Southampton’s Medieval Vaults

Note: The text here is simply lifted from various webpages and documents … when I put the page together I didn’t keep track of sources, but there are some links below. Also, some of the picture collages might be incorrect, I got a bit mixed up when putting them together. Apologies. — Adam

Southampton boasts the largest number of purpose built vaults in the whole of Britain. Most started out as wine vaults, some dating back as far as the 12th Century. Several are very similar to those in Bordeaux, where the earliest wine imports came from. It’s just possible that the Southampton merchants copied standard French wine cellars to store it in here, and may even have brought French masons over to Southampton to build them – now there’s a thought!

Links with contact/hire details and general info, etc (YouTube videos are somewhat weird …):

Uses of the vaults:

Other useful sites are British Listed Buildings and Google (go figure).

Castle Vault

Castle Vault is the biggest vault in Southampton. It was built around 1180 when the Kings of England invented a new tax called the ‘King’s Prise’ which applied to wine. As Southampton was an important place in the wine trade it made sense to have a storage point here, under the castle, where the king’s butlers could keep an eye on it. The wine casks would have been brought in and out by boat to a wooden or stone quay, as the water came right up to the walls outside. During the Second World War this was a large 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.

This barrel vault, being 55 feet long, 20 feet wide and 25 feet high, may well have been built to store the proceeds of the King’s Prise, a tax on wine. Every ship entering the medieval port had to give one cask in every ten to the King, and his butlers would have stored it here ready to send on to the other royal palaces.


The Undercroft

The Undercroft is the fanciest of the surviving vaults, with an elaborate vaulted ceiling and carvings around the walls. It is thought to be dated around 1300-1325. The vault has a huge fireplace which would have made it unbearably hot. Perhaps a charcoal brazier stood here when important customers came to taste the wine in winter time. This vault was an air-raid shelter during the Second World War. The large hole in the north wall lead to the emergency exit, and bunks were built against the walls. It is said to have been a popular shelter as the Donnarumma trio, who played in a local night club, used to take their instruments with them when there was a raid and would play to hide the sounds of the horrors outside.

The owner spent a huge sum on his vault, turning it into a lavish showroom. It has a magnificent fireplace with joggled joints, carved bosses in the ceiling and heads carved around the walls. If the structure was built in 1346 then the central heads would be Edward 111 and Queen Phillipa, while in the corners would be Edward the Black Prince aged 16, Princess Isabella aged 14, Princess Joan aged 11, and Prince Lionel aged 8.


Lankester’s Vault

The medieval vault known as Lankester’s Vault (sometimes incorrectly Lancaster’s Vault), probably built in the early 14th century. It continued in use until after the Second World War. It is below the pavement on the south corner of High Street and West Street. The scheduled monument also includes the vault to the south, originally connected to Lankester’s Vault.

Built in the early 14th century this vault is unusual in having ribs, some of which cross. Many of the stones were marked with their dimensions to guide the builders. Probably built to store wine, it was an air-raid shelter during WW2. The house above was destroyed during the blitz but the vault protected these sheltering inside and survived intact.


94 High Street

Experts say this vault is dated about 1400, based on door and windows, but these may not be original and it’s probably much earlier, perhaps 1350.  It had thick iron bars to stop thieves sneaking in and stealing the wine. It also has a fireplace, unusual in a wine vault, where you would wish to keep it cool, and it shows no sign of soot. Perhaps a charcoal brazier stood here when important customers came to taste the wine in winter time. This vault ended up as the coal cellar for May’s sweet shop which stood above it. In 1939 the vault and 93 High Street were converted into an air-raid shelter. A bomb destroyed the house above, blocking the exits and fracturing the water main in the High Street. The vault filled with water and many people drowned.

This impressive elliptical vault was built in about 1400. The stone ribs supported the wooden planks on which the roof was built, a very economical technique. The window would have allowed air to pass through, with iron bars to keep out thieves. One proud owner carved his merchant mark on the central mullion of the window. This vault was an air-raid shelter during WW2. The people sheltering were trapped beneath the collapse of the buildings above and drowned when a water main burst in the street outside, filling the vault with water.


Weigh House Vault

Medieval stone vault under the playground of St John’s School, French Street. It is probably of late 14th century date. It is sometimes referred to as the Weigh House Vault, as it lies just north of the Weigh House.

Situated Under Playground of St John’s School. Mediaeval vault, probably dating from the end of C14. This was probably of the type where the front part of the undercroft was used as a shop. The vault is elliptical in form built in dressed stone with an ashlar course at springing level. Door with 4-centred head. Stone benches are set in the side recesses. Scheduled as an ancient monument.

Weigh House: Built in the early 1200s, this building once housed the town weigh beam, where wool and other goods were weighed before sale and tax purposes. During the French Raid of 1338 the weigh beam and weights were stolen.

Weigh House Vault: Built perhaps at the end of the 14th century, this well-preserved vault once featured stone benches, suggesting it was used as a shop. Converted into an air-raid shelter in 1939, the steps down from the pavement survive.


