Archaeological finds suggest that the area has been inhabited since the stone age. Following the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 and the conquering of the local Britons in AD 70 the fortress settlement of Clausentum was established. It was an important trading port and defensive outpost of Winchester, at the site of modern Bitterne Manor. Clausentum was defended by a wall and two ditches and is thought to have contained a bath house. Clausentum was not abandoned until around 410.
The Anglo-Saxons formed a new, larger, settlement across the Itchen centred on what is now the St Mary's area of the city. The settlement was known as Hamwic, which evolved into Hamtun and then Hampton. Archaeological excavations of this site have uncovered one of the best collections of Saxon artefacts in Europe. It is from this town that the county of Hampshire gets its name.
Viking raids from 840 onwards contributed to the decline of Hamwic in the 9th century, and by the 10th century a fortified settlement, which became medieval Southampton, had been established.
Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, Southampton became the major port of transit between the then capital of England, Winchester, and Normandy. Southampton Castle was built in the 12th century and surviving remains of 12th-century merchants' houses such as King John's House and Canute's Palace are evidence of the wealth that existed in the town at this time. By the 13th century Southampton had become a leading port, particularly involved in the import of French wine in exchange for English cloth and wool.
The Franciscan friary in Southampton was founded circa 1233. The friars constructed a water supply system in 1290, which carried water from Conduit Head (remnants of which survive near Hill Lane, Shirley) some 1.1 miles (1.7 km) to the site of the friary inside the town walls. Further remains can be observed at Conduit House on Commercial Road.
Part of Southampton's Town Walls
The friars granted use of the water to the town in 1310.
Between 1327 and 1330, the King and Council received a petition from the people of Southampton. The community of Southampton claimed that Robert Batail of Winchelsea and other men of the Cinque Ports came to Southampton under the pretence that they were a part of Thomas of Lancaster's rebellion against Edward II. The community thought that they were in conspiracy with Hugh le Despenser the Younger. The petition states that, the supposed rebels in the Despenser War 'came to Southampton harbour, and burnt their ships, and their goods, chattels and merchandise which was in them, and carried off other goods, chattels and merchandise of theirs found there, and took some of the ships with them, to a loss to them of £8000 and more.' For their petition to the King somewhere after 1321 and before 1327 earned some of the people of Southampton a prison sentence at Portchester Castle, possibly for insinuating the king's advisor Hugh le Despenser the Younger acted in conspiracy with the Cinque Port men to damage Southampton, a flourishing port in the fourteenth century. When King Edward III came to the throne, this petition was given to the king and his mother, Queen Isabella, who was in charge of the town, and the country at this stage likely organised the writ of trespass that took any guilt away from the community at Southampton.
The town was sacked in 1338 by French, Genoese and Monegasque ships (under Charles Grimaldi, who used the plunder to help found the principality of Monaco). On visiting Southampton in 1339, Edward III ordered that walls be built to "close the town". The extensive rebuilding — part of the walls dates from 1175 — culminated in the completion of the western walls in 1380. Roughly half of the walls, 13 of the original towers, and six gates survive.
In 1348, the Black Death reached England via merchant vessels calling at Southampton.
Prior to King Henry's departure for the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the ringleaders of the "Southampton Plot"—Richard, Earl of Cambridge, Henry Scrope, 3rd Baron Scrope of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey of Heton—were accused of high treason and tried at what is now the Red Lion public house in the High Street. They were found guilty and summarily executed outside the Bargate.
The city walls include God's House Tower, built in 1417, the first purpose-built artillery fortification in England. Over the years it has been used as home to the city's gunner, the Town Gaol and even as storage for the Southampton Harbour Board. Until September 2011, it housed the Museum of Archaeology. The walls were completed in the 15th century, but later development of several new fortifications along Southampton Water and the Solent by Henry VIII meant that Southampton was no longer dependent upon its fortifications.
During the Middle Ages, shipbuilding had become an important industry for the town. Henry V's famous warship HMS Grace Dieu was built in Southampton and launched in 1418.
The friars passed on ownership of the water supply system itself to the town in 1420.
On the other hand, many of the medieval buildings once situated within the town walls are now in ruins or have disappeared altogether. From successive incarnations of the motte and bailey castle, only a section of the bailey wall remains today, lying just off Castle Way.
16th and 17th centuries
The friary was dissolved in 1538 but its ruins remained until they were swept away in the 1940s.
