Like everyone else, I haven’t been getting out much lately. To some extent, I rely on being inspired by medieval sites I visit for this blog, although a lot of inspiration comes from my reading. I realised recently, though, that there are still some medieval buildings I can get to whilst keeping within the current restrictions. When you’ve grown up in a town that has plenty of medieval remains, it’s easy to stop noticing them, or at least to think that there’s nothing unusual about them. There is, of course, so we’re going on a virtual tour of medieval Southampton.
Since I can’t get out to purchase anything more up-to-date, I’ll be relying mostly on Historic Buildings of Southampton (cost one shilling and sixpence) and Collected Essays on Southampton (cost six shillings). Last month saw the fiftieth anniversary of decimalisation, so you can work out that I’ve had both books for some time.
We’re starting with the Bargate, the most iconic building in the city. It identifies Southampton so much that it’s part of the council’s logo and can be seen on the council’s buildings, vehicles and stationery.
The Bargate was the main gate of the medieval town. It was in the northern wall of the town and the road that led away from it went to Winchester and on to London. The photograph at the top of the post shows how it would have looked to someone approaching the town and in the photograph below you can see what a medieval inhabitant of the town would have seen, although the statue of George III portrayed as a Roman wasn’t there then and the windows were also added much later.
The original gate was built in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. I’ve marked the photograph below so that you can see the two main stages of building. The two round towers and the walls date from the early thirteenth century and there’s a Norman arch from the end of the twelfth century just visible beyond the early fifteenth-century extension. There was a portcullis in the gateway. In a good light you can still see its grooves.
It was a well-fortified gate, but the main threat to the town in the Middle Ages was from the sea, not from the London road. There was also a moat along the north wall, which meant that the town walls were more or less surrounded by water, since there as a marsh to the east and a river estuary to the south and west. The two lions date from the eighteenth century, as do the heraldic shields above the gate. One of the more famous events that took place here was the execution of the conspirators in the Southampton Plot probably not far from where I stood to take the photograph. The plotters wished to kill Henry V and his brothers and make someone they thought had a better claim to the crown king. This was shortly before Henry V marched part of his army through the gate and on to ships that would take them to France where he would triumph at Agincourt.
The ground floor of the Bargate was used on and off as a prison and the upper floor was the Guildhall. It was used for meetings of members of the Guild Merchant. Much later it was where the Town Assembly met. It eventually became a museum, but is only open on very special occasions.
You will note that the Bargate is very symmetrical, something that was lost on me as a child. I always assumed that German bombs had detached it from the walls that enclosed the medieval town, as they had destroyed most of the buildings for some distance north and south of the gate, but that wasn’t the case. The Bargate sits halfway along the main shopping street in the city, Above Bar and Below Bar to locals, but officially known as Above Bar Street and High Street. Shops on either side were built right up to the gate and all the traffic on the town’s main road had to go through the arch. It’s a very narrow arch, while Above Bar and Below Bar are very wide. By the late nineteenth century it was obvious that there was a problem, but it wasn’t tackled until the 1930s, when Southampton Corporation demolished the medieval walls on either side in 1932 and 1938. For many years the Bargate sat in the middle of a roundabout. Somewhat ironically, cars were banned from the area in the 1970s.