Quilter’s Vault

Group of medieval vaults on the north corner of High Street and Porter’s Lane, now forming a monument display. The overlying buildings were destroyed during World War Two. Quilter’s Vault is thought to have been built during the late 13th century. It connects with the house above through a door and spiral staircase from the north wall. Many properties with wine vaults beneath them became pubs, as the vault could be used to store beer. Quilters ended up beneath the Royal George Hotel, which also took up the plot to the south, where there is another vault. In the 18th century the Royal George housed the assembly rooms for the spa town. The vault takes its name from Eliza Quilter, a 19th century landlady, who it is said kept order in the pub with a big stick she kept behind the bar, and never needed the police to intervene.

Built in the late 1200s this vault is the largest of the merchant’s vaults beneath Southampton. The impressions of the planks used in its construction can still be seen in the ceiling. Originally known as The Black Vault it picked up its present name when it was beneath a popular sailors pub kept by a 19th century landlady Eliza Quilter. She is said to have kept order with a long staff, and the services of the police were rarely required.

Surrounding vaults sometimes referred to as 90 to 91 High St.


French Street

Vaults on the West side of French Street: Two medieval vaults under Nos 46 and 48 French Street (a block of flats). The northern vault is possibly of late 13th or early 14th century date. The southern vault is ashlar faced and probably 15th century. Late C13 and C15. Two tunnel vaults in semi-basement. The north one is rubble faced and possibly late C13 or early C14. The south one is ashlar faced and probably C15. Doorways at west end with depressed 2 centred opening with blocked spiral staircases. The modern buildings above are not of special architectural interest. Scheduled as an ancient monument.

Medieval Merchant’s House and associated deposits at 58 French Street: Medieval house with vaulted undercroft, built in the late 13th or early 14th century, with later medieval and postmedieval alterations. It is the most complete surviving medieval house in Southampton. The building has been restored and is now the Medieval Merchant’s House Museum.


St Michael’s Square

Vault on North side of St Michael’s Square: A late 14th century undercroft or vault below No 11 St Michael’s Square. Late C14 undercroft of elliptical shape built of roughly coursed rubble with springing course of finely tooled ashlar. The north-east angle probably contained a garderobe shaft from the floor above. Scheduled ancient monument.

Vaults and Remains Adjoining Nos 4 and 5, St Michael’s Square: C12, vaults and remains of a mediaeval merchants house. Rubble wall to about 15 feet in height. The vault has now been filled in but is C12 with a later fireplace in the west wall. East wall with late C13 opening.

Vault at corner of St Michael’s Square and West Street: Medieval vaults on the north corner of St Michael’s Square and Castle Way (formerly West Street), below Nos 15 and 16 St Michael’s Square and the paved/landscaped area to the east.

No 8 and Vault Underneath: Early C19. Three storeys red brick with grey headers. Parapet with stone coping conceals roof. Brick dentil cornice. Two sashes without glazing bars. Modern shop-front. Underneath No 8. is a vault probably of circa 1400. Elliptical in shape in ashlar with a corse of fine ashlar at springing level. Rectangular projection in north-east angle of the undercroft which probably contained a garderobe shaft from the floor above.

Vault under St Michael’s Parish Hall, St Michael’s Square: Medieval vault below the former St Michael’s Parish Hall, 10 St Michael’s Square.

Vault adjoining St Michael’s Church: A small medieval stone vault under the pavement of St Michael’s Square, adjoining St Michael’s Church.


Gloucester Square

Gloucester Square: A vaulted stone cellar of late 15th century date. Before World War Two it was below 79 High Street, to the southwest of Gloucester Square. After the war the entrance to Gloucester Square was moved south, and the vault now lies on the north side of the entrance. This vault is one of the smallest in Southampton, but it has a large door on one side, a large window on the other, and a spiral stair in the corner so cannot have been very secure. Above it stood a large timber-framed house, where ghostly footsteps were frequently heard.


The Red Lion

The Red Lion Inn: Late C15 and early C16. Facade is 3 storeys C20 sham timber-framing but behind is a well preserved late mediaeval timber-framed hall-house. The west part, of 2 storeys and gabled attic, probably epresents the original solar. Behind is the very high hall of 3 bays long which rises the whole height of the building to the tiebeam roof with windbraces which was probably altered in the C17. A screened passageway with balustraded gallery above at first floor level runs along the north side of 2 bays. The 3 posts supporting the gallery and the greater part of the boarded partition are original. The balustrade of flat-shaped balusters are probably C16. The east bay is filled with a wide screened gallery at first floor level. Two stone fireplaces, probably early C16 are built into the hall against the south wall of the east bay and in the ground floor eastern chamber, with moulded 4-centred arch and rounded tracery patterns in square panels in the front of the overmantel. Below the hall is a mediaeval valut, probably remaining from an earlier house on the site, reputed to be the ‘Court room’ where the intending assassins of Henry V, Lord Scrops of Masham, Sir Thomas Grey and the flatly of Cambridge were tried when Henry V was in Southampton in 1415, preparing for Horfleur and Agincourt (See also St Julian’s Church, Winkle Street).


Former Head Post Office

Vault under Head Post Office, High Street: Medieval stone vault or undercroft beneath 57-58 High Street (part of the former Head Post Office). It is of probable 14th century date with 15th century alterations. (The medieval vault appears to be largely, if not entirely, under the mid-19th century No 57 High Street, rather than No 58.)