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The Story of Southampton
By Peter Neal
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Peter Neal
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The Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 was met with little resistance initially, but was followed by two large battles, the first of which was at Rochester in Kent and the second at the point where the Romans came to cross the Thames. Here they waited until joined by their emperor, Claudius, who led his men to the triumphal climax of the first stage of the invasion – the conquest of the British stronghold Camulodunum (today's Colchester). The town was the capital of the Catuvellauni region and the Romans made it their first capital of Britain.
Once Camulodunum had been taken, legions were dispatched to extend the Roman invasion into other areas of the country. One of these, II Legion, was led by Vespasian, who in AD 69 would become head of the entire Roman Empire. Vespasian took his men in a south-westerly direction, and by AD 47, the conquest had reached as far as Somerset and Devon. For the time being at least, this was the extent of the Roman conquest in this area: Claudius's commander-in-chief Aulus Plautius returned to Rome in triumph with his part in the operation complete. It is thus fair to say that the Romans had a presence in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight within a few years of the initial invasion. The theory has been expressed that a temporary naval and supply base at Clausentum may have existed before AD 50 to service the Romans' ongoing western progress, but greater certainty can be attached to the existence of a port in the location in about AD 70.
By this time, the Romans had established a sizeable town at Venta Belgarum (Winchester), the site of a previous tribal capital. The town created a demand for items such as wine and oil that the new residents wished to enjoy in their new homes as they had on the Continent. Thus, a port was needed, and trade routes to Gaul were soon in place, with exports such as wool, corn and even slaves crossing the Channel in return. Clausentum was located on the eastern bank of the River Itchen, around 3 miles inland from what is now known as Southampton Water. It was sited on a peninsula created by a curve in the river and was divided into islands by two fosses (large ditches) running from north to south. The western island was approximately semi-circular in shape, with its curved edge following that of the river, while the second island was almost rectangular. This rectangular island was sparsely occupied by a few wooden-framed buildings; however, it was the semi-circular island that the Romans chose for most of their habitation. It was reached by a road that led away from the main gate, across the second island, and joined a road linking Winchester and Portchester. Originally, the island is likely to have been edged by a fence punctuated by towers and accessed by a main gate that overlooked the fosse. When it was first dug, the inner fosse was around 60ft wide and was made yet wider over the following decades, up to about 100ft. At particularly high tides, the fosse was partially filled with water, even as late as the nineteenth century.
There was at least one road within the fenced area of Clausentum, traces of which were uncovered when graves were dug in Bitterne cemetery. It was formed with a lower layer of limestone and topped with a covering of gravel, and possibly terminated at the riverside, since evidence has been found on the riverbank of a wooden quayside built to accommodate Roman shipping. An important discovery in 1918 added weight to this theory, when two lead pigs were discovered during the construction of foundations at a riverside site. The lead pigs were found at a depth of around 2 ½ft, weighed almost 180lb and were about 2ft in length. They were engraved with text dating them to the Vespasian period and were thought to have originated from the Mendip lead mines. It is possible that the lead had initially been transported to the Continent to be cast into shape, and the pigs were making their return journey when they were somehow deposited in the Itchen. The discovery led to a further hypothesis that Clausentum and Venta Belgarum were linked by road at an early stage following the Roman invasion; the fact that stone from the Isle of Wight was used in buildings in Venta Belgarum makes the road connection even more likely.
Bembridge limestone from the Isle of Wight was used at Clausentum as well as Venta Belgarum, for example in a private bathing house uncovered during excavations in 1951. This structure was adjacent to another larger building near the northern town perimeter in the area later occupied by Bitterne Manor House. During the first century of the Roman occupation of Britain, great quantities of marble were extracted from the Purbeck quarries in Dorset. Since stone from them was used as far afield as Chichester, Cirencester and Colchester, it seems highly likely to have featured in at least some of the buildings of Clausentum as well. The Purbeck area was also home to many pottery kilns, some dating from the first century AD, and a network of Roman roads allowed the pottery to be distributed throughout the region. In later years, the kilns in the New Forest increased their production, with the pieces making the shorter journey to Clausentum.
The town's life as a port linking central England and Gaul lasted around two centuries, and towards the end of this period, it was mentioned in a Roman text for the only time: the Antonine Itinerary recorded routes used by the Romans and the distances between towns. At about the same time wooden houses first built in the settlement were gradually replaced with stone structures. The third century brought with it the period known as the 'occupation gap', during which there is little evidence of significant activity in Clausentum. Suggestions have been put forward that the town was affected, to one degree or another, by a fire and subsequently fell into disrepair; but this is merely one theory. Therefore, the 'occupation gap' may be more accurately thought of as a gap in evidence and knowledge, rather than a time in which Clausentum was necessarily deserted.
