Southampton owns the largest number of purpose built vaults in the whole of Britain. Most of these vaults started out as wine cellars. Some date back as far as the 12th Century.
Castle Vault is the biggest vault in Southampton. It was built during the second half of the 12th century as the King’s private wine cellar. As Southampton’s location made it ideal for the wine trade, it made sense to have a storage place here. The castle was situated directly above the vault and the wine casks could be unloaded right outside at the King’s private quay, as the water came up to the walls.
King Henry II was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine and thanks to her he owned huge vineyards in France. Castle vault was built to store the King’s wine, some of which he imported himself but much was obtained through a levy on the wine imported by the merchants. Conveniently, a new tax was invented, called the “King’s Prise”, which meant that one in every ten casks imported by the merchants was given to the King. The vault was ideal for storing wine as it maintained a constant temperature of around 12 degrees centigrade (52 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the year. Wine from the vault would be drunk when the King was in residence, however, in general the vault was used as an interim storage facility, from where the wine was distributed to the other royal palaces.
Castle vault is a typical barrel vault, being 55 feet (17 m) long, 20 feet (around 6 m) wide and 25 feet (around 7.5 m) high. Originally the entrance used to be at the south side of the vault. Colin Platt’s well researched book on Medieval Southampton suggests that there was a round window to the south of the quayside door which was a source of light.
During some periods of the year and especially when the new season’s wines had arrived additional vaults in the town would be used to store the King’s wine.
The wine was stored in large casks called tuns, which held 250 gallons of wine (about 1,000 litres or 1 ton).
The tuns were not easy to handle and great care had to be taken as they were heavy and it would be costly if they were damaged and the wine lost. To carry the tuns, porters would use loops of rope around the barrel and pass a beam through the loop and then carry the tun with the beams resting on the shoulders of the men.
During WW2 the vault was used as an air raid shelter. You can still see traces of the blast walls that spanned the vault and the foundations for the entrance and toilets can be seen. The blast walls did not come completely across the chamber but were offset to impede the blast. According to Southampton locals the children and mothers were placed furthest from the entrance as that was the safest position.