ST MICHAELS CHURCH
SOUTHAMPTON

 

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 tower.

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 century.

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 church.

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 stucco pillars.

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 Architecture

Exterior
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 moulding, 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 high (50.4m).

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.

Furnishings
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 carefully restored.

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 Vasconcellos.

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.