The Southampton we all know today is a bustling port and nearly 700 years ago this was no different. The import and export of goods made the town one of England’s prime ports, but it also made it a target as the people of Southampton found out one morning in October 1338.
England was at war with France. In 1337, King Edward III had rejected Philip VI’s claim to the French throne and so consequently it all kicked off, with Philip responding by launching a naval campaign in the English Channel, targeting England’s coastal settlements. Southampton was no exception.
That morning in October 1338, around fifty ships silently sailed up Southampton water and dropped their anchors near West Quay (the actual old quay, not the shopping centre…). Some of Southampton’s boundaries had stone defences already, but West Quay was undefended as it was used constantly by the merchants and it was feared military defences would hamper trade. The French took full advantage of this. Remember, at this point, Southampton did not have the town walls we all know today.
The raiders stormed the town. A bloodthirsty party made up from French, Spanish, and Genoese – all encouraged by, and under the control of, the King of France – ran riot. Warehouses were pillaged, shops were robbed, houses and businesses were burnt to the ground and innocent Sotonians were murdered in cold blood. It has been called Southampton’s darkest day.
As well as its citizens killed, the town’s resources were plundered. Wool, vast amounts of gold, and even the King’s stash of wine was stolen. The raiders left Southampton a smoking ruin.
It’s safe to say then, that King Edward III was far from happy. He ordered that the town be completely enclosed in stone walls to keep any future raiders at bay. Alas, the 1338 raid had damaged Southampton’s economy in such a way that this order could not immediately be carried out. It simply could not be afforded.
It’s interesting to note here that in the decades following the raid, Southampton struggled financially. However, in 1419, the Grimaldi family who had taken part in the raid and pillage, purchased Monaco (yes, Monaco) from the Crown of Aragon. One can only assume gold stolen from Southampton helped finance this purchase…
It was in the 1360s that the King conducted an inquiry in to the town’s defences once more, and it was this that then resulted in the building of most of what we know today. The merchants who had businesses facing the water were told they would be bricked up.
Over the subsequent years, more would be added to Southampton’s defensive walls as technology advanced and formal measures were introduced to maintain and defend them. God’s House Tower was built in 1417 which was the first purpose built artillery fortification in England. Catchcold Tower was added in 1439. Both of these, like much of the walls, are still standing today.
The last time the walls were used in a defensive capacity was during the Second World War when an anti-aircraft gun was placed on top of Catchcold Tower. Now, the walls serve as a tourist attraction and are well worth a look around.