Medieval Rivers

The River Test at Romsey

In the comments section of last week’s post, I had a brief discussion with Doctor Christopher Monk about the use of waterways for transport in the Middle Ages. I wanted to know more, so I did some reading. By the way, if you’re even remotely interested in medieval food, and why wouldn’t you be since you’re reading this blog, you should visit his blog and his YouTube channel.

Rivers were used extensively to transport goods in the Middle Ages. Road transport was dependable and fairly predictable, although slower in winter, but it was expensive.  It cost 1 ½d per mile at the beginning of the fourteenth century to transport a ton of grain. By water it was ½d. It cost more to transport wine 50 miles on land than to send it nearly 1,000 miles from Bordeaux to London. Rivers didn’t go everywhere, though, and often it was easer to transport goods around the coast on ships. Roads were useful if you were transporting people, but if you were moving heavy or bulky goods, like wine, rivers were better.

Many goods didn’t have to travel far from where they were produced to where they were sold. Generally things like vegetables and eggs travelled between 7 and 12 miles, although the shorter distance was the norm. This was as far as the person who had grown it could travel to a market, sell the goods and return home in a day. These people would have travelled on foot, sometimes with and sometimes without a pack horse.

If you wanted your goods to travel further, other people and methods of transport had to be involved. Costs for transporting goods over roads included feeding hungry animals. Most items were carried by pack animals, which needed men to lead them. The animals had to be relieved of their loads each evening and reloaded in the morning, which took time. The same thing applied to carts, which were even more expensive to use, since they were a large capital investment on the part of the owner. Fewer men were needed on boats and no animals. Boats didn’t have to be unloaded and reloaded every few miles. They were another expensive capital investment, but they were cheaper to run than a cart.

Rivers were very useful for bulkier and cheaper goods which would have been prohibitively expensive to transport by road.  London needed to bring in hay to feed its horses and other animals in the winter. The hay was grown in the Lea Valley and transported to London along the River Lea. Had it been transported by road, the cost would probably have been more than the value of the hay.

Most foodstuffs for London travelled by river. Towns upriver from Oxford down and particularly Henley sent grain on the Thames. Vegetables travelled mostly by road, usually from Hertfordshire. Barley came round the coast from Kent and East Anglia.

Medieval boats had more or less flat bottoms and could sail up and down rivers that aren’t navigable for modern boats, although it must be said that some rivers have changed substantially in the last 700 years and some are much more silted up and overgrown than they were. Many rivers were navigable for long distances even for ships and work was often carried out to make rivers as navigable as possible. Channels were sometimes cut where the river was impassable.

Using rivers was not without its hazards. On some rivers there were fish weirs in the deeper water. These were wooden or stone structures built across the width of the river which directed fish into traps from which they could not escape. Not only were they a danger to boats, but they also threatened to reduce drastically the number of fish in a river. This possibility was recognised even in the early twelfth century and there were edicts and statutes against fish weirs over the centuries. That they had to be repeated shows how ineffective they were.  

Low bridges were another danger to boats. Since these were much cheaper to build and maintain than bridges with arches allowing boats to pass beneath them, it must have been a real problem. Eventually lifting bridges were devised. These were bridges with a drawbridge in the middle, which could be lifted for a fee.

Many goods travelled by both road and water, depending on where they were destined. The two methods of transport were complementary rather than in competition with one another.

Sources:
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer 
A Social History of England, 1200 to 1500 by Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Staples

The French attempt to recapture Calais

To my immense shame, I have often come across the word ‘staple’ when reading about the Middle Ages and not bothered to find out what it really means. I knew it had something to do with merchants and trade, but I didn’t know the details. Today I’m putting that right.

A staple was, essentially, the only town through which a certain commodity could be imported or exported. There were some in England and some were on the continent. The practice was begun by Edward I in Dordrecht.

