Southampton was a Saxon fortified burh that originally served as a port for Winchester. The Normans built Southampton Castle shortly after the invasion and subsequent Royal patronage saw the town develop into a thriving international port made rich from trading in wool and wine. However its wealth led to brutal French attack and thereafter extensive defences were built.



The Romans


The first substantial settlement at Southampton was a Roman town known as Clausentum which existed by the end of the first century AD. This was located on promontory of land enclosed by a bend in the River Itchen in what is now a suburb of the modern city called Bitterne Manor. The site first emerged as a town but, later in the Roman period, was refounded as a smaller fortified site. Historical records are unclear whether this was a fort forming part of the Roman Saxon Shore Command or simply a fortified port providing facilities for goods to be transferred from sea-going vessels to river barges for onward transit to Winchester. Whichever is the case, this site was protected by substantial stone walls complete with towers.

The first major settlement at Southampton was a Roman town known as Clausentum. The site is now a park located in a suburb known as Bitterne Manor.



A Saxon settlement, known as Hamwic, emerged at Southampton no later than the eighth century AD re-using the site of Clausentum. The new settlement clearly reused the existing Roman defences for it was listed in the Burghal Hidage, an early tenth century document detailing a list of fortified burhs (towns) in the Kingdom of Wessex. However, the site was recorded as having a value of 150 hides, a metric used to assess the value and resources of a settlement, which was comparatively small (the former Roman settlement of Chichester was measured at 1,500 hides). The low figure however does conform to the small enclosure provided by the former Roman defences.


By the tenth century the river in vicinity of Clausentum was silting up and Southampton was refounded on the modern site. The new location was at the head of Southampton Water on a promontory of land at the confluence of the Rivers Itchen and Test. The full extent of the settlement is unknown but seems to have occupied the southern half of what would later become the medieval town. It is likely this new settlement had defences, probably in the form of an earth and timber rampart. The town was sufficiently important for the Witan, the Saxon political assembly, to meet there in 1016 where they declared Cnut as King of England.




The Normans invaded England in 1066 and in the years that followed many fortifications were raised to secure control of the Kingdom. It is not clear when Southampton Castle was initially raised as the first written reference to it dates from 1153. However, it is almost certain the structure was much older and probably raised within a few years of the conquest. Southampton came under the jurisdiction of William FitzOsbern, Earl of Hereford who was an enthusiastic castle builder responsible for building nearby Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight around 1067. It is possible Southampton Castle was built concurrently. Certainly both were motte-and-bailey fortifications with extra large mottes - a hallmark of an early Norman castle. Furthermore, following the invasion, Southampton attracted many French immigrants who occupied valuable real-estate in the south-west of the town. It is likely there were tensions and the castle would have been seen as an important tool to keep these in check which again suggests it was raised soon after the conquest.


The castle was initially an earth and timber fortification. Due to the relatively flat land associated with Southampton, the castle was built abutting the River Test to the north of the Saxon defences rather than stamped upon the town as was seen elsewhere. However, it may well have been built over a former high-status Saxon property. The central feature was the motte on top of which stood a shell Keep. A small bailey was located to the west of the motte which extended to the river whilst an Outer Bailey may have occupied the area immediately to the north of this.


Wool and Wine


Southampton evolved into a prosperous port during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with its merchants made rich from exporting wool and importing wine particularly from Royal properties in Gascony. The port was ideally suited for plying such trade due to its sheltered harbour, river access to Winchester and good overland roads (along a chalk ridge) to London. Such trade was hugely valuable to the King as a source of taxable revenue and accordingly Southampton Castle continued to be maintained to serve an administrative role. Additions were made to the castle to enable it to perform this function with a two storey house, known as Castle Hall, being added in the first half of the twelfth century of which the ground floor was used for bulk storage of goods. Likewise a vault was added to the castle in 1193. The prosperity of the town led many of its merchants to contribute extensively to the ransom payment to release Richard I who had been imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, on his return from the Third Crusade. On his release Richard spent his only Christmas in England (1194) staying at Southampton Castle. The town's prosperity also led to the construction of the town defences with the Bargate being started in 1175 along with the curtain wall on the north and east sides. This work was aided by King John who granted funds to "close the town" in 1202. A community of Franciscan friars settled in Southampton in 1233.

The extensive trade that passed through Southampton led to modifications to the castle including the construction of Castle Hall (left) and the first phase of building on the Bargate (right).

Rebuilding the Castle


Southampton Castle was substantially rebuilt in the mid-thirteenth century. The Outer Bailey rampart was constructed in stone between 1250-70 and this included construction of the Castle East Gate which provided direct access into the town. The mottte, with its shell Keep, remained largely unaltered but a new garderobe, flushed by the tide, was added to the south-west tower. The castle's chapel, dedicated to St Nicholas, was also first mentioned at this time although it is possible it had existed since the foundation of the fortification in the eleventh century. The town walls were also upgraded with the Bargate significantly enhanced and the curtain wall repaired. Crucially though the west and south sides of the town remained poorly defended.


