Where Was The Trial for the Southampton Conspiracy Held?

Depending on which article you read, Henry V's trial of those accused in the Southampton Plot in 1415 took place in either Southampton's Bargate, The God's House Tower, Southampton Castle or the Red Lion Inn at Below Bar. 

But what does the evidence say? 

First of all, let's have a look at what the Southampton Plot actually was.  


Image from The Half Hour Library of Travel, Nature and
Science for young readers, British Library, Public Domain. 


What Was The Southampton Plot? 
Henry V was getting his troops ready to embark to France to battle at Agincourt. A few days before he was to leave, he was approached by his cousin, Sir Edmund Mortimer, with news of a plot to murder Henry and put Mortimer on the throne instead. Sir Edmund assured the king he had no prior knowledge of the plot, even though he was the subject of it. Sir Edmund implicated Richard, Earl of Cambridge; Henry Lord Scrope of Masham and Sir Thomas Grey of Heton in the plot.

Immediately, Henry sent for these men and they were arrested and imprisoned in Southampton. It was important that Henry take quick action, as he was about to leave the country and wanted to extinguish any uprising before he left. 

Cambridge and Grey confessed, while Scrope only admitted wrongdoing in that he hadn't brought news of the plot to Henry. The men were tried and executed, Grey before the others, as Cambridge and Scrope insisted on a trial in front of the Nobles of the Realm, a privilege held according to their status. Unfortunately they were still found guilty and executed just outside the Bargate. After the plot was quashed, Henry sailed out to France with his army to Agincourt, heading out through Southampton's Westgate, which still stands today. 

So where was the trial held? 
We know that the executions of the three men took place just outside the Bargate, the old entrance to the town. But the site of the men's imprisonment and trial is less straightforward, and not explicitly stated in contemporary sources. 

William Shakespeare, writing almost 185 years after the event in his play Henry V, places the scene in a 'Court Room'. The owners of the Red Lion pub say that Henry's courtroom exists there, and it was here that the men stood their hasty trial. An article from The Daily Echo says it was likely to have been Southampton Castle, and another from the same publication states unequivocally that they were imprisoned in God's House Tower when they faced trial. So which was it? 

Southampton Castle
A number of secondary sources place the men after their arrest in Southampton Castle. Garth Groombridge states that the prisoners were 'incarcerated in the dungeons of Southampton Castle.' Tobias Smollett, writing in the 1750s, also writes that they were arrested and 'imprisoned in the castle of Southampton.' Percy G. Stone, writing a detailed history of Southampton Castle in the 1930s stated that 'the arrested conspirators were committed to the custody of the then Constable, Sir John Popham, to be duly executed within the Bargate.' While primary sources on this seem to be scarce, the insistence through the centuries that Southampton Castle was linked to the plot, whether by local legend or sources no longer available to us, can't be ignored. 

In support of this, we also have evidence that Henry V was staying at the castle a few days before the trial. He dated a letter to the King of France on 28th July 1415, from 'nostre chastel de Hantoune au rivage de la mer' ('my castle at Hampton - (an old name for Southampton) - by the sea'), placing him at Southampton Castle (Percy). 

It would make sense then, that Henry would order the trial to take place in the grounds where the men were already being held. It would have been cumbersome and risky to move the men (and the jurors and other nobles involved in the process) under guard, to another place to stand trial. At this time, Southampton was bustling in the summer heat with thousands of soldiers ready to board the estimated 1,400 ships (Percy) that were bobbing just outside the stone walls. That the men were of high status too, Henry must have been aware of the slight risk of a possible escape attempt or rebellion on the way to another location, especially as there were only three days between the executions and his knowledge of the plot. There could have been other conspirators he didn't yet know about and it seemed he wanted to get this cleared up quickly. 

In early August 1415, Henry was in a hurry. The trial had already delayed his sailing to France, and so it seems sensible that the men would stand trial in a room within the castle, where they were already kept. The castle had also recently undergone a period of refurbishment late in the 1300s, including new defences and weaponry, and so was in a good state and provided a secure place for the imprisonment and subsequent trial of the men. This view has been held by other historians, who consider it more likely that it was the castle that saw the events of the Southampton Plot unravel.   