The main commodity for which this was important was wool, England’s largest export, but there were also wine staples. The wool staple was introduced in 1313 by Edward II. All wool had to be exported through a single continental port. Initially it was St. Omer, then Antwerp and then Bruges. Eventually it was Calais. The port chosen depended on the king’s political and diplomatic goals at the time.

The staple gave an advantage to English merchants, as foreign merchants couldn’t buy wool directly from the producers. All wool for export had to be taken to a staple town and sold to authorised merchants who then sold it abroad. It was also a way of making it easier for the government to collect duty, as only a limited number of people had the right to export certain goods.

In 1354 the Statute of Staples listed the staple towns in England and Ireland. They were Bristol, Canterbury, Chichester, Cork, Drogheda, Dublin, Exeter, Lincoln, London, Newcastle, Norwich, Waterford, Winchester and York.  At first I was surprised not to see Southampton on the list, but the combined blows of the French raid in 1338 and the Black Death in 1348 had almost destroyed the town by this point. Much later it was made the staple for various metals.

Calais became a staple town in 1363 which it remained until it fell to the French in 1558. In Calais there were twenty-six merchants permitted to trade in wool. The intention of the English government was to make Calais financially self-sufficient instead of being a drain on the country’s finances. Calais was a town in France held by the English after a year-long siege in 1346/47. As you can see from the picture at the top of the post, the French wanted it back and defending the town from them cost money. In theory, giving the town the wool staple would increase trade within Calais and, therefore, duty, which could be used to reduce the financial burden on England. The theory was good, but the practice wasn’t. Making Calais a staple town had a negative impact on the wool trade from which it took some time to recover.

England wasn’t the only country to use staples. Scotland used them and there were also staple ports on the Danube and the Rhein. They were unpopular and powerful foreign merchants often petitioned against them. Sometimes they ignored them entirely and took their goods to non-staple ports where, presumably, local merchants were happy enough to break the law.

Sources:
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Chistopher Corédon and Ann Williams
England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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The Walls and Towers of Southampton

Catchcold Tower with Arundel Tower in the distance

On Sunday 4th October 1338, while the people of Southampton were at Mass, fifty French and Genoese galleys sailed up Southampton Water. The town had few defensive walls and the raiders were offered little resistance while they killed, looted and burned. Those who could fled and some never returned. When he learned of the attack and how easy it had been for the raiders to wreak so much havoc, in which he had lost large quantities of wool and wine, Edward III accused the people of the town of conspiring with the French.

Spurred on by reports that wool and wine that had survived the raid had then been looted, he ordered an investigation to find out who was responsible for the town’s lack of response to the raid. Southampton was put under martial law. The raid had a devasting effect and trade was very much reduced for years. Many properties had been destroyed, especially those belonging to the wealthy merchants in the southern part of the town.

In March 1339 Edward III visited the town himself. The king decided that it needed to be surrounded by walls in order to prevent another attack by the French. It wasn’t a small or quick task to encircle the town with stone and some merchants lost their gardens, others their sea view. Blocked up doors and windows of the houses that were incorporated into the walls can still be seen.

When they were eventually completed, the walls were about 25 to 30 feet high and there were almost one and a quarter miles of them, of which about half remain. There were seven main gates and twenty-four towers. Today there are six gates and thirteen towers still standing. They were built mostly of limestone from the Isle of Wight.

Arundel Tower

Arundel Tower was almost 60 feet high and had a good view down Southampton Water. When it was built, and up until the turn of the last century, when the land was reclaimed, it was constantly being damaged by the sea, as all the paved area that you can see in the photograph at the top of the post used to be underwater.

Southampton’s walls and towers were among the first in England to provide for cannon, although I don’t think that’s obvious from my photographs. A few yards from Arundel Tower is Catchcold Tower, which you can see in the photograph at the top of the post. It was designed to be used by cannon and was built early in the fifteenth century. The steps are a nineteenth-century addition and they led to a beach.

Biddles Gate
Postern Gate

This is the Postern Gate at the bottom of Blue Anchor Lane. Originally it was much narrower.