The French Raid


On Sunday 4 October 1338, whilst the populace of Southampton was at church, a fleet of French and Genoese pirates sailed up Southampton Water and attacked the town. They landed on the west quay which had remained unfortified at the behest of the town's merchants who wanted easy (and untaxed) access to the waterfront. The citizens seem to have been caught completely by surprise with contemporary documents recording wide scale burning, looting and rape. Southampton Castle, which managed to secure its gates it time, survived the attack but it was clear the town itself needed new defences. When Edward III visited the following year, he ordered Southampton should be enclosed by a full defensive circuit of walls. Work commenced immediately but progress was slow due to English success in the Hundreds Years War, which seemingly reduced the threat of a fresh attack, and labour shortages caused by the Black Death.


Upgraded Defences


Southampton Castle was rebuilt in the 1370s as English fortunes during the Hundred Years War reached a low ebb. The shell Keep on top of the motte was demolished and replaced with a new structure complete with three substantial towers which was surrounded by a new curtain wall. The castle's east and south gates were also rebuilt with a barbican being added to the latter. The deteriorating security situation also increased the urgency of completing the work on the town walls and this was aided by the appointment of Sir John Arundel in 1377 who vigorously drove progress. The West Gate and waterfront arcades, which finally protected the town from an attack landing on the West Quay, were built at this time as were the southern defences including the Watergate.

The French raid of 1338 led (eventually) to substantial new defences on the western side of the town. The arcades (left) closed  off access to West Quay other than through the newly built West Gate (right).



The early fifteenth century saw substantial modifications made to the castle and town to support the installation of artillery. The arrow slits on most of the existing towers along the town wall were converted into gun ports and Castle Hall was also modified to take guns. Catchcold Tower was constructed specifically to augment the artillery defences and the south-east postern gate was rebuilt into an artillery blockhouse known as God's House Tower. These upgrades would have been completed by the time Henry V's army mustered in the town ready for deployment to France for the campaign that would culminate in the Battle of Agincourt (1415). That King sent three conspirators who had allegedly attempted to assassinate him to the town for trial and execution - Richard of Conisbrough, Henry Scrope and Sir Thomas Grey were beheaded in vicinity of the Bargate.

The artillery defences included purpose built structures in the form of Catchcold Tower and God's House Tower. Many of the other towers were also modified to support heavy guns.

Decline of Southampton Castle


The impressive expenditure on the town's defences left Southampton Castle marginalised and by the early fifteenth century it was in decline. A report of 1460 stated the castle walls were "decayed" and in 1498 the Outer Bailey wall was partly demolished to provide stone for constructing the Town Quay. The Keep however remained intact and hosted visits by Elizabeth I in 1569 and 1591. The castle site was sold by the Crown in 1618 with its subsequent owners stripping its fabric for other projects including repairs to the town walls. The castle survived as a ruin until 1804 when it was rebuilt into a Gothic style mansion by John Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, Marquis of Lansdowne. Such historical vandalism was common amongst the aristocracy at this time and an indication of what the castle may have looked like can be seen at Stafford Castle which was rebuilt in a similar style around the same time. The new structure at Southampton though proved unsuited as a residence and was abandoned within fifteen years of it being built. The entire structure was then demolished leaving just the fragments seen today.


After the Hundred Years War


The end of the Hundred Years War, with the associated loss of all continental possessions, saw Southampton decline whilst military functions and Royal expenditure started to be diverted to the naval dockyard at Portsmouth. By the mid-eighteenth century Southampton re-invented itself as a Spa town and was home to Jane Austin for a number of a years. However, its port was revitalised by the arrival of the railway in 1840 along with substantial dry dock facilities. The town once more became a thriving hub of international trade as well as becoming the lead British port for the cruise liner industry. Furthermore the twentieth century saw numerous aviation companies move to the town particularly with the emerging seaplane market. Southampton became a city in 1964.





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Cottrell, P.R (2011). Archaeological desk-based assessment of Bitterne Manor Park, Southampton. Southampton Archaeology Unit, Southampton.

Creighton, O.H (2002). Castles and Landscapes: Power, Community and Fortification in Medieval England. Equinox, Bristol.

Davies, J (1883). History of Southampton. Southampton.

Douglas, D.C and Greeaway, G.W (ed) (1981). English Historical Documents Vol 2 (1042-1189). Routledge, London.

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What's There?

