Southampton, a short history by Colin Wintle
Judged by any standards, Southampton is a great provincial city and port. Although rooted in the distant past, it lives and expands in the present — and looks confidently to the future; happily, despite ravages of war, much of its historic past remains, not only in its excellent museums but also, and more dramatically perhaps, in the medieval stones which still stand as silent witnesses amid a bubbling modern life which gives it quite a metropolitan aspect.
As a maritime base it enjoys the unique and valuable phenomenon of being served daily by the Solent with double tides. This may have given rise to the theory (staunchly maintained by some citizens) that it was not at Bosham, in Sussex, but at Southampton that King Canute (to teach his courtiers a lesson) had his famous, if farcical, adventure with the incoming tide. In 1016 he had been offered the Crown at Southampton, after Ethelred the Unready had fled from Denmark’s victorious invaders.
Those with a yen for historic, if legendary, spots should go to Canute Road, near the waterside, and ponder for themselves. The most imposing building in that road is the former South Western Hotel, which was patronised by passengers using the Transatlantic ocean terminal and is now the regional headquarters of the British Broadcasting Corporation.
What is fact and not uncorroborated history, however, is that the Mayflower first sailed away in’1620 with the Pilgrim Fathers. A memorial marks the site of the quay whence they departed.
Plymouth? Yes, quite true. But Devon was Mayflower’s second (and last) port of call in England.
Those passing the modern Civic Centre at certair be surprised to hear its carillon playing 0 God, l Ages Past. It is a tribute to Isaac Watts, who wrote hymn: he was born in Southampton, where the statue to him. The composer of Tom Bowling nautical songs, Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) and i Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Millais (1827-97 natives of the city.
Down by Southampton Water — the city’s through the centuries — the ancient arcaded city we gives direct access to the sea because land has bees since the 19th century when its docks grew apa coming of the steamship. Yet there, on the west the almost insignificant archway of the West Ga the very heart of the military and maritime
The huge embattled grandeur of Bargate, which since the 12th century has undergone many additions, alterations and — latterly — restoration, was the main entrance to the old walled city. The upper part at one time served as a guildhall and the lower part as a prison. The guildhall is said to have been where young William Shakespeare presented plays to his early patron, the third Earl of Southampton, to whom he shrewdly dedicated his first poem, Venus and Adonis.
It is now a museum and contains a magnificent tapestry recording Southampton’s history during the war of 1939-45.
Among other fine buildings of various dates which survived the war is the Tudor House Museum: it is one of the finest examples of Tudor domestic architecture in Britain.
Within Tudor House —SEE CHARGES – are relics and treasures of Southampton covering an enormous range of history: Roman, Saxon, Norman, down to Tudor and later periods.
Originally the house of a wealthy merchant, it received the stamp of regal distinction when King Henry V III stayed there with his “wife of a thousand days” — Anne Boleyn, mother of Elizabeth I.
The house possesses a charming garden. When it was built it must have been regarded by its next-door-neighbour as something of a modern upstart, for it is bounded by the house of another merchant — a Norman!
Those passing the modern Civic Centre at certain times may be surprised to hear its carillon playing 0 God, Our Help in Ages Past. It is a tribute to Isaac Watts, who wrote the famous hymn: he was born in Southampton, where there is also a statue to him. The composer of Tom Bowling and other nautical songs, Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) and the popular Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Millais (1827-97) were also natives of the city.
Down by Southampton Water — the city’s umbilicus through the centuries — the ancient arcaded city wall no longer gives direct access to the sea because land has been reclaimed since the 19th century when its docks grew apace with the coming of the steamship. Yet there, on the west wall, stands the almost insignificant archway of the West Gate, which is the very heart of the military and maritime history of medieval England, whence two of her kings “set forth for Normandy, with power and might of chivalry”.
In 1345 Edward III, claimant to the French throne, mobilised thousands of troops at Southampton, which provided for him a score of ships and half-a-thousand men for his campaign, ending with victory at Crecy. And seventy years later Henry V set forth also from Southampton with a comparatively small army, but including the famous long-bow men, for Harfleur and eventually to decisive victory against overwhelming numerical odds at Agincourt.
Those archers and men-at-arms embarked after filing through that small arched aperture, the West Gate (now facing a road, not water) which the passer-by sees to this day.
Henry V sailed for Normandy in 1415. More than five centuries later the port was the scene of the greatest series of embarkations of men and material in its history: it was the chief port from which the British Expeditionary Force left our shores, also for France. By the time of the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940, no fewer than 800,000 men and 375,000 tons of material had been shipped across the Channel.
In 1942 British troops were again, temporarily, on French soil: the large-scale raid on Dieppe — a reconnaissance en force, not an invasion — set off from Southampton.
Later, the dry docks were used for the construction of the immense floating base in the Channel known as Mulberry Harbour, in preparation for the Allied return to the Continent on D-Day in June 1944. It is believed that the larger components of that unique “stepping-stone” enterprise weighed as much as 5,000 tons.
During the months after the Normandy landings, more than 1,500,000 tons of war supplies were shipped from Southampton to maintain and nourish the Allied army.
Those Second World War departures took place not so very far from the small archway of the medieval West Gate, which had seen, in the 14th and 15th centuries two armies file through to sail for the same destination – Normandy.