Southampton's Lost Castle

We can walk the Southampton Walls today, scaling along the stone structure that once actively defended the Medieval Port Town. Much of it has disappeared today, through either neglect or bombing during World War Two, although it played such a vital part in the town's history. For many people who visit the walls, it is often a surprise to them that as well as the stone towers and walls snaking around the Old Town, Medieval Southampton once had a castle.

Today it is covered by a block of flats on Castle Place, and only pieces of the structure remain. To find out more about this intriguing building, now lost and difficult to imagine in the modern city, I decided I needed a source that predated the mid-twentieth century; before the bombs and the construction of today's shopping centres, car parks and residential buildings. I was happy then, to come across Silvester J. Davies' History of Southampton published in 1883. 

Writing at the end of the nineteenth century during the reign of Queen Victoria, Davies states that the ruins of a castle were still very much visible in the town, 'portions of it still existing behind the houses of the south of Castle Gardens'. He notes that Castle Lane marked the south gate of the bailey, which was demolished in around 1770.

The keep of the castle, Davies saw, was 'eastward some 40 feet... deeply entrenched and boldly scarped', on a hill which measured 200 feet. The main gate to the structure could be found on the north side of Castle Lane, but was also destroyed in the eighteenth century, with just a small part surviving in 1883. He notes that the castle's foundations, 'on square piers and rounded arches', were placed 15 feet into the ground and that there were once battlements. The ruins could be seen as 'an abnormal and extensive arcade of fourteen or more arches, some of them slightly pointed, at a height of about 12 feet above the present level'.

Southampton Castle, shown on Speed's map, 1615, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Southampton Castle was clearly once an impressive building and residents would have looked up at it, in the town's skyline beneath gulls, the sounds of winds whistling through wooden masts and waves lapping against the stone walls behind. The castle was mentioned during the Anarchy, when the Empress Matilda and King Stephen fought for the crown in the twelfth century, and so its origins were almost certainly Norman. An order given by King John in 1207, where William Briewere, the king's forester, provided twenty rafters for repair of 'the king's hall' at Southampton may refer to the castle. 

The locals didn't take care of this royal residence and centre for local government. In 1246 John's son Henry III fined them 270 marks for selling timber, lead and stone from the castle, as well as failing in duties they had been commanded to carry out by the king. 

Southampton received an injection in revenue, but far too late, after the tragic raid on the town in October 1338. Residents were hanged in their doorways, buildings were burned to the ground and wine, wool and cash was stolen by Italian and French pirates. Edward III took control of the town and had the damaged assessed. He also launched an investigation after it was found the mayor, burgesses and bailiffs had all run away from their posts during the attack and not returned. He seemed more concerned however at the loss of his own wool by fire and how much was left behind. 

As clerks diligently counted up bales of wool in the stone woolhouse, the sting of smouldering wood in their nostrils, Edward requested weapons be brought from the Tower of London to defend the town more readily in the future. He also instructed Edmund de la Beche, Richard de Peule and Stephen de Bitterle to be chief guardians of the town and enlist an armed force that could protect it in case of another attack. Philip de Thame, Prior of the Knights Hospitallers in England was also to send thirty men to keep the town. The Earl of Warwick, Thomas Beauchamp, was also sent to Southampton to mop up any remaining fears or doubts about the town's safety. He entered the port on 25 July 1339 with, Davies says, 50 soldiers and 50 archers, staying for a month and leaving on 25 August that year. He also encouraged the return of the missing officials by threatening to take their goods if they didn't come back promptly. 

