Southampton City Walls

The Sea Lapping at Southampton City Walls

I have a bit of a thing about Southampton’s medieval walls, so I was looking forward to Dr Andy Russel talking about the decline of the walls in the Stuart period, at last weekends ‘Stuart Southampton’ study day. The talk was excellent and it reminded me again of what an incredible asset the walls are to Southampton and what an incredible shame it is that they are still not showcased as well as they could be. I thought I’d cover the talk here and add in my own thoughts on the city walls today.

Southampton’s first stretch of defensive walling was constructed in the thirteenth century, and covered the north and easterly sides of the city, but not the coastline on the west and south. I imagine the water of the Solent itself was considered protection enough. This early phase included the building of the original Bargate, which was the principal entrance to the city and means of extracting tolls and taxes from those importing and exporting goods via the port and markets. Bits of the original still survive within today’s much altered Bargate.

The Towne Wall is in manie places decayed & broken

The Towne Wall is in manie places decayed & broken

Despite the presence of a castle on the coastal (western) side of the City, and further extensions of the walls, the defences proved to be inadequate, as Southampton was invaded by the French in 1338. King Edward III immediately ordered that a stone wall was to be built on the seaward side of the City and therefore completed its enclosure.

The full extent of Southampton's City Walls after 1338.

The mid-Fourteenth Century was a time of excellence in the construction of stone masonry according to Dr Russel, so Southampton was lucky that its walls were built at this time. While the wall has been altered, restored, rescued many times in the intervening years it still has its medieval core. The westerly walls were an impressive undertaking, measuring from 25 to 30 feet in height, and what remains (which is a lot) are still quite a sight. Check out the video at the end of the post to see the north-west corner as it stands today.

The Fourteenth Century seaward walls looking South

Dr Russel’s talk focused on a spike in complaints about the state of this section of the walls at the City’s Leet court in the mid Seventeenth Century. The Leet court of Southampton continues to meet to this day. Then, as it does now, the Leet court met annually and was an opportunity for local people to raise their fears or complaints, the legitimacy of the complaint then being decided by the presiding judge.  The section that seemed to be causing most worry was between the Arundel tower in the north-west corner of the city to the Watergate in the south. Dr Russel presented some data on the pattern of complaints through the century, here’s a rough summary:

1590 – 5
1600 – 30
1610 – 35
1620 – 50
1630 – 30
1640 – 15
1650 – 25
1660 – 15(ish)

Clearly the first half of the Seventeenth century was a time when locals were worried about the state of the walls, culminating in a peak in complaints in the 1620s. Looking at both the archaeology of the walls and the details of the complaints it seems that the walls were undergoing a period of neglect. The main form of maintenance that the walls and towers required was continued upkeep of the piles and stones that protected the foundations. Large timbers were driven into the seabed (the piles) and then stones were deposited between the piles and the walls to stop erosion. To be effective these had to be regularly replenished and it was a requirement of all the ‘lightermen’ who operated the cargo barges to hold stones as ballast on their return journey to Southampton and to deposit them at the walls. The records show that this did not always happen, Dr Russel pointed out the Hythe boatmen who were initially fined for not meeting this part of their license and then in desperation offered beer as payment.

It seems that there was ongoing conflict between the desire to retain the defences and the desire to make money. The town rented out the towers along the wall as dwellings, which led to complaints that they were inhabited by ‘lewd persons’ who threw their ‘water’ into the streets. Other complaints included those against James Courtney in 1623 who built houses along and on top of the walls and William Ryman in 1635, who knocked a hole in the wall for a window. Part of the walls even fell down under the care of Peter Knowler, and as it evident from the archaeology, were not rebuilt.

