Southampton has always been an important place (and I’d argue it very much still is), and history has proved time and time again that important places have castles. Southampton was no different.
William the Conqueror invaded in 1066 and changed the face of Britain forever. It was William who introduced a particular type of castle to Britain, and that was the classic motte-and-bailey. He also created the New Forest, where two of his sons died, and he was mostly hated by its inhabitants for the strict laws he applied at his royal hunting ground. To the east of the New Forest is Southampton, which during William’s reign became an important settlement and port, the main link between the capital of England Winchester, and Normandy.
At this vital port, William unsurprisingly built a castle. This was roughly at the same time St Michael’s Church was originally built, and that is still standing today. It was in the motte-and-bailey design, and remained in place as a wooden structure for about a hundred years or so when in the late 12th century it was converted to stone. The castle was considered important, it played host to royal guests, and even more importantly, it was a storage place for the King’s imported wine.
The French somewhat enjoyed raiding Southampton during the 1300s (if you like, you can read about one of the worst raids in this blog post here: The 1338 Raid) and after one in the 1370s the then King of England Richard II decided Southampton Castle would be strengthened, along with other parts of the town walls. As a result, Southampton Castle became heavily fortified and well defended, it was one of the first fortifications in England to be equipped with a purpose built cannon.
Fast forward a couple of centuries, and the castle was in decline. No more money was spent on the upkeep after 1518, and the site eventually became a rubbish tip, before being used for agriculture. It fell in to decline and disrepair.
King James I visited Southampton in 1618, and reportedly described the town as “one of the healthiest and sweetest towns in the kingdom”, which is nice. He also sold the castle whilst he was here to property developers, and so, after nearly four hundred years, Southampton Castle was no longer in royal hands. King Henry V stayed here before heading off to Agincourt in 1415, and Queen Elizabeth I stayed here in 1560. But as of 1618, it was a royal residence no more.
Years passed and numerous buildings came and went on top of the old motte, or hill, including houses, banqueting halls, and a windmill. The old castle continued to crumble and some of the stone was used in the maintenance of the town’s defensive walls.
In 1805 the Marquess of Landsdowne purchased the land. His dad was the Prime Minister from 1782-1783 and whilst in charge negotiated the peace treaties that bought the American War of Independence to an end. The Marquess of Landsdowne decided to build a Gothic style mansion for himself on the site, a tall imposing structure that incorporated parts of the old castle. Here he lived, and it’s also worth noting he helped restore the Bargate around this time too. From 1807 until 1809 the author Jane Austen rented a house off the Marquess in the grounds. An account described the castle and his mansion:
The area of the castle seems to be of a semicircular form, of which the town wall to the sea, formed the diameter. The keep stood on a very high artificial mount, and from its ruins a small round tower has been constructed, from the leads of which there is a delightful bird’s-eye view of Southampton, and of the environs, lying like a map before the eye of the spectator.
The Marquess died in November 1809 and his heir didn’t want it. It lay empty for a few years before being sold off in 1816, and then demolished in 1818. At this time, most of the motte that it once stood on was flattened too.
Nowadays, not much of the old castle is left. Upper Bugle Street was constructed through where the bailey once was, and in 1962 a block of flats called Castle House was built on what was left of the motte. The road names around this area are a bit of a giveaway too, namely Castle Lane and Landsdowne Hill.
Still, if you want to do a little exploring, parts of the old castle can still be seen, such as the watergate, some of the old hall, and also the lavatory! Two vaults still exist, one now open to the elements, and one still intact.
It’s a shame the castle does not still exist, but it is amazing what hidden history there is to be discovered in Southampton.