The castle is next mentioned in 1359-60, when Thomas' son-in-law John de Beauchamp was awarded its custody in recognition of his good service to the king. He served as Warden of the Cinque Ports and in other military roles, including Edward III's Admiral of the Fleet. Edward remained prickly about the possibility of future attacks on Southampton, and as well as awarding the custody of the castle to various servants over the years, he steadily increased the number of soldiers and archers that were to reside in the town (in 1369, 100 soldiers and 200 archers) and in 1370 ordered that 'all men sound in body in the town and suburbs for defence against our French enemies, who have often invaded and burnt towns on the coast' should be raised and trained for active service. The castle therefore seems the most logical place to place these hundreds of men, and in their raised position above the town and within the town walls, would have been ready to be deployed at a moment's notice. Sir John de Arundel is recorded as authorising a series of repairs and renovations to the castle and on 9 April 1378 Richard II ordered Henry Marmesfeld, John Pyperyng, and Richard Baillyf to rebuild it, paying for the work out of the royal purse. Stonemasons and carpenters were to be brought from neighbouring counties as far away as Somerset and Oxfordshire if needed, as well as within Southampton's precincts. 

In the beginning of the fifteenth century, Southampton was rocked by a plot to capture Henry V and have him replaced on the throne. The conspiracy was quickly dealt with personally by the king, who was at Southampton preparing his troops to sail to France and onto Agincourt. It is likely, I argue in this post, that the legalities of the case were conducted within the castle walls and not, as is often stated, in the town's Red Lion pub. In 1415 John Popham, the castle's constable, would have led the conspirators Richard, Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scrope of Masham and Sir Thomas Grey into the imposing stone walls to be charged. They were executed just outside the Bargates entrance shortly afterwards.

During the Wars of the Roses, Southampton played a central part in the conflict of the mid-fifteenth century. Merchants spread news from overseas and around England about unfolding events and would have been a valuable source of news for locals. That is not to say that all news would have been reliable, however, as being conveyed by word of mouth. The port also witnessed the seizing of ships by Lancastrian supporters and bloody executions carried out by the Yorkist hand of justice, also know as 'The Butcher', John Tiptoft. His preferred measures of punishment unsettled the locals, particularly in one episode in 1470, when, Southampton's castle standing over the skyline, he had supporters of the opposition brutally and publicly impaled.

After 1485, Southampton's Tudor castle was granted to a string of servants and courtiers, one of them Sir Thomas Wriothesley in 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII. John Leland, who travelled around the country recording what he saw, and is a valuable source of social history for this period, wrote that 'the glorie of the castelle is in the dungeon [keep], that is both large, fair, and very stronge, both by worke and the site of it'. John Speede, during the reign of Henry's daughter Elizabeth I, wrote that the castle stood so tall and steep that 'it cannot be ascended but by stairs'. Speede's map, drawn in 1615, shows the castle standing on a tall mound of grass, a large stone keep in the centre. It was certainly in use during Elizabeth's reign, in 1599 having sixty pieces of artillery and 100 soldiers but there were complaints that sheep had been allowed to graze on the mound and doors and windows were no longer secure. The archery butts, used during the Medieval and early Tudor period, began to fall out of use after the more widespread use of handguns, but had been situated on the Castle Green. 

Although the castle under Elizabeth and the early reign of James I seems to have been functional, it was by no means solid or capable of serious defence. In 1618 it was in ruins, the site sold to various owners, before being dismantled in 1650. The Medieval stones were used in the aftermath of the English Civil War for repairs elsewhere and residents built their own homes among the ruins.

That was the end of Southampton's Medieval Castle. Davies states that the site was purchased by Lord Wycombe in 1804 who built a mansion there, over the foundations of the castle. However he died just five years later and his successor had the building razed and sold off for materials. In 1962 a block of flats was built over the location, although some gateways and vaults that once formed part of the historic structure still survive.

Do you know more about Southampton Castle? Let me know in the comments below! 

If you liked this, you might also like The Murky World of Elizabeth's Pirates and 5 Tudor-Inspired Days Out By Train. 

Never want to miss a post? Subscribe to my newsletter here: 

Notes: taken from Silvester J. Davies, A History of Southampton; partly from the MS. of Dr. Speed, in the Southampton Archives. Gilbert, Southampton, 1883.