As the third century neared its close, changes in Roman thinking meant that the friendly welcome previously afforded to visitors from overseas was replaced with a more cautious policy. Many of the ports along the South Coast were more heavily fortified and took on defensive roles. It was at this time that Carausius, having previously been a naval captain stationed in the North Sea and English Channel, evidently suffered from delusions of grandeur. In 286, he declared himself emperor of Britain and northern Gaul, seemingly with a mind to create his own breakaway empire using Britannia as its base. Carausius relocated his fleet from Boulogne to the Solent, and it is thought that he envisaged Clausentum as a main defensive stronghold in the area, in conjunction with the impressive fortifications at Portchester. For many years, speculation has abounded that Carausius founded a mint at Clausentum, but no firm evidence has been uncovered to settle the debate. In 293, Carausius was murdered by his treasurer Allectus, who in turn was overthrown three years later when the patience of the Roman Empire based in mainland Europe was finally exhausted. Julius Asclepiodotus and his forces set sail from Boulogne and under cover of fog landed in Hampshire to quash the separatist empire of Britannia.
Rule from Italy resumed, but in 367 Roman Britain found itself under attack again, with Saxons venturing across the North Sea and Picts making southerly incursions from central Scotland and beyond. Towns were ransacked, livestock stolen and men held captive by the invaders. The result in Clausentum was that in about 370 the town was further reinforced by a strong, stone wall that was built around its perimeter. Count Theodosius had become the civil governor of Britain in 368 and undertook a scheme to renovate much of the British defences, most probably in response to these raids. Archaeologists excavating in the early 1950s also agreed that during this period (and again in about 390) there was renewed building activity inside the walled town. The wall itself was approximately 9ft thick and gained a large amount of its rigidity from a bonding course of large, flat bricks running through it. It was built without foundations, however, and therefore required further strengthening in the form of a bank of earth packed against it on the inward side.
Sir Henry Englefield toured Southampton at the start of the nineteenth century and recorded that some Roman remains were still visible even at this late stage. He speculated that there might have been another inner wall of about 2ft in thickness, providing extra support to the earthen bank, although he found no conclusive proof. Englefield also wrote that traces of at least two Roman towers were uncovered, set into the town wall. These towers were approximately 18ft in diameter and there was evidence of a further semi-circular tower or buttress of slightly greater dimensions. But the extra fortifications were not to stand the test of time. In about 411, the Romans departed British shores, since Rome was under attack from the Goths, and the emperor, Honorius, relocated his centre of operations to Constantinople. From this more easterly base, Britain was more distant and thus proportionately also less important – so the Roman troops withdrew. In doing so they created what has been described as 'one of the genuinely fateful moments in British history'.
With his country at the mercy of invaders once more, legend has it that British leader, Vortigern, decided to make a pact with the Saxons: in exchange for land on the Isle of Thanet they would repel the renewed advances of the Picts. When it became apparent that Vortigern saw this agreement as a one-off deal rather than an ongoing arrangement, the Saxons were considerably aggrieved and revolted in spectacular fashion, with southern and eastern England suffering most in the turmoil. Some towns were reduced significantly in size while others were completely deserted. Houses, roads and public buildings fell into disrepair. It is probable that the Saxons laid waste to Clausentum at this time, and towards the end of the fifth century, Cerdic and his son, Cynric, landed at a location in the vicinity. They established the kingdom of Wessex in 519, seeing Winchester as an important base because of its strategic positioning in the network of Roman roads. Cerdic ruled for fifteen years until he died, and was succeeded by his son, and for many years afterwards, kings of Wessex claimed him as one of their ancestors.
In 530, the Saxons embarked on the conquest of the Isle of Wight in collaboration with the Jutes, probably departing from a point near Clausentum. Most Romano-British people must have wanted reassurance that their leaders would offer them the best possible protection, while the leaders no doubt required a subservient and hard-working population. Eventually these two sets of demands intertwined and parity was restored.
For many years, the ruins of Clausentum were left to the remaining native Britons in the area and the elements. Meanwhile, the next centre of population took root on the peninsula created by the convergence of the rivers Itchen and Test. The land had been used by the Romans at least to a small extent, as evidenced by sparse archaeological finds among the plentiful Saxon material. But in the Roman era there were few inhabitants here, and they were most likely to have been engaged in farming and fishing. It was here that Birinus first landed in England in 634, embarking on his campaign to reintroduce Christianity in the country. It is said that during his visit the first incarnation of St Mary's church was established.
