Southampton Town Walls and Castle

1 Conversation

Southampton's Bargate.

Southampton 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 tenth century, in 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 contributed.2 Hamwih was an undefended town, yet the new town was built with defensive ditches and earthworks around it.

The Normans and the Start of the Walls

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 8 gates and 29 towers. Now, roughly half of the walls survive, 13 of the original towers survive, and six gates.

Southampton has no stone in the local area that was usable in 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 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. Through the Bargate have passed many of the Kings and Queens of England since Henry II. 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 either side. Between 1260 and 1290 the ramparts were replaced by a stone wall, round drum-towers were built either side of the gateway and a hall was constructed on the first floor. The facade between the towers was added by 1420, with battlements and machicolations. The ditch was filled in 1771 when the road through the bargate was paved, the shields added in the 17th and 18th centuries, showing family crests of those who ruled Southampton
in the 1600s and 1700s, with shields of St. George and St. Andrew as well.

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 King Charles V of Spain's visit. The original wooden lions were replaced by the current lead lions in 1743. There also were two painted panels hung 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 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 northwest corner of the walls lies Arundel Tower. It was built in 1290 and is 60 feet high, and was named either after 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 man the whole 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 gunports 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. All along this area, the river Itchen lapped against the walls until a small promenade was built in the first half of the nineteenth century.3 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.

The Castle

Sadly very little remains of the castle now, but it was once quite splendid. By 1153 a motte and bailey 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. It was now cylindrical and much taller.

Richard the Lionheart spent his only Christmas in England as king at Southampton Castle in 1194, and 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 started to fall into decay. In 1804 the ruin was bought by the Maquis 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. 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 portcullis, 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, but the surviving vault, built in 1193 and is 55 feet long, 20 feet wide and 25 feet high, 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 at that time. On the first floor there was a long, narrow room with a row of seats where you went to the toilet, and 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. This is where there are, in fact, two layers of medieval wall. This is because the 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. 4 After the French Raid of 1338, and Edward III's order to build the town wall, 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 wall was completed. The remains of one of the early houses, built in 1160 and known as "King John's Palace" can be entered if you go through the Tudor House free 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, and ships unloaded their cargo. This was still part of the shore until the 1920s, when land was reclaimed to build the western docks. In this area, goods from all over Europe was imported, including wine, and wool was exported.
It was from this Quay that the Pilgrim Fathers 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 the Westgate was fitted with cannon. The gunports are sideways-angled, and are quite rare in England. This gate was the second most important in the town, after the Bargate, and 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 onto 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.

Watergate And the South Side of the Wall

Sadly, most of the southern wall was demolished in 1804, however, the Watergate survives. Before the Watergate, which was halfway along the southern wall, you come to the Woolhouse. This was built in 1401, and is the only medieval warehouse in Southampton still in use, and used to store wool. It is now the city's Maritime Museum 5. Further along, and next to Watergate, is the ruins of a building known as Canute's Palace. It was built in the late 1100s, long after Canute had died, and
was another merchant's house. 6 In this area are also several vaults that were used to store goods.

The Watergate was the main entrance on to Town Quay, and it was built immediately after the raid in 1338, and it had the 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. Apparently, in 1403 and in 1438, the tower was leased for the annual rent of one red rose - though the lessees 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 7in 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 and known as the Saltmarsh gate as it led to the marshlands east of the town. However, after the 1338 French Raid, it was extended, and a tower was built alongside it. The Gate was defended by portcullis, and in 1377 was extended south in order to carry cannon.

Just outside the gateway is the Old Bowling Green, the oldest bowling green in the world, and 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 look-out could keep watch for any 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 Archaeology. 8

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 lies the Half-Round tower, named after it's shape. Before the tower was built there was a dove-cote here 9 and when the walls were built, the dovecote was converted into a tower.

Heading north along the walls, on the left is the site of Southampton's Franciscan Friary. The Franciscans, founded by St. Francis of Assisi, came to Southampton in 1233 and settled in this, the poorer side of town, as they were dedicated to the care of the poor and sick. They were known mainly for their water, as in 1290, when Nicholas de Barbfleet, Lord of Shirley, died, the Friars were given a spring of water that arose on 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 of the monasteries.

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 therefore used cannon, and you can see a gunport 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 and was 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 either side, but the first stretch of wall
was built linking it to the Bargate around 1260. It was 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 was built around 634 AD and was the church of the Saxon town of Hamwih. 10

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

In 1769, York Gate was cut into the wall halfway between Polymond tower and the Bargate, yet it was not built that well, and it sadly was necessary to demolish it in 1961 due to the danger of collapsing.

The French Raid

The biggest catalyst in the building of the town's walls was the French Raid. On the morning of Sunday 4th 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 from the inhabitants, and burned many houses, and indeed 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.2In AD 981 the Anglo Saxon Chronicle apparently notes "seven ships came and ravaged Southampton". This was during the time of Æthelred the Unready. Most of the citizens were apparently killed or taken prisoner by the Vikings.3At 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, and in this area that Jane Austen lived between 1806 and 1809.4Machicolations are the spaces between the main and overhanging walls, allowing missiles to be dropped on the enemy.5Admission is free, and well worth a look6Its name reflects that King Canute came to Southampton. Following the death of Ethelred II in 1015 there was a struggle as to who would follow him. The council in London proclaimed Edmund, his son, king, but the bishops and chief men of Wessex assembled and unanimously elected Canute as king. "Meeting him at Southampton" wrote a writer called Florence of Worcester, "they repudiated and renounced in his presence all the race of Ethelred and concluded peace with him (Canute), swearing loyalty to him and he also swore to them he would be a loyal lord to them in affairs of Church and state".7the same man who paid Richard I's ransom8Admission here is free also, and again, well worth a look9doves were kept in order to have fresh meat in winter when there was little else available10There 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.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry



Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Written and Edited by


h2g2 is created by h2g2's users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the Not Panicking Ltd. Unlike Edited Entries, Entries have not been checked by an Editor. If you consider any Entry to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please register a complaint. For any other comments, please visit the Feedback page.

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more