West Gate

The West Gate is, unsurprisingly, in the West Wall. It had a double portcullis. On the water side of the gate was the West Quay. It was the only commercial quay belonging to the town until the Water Gate Quay was built towards the end of the fourteenth century. As well as goods, it was also used for passengers. Edward III departed through it on his way to Crécy in 1346, as did Henry V on his way to Agincourt in 1415. In 1620 it was the turn of the Pilgrim Fathers on their way to America.

West Gate

Just next to the West Gate is Westgate Hall, which was known as the Tudor Merchant’s Hall as I was growing up. In the eighteenth century it was known as the Guard Room. I’ve included it here because it’s a medieval building, but I don’t know enough about it to give it a separate post. It was built at the end of the fourteenth or the beginning of the fifteenth century in front of St Michael’s Church. The top floor was for storing wool and the ground floor was arcaded to house part of the fish market. In 1634 it was in such a state of disrepair that it was about to collapse. The Town Council sold it to an alderman. A condition of the sale was that he take it down and rebuild it elsewhere. At the end of the nineteenth century the council took possession of it again and it became a museum store. Later it was a lecture theatre and now it’s used for civil weddings.

Westgate Hall

This is the tower by the South, or Water, Gate. It stands at the bottom of what used to be English Street, while the Bargate is at the top. On the other side of the gate was the Water Gate Quay, which has been replaced by the equally imaginatively named Town Quay.

In 1439 William Soper, Clerk of the King’s Ships, was given a lease on the tower of 120 years. In return he had to repair the gate and the tower and give the mayor a red rose each year on the feast of John the Baptist. Earlier in his career he had overseen the construction to his design of the ill-fated Grace Dieu in Southampton. She was large and she was beautiful, but she only went on one voyage. Her crew mutinied in the Channel. A few years later she was sailed to the River Hamble where she was struck by lightning and sank in the same year in which her creator took over responsibility for the Water Gate.

Friary Gate

The last and least gate is on the eastern side of the town. Medieval Southampton was home to an Augustinian friary. When the walls were built the friars’ need to get to the other side where their gardens were situated was accommodated by this little gate. All that remains of the friary are a few bits of wall incorporated into the nearby car park, this gate and the monks’ latrines.

Sources:
Historic Buildings of Southampton by Philip Peberdy
Collected Essays on Southampton edited by J B Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Southampton Castle

Drum Towers, Gate of Southampton Castle

Within the small medieval town there was a small castle. Nothing is left of it today, save the remains of two gates, a wall and a vault. It stood on the western side of the town on top of an artificial mound. The original castle was probably an early Norman wooden fort within a stockade and a ditch. By the end of the twelfth century the wooden stockade had been replaced by a stone wall. It’s possible that the wooden fort wasn’t replaced until the end of the thirteenth century.

The castle belonged to the king and was run by his governors or constables. It wasn’t a royal residence in the way that Windsor or Eltham were, but it was a handy place for a king to stay if he was about to visit or invade France, for example. Henry V in particular, started most of his expeditions to France from here. In 1415, just before setting out on the campaign that was to take him to Agincourt, he wrote a letter addressed from the castle. Elizabeth I also wrote a letter from there when she was in residence.

In the twelfth century, Henry II and Richard I spent a lot of money on the castle, but John outdid them both. His main building efforts took place from 1204 to 1209, rendered even more urgent when he lost Normandy in 1206 and the threat of invasion from France increased. He also kept a fleet of galleys in Southampton, just in case.

His son Henry III set a levy on wine imported into the town. If a ship was carrying twenty or more tuns of wine, two tuns went into the king’s store in the castle. If the ship carried between ten and twenty tuns, one tun went into the store. In theory, this meant that the king would always have enough wine.

The castle was often allowed to fall into near ruin and it proved useless in assisting the town to defend itself against French raiders in 1338. Although Edward II had ordered repairs towards the end of his reign, he doesn’t appear to have provided the funds to enable them to be carried out. As we shall see when we get on to the walls, the raid, in which much of his property stored in the town was destroyed, focused the attention of his son, Edward III, on the town and its lack of defences. He also neglected the castle, though.

