Only very little remains visible of the once splendid Southampton Castle today. It was first constructed in the late 11th century after the Norman conquest of England on rising ground in the north-west corner of the town, overlooking the mouth of the River Test. It was constructed as a Norman style motte and bailey castle, which consisted of a wooden keep situated on a raised earthwork called a motte, accompanied by an enclosed courtyard, or bailey, surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade. The palisade was replaced by a stone curtain wall around the first half of the 12th century.
Following the threat of French invasion in the 1170s, King Henry II took steps to improve the condition of the castle and in 1187 the wooden keep was converted into a stone shell-keep. The castle played quite an important role in the wine trade, and castle vault was built to store the king’s wine, just beneath the keep right at the quayside. From there it was distributed to the other royal residences.
Many of Southampton’s citizens were wealthy merchants and one of them, Gervase le Riche, paid a lot of King Richard I’s ransom after his Crusades. In 1194 Richard the Lionheart spent his only Christmas in England as king at Southampton Castle. During the early 1200s King John increased spending on the castle and the castle was by then completely built in stone. Also during the 13th century, the former castle hall was turned into a subterranean vault. After the French raid in 1338 the strengthening of the town’s defences and completion of the town walls was ordered by Edward III but little work appears to have been done to improve the castle itself.
In 1370 the French made a successful attack on Portsmouth, commencing a new sequence of raids along the English coast. First Edward III and then Richard II responded with a new building programme of castles including repairs at Southampton, as the castle was in a poor condition, partly due to the theft of building materials, including stone and lead, by the citizens of the town. Southampton Castle was equipped with its first cannon in 1382, making it one of the first in England to be equipped with such a new weapon.
The castle declined again in the 16th century and Queen Elizabeth I was the last monarch to visit it. Apparently she stated it was the worst castle she had ever stayed in. The castle was sold off to property speculators by James I in 1618. In 1804, the ruin was bought by the Marquis of Lansdowne, who used the stone to build a gothic mansion on the site. This was demolished around 1818 and by 1902 the site was flattened by commercial developers. A block of flats now stands on the area.
Today only part of the outer bailey wall survives and along the outer wall by the sea there is CastleVault, Castle Watergate as well as the remains of Castle Hall and the Garderobe (latrine tower).