Tracking The Southampton Raid of 1338

The French Raid of 1338 devastated the port town of Southampton, with reports of burning buildings, the slaughter of locals and the pillaging of expensive and important goods from the town and docks. But can we see ghosts of the raid today in Southampton's Old Town? I take a look. 

Western Esplanade, 2018. Photo by Jo Romero

What We Know About The French Raid
On Monday October 5th 1338, a handful of ships docked at the Medieval port of Southampton and likely over a thousand men from French and Italian naval fleets ransacked the town, under the control of the French Admiral. (The 'official' story is that there were fifty ships, but historian AD Morton rightly argues that fifty ships would have got in the way of each other. Furthermore, each galley could hold around 300-400 men, and so a smaller estimate of ships sounds more likely for generally accepted accounts that there were 1,000-2,000 men). 

The locals, having seen the warning system of burning torches along the coast, would have steadied themselves to defend their town, having been stationed along the length of the walls with whatever weaponry they could muster. But, on seeing the scale of the attack they disbursed in panic. Estimates suggest there were 100-150 townspeople, who could not hope to defend the town against this number of raiders. 

The invaders took wool, wine and valuables from houses and warehouses throughout the town, killing and raping as they went. It was thought that they stayed for just a few hours, but Morton has tracked the times of the tides and shows that they were dependent on the these to leave. The tides weren't optimal for sailing until early the next morning. Unfortunately for the townspeople, they had to endure a whole night of fear, fire and bloodshed in their town, under the cloak of darkness.

I love to see history revealed in the stone and wood left behind in buildings and old walls. So can we see evidence of Southampton's raid today? 

I think we can. 

Let's start with the western walls
The raiders entered the town from the western side, where defences were low, and probably consisted of not more than a muddy ditch. It's thought that there may have been two or three waves of soldiers flooding into the panic-stricken town, and Morton says it's possible that they split the entry between the area around today's Arcade, Bugle Street and Cuckoo Lane. Although there were some attempts to secure Southampton with wall building in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, these works didn't focus on the western end of the town, leaving it open to attack. Archaeological evidence has unearthed a gap in the wall of thirteenth century townhouses that existed around Blue Anchor Lane, before the present walls were built and fortified after the raid, and it's likely that the raiders slipped in through here. (Heritage Gateway, MSH919)

Westgate, 2018, built to fortify the town after the raid. Photo by Jo Romero

After the raid, Edward III issued an order for the town to re-secure its defences and it seems that Westgate was one of those most heavily renovated. Heritage Gateway records the gate having been built in the later fourteenth century. It was built in stone, with the addition of a portcullis on each side and 'murder holes' in the top of the stone gate where hot water or oil could be poured. There would later be gun holes inserted. There has to be a reason it was decided to fortify the Westgate to such an extent and that adds weight to the idea that the raiders came through this length of wall. 

One of the 'murder holes' in the ceiling of the arch at Westgate.
Photo:  Jo Romero. 

Merchant's Houses
Along the Western Esplanade, you might see a number of bricked up archways. These were originally the houses and warehouses of merchants, who would use these premises to store their goods. But these buildings' primary function was for storage and trade, and not defence. Raiders might just have literally pushed open the doors to access the centre of the town. After the raid, Edward instructed that the doorways here should be bricked up, creating a solid, impenetrable wall along this side of the town. There are also traces of other buildings, houses that originally would have jutted out of the walls and it seems that these have been partly demolished in a mish-mash of arches and remains of towers at the northern end to build the defensive wall we see today.

One of the bricked-in doors, Western Esplanade. Photo: Jo Romero

St Michael's Church
St Michael's Church was founded in 1070, but according to legend, this ancient church witnessed the worst of its almost 1,000 year history during the raid. Froissart's account states that the raiders arrived when the local people were at Mass, on a Sunday morning. Morton has convincingly argued that they actually arrived at 3-4pm on the Monday, and people were unlikely to be in church naturally at this time. 

Spire of St Michael's, Photo by Jo Romero

Although inaccurate in other ways, Froissart might have been right about the church being full of people, but not because they were worshipping. It's very likely that they were actually taking refuge in the church. The legend states that people were killed inside, although some believe the bloodshed within these walls never even happened. In any case, as Morton says: 'less than a year after the raid, permission was given to reconcile St Michael’s Church because it had been polluted by homicide and the shedding of blood.' 

Whether it was the murder of townspeople by raiders who didn't respect the ancient custom of sanctuary, the slaughter of those who tried to bargain their lives with their property, or terrified townsmen and women hiding in the church, it seems that the church was a site of some of the fighting during the raid.

Extent of the Burning
Southampton has a lot of archaeological evidence of buildings being burned during the raid. But why? 

Morton discusses the theory that the fires were tactical. Buildings including those in French Street and Bugle Street - which include the modern Duke of Wellington pub, according to a modern sign on the building - could have been lit to create a diversion once reinforcements from other towns had arrived to help in the early morning on the 6th October. Raiders' ships - packed full of wine, wool and silver - were trapped, bobbing just off the town's coastline until the rise of the next tide. A town on fire would be a much more pressing urgency than chasing after a rabble of looters.  Other damaged buildings included those around the castle and also in the St Denys area. 

Walking around Southampton's Old Walls is a peaceful and pleasant experience - but we can see the remnants of the devastating French Raid on the town even today in the bricked-up doorways, scorched basements and the subsequent fortifications that were carried out on the orders of the king. Have a look out for them next time you visit. 

Would you like to feel what it was like to live through the raid? Have a read of my account of the raid, from my History Lives series. 

Did you know that one woman who helped build Southampton's walls was Agnes Overay in the fifteenth century? I explore her story, along with other women in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. I also discuss other women with links to Southampton.  Order your copy here. 

Note: The facts used here, unless stated otherwise, are from the incredibly detailed essay The French Raid on Southampton, 1338 by AD Morton, published in the Journal of the Southampton Local History Forum. It's definitely worth a read if you're interested in the French Raid on the town and helps to dispute a number of the myths and legends associated with the event. 

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