampton was defended with effective and well-designed walls.

1Also called Hamwith and Hamwic, derived from the Anglo Saxon word wics, meaning trading station. It was the main trading port for Winchester, which was the main royal and ecclesiastical centre of the West Saxons.2Machicolations are projections in the battlements of a castle's walls with openings through which defensive fire could be directed against attacking forces.3A 'motte' is an earthwork mound on which a castle was built; and a 'bailey' is a courtyard within the walls of the castle. The architecture of a castle's defences can be thought of as a mechanism that channels attacking forces into situations in which they are most easily destroyed, either by dispersing them or by concentrating them into tight places.4A portcullis is a vertical sliding wooden grille usually covered with iron suspended in front of a gateway, which could be let down to protect the gate.5Admission is free. It is well worth a look.6Though Canute did, in fact, visit Southampton following the death of Ethelred II in 1015.7Admission here is free also; and again, it is well worth a look.8Doves were kept in order to have fresh meat in winter, when there was little else available.

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