History of Southampton

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Southampton has been known as 'The Gateway to the World' and indeed, people have long come here to reach distant and exotic locations. But as one of the country's foremost commercial ports, Southampton has a unique cultural heritage and a few treasures of its own to offer.

The Titanic

The 20th century alone put the town on the map, when the magnificent but ill-fated Titanic sailed from its docks on 10th April 1912. Glamourised on both television and celluloid, and most famously in James Cameron's lavish Hollywood blockbuster, the doomed maiden voyage and its victims have long been honoured with the city's own monument. Located in East Park, the Titanic Engineer Officers Memorial is a true testament to those who died, and particularly to the local people - in one school alone, 140 children lost a father, brother, cousin or uncle.

The Mayflower

But not all of Southampton's sea-faring past has been blighted by tragedy. The Mayflower, which proudly bore aloft America's founding Pilgrim Fathers, set sail from here in August 1620 - and not from rival port Plymouth, as popular myth would have it! The Mayflower Memorial outside the Maritime Museum, and Southampton's premier theatre The Mayflower, commemorate the historic quest.

From Canute to Henry V

It was in Southampton, in 1014, where the Viking Canute defeated Ethelred The Redeless and was pronounced King of England. According to the famous tale, Canute commanded the mighty waves of the Solent to retreat on these very shores. A plaque on Canute Hotel marks the spot where the great king allegedly had an impromptu paddle!

Following the Norman Conquest, Southampton grew prosperous as the main port of transit between Winchester and Normandy. During this time the town walls began to take shape, the remains of which are some of the finest examples in the country. But this is largely due to the fortifications which took place after the devastating raid by the French in 1338. The town became one of the strongest fortresses in the land - its encompassing wall measured up to 30 feet high in places and had no less than 29 towers and 7 gates!

In 1415, Henry V left with his troops for France and the Battle of Agincourt. Prior to their departure, however, the King had to deal with a plot for treason. The traitors were tried and executed outside the Bargate, the medieval entrance to the town - and their heads were gruesomely displayed on spikes for the delight of the public!

From the 1700's to the 20th Century

Southampton's seawater hasn't always been the reason behind its popularity - from the 1750's to the 1800's, Southampton enjoyed its heyday as a spa town. People flocked to drink from the mineral springs and enjoy sea-bathing. The original queen of the spa town, Jane Austen, is said to have visited in 1807 and danced the night away at the The Dolphin Hotel - which survives to this day! The patronage of George II's son, Frederick Prince of Wales, who bathed there in 1750, probably did nothing to harm Southampton's reputation either. Sadly, the water does not seem to have returned the favour, as he died the following year!

The 20th century was a turbulent time for Southampton. For the first time since 1338, the town was almost devastated by enemy attack. The German bombers of the Third Reich reduced 630 buildings to rubble and damaged a further 3,589. But Southampton was not defeated, for it was from her docks that more than 3 million troops left for Normandy, in the D-Day landings of 1944.

Southampton Today

Alternative glories Southampton has since enjoyed, include the football team's FA Cup win in 1976 - a triumph yet to be repeated, but hopes have been lifted with the planned construction of a state-of-the-art premiership stadium. A city facelift in general has enhanced a broad spectrum of facilities including the Quays diving complex and the country's seventh largest shopping mall - West Quay Retail Park - due to open this autumn.

So, while travellers pass through Southampton's port on their way to distant cultural capitals, shoppers flock to the High Street, which is actually on the site of an old bull-ring and just around the corner from the site of a Norman Castle - which in its time was host to Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Richard the Lion-Heart, who spent his only Christmas in England there! The parks, popular for picnics and walks, were once the town's arable land and main source of food; their preservation makes Southampton unique among English towns.

And finally, whilst some visitors may stop to admire the QE2, harboured in Southampton's docks, it could possibly surprise them to know that Southampton is also the home of the Spitfire!