Modern Southampton is a flourishing maritime city, busses pass through its streets day in and day out, skateboarders glide around the Guildhall Square and street musicians perform to the joy (or dismay) of over encumbered shoppers, who trudge through its centre. Meanwhile, a cargo ship, fresh from the arctic, advances towards the Solent, while a colossal cruise liner filled with excited holiday-makers, leaves for sunnier climes.
However, if we turn back the clock, to a time before R.J Mitchell’s Spitfire first soared above the city, to before the departure of the Titanic, which left thousands of waving family members at its port; all blissfully unaware that they were saying good bye for the last time. If we delve beyond the life of Jane Austen, who penned her greatest works just down the road in Chawton and before the Pilgrim Fathers, who set sail for America on the Mayflower in 1620, a vastly different picture begins to emerge. Glistening multi-story leviathans make way for wooden fishing boats, dirt tracks displace tarmac intersections and the roar of combustion engines is dampened by the gentle clopping of horseshoes on stone. Indeed, if we strip away the cities’ lights, shops and roads, a medieval palimpsest is revealed.
Medieval Southampton was only a fraction of the size it is today, with its walls stretching from the Bargate in the North, The Walls and Lower Canal Walk in the East, the Town Quay in the South and the Western Esplanade in the West. But if you listen closely, ear against stone, these ancient relics that we pass every day, or what remains of them after the Luftwaffe air raids, contain echoes of a medieval time. In 1338, the majority of the town’s wealth was produced by trade, most notably, the exchange of wool for wine with Normandy, which provided much prosperity.
This soon caught the attention of foreign raiders and as a result, Southampton was sacked by French ships with little resistance from the town’s outdated defenses. Outraged by this, Edward III ordered for walls to be built around the whole town and by the 15th C, it was entirely ‘closed up’. However, the cost of these fortifications posed disastrous implications for Southampton’s economy which were only worsened by The Black Death in 1348. As such, the town’s burgesses faced bankruptcy and their fortunes were only to be reversed by the way of newly established trade networks with the Mediterranean; using the import of glass, pottery, textiles, stone and metalwork to revive the city. In essence, Medieval Southampton became the mouth that fed the body of a divided England.
This is just one story that can be found beneath the surface of Southampton and 1000s more lie in museums situated around the city or, indeed, undisturbed beneath the ground; pots, tools and trinkets, that all whisper tales of a simpler time.
For more information on Southampton’s rich heritage, click here.