The Saxon settlement at Southampton was known either as Hamwic or Hamtun (variant spellings include Hamwih, Hamwich and Hamton, Hampton). The former signifies a trading centre, the latter applying to the settlement in its administrative function.

The two names co-existed throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. Hamwic survived as a name until the 11th century. Hamtun survived and evolved into Southampton. The first reference to Southampton was in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 980 but the name did not become common until the 12th century. Hamtun was an alternative name for the town until the 17th century.

The first reference to the settlement is in a document of 721 which mentions “the market which is called Hamwic”. The port is mentioned again in several subsequent documents, sometimes called Hamwic, sometimes Hamtun. It probably came into existence c.680 and was no longer in use by the middle of the 10th century.

The settlement occupied the area around St Mary’s Church, stretching from modern-day Six Dials in the north, Anglesea Terrace to the south and Hoglands to the west. It has been suggested that the name Hamtun actually referred to a different settlement situated to the north of what later became the medieval walled town (hence the name South-hampton). This suggestion has received partial confirmation from archaeological discoveries of pre-walling (though not necessarily pre-Conquest) date. A pattern of common fields has been traced radiating from this nucleus, and not from Hamwic. It is assumed that a pre-Conquest southward extension, following the destruction of Hamwic, established Southampton on the castle mound and adjacent district.

The uncertainty of the location of Hamtun explains why the excavation site in St Mary’s is usually referred to as Hamwic or Hamwih, as it is fairly certain that this is the riverside merchant settlement - the Itchen having changed course over the subsequent centuries.

In the 8th century it was a very substantial settlement, possibly the largest-densely populated town in England, with only London, York and Canterbury rivalling it. It was raided by the Vikings in 840 and 842. King Alfred’s measures to combat Viking raids included a chain of fortified strongholds, one of which was recorded as being at Hamtun. The exposed position of the town was probably a major factor in its decline and the eventual re-siting of a town on a more defendable position to the west.

Further reading:

History of Southampton, by Rev. J. S. Davies, p13-25. (HS/h)
Excavations at Hamwic,Volume 1, by A. D. Morton. (HS/f)
Excavations at Hamwic,Volume 2, by P. Andrews. (HS/f)
‘Saxon Southampton: A New Review’, by Philip Holdsworth, in Medieval Archaeology, vol 20, 1976. (HS/f)
Saxon Southampton, by Southampton Archaeological Research Committee. (HS/f)
‘Southampton Before the Norman Conquest’, by M. R. Maitland Muller in Collected Essays on Southampton, by J. B. Morgan (ed), p22-26. (HS/h)
‘Pottery and Late Saxon Southampton’, by Duncan Brown, in Hampshire Field Club Proceedings, No. 50, 1995, p128-130. (H/f)


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