THE MORNING of October 4, 1338, started like any other Sunday for the inhabitants of medieval Southampton.

Most went to morning mass as usual, but even those not in church failed to notice the advance of a private armada up Southampton Water.

Fifty ships were involved, galleys from Picardy and Normandy, Spain and Genoa, encouraged by the King of France – and not on a mission of peace. By 9am the foreign fleet had sailed past the Itchen, into the Test and had beached near Southampton’s West Quay.

One of the prime ports of King Edward III’s England, currently at war with France, was about to be taken completely by surprise. There followed an orgy of death and destruction as Southampton suffered its own “Bloody Sunday”, its “blackest day of trial and shame”, as author D H Moutray Read called it.

Contemporary accounts speak of rape and pillage on a grand scale.

Buildings were set alight, shops and homes looted and even the King’s own stocks of wine were plundered.

Evidence of a large group of carelessly buried skeletons was discovered some years ago during modern excavations of a medieval lime kiln in the city’s Maddison Street, which some suggested could have been the remains of the French raiders.

Southampton’s revenge of October 5 was sweet, no doubt, but the damage had been done. Many people were dead, stocks of wool and wine stolen or destroyed, much of the town reduced to a smouldering ruin.

News of the disaster angered the King and the Earl of Arundel was ordered to discover “through whose default” Southampton was taken.

The following month, Southampton was made a garrison town and by February 1339, 100 archers and 50 men-at-arms were posted there. In March, King Edward himself arrived to inspect the defences. He was obviously not satisfied for he ordered the “enclosing of the town and neighbouring parts with a wall of stone and lime”.

There were walls already and there had been a castle since early Norman times but they were mainly on the landward side. The arches survive today as the Arcades, one of the most striking features of Southampton’s old town walls.

The West Gate also dates from this period, and, in 1346, Edward III and his bowmen passed this way before embarking for France and what was to be the Battle of Crecy. Seventy years later Henry V marched his troops through the gate before Agincourt.