In the Middle Ages Southampton exported wool and imported wine. In the main the wine came from the Gascony region of France and once unloaded in Southampton it had to be stored before being sold or redistributed. Importantly there was a need to store wine for the Royal Household. Each merchant was obliged to give wine to the monarch as a tax.
This meant that all of the merchants’ houses had vaults beneath them to store their wine and many of these wine vaults still exist today under the modern buildings that line the streets of Southampton’s Old Town within the medieval walls. By the walls which formed part of the old castle there is a superb barrel vault in excellent condition where the King’s wine was stored. There are also the remains of a second royal vault.
Not all of the vaults were used for storing wine as many spices and other valuable commodities were imported into Southampton and were also stored in the vaults. Some vaults were used as shops or workshops and it is believed that one was used as a place of rest for pilgrims.
The vaults served a most important purpose during WWII when Southampton suffered many air raids which destroyed great swathes of the town. In London we know that the underground stations were used as temporary air raid shelters whilst in Southampton the vaults provided excellent protection for the citizens.
On See Southampton’s historic weekend walks several of the vaults are visited and their use from medieval to modern times is explained.