HERITAGE: Hampshire’s historic links with Europe

HERITAGE: Hampshire's historic links with Europe

The exit of the UK from the EU recently was the latest in a long in-out dance in which Hampshire has been a prominent partner. Europeans have shaped so much of the county. We call them Romans, Saxons and Normans, but even a casual skim of the Historic Environment Record for Hampshire shows it is impossible to step outside without finding some physical trace they left.

Artwork of Old Portsmouth harbour
Well-placed for fighting the French, Portsmouth Harbour in 1785

In contrast, the legacy of the EU will surely be almost all documentary, including an Accord between the Hampshire County Council and Lower Normandy signed on October 26, 1989, in a flush of enthusiasm for a new era. Photos and press cuttings show how enthusiastically the 10th anniversary was later greeted in 1999 in Caen. Upper and Lower Normandy rejoined in 2016 and the Accord has now lapsed.

Historically, the most obvious legacy in the county is Norman: for at least 300 years the official working language was French. The Norman kings, with a palace in Winchester, reigned over huge parts of England and France. Many French abbeys had so-called “alien priories” in Hampshire – at Hamble, Hayling Island, Andover, Monk Sherborne, Ellingham, as well as on the Isle of Wight.

Tombstone of a French officer who died in 1812
Tombstone of a French officer who died in 1812, one of several by St John’s Church, New Alresford

Hereafter, links with France centred around war and religion. Henry V suppressed the priories and with his army left from Southampton in 1415 in a bid to regain lost territories. The forts at Southsea, Hurst Point and elsewhere along the south coast were later built by Henry VIII to keep out the French.

In the mid-1700s, during the Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Seven Years War many prisoners-of-war were brought to the county. And later thousands more from the Napoleonic Wars and the American War of Independence were incarcerated here. The ranks were held in hulks in Portsmouth Harbour, in Portchester Castle and in the unfinished Kings House built for Charles II at Winchester. Officers, however, were often allowed free rein. Some were buried with dignity in English graveyards, as at St John’s church, Alresford.

Plaque in St Peter’s Catholic Church, Winchester, given by French clergy in 1793 in thanks for refuge in the city
Plaque in St Peter’s Catholic Church, Winchester, given by French clergy in 1793 in thanks for refuge in the city

The huge dockyard at Portsmouth and the city in general grew in response to these threats. After the French Revolution, vain efforts were made to prevent war by Hampshire grandees and others, including James Harris, 1st Earl of Malmesbury, and William Wickham, as documented at length in the Hampshire Record Office.

Although religious links with the Continent can be summed up as “Protestant versus Catholic”, the reality was more complex. The French Revolution led to Catholic priests fleeing to England to escape persecution. Hundreds were accommodated in Winchester in the same place that had held prisoners, the Kings House. A plaque in St Peter’s Catholic Church in the city tells (in Latin) of “the generous British nation” and the “voluntary subscription of all ranks of men” in supporting the refugees.

In the previous century it had been French Protestant refugees. They were allowed to practise their religion freely in France until 1685, when they had to choose between Catholicism, death or exile! Many came to Hampshire: Henri de Portal from Poitiers set up a paper-making business on the river Test and the ancestors of Thomas Garnier, dean of Winchester, became seated at Rookesbury Park, Wickham.

Mausoleum, Farnborough Abbey, where the remains of Napoleon III and his wife are buried
Mausoleum, Farnborough Abbey, where the remains of Napoleon III and his wife are buried (The Graphic, March 5, 1887)

There are so many more links with Europe to be found in the county, including the French church of St Julien in Southampton, and St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, founded by Empress Eugénie as a mausoleum for her husband Napoleon III. And then there is the last century, when friends and foes were shuffled!

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