Tag Archives: St Michael’s Church

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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Jane Austen Lived Here: Part Four

Other Delights

This week I’m looking at some buildings within the Southampton town walls that Jane Austen would have known well.

St Michaels

Not far from Castle Square is the medieval church of St Michael. It dates from 1066-1076 and is the oldest church still in use in Southampton. It stands a couple of hundred yards from Castle Square. The spire dates from 1732, so the Austens would have been familiar with it. The church was built over several centuries, with new sections being added to the original structure and different styles can be seen in different parts of the church. As with the cathedral in nearby Winchester, building was interrupted by the Black Death. Unlike the cathedral, where the temporary west front, put up because it was clear that the plans were never going to be completed, has lasted six hundred and sixty years, work on St Michael’s was resumed, resulting in a change of building style. This was the norm for medieval churches, which were rarely built in a single style.

St Michael’s was the church of the French population of the town shortly after the Conquest. At that point Southampton was approximately two thirds French and one third English. This division is shown in the names of the roads; French Street was to the west and English Street (now the High Street) was to the east. It was ironic, then, that it was in this church that a massacre took place during the French raid on the town in 1338. The building was reconsecrated a year later.

The church escaped the bombing raids of 23rd and 30th November and 1 December 1940 with minor damage. It was said the German pilots were told to avoid destroying the church, since the spire was used by them as a landmark, together with the clock tower of the Civic Centre in the centre of the town.

Tudor House

On the other side of St Michael’s Square is Tudor House. Now a museum, it is a late fifteenth century timber-framed building. It backs onto the same stretch of walls as the Austens’ garden. Built by Sir John Dawtrey, who was Southampton’s Member of Parliament, it contains graffiti from Tudor sailors and privateers.

It was almost demolished in the 1880s, but was purchased by a philanthropist, who refurbished it and sold it to the town for a museum. During the Second World War the wine cellar was used as an air raid shelter. At the beginning of this century it was closed for almost a decade for significant structural repairs.

Bargate from High Street

The Bargate is the most famous building in Southampton and is the symbol of the modern city. It was the main gate out of the town to the north, going to Winchester and London. Jane Austen would have seen it almost every day. It was at the top of the High Street, which was the main shopping street of the town. It is a hundred yards from All Saints’ Church which the Austens attended. This is the view that they would have seen. The statue in the middle of the four windows is George III in Roman dress.

It dates back to the end of the twelfth century and is the earliest of the town’s fortifications. The earliest part is the Norman tower enclosed in the north front. The first floor was built in the fourteenth century.

Bargate from Above Bar

Henry II arrived in Southampton from the continent in 1174 to put down a rebellion. Realising that the rebellion was seen as just retribution for his part in the murder of Thomas Becket, Henry decided not to go north to quash the rebellion, but east to Canterbury, to do public penance. He set off through the Bargate. Those responsible for the Southampton Plot (the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scrope and Sir Thomas Grey) were executed in front of the Bargate at the beginning of August 1415. Henry V then set sail for France and Agincourt. The Southampton Plot was a plan to replace Henry V with Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March. The latter had a better claim to the throne than Henry V. Over the centuries thousands of soldiers have marched under the arch to join ships taking them to fight, mainly France.

This has nothing to do with Jane Austen, but is a rather wonderful film taken from a tram passing through the Bargate in the 1900s. Because of the shape of the arch, special trams had to be built to pass through it. The film shows the tram pass from the High Street, which was well-known to Austen, into Above Bar, which was an area that was being built up in her time. In Jane Austen’s time there were buildings on either side of the Bargate. These were demolished in the 1930s. This a photograph of a road which runs parallel to Above Bar and contains some Georgian terraced houses and were close to the Spa Gardens where Austen walked most days with her mother.

Portland Terrace

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