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 By the end of the twelfth century the wooden stockade had been replaced by a stone wall.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.
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.