The garrison varied in size over the years, but was usually made up of five knights and their attendant soldiers. In 1369, when Edward III renewed the war with France, there were only eight squires and two archers, which was increased to forty-seven men-at-arms, thirty-nine hobelars and one hundred and seventy-two archers. The town couldn’t really support that many soldiers, though, and the number was quickly reduced again.

By 1378 the keep had disappeared entirely and a new stone one was built by Sir John Arundel, the Keeper of the Castle. It was believed at the time that there was a good chance the French would invade. Richard II was only 12 and the two countries had been at war on and off for forty years. Since 1369 it had been very much on and history had shown that Southampton was very much a target.

The new keep was by all accounts very fine. The castle mound was about 200 feet in diameter. The keep was cylindrical and had four turrets. The castle also had a barbican, two inner gates with portcullises and a twelve-foot ditch. The stone came from Portland, Purbeck and the Isle of Wight, all fairly close by sea. The building work was completed in 1388, just as Richard II’s uncles began to think about negotiating an end to the war.

The earl of Cambridge and Lord Scrope, two of the plotters involved in the Southampton Plot against Henry V in 1415 were kept prisoner in the castle before their trials. Both were found guilty and executed.

The war with France ended and the castle was no longer really necessary. If it had been easy to neglect it when it was needed, it was even easier when it wasn’t needed. By the time James I became king, it was no longer fit to receive royal guests. During the Civil War some of the stones were removed to maintain the town walls. What was left was used to build a castle in the Gothic style in 1804. This was the castle that Jane Austen knew when she lived in Castle Square. It lasted less than fourteen years and the mound itself was removed in 1822. Today there’s modern housing where the castle used to be.

It has left some traces, though. These arches formed the foundations of the northern wall of the bailey. They were mostly buried in an earthen bank and the wall proper started just above the arches. You can see the line where better quality stone was used for the part of the wall that was visible.

Just around the corner are the remains of the drum towers by the main gate into the castle. The towers were built in the late fourteenth century and were over twenty feet high. They were only discovered in 1961.

On the other side of the castle is the Watergate. It opened onto Castle Quay to which goods coming to the castle by water were delivered. Castle Quay belonged to the king and there’s a Norman vault on the other side of the wall where his wines were stored along with weapons for the soldiers in the garrison. Unfortunately, the vault is closed at the moment. There are quite a few medieval vaults in the town and I hope to be able to visit some of them in the summer.

Sources:
Historic Buildings of Southampton by Philip Peberdy
Collected Essays on Southampton edited by J B Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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A Norman House, Southampton

There are two mainly Norman houses in Southampton. One has been described as “one of the finest examples of Norman domestic architecture existing in England” (Peberdy). The other came second in an argument with a German bomb. Access to the first is via the garden of the Tudor House Museum, which plans to reopen in June. Until then, we’ll have to be satisfied with this photograph of one of the exterior walls (the bit with the windows). This is the romantically-named Blue Anchor Lane, leading to a gate in the fourteenth-century wall.

The lesser of the two buildings is in Porters Lane. It was the house of a merchant, whose name is not known, and was built around 1170 to 1200. It was for some time (and still is occasionally) referred to as Canute’s Palace. Since Cnut died in 1035, this is unlikely, although he might have had some kind of place there or nearby, as he was often in Southampton during his reign. It’s possible that it was from a shore in Southampton that he demonstrated his inability to keep the tide from coming in. The town is famous for its double tides, so it would have been an ideal place to make the point.

When it was built at the end of the twelfth century, there was probably nothing other than a beach between the house and Southampton Water, unseen on the left in the photograph above. In the fourteenth century it lost its sea view when the South Wall was built in front of it.

It’s thought that the ground floor of the building was a warehouse and that the living quarters were on the floor above. There was a hall and at least one smaller private chamber. The ground floor might also have been a shop. It’s hard to know all these centuries later. The house has suffered a great deal of damage over the years, but is still very impressive.

