A guide to the Medieval Defences of Southampton

Southampton in Hampshire is often overlooked as a heritage destination. This is perhaps understandable as it is a large and busy port, with the beautiful cathedral city of Winchester only a short distance away. Yet Southampton is fortunate enough to possess some of the best surviving urban medieval fortifications in England. This was due to the importance of the settlement in the Middle Ages, as it was a wealthy port, which needed to be defended from the threat of raids and invasion. In this blog post I will take you on a tour around the defences.

(The Bargate from the front)

(The rear face of the Bargate)

I begin in the High Street at the imposing Bargate, which was joined on either side by the town wall (Southampton only became a city in 1964). In the Middle Ages this was the principal entrance to the settlement by land and was made to impress. The building dates from c.1180, with further alterations carried out in later years. Alongside its role as a toll gate, it was also the location of the town’s guildhall (it only became a city in 1964), at the first-floor level. In the sixteenth century important visitors to Southampton, such as members of the royal family or the nobility, were greeted by the firing of the town’s guns. Unfortunately, the building always seems to be closed whenever I have visited but nevertheless it looks impressive from the outside.

(From the Bargate to the wall-walk)

(Statue of John le Fleming)

The wall-walk begins a short distance to the west. From here a staircase leads up to the rampart of the wall, where you encounter a modern statue of John le Fleming, who served as mayor in the early fourteenth century. A bridge then leads to the Arundel Tower, at the north-west corner of the fortifications, where you can climb to the top and can get some nice views of the west side of the town wall. Until comparatively recently the wall was flanked by the sea, with waves lapping at its foundations (as can be seen from old illustrations). It was only in the early twentieth century that a massive programme of land reclamation to increase the size of the docks resulted in the sea ending up a considerable distance away.

(Arundel Tower)

(Arundel Tower from the other side)

(Catchcold Tower)

(Catchcold tower from the other side)

The wall-walk then continues southwards along the west side. This is the longest surviving stretch of wall and contains a number of features of interest. The first of these is Catchcold Tower (which often lives up to its name!). This is a rather splendid mural tower, which has three gunports for the use of early gunpowder weapons. During the Second World War the tower was the site of an anti-aircraft position, where the concrete base slab of a machine gun can still be seen.

(The remnants of the Garderobe Tower on the left)

(The Watergate of the castle)

Further along you pass the remnants of the castle. Unfortunately, very little of it survives, but a bridge takes you over the vault of the great hall, which adjoins the foundation of the Garderobe Tower. Here the wall-walk ends, due to a gap in the wall, and steps take you down to the outside. If you retrace your journey from the base of the wall a little, you can see the exterior of the Watergate of the castle.

(The Arcades)

(A blocked up opening in the Arcades with a gunport)

Continuing the walk southwards you encounter the Arcades. This is an unusual architectural feature, with a row of blind arches in front of a wall with blocked openings. Originally the houses of merchants here were directly open to the waterfront for ease of conducting trade. However, after a devastating French raid in 1338, Edward III ordered that the town should be fully encircled with a wall (hitherto its defences were mainly on the landside), with the openings blocked up. The Arcades also include a number of gunports carved into the wall, which date from the late fourteenth century.

(The Westgate)

(View of the wall-walk to the south of the Westgate)

Moving further along you come to the West Gate, which once opened directly onto the West Quay (which is where the nearby modern shopping centre gets its name from). The building has two upper storeys, together with square gunports dating from the sixteenth century. If you pass through the gate it is possible to climb up some steps that allows you to walk along another short stretch of rampart.

(The Watergate)

(The Watergate from another angle)

(Rear view of the Watergate)

Heading south-eastwards there is now a big gap in the wall until you arrive at the Watergate. This was the principal entrance to the town by sea as it adjoined the Town Quay. Most of the structure was demolished in the early nineteenth century, but a significant portion of the west tower (one of two towers that originally flanked the gate), still stands.

(God’s House Tower and gate)

(Rear view of God’s House Tower and gate)

There is another missing segment of the wall until you arrive at the south-east. This is where you encounter my favourite building in Southampton, God’s House Tower, one of the earliest artillery fortifications in the country. The tower was built in the early fifteenth century (it was first mentioned in 1417), adjacent to God’s House Gate (with the name deriving from the nearby God’s House Hospital). When I last visited the building was closed to the public (but hopefully it will be reopened soon).

(From the south-east looking northwards)

(The Round Tower)

(The Friary Gate)

The wall then continues northwards, with the surviving structures including the Round Tower, which started out as a dovecote tower, and the Friary Gate. The latter was built in the late fourteenth century so that the members of the Franciscan Priory in the town could have access to their gardens to the east of the settlement after Southampton was fully walled. From here not much of the wall survives until you get to the north-east corner, where a sizeable segment, including the Polymond Tower, is still standing.

(The outer bailey wall of Southampton Castle)

(The outer bailey wall of Southampton Castle from the other side)

If you take a slight detour when retracing your steps you can also see more of the remnants of the castle. This mainly consists of the wall of the outer bailey, which is now next to a carpark.

(St Michael’s Church)

This concludes my tour of the medieval defences but when visiting Southampton be sure to check out some of the other fine medieval buildings in the city including St Michael’s Church, Tudor House and the Medieval Merchant’s House.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog post let me know in the comments below, and if there is interest in this sort of article then I may write more!

All photographs taken by myself. If you want to find out more about the remarkable history of Southampton I suggest starting with Colin Platt, Medieval Southampton: The Port and Trading Community, A.D. 1000-1600 (London: 1973)

5 thoughts on “A guide to the Medieval Defences of Southampton

  1. Ray Smith says:

    Thank You for this great article! As I live in the United States I have no way to get to this are. I appreciate the informative manner of said article with the numerous pictures. I am always interested in Medieval structures and information, again thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tracey Weaver says:

    Great detail and very informative. Would be useful to know which bits can be explored insideand when they are open to the public if possible. I grew up along the coat in Portchester but never visited Southamptons walls…..what an oversight!
    Thank you .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Joanie Reimann-Stokes says:

    Thank you for all the medieval information on Southampton. I will definitely check this out next time I am there for a cruise. Yes, please keep these type of “hidden in plain sight gems” articles coming.

    Liked by 1 person

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