In Castle Square Again
When Jane Austen moved into the house in Castle Square, the castle that she knew was not the medieval castle, but a modem gothic building built by the Marquis of Lansdowne, who had purchased the site in 1804. It was from this building that she reported seeing the marchioness leave in a carriage being pulled by 8 small ponies and attended by liveried staff.
The marchioness must not have looked very appealing, for Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra in February 1807 about the painter from the castle, Mr Husket, who had allowed her and her mother to make a dressing table out of a kitchen table belonging to the castle, “I suppose whenever the Walls want no touching up, he is employed about my Lady’s face”.
As Austen knew, the marquis was in bad health and he died in November 1809. The castle was demolished in 1819. Even the castle mound had been levelled and flats now stand where the castle used to be.
The son of the Earl of Shelburne, the Prime Minister who negotiated the Peace of Paris and recognised the independence of the United States, John Henry Petty had been an MP. On his father’s death he became the Marquis of Lansdowne. The purchase of the castle site was funded by the sale of his father’s book collection and the sale of manuscripts to the British Library. Very little remained of the medieval castle itself, but what was left was incorporated into a house built in the gothic style with castellations. It was generally considered ugly and disproportionately large for the site. The marquis entertained the town’s nobility in the house and these events were the high points on the social calendar.
The original castle was founded at the end of the eleventh century, when the Normans began their programme of building castles to reinforce their defeat of the Saxons. The medieval castle was a serious defensive building and the main building work was carried out at the end of the fourteenth century. Southampton was vulnerable to attacks from France and had suffered a dreadful raid in 1338, during the One Hundred Years’ War, which killed many inhabitants and destroyed much property, including some of the king’s wool and wine, which was being stored in the town. Believing that the burgesses had connived at the town’s destruction, Edward III ordered defensive walls to be put up and improvements made to the castle. Richard II later had further improvements made when the threat of French invasion loomed again. It was one of the first castles in England to be defended by cannon.
Many monarchs stayed in the castle until it became redundant in the early seventeenth century. Even before the Civil War there was little left, as stones had been removed to build houses and strengthen the medieval walls. The Stuarts sold the site and it was eventually purchased, as we have seen, by the Marquis of Lansdowne.
I was quite disappointed to discover that Austen didn’t know the real castle, but a gothic make-believe replacement. Perhaps that was why she found it so easy to mock the marchioness.
I included the photo of Catchcold Tower at the top of the blog, not because it was part of the castle, we’ve already established that nothing much remains of it, but because the Austens would have seen it almost daily on their way to and from their walk in the Spa Gardens. The gardens were more or less under the shopping centre that can be seen above and to the left of the tower.