Sources:
Historic Buildings of Southampton by Philip Peberdy
Collected Essays on Southampton edited by J B Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB
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God’s House Tower and Gate, Southampton

At the south eastern corner of the medieval town are God’s House Gate and God’s House Tower. The gate was built in the early fourteenth century following the construction of a new quay here at the end of the thirteenth century. The gate provided access to the town from the quay. The gate was protected by two portcullises, but I’ve only photographed the grooves of one.

The tower dates from the fifteenth century, probably the reign of Henry V. It protected the sluices controlling the flow of water into the tidal moat along the eastern side of the town. I think the water ran under the archway you can see around the woman in my photograph.

God’s House Tower

Soldiers and the town’s guns were kept here. When we get to some of the other towers dotted around the walls, we’ll see how progressive Southampton was in the use of cannon. The guns in the tower were used in 1457 when a French fleet threatened the town. They were effective and the fleet sailed further round the coast.

God’s House Gate from within the walls

The tower served as a prison in the eighteenth century and was used for storage and as a mortuary in the nineteenth. For fifty years at the end of the last century it was a museum of archaeology and now it’s a space for the visual arts.

Most of these photographs were taken from outside the medieval town. Where I stood to take them would have been on the quay or a beach in the fourteenth century. I’m not sure which. Today it’s reclaimed land and there are docks and a quay opposite the gate and tower.

The oldest bowling green in the world

This building looks very modern, and it is, but the fence surrounds the oldest bowling green in the world. It has been here, just outside the medieval walls, since at least 1299. I should probably qualify that by saying that it’s the oldest bowling green still in use, as there’s a record of one in Chester in 1294.

The tower and the gate were called after God’s House, a hospital, which was nearby. God’s House itself was on the left of the photograph below. It was built at the end of the thirteenth century by Gervaise de Riche. Yes, his surname does mean that he was rich. There’s very little of God’s House left, mostly St. Julien’s church, and it was heavily ‘restored’ in the nineteenth century. It was used by French Protestants from the sixteenth century until 1939.

St Julien’s Church

God’s House was built as an almshouse for some of the sick and old who could no longer work. It also gave hospitality to foreign pilgrims on their way to the shrines of St. Swithun in Winchester and St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Probably its most famous guest was Marguerite d’Anjou who stayed in 1445 on her way to marry Henry VI.

The hospital was supported by the gifts of the wealthy men of the town, at least for the first hundred years or so. The gifts would have been of money and of property. Rents on the properties would have provided a regular income to maintain the hospital. By the middle of the fourteenth century the town was in a bad way financially, as a result of a raid by the French in 1338 and the Black Death in 1348 to 1351. It was only at the beginning of the fifteenth century that the hospital began to receive the money it was due again.

In the early thirteenth century the staff comprised a master, two priests, a clerk, two to three brothers, three to nine sisters and two to three indoor servants. It didn’t take many people to manage a hospital in the Middle Ages.

In the first post in this series, I mentioned the conspirators against Henry V who were executed outside the Bargate in 1415. One of them, Lord Scrope, was buried at St. Julien’s, apart from his head, which was displayed above one of the town gates at York.

Sources:
Historic Buildings of Southampton by Philip Peberdy
Collected Essays on Southampton edited by J B Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

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The Wool House, Southampton

The Wool House

The wool House is an imposing building at the southern end of the medieval town. It was built during the fourteenth century, although the buttresses at the side are a little later and the front has been altered considerably. The doorway is original.

As the name suggests, it was used as a warehouse for wool. Wool was England’s main export in the Middle Ages and Southampton was one of the main ports through which it passed. I’ve written a post about how important wool was to the economy of fourteenth-century England. From Southampton it went mainly to Flanders in the fourteenth century and to Italy in the fifteenth. In the fourteenth century Genoese carracks arrived in Southampton carrying alum, woad and dyes for the English cloth industry and left carrying wool to Flanders. In the fifteenth century it was Florentine and Venetian galleys that came with luxury goods for the Mediterranean, retuning to Italy with the wool.

