Hamwic, Hampshire’s Anglo Saxon Port

King Ine

Hamwic latterly emerging as Southampton was the hub of Anglo Saxon Society not the Poor Relation of Winchester

It was probably not until the late C6th that there was a resurgence, a renewal of cultural, political and commercial links with the rest of Europe on any sort of scale.

Around the mid C7th, Anglo Saxon mints started producing coins that at first reflected their Roman links but gradually developed into a unique Anglo Saxon style and these coins give a vital clue into what was beginning to happen in Anglo Saxon society.
Within the area of what is now the county of Hampshire, the settlement of Hamwic was to develop into a crucial area of occupation and trade in the early Anglo Saxon period. Knowledge of Hamwic has been referred to over a period of hundreds of years since its abandonment around AD 900. In Hampshire’s history, so much reference is made to the capital Winchester, that the origins of the then, far more important Southampton, Hamwic, sometimes seem to be eclipsed:
  • Hamwic is first referred to in the chronicles in the year AD 778, with its administrative centre called Hamtun. Wic seems to be an Anglo Saxon word meaning trading centre.
  • The settlement of Hamwic nestled between the two rivers, the Test and the Itchen, on land, just above the point at which they come together and spill out into the Solent. Both of these rivers were navigable and the land offered protection for the ships to load and unload.
  • The Romans had built the settlement of Clausentum on the East side of the River Itchen at Bitterne but it seems to have little to do with the settlement of Hamwic which began to emerge in the early C8th if not before.
  • Archaeological investigations over the last fifty years have revealed a settlement of quite distinct urban character. The picture which has emerged is  of a densely occupied settlement around a grid pattern of gravel streets. The main north-south street survives as St Mary’s Street, which at the south end joined an east-west street on the line of Chapel Road.
  • Not all of the site has been excavated but what has been dug and sampled shows intense occupation, a population of up to 3000 has been suggested.
  • Excavations have revealed a succession of buildings, quite regular in size, pits and wells.
  • The buildings were used for domestic and trade purposes and the position of the pits probably deliniate the boundaries of the settlement. There was also evidence of three blacksmiths.
Hamwic was part of the increasingly important kingdom of Wessex and was occupied by royal rulers of considerable importance in the C8th. Power was dependent upon growing wealth and wealth depended upon trade. King Ine, was ruler in Wessex at the time when trade began to increase and Hamwic was founded.

Hamwic was not simply another agricultural settlement. The pits have turned up evidence of manufacturing, with copper, iron and bone being extensively found. Tools such as knives were made from quite good quality iron capable of having a good edge applied to it. There is evidence of textile and leather work as well. This was a place of advanced craft skills compared with other contemporary settlements.

Offa, king of Mercia was adept at making trade agreements and he and Charlemagne, King of the Franks set up several trading agreements between them. Offa established a port on the River Thames at London and it seems only sensible from a business angle that a good port on the southern coast, a spit across from France and routes to the Mediterranean should be established and  that settlement was Hamwic.
So what can the finds tell us about the goods traded?
  • A number of pottery shards reveal a foreign origin but whether they formed part of a ‘trade’ or whether they were part of household goods for foreign traders who settled in Hamwic is not known.
  • Southampton in the Norman period, certainly had a French and an English quarter. It seems reasonable to believe but there is no evidence that wool and textiles, wines and oils along with metal work were traded.
  • The finds that have possibly been most striking and reveal more about the nature of the settlement than anything else, are the coins, scattered through the layers, across the site, there are more individual coin finds on this Anglo Saxon site than on any other in Britain.
  • Anglo Saxon coins are, in themselves exquisite pieces of art work, with their delicately engraved pictures of birds, busts, crosses and runes, they reveal an enchanting aspect to life that we witness mainly through the chronicles and  the discovery of coins in archealogical investigations of Hamwic provide excellent clues that enable archaeologists and historians to understand the settlement that gave the county of Hampshire its name.
By approximately AD 900, the settlement of Hamwic was in decline, only to re-emerge as Southampton in the C11th, a significant port trading particularly with Normandy even before the conquest to become one of the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan settlements in Medieval England.