St. Michael's is the oldest building in
Southampton, and the sole survivor of the five churches in the
medieval walled town. More than 250 years older than the town
walls, the church has evolved over the centuries from its
original cross-shape to the present rectangular plan; but the
tower has remained virtually unchanged in 900 years.
Following the Norman conquest, the Normans realised immediately
the importance of Southampton as a port and set about building
the castle, the inner core of the Bargate and the cruciform
church dedicated to St. Michael, patron saint of Normandy. On
archaeological evidence it was founded in 1070, and the earliest
parts of the present Church are the lower storeys of the central
The first documentary evidence of the existence of St. Michael's
was in 11 60 when Henry II granted the Chapels of St. Michael,
Holy Rood, St. Lawrence and All Saints to the monks of St. Denys,
who retained the patronage until the Dissolution in 1537 when St.
Michael's passed to the Crown.
Southampton prospered in the Middle Ages, becoming, after London
and Boston (Lines), the third most important port in England.
Eventually there were five churches in the medieval walled town -
St. Michael's and St. John's for the Norman-French population
living west of English Street (now High Street), and the other
three serving the English inhabitants who lived mainly to the
east of English Street.
The parish of St. Michael was at the heart of the thriving
medieval town, with its merchants busy exporting English wool and
importing wine. As the town prospered, St. Michael's was enlarged
with chapels being added to both sides of the Chancel in the 13th
The start of the Hundred Years' War with France in 1337 halted
Southampton's trade expansion and brought tragedy and destruction
to the town. On a Sunday morning in October 1338, a French raid
surprised the town, with the raiders pillaging homes, driving the
occupants out and even hanging some in their own doorways. St.
Michael's and its parishioners suffered severely in this attack.
The Church was damaged by fire, the wooden buildings attached to
it were completely destroyed, and people were massacred in the
Ten years later the inhabitants of the parish were struck again,
this time by the dreaded Black Death.
It was not until the end of the 14th century that, with peace,
the foreign merchants returned and there was a resumption of
large scale trade, especially wine importing of which the wine
vaults honeycombing the area of St. Michael's are still a
reminder. With the return of the town's prosperity, the 12th
century aisles were enlarged making the Church almost rectangular.
The Church's first spire was constructed and by the beginning of
the 16th century a Chantry Chapel projected from the South Chapel.
Throughout this period and onwards, St. Michael's was closely
linked with the life of Southampton. The clock on its tower was
the citizen's time-piece until it was removed for repair in 1825
and never restored, and for many centuries the Fish Market stood
in St. Michael's Square. However, in the second half of the 16th
century the fishmongers moved to High Street despite protests
from the Court Leet that it "was not seemlye in the High
Streate spetiallye in somer time." In 1594 a water supply
was provided from a conduit at the east end of the Church for the
town's inhabitants to fetch and use.
At this time, the Church wardens of St. Michael's were ordered to
keep leather buckets in the Church for extinguishing fires. For
some reason they stubbornly refused to do so and were fined year
after year for their neglect. St. Michael's Registers are
complete from 1552. In the first volume, the Vicar recorded Queen
Elizabeth's visit to Southampton in 1560 and among the births'
deaths and marriages, there is an entry referring to the burning
of the steeple f St. Paul's Cathedral by lightning.
St. Michael's North Chapel was called the corporation Chapel
because, until 1835, the Mayor was "sworn in" there.
But after 1677 the ceremony was performed without a sermon, for
in that year the Mayor and councillors took exception to being
abused from the pulpit by the Vicar, Rev. Thomas Butler.
Mr. Butler had been in trouble before this. The governors of the
Free Grammar School (now King Edward VI School) had stopped his
pay n the grounds that he was an unsatisfactory headmaster.
During two centuries (until the 1850's) the Vicar of St. Michael's
was often also the school's headmaster. This dual task was
largely because the parish could scarcely provide even a meagre
stipend for its priest. From the second half of the 16th century
the importance of Southampton as a port declined and with it the
prosperity of the town and the parish disappeared.
Consequently, the fabric of the Church was neglected to such a
degree that the chantry chapel was shut off to be let as a
dwelling house and even as a barber's shop until it was pulled
down about 1880.
After centuries of neglect of the Church, a new Vicar - the Rev.
T. L. Shapcott - embarked in 1826 upon a major reconstruction,
involving new pewing, raising the floor level and erecting new
galleries. To accommodate, the galleries, the walls of the Church
were raised three feet and so the three gabled church that had
existed since the 15th century disappeared. The original nave
arcades were removed and replaced by the cast iron, brick and
The scheme was to cost £2,390 ~ and 30 years later the Church
was still struggling to clear this debt even though the coming of
the railway and the opening of the docks in 1836 had
reinvigorated Southampton as a port.
Sadly Mr. Shapcott's reconstruction had disastrous effects on the
walls of the Church with the result that in 1872 the galleries
had to be removed and the roof and the fabric repaired.
Between 1870 and 1970, St. Michael's had just four Vicars - Rev.
F. M. Gregory (1870-99), Rev. John Danbury (1899-1926), Rev.
Richard Spread (1926-44) and Canon Kenneth Felstead (1945-1970).
And each was faced with a continuous struggle to raise money to
pay for major repairs to the church.
In the Second World War much of Southampton was devastated by
enemy bombing. Yet St. Michael's escaped with minor damage - the
only church to remain standing in the blitzed area of the
medieval walled town. Even so, for a whole generation the
congregation was faced with one restoration scheme after another,
culminating with work totalling £36,000. This was completed for
the church's 900th anniversary in 1970, but much remains to be
done. Work is continuous in a building of this age, and costs are
now way beyond the means of a congregation.
