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St Michaels Square Southampton
Photograph - Photograph
Tudor House and St Michael's Church in Southampton, England.
From Southern Life
St. Michael's is the oldest building in Southampton, and the sole survivor of the five churches in the medieval walled town. More than 250 years older than the town walls, the church has evolved over the centuries from its original cross-shape to the present rectangular plan; but the tower has remained virtually unchanged in 900 years.
Following the Norman conquest, the Normans realised immediately the importance of Southampton as a port and set about building the castle, the inner core of the Bargate and the cruciform church dedicated to St. Michael, patron saint of Normandy. On archaeological evidence it was founded in 1070, and the earliest parts of the present Church are the lower storeys of the central tower.
The first documentary evidence of the existence of St. Michael's was in 11 60 when Henry II granted the Chapels of St. Michael, Holy Rood, St. Lawrence and All Saints to the monks of St. Denys, who retained the patronage until the Dissolution in 1537 when St. Michael's passed to the Crown.
Southampton prospered in the Middle Ages, becoming, after London and Boston (Lines), the third most important port in England. Eventually there were five churches in the medieval walled town - St. Michael's and St. John's for the Norman-French population living west of English Street (now High Street), and the other three serving the English inhabitants who lived mainly to the east of English Street.
The parish of St. Michael was at the heart of the thriving medieval town, with its merchants busy exporting English wool and importing wine. As the town prospered, St. Michael's was enlarged with chapels being added to both sides of the Chancel in the 13th century.
The start of the Hundred Years' War with France in 1337 halted Southampton's trade expansion and brought tragedy and destruction to the town. On a Sunday morning in October 1338, a French raid surprised the town, with the raiders pillaging homes, driving the occupants out and even hanging some in their own doorways. St. Michael's and its parishioners suffered severely in this attack. The Church was damaged by fire, the wooden buildings attached to it were completely destroyed, and people were massacred in the church.
Ten years later the inhabitants of the parish were struck again, this time by the dreaded Black Death.
It was not until the end of the 14th century that, with peace, the foreign merchants returned and there was a resumption of large scale trade, especially wine importing of which the wine vaults honeycombing the area of St. Michael's are still a reminder. With the return of the town's prosperity, the 12th century aisles were enlarged making the Church almost rectangular. The Church's first spire was constructed and by the beginning of the 16th century a Chantry Chapel projected from the South Chapel.
Throughout this period and onwards, St. Michael's was closely linked with the life of Southampton. The clock on its tower was the citizen's time-piece until it was removed for repair in 1825 and never restored, and for many centuries the Fish Market stood in St. Michael's Square. However, in the second half of the 16th century the fishmongers moved to High Street despite protests from the Court Leet that it "was not seemlye in the High Streate spetiallye in somer time." In 1594 a water supply was provided from a conduit at the east end of the Church for the town's inhabitants to fetch and use.
At this time, the Church wardens of St. Michael's were ordered to keep leather buckets in the Church for extinguishing fires. For some reason they stubbornly refused to do so and were fined year after year for their neglect. St. Michael's Registers are complete from 1552. In the first volume, the Vicar recorded Queen Elizabeth's visit to Southampton in 1560 and among the births' deaths and marriages, there is an entry referring to the burning of the steeple f St. Paul's Cathedral by lightning.
St. Michael's North Chapel was called the corporation Chapel because, until 1835, the Mayor was "sworn in" there. But after 1677 the ceremony was performed without a sermon, for in that year the Mayor and councillors took exception to being abused from the pulpit by the Vicar, Rev. Thomas Butler.
Mr. Butler had been in trouble before this. The governors of the Free Grammar School (now King Edward VI School) had stopped his pay n the grounds that he was an unsatisfactory headmaster. During two centuries (until the 1850's) the Vicar of St. Michael's was often also the school's headmaster. This dual task was largely because the parish could scarcely provide even a meagre stipend for its priest. From the second half of the 16th century the importance of Southampton as a port declined and with it the prosperity of the town and the parish disappeared.
Consequently, the fabric of the Church was neglected to such a degree that the chantry chapel was shut off to be let as a dwelling house and even as a barber's shop until it was pulled down about 1880.
After centuries of neglect of the Church, a new Vicar - the Rev. T. L. Shapcott - embarked in 1826 upon a major reconstruction, involving new pewing, raising the floor level and erecting new galleries. To accommodate, the galleries, the walls of the Church were raised three feet and so the three gabled church that had existed since the 15th century disappeared. The original nave arcades were removed and replaced by the cast iron, brick and stucco pillars.
The scheme was to cost £2,390 ~ and 30 years later the Church was still struggling to clear this debt even though the coming of the railway and the opening of the docks in 1836 had reinvigorated Southampton as a port.
Sadly Mr. Shapcott's reconstruction had disastrous effects on the walls of the Church with the result that in 1872 the galleries had to be removed and the roof and the fabric repaired.
Between 1870 and 1970, St. Michael's had just four Vicars - Rev. F. M. Gregory (1870-99), Rev. John Danbury (1899-1926), Rev. Richard Spread (1926-44) and Canon Kenneth Felstead (1945-1970). And each was faced with a continuous struggle to raise money to pay for major repairs to the church.
In the Second World War much of Southampton was devastated by enemy bombing. Yet St. Michael's escaped with minor damage - the only church to remain standing in the blitzed area of the medieval walled town. Even so, for a whole generation the congregation was faced with one restoration scheme after another, culminating with work totalling £36,000. This was completed for the church's 900th anniversary in 1970, but much remains to be done. Work is continuous in a building of this age, and costs are now way beyond the means of a congregation.
In 1972 St Michael's and the other five Anglican churches in central Southampton combined to form one united parish, sharing resources and working together for the benefit of the city centre with its varied and complex life.
So, after nine centuries of history, St. Michael's faces a challenging future, full of new possibilities for serving God and his people in a wider sphere than ever before.
April 13th, 2013
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