Southampton is an essential stop for anyone interested in medieval defences. The castle itself was demolished in the nineteenth century but portions of the bailey wall, gatehouse, sewers, watergate, vaults and the foundations of the Castle Hall survive. However, the highlight of any visit is the (largely unaltered) medieval walls that survive surprising intact on the western side of the city. Also visible (but not accessible) is the Bargate, the city's North Gate, which is one of the most impressive surviving examples of a medieval gate and makes it clear just how rich Southampton was. The old city also includes numerous historical buildings of interest including the fourteenth century Medieval Merchants House (English Heritage), Tudor House (now a museum) and St Michael's Church which dates from 1070. Nearby Solent Sky museum tells the story of the Supermarine Spitfire which was designed and developed in Southampton.

Southampton Castle East Gate. The East Gate provided access into the town from the castle's Inner Bailey.

Southampton Castle Outer Bailey Wall. The stone wall of the outer bailey was constructed around 1250. The stone arches at the base are actually the exposed foundations (hence the coarse stone work) and would originally have been buried within an earth rampart with only the top part of wall projecting above. The tower block is located on the site of the motte and Castle Keep.

Castle Hall. The vaulted basement provided extensive storage for the King's wines.

Garderobe. In 1252 Henry III ordered a new garderobe (toilet) to be installed in the south-west tower of the castle. The tower is long gone but the foundations of the garderobe, which was originally flushed out by the tide, survives and is a unique example of such a facility in a British medieval secular structure. It was constructed of finely dressed ashlar stone.

Castle Watergate. The castle's Watergate led out onto Castle Quay.

Southampton Castle and Town Wall Layout. The medieval town evolved from the Saxon burh which occupied the south-west area shown above. The castle was built to the north of this site possibly on the site of a high status Saxon residence.

Bargate. Southampton's North Gate, known as the Bargate, was started in 1175 as a basic rectangular tower. It was significantly enhanced in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Its size and scale is a testament to the wealth of the medieval port.

Arundel Tower. One of the many upgrades made by Sir John Arundel following his appointment as Custodian of Southampton Castle in 1377. The fifteenth century Catchcold Tower, a dedicated artillery and the last substantial addition to the walls, can be seen to the right.

God's House Tower. So named due to its proximity to a hospital, God’s House Tower was a substantial artillery blockhouse and also served as a postern access and sluice gate for the eastern moat. Later it was used as a debtors prison.

Polymond Tower. Also known as St Denys Tower this was constructed in the late thirteenth century. Its arrow slits were converted into gun ports in the 1390s and it was modified again in the sixteenth century to take heavier guns. The name Polymond derived from Sir John Polymond, Mayor of Southampton in the late fourteenth century.

Round Tower. The Round Tower was a converted dovecote built in the late thirteenth century and incorporated into the western wall when it was built in the mid-fourteenth century.

Friary Gate. Franciscan Friars settled in Southampton around 1224 and occupied the south-east quadrant of the town. In 1373 the town wall cut off their access to Newton and they successfully lobbied for Friary Gate to be added.

Medieval Merchants House. A typical merchants house restored to its appearance in 1350.

Tudor House. Built around 1494 the Tudor House now hosts a museum.

Cloth Hall. This building was originally built in St Michael's Square (the fish market) around 1400. It was moved to its current location in 1634.

St Michael's Church. Built circa-1070.

York Gate. The final gate added to the town walls was constructed in 1769 and named York Gate after the Duke of York

Supermarine Spitfire Mk24. The Spitfire was designed and developed in Southampton. It evolved from the aircraft that had competed for the Schneider Trophy air races of the 1920/30s some of which were held in Southampton Water (near Calshot Castle).

Getting There

Southampton Castle and Walls are found at the south end of the main shopping precinct. There are numerous car parks (most pay and display) in the vicinity with one option shown below. Solent Sky Museum is located in Ocean Village, about half a mile east of God's House Tower, and has car parking facilities adjacent.

Car Park / Castle Bailey Wall

Castle Way, SO14 2DD

50.901923N 1.405570W


SO14 2DL

50.902676N 1.404189W

Arundel Tower

SO14 2BX

50.902655N 1.405993W

Catchcold Tower

SO14 2BX

50.902293N 1.406028W

Castle Hall and Garderobe

SO14 2AF

50.900694N 1.406412W

Tudor House and St Michaels

Bugle St, SO14 2AH

50.899582N 1.405861W

Medieval Merchants House


50.898549N 1.405185W

West Gate and Cloth Hall

SO14 2AY

50.898954N 1.407012W


SO14 2NT

50.896699N 1.404444W

God's House Tower

SO14 2AQ

50.896354N 1.402521W

Friar's Gate

SO14 3AX

50.897155N 1.402677W

Polymond Tower

SO14 1JX

50.902555N 1.402060W

Solent Sky Museum

SO14 3FR

50.897842N 1.392892W