The Duke of Wellington on Bugle Street and the Red Lion on Southampton High Street are two of Southampton’s most recognisable pubs, but they always seem to cause the same old debate. Which pub is older? Many argue that the Red Lion is the older of the two because King Henry V is said to have sentenced the Southampton Plot conspirators to death inside its walls in 1415. That is a nice story but, like many stories, it may well be a work of fiction.
According to Historic England, the Duke of Wellington building was constructed using the remains of an existing house, which had been built circa 1220 by Benedict Ace, an early Mayor of Southampton. According to that source, the building was badly damaged by the French and Genoese during their murderous raid in 1338. However, according to the same source, a brewer named Rowland Johnson used the old building to construct his new establishment, which he called ‘Bere House’, in 1494. The building still has its thirteenth century foundations and cellar. Tony Gallaher takes a slightly different view in his excellent book Southampton’s Inns and Taverns. Gallaher states that Rowland Johnson was a Flemish brewer who acquired the building in 1490 and called it ‘Brewe House’. Despite these minor differences, both sources agree that Johnson opened his establishment before the fifteenth century had drawn to a close.
Like the Duke of Wellington, the Red Lion was also built upon old foundations. Gallaher states that the vault lying underneath the Red Lion dates back to the twelfth century, whilst Historic England simply describes the vault as ‘mediaeval’. The latter source contends that this vault belonged to an earlier house which once stood on the same site, and it is here that Historic England suggests that the vault may have belonged to a building that is ‘reputed to be the ‘Court room’ where the intending assassins of Henry V… were tried when Henry V was in Southampton in 1415…’ More on this later.
According to Historic England, the building we call the Red Lion was built in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, similar to Rowland Johnson’s Bere/Brewe House. However, whilst Johnson was almost certainly brewing and selling beer by 1500, Gallaher states that the building that houses the Red Lion did not get its first license to sell alcohol until 1552.
If Historic England are correct, then it would be impossible for the Southampton Plot conspirators to have been tried inside the Red Lion in 1415, because the present building was not constructed until the end of that century. Could the trial have taken place in the older building that once stood on the site of the Red Lion? It is not impossible, but it would make much more sense for the trial to have been held in Southampton’s royal castle, where Henry V stayed as he prepared his invasion of France.
The following is an extract from Ian Mortimer’s excellent 1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory, under the entry for 2 August 1415: ‘Following the extraction of these confessions, the trials could take place. Twelve Hampshire men, selected from an empanelled total of thirty-six, were appointed to the jury. In the castle of Southampton, in the king’s presence, they listened to the cases of each man. The constable of the castle, John Popham, led the accused from the dungeon and into the hall where the jury was sitting.’ Richard of Conisburgh, 3rd Earl of Cambridge; Henry Scrope, 3rd Baron Scrope of Masham; and Sir Thomas Gray – known together as the Southampton Plot conspirators – were all found guilty of conspiring against the king. Gray was taken to Southampton’s Bargate and beheaded outside it that afternoon on 2 August 1415. Cambridge and Scrope suffered the same fate three days later.
When dealing with the Southampton Plot in Act II of Henry V, William Shakespeare does not reference a Southampton pub. Shakespeare has his Henry V sentence the three men to death in a Southampton ‘council-chamber’. It is thought that Shakespeare wrote Henry V around 1599, almost half a century after the pub we now know as the Red Lion first got its license.
In real life, Henry V returned to Portchester Castle after the trial. His soldiers, who had been at Southampton for weeks, finally began boarding their ships at the town’s quays. On 11 August 1415, Henry began his voyage to France. The king’s army had embarked at Southampton and many of those who ultimately came to fight at Agincourt would have likely walked through Southampton’s Westgate before boarding their ships, since the gate led to the town’s West Quay. Ironically, the Westgate and the Duke of Wellington face each other.
Gallaher states that the pub we now know as the Red Lion was granted its first license in 1552, but back then it may not have been called the Red Lion. A little further up Southampton High Street was the Nag’s Head. This pub dated back to the eighteenth century and according to Southampton’s Inns and Taverns it became the Nag’s Head when George Burcy became landlord in 1740. Burcy had previously been the landlord of the pub we now know as the Red Lion, and it appears that Burcy took the Nag’s Head name from his old pub to his new one. This means that the Red Lion was quite possibly once called the Nag’s Head prior to 1740.
The Duke of Wellington was, of course, Arthur Wellesley, who was born in 1769. Two years after his birth, the Bugle Street pub was known as the Shipwrights’ Arms. After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the pub changed its name to the Duke of Wellington in order to commemorate the man who defeated Napoleon once and for all.
Southampton was – and still is – a vitally important port, and the Nazis understood its importance during the Second World War. The Luftwaffe targeted the town on a number of occasions and they killed hundreds of citizens, demolished houses, destroyed factories, burned churches, and flattened pubs. During the worst of the Blitz, in November 1940, Southampton High Street was described by an eyewitness as a ‘huge wall of fire and flames’ and eighty yards away from the Red Lion, Holyrood Church was destroyed. The ‘new’ Nag’s Head, which stood between Holyrood Church and the Red Lion, was also destroyed during the Blitz, and both the Red Lion and the Duke of Wellington suffered damage at the hands of the Luftwaffe. The Red Lion luckily survived the worst of the destruction, but it was not without damage. It was completely restored in 1952.
The Duke of Wellington also suffered as a result of the Blitz. The top floor of the pub was completely blown away during the bombing of the town. The damaged building was patched up and remained open until 1961, when it was closed for rebuilding. The top floor was painstakingly recreated to the original dimensions and it reopened in 1963.
Both buildings proudly show off timber beams but if you could travel back in time for a pint in 1900, you wouldn’t see them. The Red Lion’s mock-Tudor frontage was added in the early twentieth century and the Duke of Wellington’s beams were only uncovered with the restoration in the 1960s. The front of the Red Lion may not be original, but many of the building’s original fittings from the sixteenth century can still be seen inside.
So, which pub is technically older? I will let you decide. I’m sure everyone can agree on the fact that both pubs are fantastic, historic establishments. Both pubs are well worth a visit.
1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory by Ian Mortimer, page 312
Southampton’s Inns and Taverns by Tony Gallaher