The Bargate
There's also suggestion that the men stood trial in the upper rooms of the Bargate entrance to the town, even if they were imprisoned in the castle beforehand. The journey is a short five-minute walk and if they were to be executed there, it's possible they moved them (especially as some historians have suggested the result was a foregone conclusion) for speed and efficiency to await their execution afterwards. 

However, although the rooms over the Bargate have been used as a Guildhall and prison, there are no links currently found to the Southampton Plot in 1415. The two-storey extension was built in the late thirteenth century and kitted out with stone fireplaces, but the first records of the room being used as a prison date from 1439. In 1468 the Bargate was fitted with guns to further protect the town. 

It's possible that these rooms could have been used as the prison and/or trial site of the conspirators, especially when you consider the close proximity to the execution site and that they did exist in 1415. However, without further evidence linking the plot more directly to these rooms, or more evidence that the rooms were used to house other prisoners or conduct trials around this time, it seems more likely to have been at the castle, where we have Henry already staying and for the reasons above.   

Red Lion Pub, Below Bar
The Red Lion pub, about a 10-minute walk from the Bargate, seems, at first glance, well placed for a quick trial. The idea of Henry V, storming into a timber-framed alehouse with his guards, bustling through locals clutching tankards of beer, and condemning traitors for treason before sailing off into the distance to fight a famous battle is a romantic one. The pub today displays a plaque, which states: 

"Henry V Court Room. Scene of the trial of those who conspired against the life and crown of Henry V in 1415, prior to Henry's departure in Agincourt. The conspirators were found guilty and executed outside the nearby Bargate." 

The Red Lion is certainly an ancient building and was standing in some form in 1415, dating from at least the 1100s. But in Henry's time, it wasn't yet a pub. According to a local article, the building dates to 1148 but wasn't established as an alehouse until 1552, over one hundred years after the 1415 trial. It's likely the house was then a merchant's house, alongside what remains of other houses in the area, such as Canute's Palace (actually a twelfth-century merchant's house and not a palace), Tudor House and the Medieval Merchant's House. The existence of Medieval merchant's cellars and underground storage vaults along this area further emphasise the merchant's building activity at this time.

You have to wonder then, why Henry V would march the men from the well-defended and secure castle across to the site of the Red Lion, which was likely a merchant's house like many of the others along the same road, to command the trial. Apart from the plaque, and local legend, there is no other evidence I can find that the trial took place here. It seems that it's less romantic, but more likely that, as one of the oldest buildings in today's city, the legend of the famous trial attached itself to the building and was re-told over many generations which continued to place the trial there. 

God's House Tower
The evidence that the trial or even the imprisonment of the conspirators took place at God's House Tower comes from just one, recent article from the Daily Echo that doesn't mention any sources or references for this fact. There are no other sources that I can see that link the plot with God's House Tower, and in any case, although today the tower stands as an imposing stone structure and has been used as a jail throughout history, back in 1415, according to the records at Heritage Gateway, it stood as a more primitive gate house. It's thought that a gate tower here existed since the thirteenth century and was extended between 1321-41 along with building work to the the nearby wall. The first time a prison is mentioned here is in 1454. The God's House Tower as we know it today was likely to have been built in 1418-19 (Heritage Gateway). The dates for the God's House Tower being involved in the plot don't seem to quite add up, there just aren't the links to it and it's also further away from the hub of activity - the execution site, for example - and less well defended than the castle. As the overall evidence is stronger that they were held and tried at the castle, this seems the more likely scenario. 

Where do you think the imprisonment and trial was held in Southampton in 1415? Is there any evidence I've missed, or has new evidence come to light? 
Let me know in the comments below. 


Sources: 
Garth Groombridge, Southampton in 50 Buildings, ebook. accessed 24 Feb 2020. 
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