St Michael’s is the oldest church in the town and the only one within the medieval walls still in use. It’s in French Street. In the Middle Ages what is now called High Street was called English Street and the two ran parallel to one another. English street, leading as it did to the Bargate, was the main street of the town. The names of the streets reflect the two different communities that inhabited the town after the Norman Conquest.
Most of the town’s shops were in English Street, but there were some in French Street. One of them remains in the form of the Medieval Merchant’s House, managed by English Heritage. We won’t be visiting it on this tour, as I wrote a series of posts about it and all the rooms inside here. A market took place in the area in front of the church and it’s still an open space today.
St Michael’s was originally built by the Normans, shortly after 1066 and named after the patron saint of Normandy. The tower is Norman and the spire dates from the eighteenth century. It’s said that the German bombers during the war were careful not to destroy the church as the spire was a landmark on their raids.
The front wall of the church that you can see in the photograph above is Norman, but the door and window are from the fifteenth century. Inside there are Norman arches, but we can’t go inside at the moment. When we’re able, we’ll have to return to St Michael’s to see the treasures it contains.
For many centuries until the mid-1830s the mayors of Southampton took their oath of office inside the church.
In the mid twelfth century Henry II gave control of the churches within the town walls to the Augustinian priory of St. Denys to the north east. I’m not sure how he was able to do that, but it meant that the parish priests would be monks from the priory rather than secular priests who lived in their parishes. Although the arrangement held for centuries, the priory stopped supplying priests quite quickly.
A document of the mid thirteenth century tells us that the parochial churches in the town were to receive tithes from the sales of fish by their parishioners, from the two windmills between the town and the leper house just north of the town, and from the piglets within the town walls. This last made me pause for thought, as the town walls were about a mile and a half all the way round. I wondered how many piglets there could be in such a small area. There can’t have been many to share between the five parish churches. [Edit 28th May 2021. Since I wrote this I have discovered that everyone in towns kept pigs. They didn’t need much looking after and could be fed on household scraps. The piglet tithe would have been fairly valuable.]
Historic Buildings of Southampton by Philip Peberdy
Collected Essays on Southampton edited by J B Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt