While it's true that Southampton had some Roman and Saxon inhabitants, the city first came to be an important port when the Normans arrived in 1066, serving as the main connection to their lands in Normandy and the South of France.
The Bargate in the centre of the High Street was built as the main entrance to the medieval walled town circa 1180 AD. and has been judged as "probably the finest, and certainly the most complex, town gateway in Britain”. It has had many uses, including holding the city’s original Guildhall, where merchants gathered for hundreds of years; during World War II it was used as an air-raid shelter helping the residents survive the bombings.
Much of the medieval city walls also still survive, together with the vaults where the merchants stored their wine.
In 1620 the group now known as the Pilgrims chartered the Mayflower, to sail to the New World to escape religious oppression in England. They sailed with another smaller boat, the Speedwell, which was originally built in Southampton, but this was abandoned in Plymouth because it leaked so badly.
Now, over 30 million US citizens are descended from those who sailed there on the Mayflower. In 2020, events will take place at locations around the UK (including Southampton) to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. See more at www.mayflower400uk.org.
The port has always been used to embark soldiers. Henry V marched his troops through the Westgate (pictured here) to sail for France and the battle of Agincourt.
Much later, soldiers left to fight in World War 1, and in the Normandy Invasions of World War II. These included many American and Commonwealth troops.
From the middle of the 1800’s, Southampton has been famous for being a liner port. In 1912, the world’s most famous liner, The Titanic, embarked from here on its fateful maiden voyage, carrying seven hundred Southampton residents in her crew, over five hundred of whom would never return.
Hundreds of other liners connected the port with the Empire and with America, making it Britain’s “Gateway to the World”. The rise of the aeroplane saw much of that trade depart, but now the big ships have returned as Cruise Liners, with over 500 visiting every year.
Discover more at SeaCity Museum.
Southampton was also the home of some of the first flying boats, and it is thought that the term ‘air port’ was first used in reference to Southampton in this role.
Local resident RJ Mitchell designed and built the Spitfire in Woolston, east of the Itchen River, and it had its maiden flight from what is now Southampton airport. Local people kept production of this vital plane going throughout the war.
To see real life examples of spitfires and flying boats, visit Solent Sky Museum.
Famous Sotonians include Jane Austen, the renowned novelist, who lived in the Old Town of Southampton from 1807 to 1809. It’s even rumoured that Southampton Water is the site where King Canute tried to hold back the tides – and there’s a plaque to “prove” it!
(All of the above content has been kindly provided by See Southampton)