Southampton has some of England’s best preserved medieval town walls in the UK. Almost half of the 2km walls still exists today.
We recently joined SeeSouthampton to experience a guided tour with them together with a group of tourists. We wanted to see the walls as background research for the Mayflower 400 UK digital project. The idea was to gain a better understanding and insight into what the City would have looked like in early August 1620 when the Pilgrims left for America in their ships Mayflower and Speedwell from West Key in Southampton.
The history of Southampton is one forged by its location and relationship to the sea and its unusual double high-tide. Early settlement evidence exists from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. Roman occupation was in Bitterne, nearby Wickham with larger settlements in Chichester and Winchester. It is highly likely that Southampton was a major Roman trading port. Anglo-Saxon settlement was in the St Mary’s area of the town and was known as Hamwic and Hamtun at that time.
Christianity probably arrived in the late 7th Century/early 8th Century from the Isle of Wight at about the same time that St Wilfrid built his church at Titchfield and was building churches along the Meon Valley. By the 11th Century texts were referring to South Hamtun. (Anglo Saxon for ‘south hamlet by the water meadow’.) The City would have been an important Anglo Saxon trading port despite raiding by Vikings that led to the building of a defended enclosure. (Note: At that time it was a town and did not get City status until the 1960s.)
The Norman invasion ensured an era of prosperity for Southampton as it was the major port linking Winchester, then capital of England, to Normandy. The Doomsday Book indicates that at the time of the conquest there was already well established English and French quarters within the City. Within a few years the Normans had replaced the wooden stockades with a stone castle and wall. St Michael’s Church was founded in 1070 and was named after the patron saint of Normandy.
Shipping trade especially French wine and English wool was a major economic boost to the City during the 12th and 13th Centuries. Many fine merchant houses were built during this time – some still survive.
In 1338 the town was sacked by the French. That led to a period of re-building the defences and adding additional walls and towers. Much of what we can see today dates from that period.
Our tour started at Bargate which was the main entrance to the Town. We were told that over 300 years of records exist in the City archives detailing what merchants were bringing into the city for sale and export via the port as that was the basis of taxes levied on those goods.
We continued our walk towards the Westquay Shopping Centre and from the corner tower were able to look along the West Bay walls and defensive fortifications towards West Key where the Mayflower and Speedwell would have been docked and West Gate where they would have walked through to board the ships.
For more information on the draining of the River Test estuary/West Bay mud flats and to follow residents discussions on other topics please see the Facebook page ‘Southampton Memories’
The tour gave us access to a tower that had last seen action during WWII as it had anti-aircraft guns installed. A total of 57 air raids occurred during the war with the worse damage occurring over a 3 day period in late November/early December 1940. The guide explained that the tower we visited was called ‘Catchcold’ as the size of the canon was such that if an enemy warship came within range it would almost certainly ‘catch ’em cold’ and sink them. Whether true or not it was a nice story.
We also visited a number of the medieval vaults that would have held the merchants goods for import/export. During WWII they were used as bomb shelters during air raids. The Pilgrims would have bought all their provisions for the journey to America from these merchants.
We also visited the Tutor House and herb garden which was really interesting as herbs were one of the things the Pilgrims would have taken with them as blood letting and herbal remedies and flavouring/additives to foods was the main to treat illnesses in their day and they had no idea what they would find growing in America when they arrived.
We also were able to walk out through West Gate following the footsteps of the passengers and crew of the Mayflower and Speedwell. Instead of the waters edge we were able to look out onto the Grand Harbour Hotel and the Cruise Liner terminals which is a much more civilised way to travel compared to what the Mayflower passengers and crew faced.
It was a great way to spend 90 minutes and learn more about Southampton and its history.