Today, Southampton is a modern port city of a quarter of a million inhabitants. Before the mid 9th century however, Southampton did not exist.
Originally, a Roman fort often called Clausentum lay on the east side of the Itchen. After the Roman period in England however, a separate settlement moved to the opposite bank of the river. This town was called Hamtun. Due to its favourable positioning on the confluence of rivers, proximity to the coast and Roman roads, Hamtun was known as a trading town or a wic. This led to the town also being referred to as Hamwic.
Though both names can be used interchangeably, the name Hamwic is usually used when referring to the trading and economic activities of the town. In order to save confusion, here I will used Hamwic to mean the town in general.
One of the earliest references to Hamwic is from the Life of St. Willibald. In 721 the saint is recorded as boarding a vessel at Hamblemouth “nearby that trading place which is called Hamwih.” to be taken across the channel into France on his way to Rome. This departure point within the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex was popular not only with pilgrims and visitors to continental Europe but also with traders. Slaves bound for the markets at Rouen, hunting dogs, wool, cloth, and hides have also been recorded as being exported out of Hamwic.
In 764 a destructive fire is recorded as having affected parts of Hamwic though the town continued to prosper well after this date. Around the time of the fire Hamwic had gained enough importance to have given its name to the shire, Hampshire (as Hamwic was also known as Hamtun the shire was actually called Hamtunscire, hence Hampshire). Indeed, a royal vill at Hamtun/Hamwic is recorded in the 9th and 10th centuries, further implying the importance of the town.
Though many antiquarians and archaeologists have made various discoveries around the site of Hamwic since the 18th century, it is those made after the Second World War that provide the most information. Peter Addyman and David Hill’s excavations between 1968 and 1971 and then later in the 80s, resulted in heightened scholarly and public interest in Hamwic’s past. In 1969 Addyman and Hill claimed that the archaeological evidence suggested that the site of the early medieval wic occupied 30ha (74 acres). In 1980 further excavations determined that this figure was more likely to be 33ha (82 acres) and by 1988 it had steadily increased to 45ha (111 acres).
The size of the wic and the abundance of preserved finds have provided a wealth of knowledge about early Anglo-Saxon lives like never before and thanks to the work by Addyman, Hill and many others since then, Hamwic is today considered to be one of the best Middle Saxon archaeological sites in Europe.
From archaeological excavations a system of planned and well maintained gravelled streets and plots of land for housing and industrial use were uncovered, similar to the roman and even modern concepts of urban landscaping. The streets and plots were aligned by a main north-south running street which today is known as St Mary’s Street. At the south end of this arterial road another main road was found to intersect in an east-west direction which follows modern Chapel Rd.
The settlement itself is thought to be bounded by a series of smaller roads running off of these two main routes in addition to a system of ditches which have been partially uncovered in the north-west and south west of the town. The river Itchen provides a further boundary to the east. Interestingly, no evidence of defenses or fortifications has yet to be found at Hamwic. This seems to be a normal feature of Anglo-Saxon wics before the rise in popularity of fortified burhs in the later 9th century.
Through the discovery of post holes, there is evidence for over 60 Anglo-Saxon era buildings of various uses within Hamwic. The majority seem to have been built to a uniform size and using the post and wicker/wattle and daub style of construction with a clay coating and presumably a thatch roof. These building plots were often bounded by a series of pits used for waste refuse and shared by neighbours.
It is thanks to the artefactual fragments left behind by the previous occupants in some of these pits that we know that these buildings were used for both domestic and industrial uses. A number of specialist industries were found such as three smithies which had an abundance of slag (byproduct/ leftover material from metal working) within each of the buildings. Other examples include pottery making, lead making, weaving, and bone working.
Quernstones used to grind seeds into grain have also been found and through studying the style and the type of material used we now know that these stones came from the Rhineland and the Low Countries. Likewise glass and pottery shards have been traced back to their places of origin in northern France, as well as pottery shards from Scandinavia, the Rhineland and the low countries.
Adding to the evidence of Hamwic as an important centre of trade is the presence of a mint. The Royal mint of Hamwic was used by the kings of Wessex between 786- 858AD. In fact it has been suggested that “More eighth- and early-ninth century coins have been found as single finds in archaeological layers, as opposed to hoards, at Hamwic than on any other site of the period in Britain…” (http://mitchtempparch.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/the-middle-saxon-town-or-trading.html)
Though there is written evidence of Hamwic being a royal vill since the 8th century, the discovery of a richly furnished burial dating to the 7th century could indicate that there were royalty or at least a wealthy elite around the town much earlier than expected. This date range would make the foundation of Hamwic contemporary with other important wics such as London and Ipswich. The burials were found under the Southampton Football Club’s new stadium in the north eastern edge of the medieval wic and include richly decorated weaponry and gold jewellery.
Discussion of the evidence
As a result of the excavations of Hamwic, we now have a better idea of the town’s scope and function as well as providing a case study for studying Anglo-Saxon life, the establishment and growth from farming communities to towns and commercial centres, and of trading both locally and further abroad. Hamwic has helped change our perspective from an Anglo-Saxon ‘dark age’ to a period of economic resurgence after the Roman period.
From the evidence we know that the town was founded c. 700 (and possibly earlier). At its greatest extent it was no less than 42 ha (100acres) and home to approximately 2,000- 3,000 people (possibly more considering it was a trading town with a seasonal/travelling population of merchants and buyers), buying and selling both locally and internationally sourced goods.
From its inception it was a well planned out town with roads and plots of land organised on a grid system similar to Roman practices. This, along with the presence of a royal mint and the 7th century burials point to the town being established by a central authority, in this case royalty (as opposed to the Church). Many have suggested that such a king could have been King Ine, a man with a similar spirit to Alfred the Great: devoted not only to Christianity but to the political and economic functioning of Wessex.
In fact Archaeologist Martin Biddle believes that the function of Hamwic was not intended as a standalone center of trade, but complimentary to the royal and ecclesiastic centre of Winchester.
The 9th century was a very disruptive time for many kingdoms within Europe, and Wessex was no exception. In 840 the Aeldorman of Wessex, Wulfheard, defeated a fleet of 33 viking ships off of the coast near Hamwic. Two years later the Vikings were back and this time they succeeded in ravaging the town.
In the reign of Alfred the Great, a large defensive campaign against the Vikings resulted in the creation of fortified settlements called burhs. As one of the major centres of politics and religion in Wessex, Winchester was fortified and the inhabitants of nearby Hamwic moved behind its safe walls. Traders began bypassing Hamwic with their goods and services and as a result the town began to decline. Another smaller town was established to the south-west with its own protective enclosure and by the 10th century the remaining inhabitants had abandoned their homes and businesses for this new town, called Southampton (recorded as South Hamtun by the 11th century).
Southampton would never eclipse Winchester, but it still played its part in history. It was here that the Viking King Canute was crowned King of England after defeating the Anglo-Saxon King Aethelred the Unready. It is also thought that it was near Southampton where Canute attempted to “command” the tide, a symbolic gesture to prove to his subjects that despite their flattery he was but a mere mortal and that only God held supreme power (and a tactical manoeuver to prove his Christian virtue and further align himself with his new English subjects as well as impressing the other Christian powers such as Rome).
During the Norman period, Southampton became the major port connecting Winchester (the the capitol of England until the 12th century) with Normandy. William the conqueror even held properties in Southampton and it is known that the town had distinct French and English Quarters.
So even though the original Anglo-Saxon wic of Hamwic did not survive past the 10th century, it’s successor Southampton carried on its spirit as an economic centre and port right through to the present day.