It’s not clear who built the warehouse. It might have been Thomas Middleton who became mayor in 1401. He was wealthy enough to build a new quay with a crane at the Watergate, which was very close to the Wool House. Another possibility is that the monks at Beaulieu Abbey built it. Since a very large portion of the sheep in England were owned by monasteries, this is the explanation I prefer.

In the eighteenth century the Wool House was used to hold French and Spanish prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars. Later it reverted to being a warehouse, then it was a shop for a while. In 1966 it became a maritime museum, but more recently it has become the home of a microbrewery and restaurant.

We rarely think of such mundane buildings as being important historically, but the Wool House is probably the only remaining medieval purpose-built warehouse in Europe.

Sources:
Historic Buildings of Southampton by Philip Peberdy
Collected Essays on Southampton edited by J B Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB
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Holy Rood, Southampton

Unlike the church in last week’s post, Holy Rood, less than 200 yards away, didn’t survive the Second World War unscathed. On the night of 30th November 1940, it, along with most of the town centre, was destroyed. The ruin was dedicated to the Merchant Navy and there are memorials inside to seafaring Sotonians who lost their lives at sea, including one to members of the crew of the Titanic.

What’s left of the current building was built in 1320, replacing a church that stood in the middle of English Street. The tower is fourteenth century, but the nave, aisles and chancel were rebuilt in 1849-50. The Victorian rebuilding was a lot more sympathetic to the medieval original than many such projects and more people were able to fit inside the church and make use of the building, which was of benefit to the parish.

The site of the present church was given to St. Denys Priory by Thomas de Bynedone, probably the richest man in the town at the time. The old church was more or less exactly where the new water conduit needed to be to bring fresh water into the town from a spring outside. Thomas de Bynedone’s intention was that there would be a cemetery as well as a church, but the town’s mother church, St. Mary’s, objected. Burials of the town’s inhabitants were only to take place in St. Mary’s cemetery and none of the churches within the town’s walls had burial grounds. St. Mary’s was just a few hundred yards outside the medieval town and I’m not entirely sure how it came to be its main church. Perhaps we’ll visit some of the buildings outside the town walls later. The church was reached through the town’s East Gate. The gate is no longer there, but the road that led to it is still called East Street. Although Thomas de Byndone’s plan for a cemetery failed, he was given the right to be buried within Holy Rood itself.

At the height of the Black Death, three separate vicars were appointed to the parish on 12th March, 22nd April and 20th September 1349, their predecessors having succumbed to the plague. The whole town, which hadn’t even started to recover from a raid by the French in 1338, was badly affected by the Black Death and took a long time to regain its former wealth. For centuries it was thought that Southampton was the place where the Black Death entered England, but it’s now believed that this was Melcombe, a few miles round the coast in Dorset.

During the fifteenth century Holy Rood became the church of the wealthier inhabitants of the town, who tended to live in the southern part of the parish. At this time, the church’s bell was rung to wake the town and to announce the curfew each day.

Possibly the most important visitor the church has welcomed was Philip II of Spain. When he arrived in Southampton in 1554, he heard Mass here, then rode to Winchester to marry Mary Tudor.

Sources:
Historic Buildings of Southampton by Philip Peberdy
Collected Essays on Southampton edited by J B Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB
TheHeirsTale-WEB

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St Michael’s Church, Southampton

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.

Medieval Merchant’s House

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.]

Sources:
Historic Buildings of Southampton by Philip Peberdy
Collected Essays on Southampton edited by J B Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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The Bargate

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.

Sources:
Historic Buildings of Southampton by Philip Peberdy
Collected Essays on Southampton edited by J B Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt
Cursed Kings by Jonathan Sumption

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB
TheHeirsTale-WEB

Amazon

10 Comments

Filed under Medieval Buildings