If you wander around Tudor House Museum Gardens and King John’s Palace, it’s easy to imagine what Southampton’s seafront would have looked like back in the 1100s. The shoreline came all the way up to what we call the Western Esplanade.

In 1152, Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine, and they became very powerful in England and parts of France. They had access to French vineyards, and this is what really started the story of French wine coming to Southampton.

In the city centre, and near the waterfront, wine merchants built timber houses with stone cellars underneath, which can still be found to this day. Southampton became a prominent port, growing in wealth and prosperity.

But not all was plain sailing! In 1338 Southampton was attacked by pirates. 50 ships docked in our waters and raided, what is now called the French Quarter, resulting in theft, pillage and death. Some of the most voracious pirates were on the Isle of Wight, and the fun Shipwreck and Maritime Museum on the island pays testament to them.

A decade later, the plague struck the city. Naturally, nobody wanted to bury the victims. To recruit men, those who buried the cadavers were made Wine Porters. Not only was this a prestigious job for a small group of men, it was a very lucrative one.

When a porter retired his place was sold to the highest bidder.

The role of these porters involved moving casks of wine around the town. They used sledges and horses to drag the casks from the port to the cellars, and then muscle power and wooden poles to get them safely down into the vaults.

There was a tariff which increased with distance from the quayside.

You might have heard of Porters’ Lane - the link between French Street and High Street? It was once our quayside, and the headquarters of the Wine Porters and their horses.

The wine was stored in the vaults to await purchase. It was mostly sold wholesale to representatives of the aristocracy who were sent to Southampton by their masters to buy a cask or two at a time.

Wine was the drink of the rich; the poor drank ale and later beer instead of water. In the medieval period there was a potent drink called ‘sweet wine’ which was fortified with spirits (probably like port). Wine merchants were forbidden by law to sell it to the common people as they could not hold such strong liquor.

The vaults were also the showrooms, which might explain why the Undercroft and Lankester’s vault are such elaborate buildings.

Vaults were also used for mixing and blending of wine.

Some wine dealers would add red colouring to cheap German white wine, and then flavour it with pine resin. Lead filings and vinegar were also used. When caught doing so, the perpetrator would have to pay a fine and sit outside his vault and drink a gallon of his adulterated product in public.

In 1554, Philip of Spain landed in Southampton on the way to his wedding to Queen Mary in Winchester. Around this time, Southampton was granted the monopoly of sweet wines to help boost town trade. And so the wine trade continued - as did smuggling.

Henri de Portal, a Huguenot refugee, escaped persecution in France by hiding with his brother Guillaume in a wine cask and was then smuggled by friends into Southampton.

In April 1912, the Titanic began her maiden voyage from Southampton transporting, amongst other things: 15,000 bottles of ale, 1,000 bottles of wine and 850 bottles of liquor.

During the bombing of Southampton in the Second World War, the vaults were used as air-raid shelters, thus keeping Sotonians safe. Wine and the wine vaults, which had kept the economy of the city going throughout medieval times, were now saving lives.

Today, the vaults continue to raise the spirits of the people at the ‘Music in the City’ festival, which takes place annually in late September, and provide fantastic settings for films and exhibitions.

By Katie Belo dos Santos, tour guide with SeeSouthampton.co.uk