The port was the point of departure for the Pilgrim Fathers aboard Mayflower in 1620. In 1642, during the English Civil War, a Parliamentary garrison moved into Southampton. The Royalists advanced as far as Redbridge in March 1644 but were prevented from taking the town.
Southampton became a spa town in 1740. It had also become a popular site for sea bathing by the 1760s, despite the lack of a good quality beach. Innovative buildings specifically for this purpose were built at West Quay, with baths that were filled and emptied by the flow of the tide. Southampton engineer Walter Taylor's 18th-century mechanisation of the block-making process was a significant step in the Industrial Revolution. The port was used for military embarkation, including during 18th-century wars with the French.
The town experienced major expansion during the Victorian era. The Southampton Docks company had been formed in 1835. In October 1838 the foundation stone of the docks was laid and the first dock opened in 1842. The structural and economic development of docks continued for the next few decades. The railway link to London was fully opened in May 1840. Southampton subsequently became known as The Gateway to the Empire.
In his 1854 book "The Cruise of the Steam Yacht North Star" John Choules described Southampton thus: "I hardly know a town that can show a more beautiful Main Street than Southampton, except it be Oxford. The High Street opens from the quay, and under various names it winds in a gently sweeping line for one mile and a half, and is of very handsome width. The variety of style and color of material in the buildings affords an exhibition of outline, light and colour, that I think is seldom equalled. The shops are very elegant, and the streets are kept exceedingly clean."
The port was used for military embarkation, including the Crimean war and the Boer War.
From 1904 to 2004, the Thornycroft shipbuilding yard was a major employer in Southampton, building and repairing ships used in the two World Wars. In 1912, the RMS Titanic sailed from Southampton. Four in five of the crew on board the vessel were Sotonians, with about a third of those who perished in the tragedy hailing from the city. Southampton was subsequently the home port for the transatlantic passenger services operated by Cunard with their Blue Riband liner RMS Queen Mary and her running mate RMS Queen Elizabeth. In 1938, Southampton docks also became home to the flying boats of Imperial Airways. Southampton Container Terminals first opened in 1968 and has continued to expand.
Southampton was designated No. 1 Military Embarkation port during the Great War and became a major centre for treating the returning wounded and POWs. It was also central to the preparations for the Invasion of Europe in 1944.
The Supermarine Spitfire was designed and developed in Southampton, evolving from the Schneider trophy-winning seaplanes of the 1920s and 1930s. Its designer, R J Mitchell, lived in the Portswood area of Southampton, and his house is today marked with a blue plaque. Heavy bombing of the Woolston factory in September 1940 destroyed it as well as homes in the vicinity, killing civilians and workers. World War II hit Southampton particularly hard because of its strategic importance as a major commercial port and industrial area. Prior to the Invasion of Europe, components for a Mulberry harbour were built here. After D-Day, Southampton docks handled military cargo to help keep the Allied forces supplied, making it a key target of Luftwaffe bombing raids until late 1944. Southampton docks was featured in the television show 24: Live Another Day in Day 9: 9:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Some 630 people lost their lives as a result of the air raids on Southampton and nearly 2,000 more were injured, not to mention the thousands of buildings damaged or destroyed. Pockets of Georgian architecture survived the war, but much of the city was levelled. There has been extensive redevelopment since World War II. Increasing traffic congestion in the 1920s led to partial demolition of medieval walls around the Bargate in 1932 and 1938. However, a large portion of those walls remain.
A Royal Charter in 1952 upgraded University College at Highfield to the University of Southampton. In 1964 Southampton acquired city status, becoming the City of Southampton, and because of the Local Government Act 1972 was turned into a county borough within the Hampshire county in 1973.
The local council for the city of Southampton succeeded Hampshire County Council and became a unitary authority in April 1997.
In the 2010s several developments to the inner-city of Southampton were completed. In 2016 the south section of West Quay, or West Quay South, originally known as West Quay Watermark, was opened to the public. Its public plaza has been used for several annual events, such as an ice skating rink during the winter season, and a public broadcast of the Wimbledon tennis championship. Two new buildings, the John Hansard Gallery with City Eye and a secondary site for the University of Southampton's Nuffield Theatre, in addition to several flats, have been built in the "cultural quarter" adjacent to Guildhall Square in 2017. In 2019 the retail and accommodation-based "Bargate quarter" redevelopment, replacing the demolished Bargate shopping centre, and enabling public access to the previously hidden sections of the city walls, will be opened.