Your City: The Castle Lost To History


The Bargate, God’s House, Arundel and Catchcold towers. All parts of Southampton’s defences that are not part of Southampton Castle. 

First mentioned in the 1153 Treaty of Wallingford (or Winchester depending on who you ask), it has had a chequered history. Most of it seems to have been spent moving between decay and large improvement works. But what was it like, what did it do and why is there so little left of it?

What was here and where was it?

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.

Jane Austen

Southampton Castle was located in the North west segment of the Old Town. It comprised of a Stone keep tower built on a man made mound (or motte). This was the most defensive part of the castle, but was reliant on other buildings below in the remainder of the castle (or the bailey). Southampton Castle’s bailey contained a royal apartment, said to be in the South-West corner of the Castle, a chapel and a hall, although exact locations have been difficult to discover.

The whole castle was surrounded by a curtain wall on top of an earth bank with a ditch in front. Entry into the castle was by either the East Gate, for access from the High Street, or the South Gate, which was complete with its own Barbican. Equally, there was a Watergate that brought supplies from the Castle Quay straight into one of the Castle Vaults, both built into the side of the cliff.

So what’s actually left?

The most obvious remains of Southampton Castle today - Castle house and a stretch of wall.
The most obvious remains of Southampton Castle today – Castle house and a stretch of wall.

Today, the castle is bordered by a car park, the dead end road Western Esplanade and an overlooked section of the town that extends fro the Tudor House Museum through to the High Street.

The Castle Keep has been gone for a long time. It had decayed for many years before being turned into a Gothic mansion house by the Marquis of Lansdowne from 1805 to 1818. It was demolished by 1820 to be replaced with a Zion Chapel. The motte the castle has been substantially lowered since then to the current bump (it doesn’t justify the label of hill) that occupies the site today. The lasting landmark of this part of the castle is 1960s tower block, Castle House, which stands on what’s left of the motte.

All of the buildings in the bailey have gone above ground level, replaced with a pub, 1980s housing and a Victorian court house. The wall itself would have originally been around 5 meters higher and the arches you can see would have all been buried under the earth bank that the wall sat on.

The Castle Vaults also survive, one completely intact, the other minus it’s roof. This vault once also had a hall above it, although none of the walls exist above vault level. The other charming remnant of the castle is the base of the garderobe tower, or the toilets as we would now know it as.

What did it actually do?

Like most castles it played a role in defending the town and acting as a place of refuge in times of trouble. However, being inside the town meant it couldn’t expand and adapt easily to new changes, like artillery. Equally in 1338 French Raiders sacked the town unopposed by the castle – it just didn’t have the fighting force to repel a raid that size. It’s defensive role effectively ended when the town walls were completed in the 1380s and when other defences were built in the Solent, such as Calshot and Netley Castles, which defended the approach to Southampton.

While it had mixed success as a fort, it also acted as a storage place for the King’s wine that was taxed from the traders. Called the prise of wine, the King could take between one and two tuns of wine per incoming ship, and this kept his various royal palaces stocked up. As well as storing the wine, the Castle housed the King himself from time to time. Most notably, King John spent over £200 on the royal apartments, Henry V stayed here in 1415 on the way to the Battle of Agincourt and Queen Elizabeth I stayed here in 1560.

Why do we know so little?

Everything we know comes from three main areas: Royal documents, Images and Archaeological excavations. As a royal castle, there is a paper trail of money spent and reports on the castle left in the National Archives; but while this tells us how much and what state, it doesn’t often tell us where. Archaeological excavations undertaken in the 1950s and 60s can fill in some of the gaps but only where there were literally gaps in the houses at the time. Finally, we can get some pictures of the castle from engravings and paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries as well as some earlier sources, such as John Speed’s maps of 1615.

This article is a follow-up to an Exhibition held by seven History students at the Tudor House Museum on 10th May as part of their Group Project.

Your City is the Wessex Scene’s series looking into the great city we call home. See more articles here.

More articles in Your City
  1. Your City: Southampton’s Canal
  2. Your City: Southampton’s Connection to Remembrance Sunday
  3. Your City: Happy Birthday Southampton!
  4. Your City: Southampton Old Cemetery
  5. Your City: The Castle Lost To History
  6. Your City: Forgotten Town

History student and passionate writer about everything connected to Southampton and its rich tapestry of stories and history. Due to an unfortunate case of graduation, this writer is no longer active.

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