In 1972 St Michael's and the other five Anglican churches in
central Southampton combined to form one united parish, sharing
resources and working together for the benefit of the city centre
with its varied and complex life.
So, after nine centuries of history, St. Michael's faces a
challenging future, full of new possibilities for serving God and
his people in a wider sphere than ever before.
The west wall has one of the original Norman pilaster buttresses,
a 15th century doorway and the marks of the original gabled roof
line before the roof was raised in 1826-28.
The south wall has pieces of the cluster of round pillars of the
original Norman church, which were removed in 1826-28 and
inserted in the wall when it was heightened. The large arch,
which opened into the chantry, is now filled in.
The east wall has 12th century work in its lower part and the
external south-east angle of the 12th century chancel, with its engaged shaft
still projects from the present east wall.
The north wall has a doorway with a well moulded, four centred
arched head and jambs of 15th century date (perhaps removed from
the south transept wall when the door under the window was closed
up and re-set here in 1 828.)
The spire was first built in the 15th century, and reconstructed
in 1 732-3. In 1 887, to make it a better landmark for shipping,
a further 9ft was added to the blunt shape, bringing it to its present graceful proportions. It is now 165ft
The weather vane is a gilded cock measuring 3ft 3in from beak to
tail, and 21 in high. It was placed on high in 1733 when the
spire was rebuilt.
Inside the church
The tower is the oldest part of the building dating from 1 070 A.D.
The walls average 3ft 1 0ins in thickness and are pierced towards
the chancel, nave and transepts with semi-circular arches of a
single square order. The arches are of equal span but are
irregularly placed in their respective sides.
The chancel is 22ft 6ins square. The lower part of the east wall
is substantially 12th century. There is a much mutilated triple
arch piscina with double bason (c.1260) and a 15th century single piscina. By the north-east corner of the tower is part of a 12th
century gravestone, with a carving of a Bishop in mass vestments,
holding a crozier.
The East Window depicts the five churches
of medieval Southampton : From the north, St. John's (pulled down
in 1708), St. Lawrence (pulled down between the wars) ; St.
Michael's (in the centre) ; Holy Rood (bombed in 1940; the ruins
are now a Merchant Navy Memorial) ; All Saints (destroyed by
bombing in 1 940).
The north and south chapels, flanking the chancel, were added to
the cruciform church in the second half of the 13th century; they
open to the chancel by fine arches of two chamfered orders.
The north chapel was originally known as the Mayor's or
Corporation Chapel. Its four-light east window has renewed 15th
century tracery and glass of 1872. In the eastern jamb of the
window in the north wall is a merchant's mark, a square sunk
panel with a shield bearing a monogram - the sign of the
Woolstaplers' Guild. On the floor of this chapel is a 13th
century stone coffin lid. Opposite the north door, a 13th century
piscina is evidence of an altar once being
The south chapel, now used as a vestry, has a four-light east
window similar to that in the north chapel. The 1 5 feet wide
arch (now blocked up) leading to the chantry is in the south wall.
The organ is raised above the choir vestry (in what was the south
transept) which is separated from the south aisle of the nave by
a screen, on which is mounted the only medieval woodwork
remaining in the church.
The south wall dates from the 15th century has two square headed
15th century windows.
The north wall has two-light late 14th century windows enclosed
within acutely pointed heads. To the west of the second window is
the blocked north doorway, adjoining the east jamb of which is a
15th century holy water stoup.
The font is made from a large square block of marble from Tournai
in Belgium. The sides are crudely carved with grotesque creatures
and an angel. Date: c.1170. There are seven fonts of this type in
England-a splendid example is at Winchester cathedral.
Brass Lecterns: both are medieval. Holy Rood Lectern (the one
with triangular base) is one of the oldest and finest in the
country (1300-1400), with beautifully tapering eagle's and body
separated wing feathers. At one time this lectern was painted
brown and thought to be made of wood. In 1940 it was rescued from
the burning Holy Rood Church at the height of an air raid, and
St. Michael's Lectern is also a fine brass eagle (c.1450). but of
more familiar type; claws and jewelled eyes missing.
The Lyster tomb is an early example of the architectural tomb so
fashionable in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Sir Richard
Lyster, who died at Southampton in 1553, was Chief Baron and
later Lord Chief Justice of the Common pleas. His tomb was
erected in 1567.
Other furnishings include a fine early 17th century press (near
the Lyster tomb); a reading desk for chained books (now
containing 17th century Bible, Annotated Testaments and Fox's
Book of Martyrs); a Tudor iron chest; and good examples of 1 9th
century iron screens at entrance to tower and Lady Chapel.
Plate. The interesting collection of plate,
including a silver gilt chalice of 1551, is usually on display in
the City Art Gallery.
Organ. The two-manual electric action organ as
built in 1950 by J. W. Walker and Sons, incorporating old pipe-work.
Though never completed through lack of money, it has some stops
of outstanding tonal quality.
Memorials. Several of interest: Bennett Langton's,
high on the S. wall, has Dr Johnson's epitaph to his close friend.
Wooden statue of St. Michael, carved in yew y Josephine de
Bells. The tower has a ring of ten bells, six of
high originated in the 17th century. The last two trebles, added
in 1948, were cast from bell metal salvaged from the ruins of
Holy Rood Church.
In the 15th century there had been a strong Italian colony in
Southampton, with Venetian and Genoese merchants occupying some
of the finest houses in Bugle Street and French Street. But in
the 16th century the pattern changed. Fewer Genoese and Venetian
galleys came to Southampton. Instead Southampton merchants
themselves were Journeying to the Mediterranean and acquiring
handsome mansions in St. Michael's parish.
But the Barbary pirates and Turks made voyages to the
Mediterranean too dangerous, and by the end of Henry Vlll's reign
the medieval prosperity of Southampton was over.