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