FOLLOWING their Conquest in 1066 the Normans realised that Southampton was ideally located for trade with Northern France and many French merchants settled in Southampton which became a leading wine port. At the same time merchants from Flanders dominated the Southampton wool trade buying wool for their weavers and to sell to Italian traders to take overland from Bruges to Florence.

Eventually the Italians decided to buy their wool direct from the English monasteries. At the end of the 13th century the Genoese established a sea route to Flanders which enabled them to call into English ports. The Genoese merchants’ galleys were fitted with sails and crewed by oarsmen forming the so called “Flanders Fleet”. By the beginning of the 14th century Venetian galleys were also arriving in Southampton. It wasn’t long before they were joined by Florentine galleys and an Italian community was established around Bugle Street. The Italians married local women and worshipped in the churches, The Florentines at St John’s, the Genoese at the Friary and the Venetians at the Chapel of St Nicholas close to St Mary’s.

The galleys had large crews and little cargo space so they brought high value goods including silk, spices, carpets, perfume, paper, medicinal herbs and armour most of which was then transported overland to London. They even brought monkeys and parrots. Italian carracks sailed into Southampton bringing bulk goods such as alum, wood ash and dyes needed for cloth making and took wool, local cloth and hides back to Italy. Wool from the Cotswolds was preferred and this was brought overland to Southampton along with lead, tin and pewter also to be sold to the Italians.

The Italians were well respected, being elected as Burgesses and one as Sheriff. There were occasional skirmishes with locals, including a serious one in 1323 in which lives were lost, but in the main the Italians and the locals got on well together. The same could not be said of the situation in London for in August 1379 Janus Imperiali, a Genoese Ambassador, travelled to London to negotiate for Southampton to become the Italian’s main trading port in England. London merchants, fearing the harm this would do to their trade had him murdered.

Archives describe in detail the Italian’s presence locally and there is one physical indication. In the Church of St Nicolas at North Stoneham a large stone on the church floor says in medieval Italian “The burial place of the gild of the Sclavonians”. These were men from Dalmatia or modern day Croatia and they crewed the Venetian galleys. Two men out of a party of three were robbed and murdered on their way to St Giles Fair in Winchester in 1499. St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors and sea fairing merchants and it is believed that they were originally buried in the Chapel of St Nicholas in Southampton and when that chapel fell into disuse they were moved to North Stoneham. Two of the robbers were later caught and hanged in Southampton.

Italians merchants brought great prosperity to Southampton for over two hundred years. The last Venetian fleet left on May 22, 1532 after which the port went into a lengthy decline.