The most well known story involving pirates and Southampton is The French Raid. On Sunday morning, the fourth of October 1338, forty nine ships carrying French, Castillian and Genoese pirates and mercenaries sailed up the River Test.
The town only had walls on three sides at the time. The western wall had not yet been built. The wealthy wine merchants had their stone houses on the quayside and the tuns (wine barrels) were taken straight from the boat to the cellar. They did not want the unloading of their ships hampered by a wall.
Southampton Castle had a garrison of just five knights. The towers were manned by the militia, local men who were paid with the proceeds of the “Fee Farm,” a farm outside the town that was also used to raise money to pay for castle and wall repairs.
Each tower was defended by a different trade guild, for example Arundal Tower was where the saddlers, boot makers and cobblers should have been that day.
However, when the pirates swarmed ashore at West Quay everybody ran for their lives. Those that did not escape to the countryside were slaughtered. People were hung from their doorways and those that sought sanctuary in St Michaels Church were killed on the spot.Everything of value was looted, including the huge wool scales in The Weigh House in French Street. Castle vault was broken into and the Kings wine stolen. He was not a happy man.Two days later the militia had regrouped and returned with the garrison from Corfe Castle in Dorset. They killed three hundred fleeing invaders before taking back the town.Edward III was so furious that he ordered the western wall to be built with the fronts of the merchants’ houses incorporated into the stonework. Bricked up windows and doorways can still be seen today in The Arcades.
The Admiral of France commanding the Genoese was Charles I of Monaco, from the Genoese Grimaldi family. It is ironic that nearly seven hundred years later a roll on roll off car carrier owned by the same family can be seen berthed at the western docks roughly where the pirate fleet would have anchored.