Medieval Southampton and its Jews

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The story of medieval Southampton Jewry cannot be understood except against the back? ground of the topographical development of the town, and its activities as a port; important then as now.

'Clausenturn' was the Roman name for that part of Southampton where they maintained a garrison. Clausentum was probably occupied by the native Britons after the Roman with? drawal from the country in about 411 c.e. At a much later period this Roman area of Southampton became known as Bitterne.

The Saxon settlement in Southampton was situated in what is now the suburb of Northam, around St. Mary's church. The Saxons knew the town as 'Heantun', or 'Hamtun', and the surrounding district as 'Hamtun-Scire'. The name 'Ham Tun' is pure English. 'Ham' is home and 'Tun' is enclosure.


The name of 'Hamtun', with various spellings, continued in use until about the middle of the tenth century, when the prefix 'south' is met with. It was probably felt necessary to add this prefix to Hamton after the annexation of Mercia to Wessex to distin? guish the town from the Mercian Hamton, now known as Northampton.

We can assume, therefore, that the original settlements were situated in the north and north-eastern districts and outside the medieval walls of Southampton.

At some period the people decided to remove themselves from the low-lying areas, and founded a new town on elevated, and therefore more easily defendable, ground.

The Danes landed at Southampton on at least three occasions but did not always meet with success. Perhaps these earlier forays promp? ted the founding of the new town, at some time during the more settled reign of King Cnut.

There is no doubt that the move aided the growth of Southampton as a port. Ideally situated, better able to defend itself from sea? borne attackers, and with the natural advan? tage of a double high water, giving four hours at high water.

It may well be, however, that Southampton's prosperity had little to do with the original Anglo-Norman settlement. It was the link not with Normandy but with central and south? western France under Henry I (the first Angevin king) and the various regroupings of alliances and territories under the later Angevin kings that made Southampton one of the major ports of England.1

About the end of the twelfth century and the beginning of the thirteenth the merchants realised the importance of constructing houses and stores with direct access to the water. Fine stone houses were built with their own undercrofts, warehouses, and quays. These undercrofts served many purposes; they were used for storage but their main use was as showrooms and shops.

One of these houses along the western shore was 'RuncevaP, which was built to the north of the West Gate. This house is of particular interest to us because at one period in its well-documented history it was owned by Benedict of Winchester, of whom more later.


A rebuilding of the defended areas of South? ampton was undertaken. The new stone houses were built on regular plots which flanked a

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