Although Southampton is often thought of as a modern city there is a surprising amount of historic architecture remaining all around the centre. Southampton suffered heavily in World War II bombings, but amazingly around half the length of the old town walls survive stretching from the modern shopping centre! Southampton museums have outstanding archaeological collections dating from Roman, Saxon and medieval times. Bargate is one of the most impressive remnants of the old walls located in the heart of the city centre's shopping district. Southampton, long a centre for shipbuilding, was the location where the Mayflower was prepared for the Pilgrim Fathers on which they made their epic journey to America.
Southampton has long played an important role in British history. Settlements have been traced back to the Stone Age after which it developed into an important trading port on the east banks of the River Itchen under the Romans. The area around Bitterne Manor was the Roman's stronghold then named Claustentum. This was abandoned in the fifth century and went into decline. Sometime in the late seventh century the Saxons made their mark by creating a new settlement, Hamwic, on the other side of the river. The archaeological excavations that have been discovered from this area are some of the best examples of Saxon artefacts in Europe. The Saxons were subject to frequent raids by the Vikings and this together with the gradual silting up of the River Itchen may have led to the Saxon town declining.
To see some of the Roman, Saxon and medieval finds unearthed, visit Southampton's Museum of Archaeology. Ideally located over the original gatehouse in the town's walls, the museum holds a collection of artefacts from Southampton as well as more exotic collections from around the world. The building in which it's housed is also worth a visit. It was the thirteenth century gatehouse and was later extended into a two storey tower, God's House Tower named after the refuge for poor travellers nearby.
By the Middle Ages Southampton's fortunes were revived, in part by the French who were attracted to the town following the Norman Conquest and who imported wine into the ports here. Wool was exported and a flourishing trading town developed with new settlements popping up around the older towns. A typical merchant's house that was built in 1290 and has survived from this period is the Medieval Merchant's House on French Street. Many of the streets in Southampton still carry the names of those who lived there and their professions such as French Street and Simnel Street where the bakers lived. The Middle Ages also saw the development of the shipbuilding industry in Southampton and several naval vessels were built here for the king during the Hundred Years War. Although the town had been fortified to some extent by the Saxons they could only make fortification from building earth ramparts and ditches. After successive attacks from the Vikings, and after the Norman Conquest of 1066, the Normans started building more effective fortifications to protect the town and its ports.
Over a 300 year period walls and town gates were built, increasingly in stone. Many of the walls weren't completed until the late thirteenth and fourteenth century. When they were finished they stretched for one and quarter miles around the town and you can still see around half them as you walk around Southampton today. This is the second longest stretch of medieval walls in the county after York. The amount that still survives together with the gates and towers is all the more incredible when you consider that Southampton was severely bombed in the Second World War!
Bargate was one of the first structures to be built and amazingly still stands today. The 800 year old Bargate has been used for a variety of purposes including the city's guildhall, a prison in the 1800s when Southampton's police force was formed and today it's a contemporary art gallery. Bargate was the site of the executions of those involved in the "Southampton Plot" of 1415. The plot was a conspiracy aimed to usurp King Henry V from the throne, but it failed when their plans were revealed to their candidate for the throne, the 5th Earl of March. The three ringleaders, Richard of Conisburgh, 3rd Earl of Cambridge, Henry Scrope the 3rd Baron Scrope of Masham and Sir Thomas Grey of Heton were put to death on the discovery and were executed according to class with the first being beheaded but the third hung, drawn and quartered! The plot was used heavily in the early scenes of Shakespeare's play "Henry V".
The Mayflower was prepared for it's iconic journey to America here in Southampton. It was chartered by the group of English Separatists, who, with the backing of a consortium of London Merchants chartered The Speedwell and Mayflower for the journey to the New World. The Mayflower along with The Speedwell left Southampton on 5 August 1620 with around 120 passengers. The Speedwell sprung several dangerous leaks forcing them into Dartmouth and Plymouth. While at Plymouth the pilgrims stayed at the Island House on the Barbican, where today there is a plaque listing the names of all the passengers. It was while they were in Plymouth that they decided to leave The Speedwell behind making the journey aboard The Mayflower only.
Several of the original pilgrims decided the problems already encountered didn't bode well for the journey and left the ship at Plymouth to return home. In all around 100 pilgrims finally continued the journey to American on 6 September 1620.They finally reached America in November 1620 but didn't land until December naming their landing port New Plymouth. Their journey and the subsequent settlement in America were recorded by William Bradford, who estimated that fifty percent of the Pilgrims had died by February 1621! It wasn't until a Native American, Squanto, showed them how to farm the land that they managed to provide for themselves and survive. Later their numbers swelled when more English Separatists joined them. Their story is now ingrained in American history and consciousness. There is a memorial to the Pilgrim Fathers that was erected on the 350th anniversary of their journey in 1957, and built of Portland stone.