More of the surviving Westerly walls

The walls went through periods of neglect and repair a number of times in its lifetime and Dr Russel was interested in analysing why it seemed to cause such concern at this time and why by the end of the century did people not seem to care as much. Some of the complaints refer to ‘dangerous times’ and it is interesting that the complaints coincide with the period of the Thirty Years war which was devastating the continent. The French invasion seems to have loomed large in the psyche of the citizens of Southampton so the news of the horrific sack of cities overseas would doubtless have contributed to fears. Dr Russel also points out that the 1630s continued to be uncertain political times domestically, however I’m unsure whether there is any real evidence of a fear of armed insurrection at home prior to the Civil War breaking out. Domestic fears surely would have had little impact on the peak in the 1620s? However, Dr Russel made a compelling point about the horrors of war on the continent coupled with the genuine neglect of the wall being the likely cause of concern.

So why did the complaints drop off? Concerns are clearly still strong on the 1630s, but suddenly drop off in the 1640s. Surely the onset of Civil War would have increased concerns about the City’s ability to defend itself? Southampton was held through the duration of the Civil War by the Parliamentarians. This was in part because the townsfolk were considered to be closet royalists by Parliament and as a strategic port it was watched closely. To keep the populace on side Colonel Norton along with five hundred horsemen and foot-soldiers was sent there and billeted by the City. Dr Russel pointed out historical and archaeological evidence that Colonel Norton spent a considerable amount on shoring up the cities defences and re-digging the defensive ditch around the walls. The walls themselves were certainly part of the plan, this can be seen from large holes chiselled into the arrow slits to enable musket fire from the towers along the wall.

Musket holes chiselled into the arrow slots in the Arundel Tower

Perhaps the work undertaken by Norton’s troops and indeed the presence of the army itself was enough to allay people’s fears about the state of the walls. Or possibly the Civil War showed the people of Southampton that the type of defence provided by these wall was not effective in a modern conflict. Maybe people were not so concerned about the City’s defence while it was being held by Parliament? Despite another rise in the uncertain years of the 1650s the number of complaints remains very low for the rest of the century, despite other turbulent political times, including the threat of Dutch attack. I would tend to agree with Dr Russel’s idea that by then the people had realised the ineffectiveness of the walls and that some of the derelict parts were beyond repair.

It was an excellent talk by Dr Russel, covering a period in the walls history that was certainly a blank for me. The best surviving part of the wall ironically includes much of the bits that the Seventeenth Century folk of Southampton were worried about, from the north-west corner down the western side of the City. The north and eastern walls have survived to us only in small patches, and not usually much above ground level. That which has survived has done so despite considerable changes to the City (including land reclamation from the sea), horrific damage from German air raids in the Second World War and horrible town planning after the war. There has been effort in the last thirty years to promote the walls, including work that has enabled people to walk all the surviving bits. The Bargate itself is on the City’s slightly odd logo (you can’t sail a yacht through it by the way).

Southampton City Council Logo

One of the problems that the wall has is that for most of its life it marked the extent of the coast, and the sea lapped scenically against its foundations. The image at the very top of the post shows exactly how the walls would have originally been viewed. However, the reclamation of enormous tracts of land and the way in which the city has built up means that the best run of the walls is essentially below ground level for the main shopping areas. The walls are tucked away behind a hotel, a busy road and a waste, ground that gets used for the Southampton boat show once a year. You have to go out of your way to view the walls. Aside from a few key locations the presentation of the walls themselves is either a little dated or quite frankly neglectful, the start of the wall walk being a nasty public toilet. The situation has improved thanks to the newly reopened Tudor House Museum, which possibly gives an additional reason for people to walk the walls, but this angle doesn’t seem to be very highly promoted. Here is a little video looking at the north-west corner of the walls that gives an idea of the problems:



Southampton could do a lot more to promote this medieval heritage, but sadly much of it is still buried away behind old folks homes and bad town planning. It doesn’t stop me enjoying them but properly integrating them into Southampton’s tourist infrastructure might improve the reputation of the town, a reputation that is not particularly high when it comes to anything other than shopping and cruises.


3 thoughts on “Southampton City Walls

  1. Sam

    Gutted I missed this. Andy R certainly knows his stuff (when I was working for the unit he certainly rendered me speechless on many an occasion picking up a bit of stuff and telling us all about it! A very clever bloke and a guy I look up to immensly!) – and in fact the whole Soton Archaeology crew are amazing. Sounds like it was a really interesting day!


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