In the closing years of the seventh century, trade routes between Britain and north-western Europe began to flourish, and towns such as London and Ipswich conducted business with their counterparts across the North Sea in France, Holland, Denmark and even Sweden. By this time, Wessex was ruled by Ine, who introduced a series of laws reflecting his adherence to Christianity. A stable social, economic and political climate during Ine's reign contributed to an expansion in trade, but there is no documentary evidence of the port that would become Southampton until 720, when it was mentioned in the memoirs of St Willibald. A monk born in Wessex in about 700 and raised in Bishops Waltham, Willibald went on to travel throughout Europe and the Holy Land. He referred to the town as Hamwih, although it is more generally known now as Hamwic. The first part of the name, 'ham', meant home, while the second was derived from the Latin 'vicus', meaning a town or part of a town. This suffix also formed the names of other centres of trading, such as Harwich and Norwich. Hamwic stood on the shores of a harbour naturally formed at the south-eastern corner of the peninsula by a combination of winds and currents. These factors created a shingle spit that curved northwards into the Itchen Estuary and made a small sheltered bay in which vessels could land safely.
The town was thus bounded directly to the east by the River Itchen and to the south and the north-east by marshland. The westerly limitation of the settlement was defined by a ditch that was 10ft wide, meaning that the total area enclosed was more than 100 acres. A substantial network of roads was built in the town, roughly on a grid pattern. The main street, approximately on the route of today's St Mary's Road, was 50ft wide, and other narrower streets joined it on either side. All the roads were finished with a top layer of gravel and were well maintained, being resurfaced when needed. This degree of planning and upkeep perhaps implies that Hamwic was governed by some kind of authority or council.
The houses in the settlement were mostly timber framed with thatched roofs, although it is possible that a few remnants of Clausentum were appropriated and recycled. Archaeology shows that the houses were rectangular, one-storey buildings up to 40ft long and 16ft wide. They were well weatherproofed and would have lasted around thirty years before needing to be rebuilt. Since land in Hamwic was at a premium, houses were often rebuilt several times on the same plot. Occasionally, houses were divided into two rooms, possibly with one serving as a living area and the other for sleeping. Some directly fronted the gravelled streets, while others were reached by alleyways. Backyards contained rubbish pits, many hundreds of which have been excavated in recent years. The number and depth of these pits suggests that Hamwic was densely populated, and that the back streets and alleyways were quite congested. In some cases, the backyards also included wells, which supplied nearby houses with fresh water. They were kept an appropriate distance from the rubbish pits to avoid contamination, and were braced with planks and wattle for rigidity. Wells were several yards deep and water was extracted by the simple method of a bucket on a rope.
The port at Hamwic served Winchester and the surrounding areas in much the same way as Clausentum had previously, trading with northern and central Europe. Pottery and glass from these areas have been found; fragments of containers for wine and other luxury items. Further evidence of this trade has been uncovered in the form of many Saxon coins, mostly sceattas, which were widely used in eighth-century Europe. A mint was established in the town, but seemingly the coins it produced were only used in Hamwic itself, as very few of them have been found further afield. Even so, the localised trade was strong: it is thought that over 2 million sceattas were made at the mint. The majority of the coins were produced in the mid-eighth century, suggesting that this was when Hamwic's economy was at its peak. Other coins found in the area originated in northern Europe, London and Kent.
As well as trading with other towns in Britain and overseas, Hamwic had its own small-scale industries. Many iron objects were made by the local blacksmiths, whose workshops were probably adjacent to their houses. The metalwork they produced included tools such as knives and axes, as well as more intricate items, such as locks and keys. Small objects like buckles and decorative pieces were fashioned from bronze, and there is evidence that small amounts of gold and mercury gilding were also in use.
Other craftsmen in Hamwic worked with bones and antlers, which were used to make combs, spindles and needles. These items in turn were used in the production of wool and cloth: sheep were reared in the town primarily to service the wool industry rather than for food. Once the wool was made into yarn, it was then woven on looms that could produce very fine cloth, some small sections of which have been uncovered by archaeologists. Ornate edgings were also made, designed to be attached to a larger piece of material to form a decorative border. The spinning and weaving were largely done by the women of Hamwic, who became very skilled in the manufacture of cloth.
Excerpted from The Story of Southampton by Peter Neal. Copyright © 2014 Peter Neal. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
two Canute, Conquest, Castle,
three Ransack & Recovery,
four European Trade,
five Mayflower, Civil War & Plague,
six Spa Town,
seven Military Might,
eight Growth & Reform,
nine Railway & Docks,
ten The Shipping Companies,
eleven Expansion of the Town & Docks,
twelve RMS Titanic & the First World War,
thirteen The New Docks & Civic Centre,
fourteen Bloodied but Unbeaten,
fifteen City Status,