It is 8 miles (13 km) northwest of Southampton and 11 miles (18 km) southwest of Winchester, neighbouring the village of North Baddesley. Just under 15,000 people live in Romsey, which has an area of about 4.93 square kilometres.
Romsey lies on the River Test, which is famous for fly fishing, predominantly trout. It is one of the principal towns in the Test Valley Borough. A large Norman abbey dominates the centre of the town.
Romsey was home of the 20th-century soldier and statesman Lord Mountbatten of Burma, the 19th-century British prime minister Lord Palmerston, and the 17th-century philosopher and economist William Petty.
Middle Ages to the Civil War
The name Romsey is believed to have originated from the term Rūm's Eg, meaning "Rūm's area surrounded by marsh". Rūm is probably an abbreviated form of a personal name, like Rūmwald (glorious leader).
What was to become Romsey Abbey was founded in 907. Nuns, led by Elflaeda daughter of Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, founded a community — at his direction — in what was then a small village. Later, King Edgar refounded the nunnery, about 960, as a Benedictine house under the rule of St. Ethelflaeda whose devotional acts included chanting psalms while standing naked in the cold water of the River Test.
The village swelled alongside the religious community. The Vikings sacked Romsey in 993, burning down the church. But the village recovered, and the abbey was rebuilt in stone in about 1000. The religious community flourished as a seat of learning, especially for the children of the nobility. A market was established outside the abbey gates.
King Henry I granted Romsey its first charter. This allowed a market to be held every Sunday, and a four-day annual fair in May. In the 13th century, Henry III permitted an additional fair in October.
The lucrative woollen industry appears to have powered Romsey's growth during the Middle Ages. Wool was woven and then fulled or pounded with wooden hammers whilst being washed. It was dyed, and then exported from nearby Southampton.
Romsey continued to grow and prosper until plague struck the town in 1348-9. The Black Death is thought to have killed up to half of the Romsey's population of 1000. The number of nuns fell as low as 19. Prosperity never returned to the abbey. It was finally suppressed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Many religious buildings were destroyed during this time.
But the abbey was saved from demolition because part of it was a parish church for the people of Romsey. The town purchased the abbey from the Crown for £100 in 1544. Ironically, the part of the abbey that had saved the abbey, the church of St Lawrence, was then demolished.
By the mid-16th century Romsey's population was about 1,500; its woollen and tanning industries fuelled growth. On 6 April 1607 King James I granted the town a charter making it a borough. This gave official status to an informal local government that had been running the affairs of the town since the Dissolution of Romsey Abbey in 1539. Romsey could now have a corporation comprising a mayor, six aldermen and twelve chief burgesses, with a town clerk for 'office work'. Furthermore, there was to be a local law court under a Court Recorder, assisted by two sergeants-at-mace. Over all, was the prestigious position of High Steward, the first of whom was the Earl of Southampton. (Lord Brabourne, grandson of Lord Mountbatten of Burma, is the current High Steward.)
Romsey changed hands several times during the English Civil War. Both Royalist and Parliamentary or Roundhead troops occupied and plundered the town. Royalists remained in control of the borough until January 1645.
18th to 20th centuries
The town's woollen industry survived until the middle of the 18th century, but was beaten by competition from the north of England. However, new fast-growing enterprises soon filled the gap with brewing, papermaking and sackmaking, all reliant upon the abundant waters of the Test.
By 1794 a canal connected Romsey to Redbridge — at the mouth of the River Test — and Andover to the north but within 50 years had largely fallen into disuse. Industry continued to grow. Romsey was a reasonably large town for the early 19th century: its population was 4,274 in the first census of 1801, compared with just 8,000 for Southampton.
Despite the arrival of the railway in 1847 the expansion slowed and whilst its population had grown to 5,654 in 1851 it then stagnated and by the time of the census half a century later (1901) the population was just 5,597.
Lord Palmerston, the 19th-century British Prime Minister, was born and lived at Broadlands, a large country estate on the outskirts of the town. His statue stands in the Market Place outside the Town Hall.
The Willis Fleming family of North Stoneham Park were major landowners at Romsey from the 17th until early 20th centuries, and were lords of the manors of Romsey Infra and Romsey Extra.
Romsey was famous for making collapsible boats during the 19th and early 20th centuries, invented by the Rev. Edward Lyon Berthon in 1851. The Berthon Boatyard in Romsey made the boats from 1870 until 1917. They were used as lifeboats on ocean-going liners.
Broadlands later became the home of Lord Mountbatten of Burma, known locally as "Lord Louis". He was buried in Romsey Abbey after being killed in an IRA bomb explosion in Ireland on 27 August 1979. In 1947, Mountbatten was given his earldom and the lesser title "Baron Romsey, of Romsey in the County of Southampton".
After Lord Mountbatten of Burma died, his titles passed to his elder daughter, Lady Brabourne, who thus became Lady Mountbatten of Burma. Her eldest son was styled by the courtesy title "Lord Romsey" until he inherited the title of Lord Brabourne in 2005.
Embley Park, a country estate located on the outskirts of Romsey was the home of Florence Nightingale, most famous for her pioneering work as a nurse and sanitary reform during the Crimean war and for laying the foundation of modern nursing. Florence is said to have had her calling from God whilst being sat under a giant cedar tree in the grounds of Embley Park on 7 February 1837. The site is now home to a private school, reminders of Florence's formative years are all around the house and estate.
Nightingale is buried in the family vault at St. Margaret Church in East Wellow, located on the outskirts of Romsey. Her coffin was taken by train from London to Romsey Station where a horse drawn carriage completed the journey to the church for a simple funeral at the request of Florence.
During 2007 Romsey celebrated the 400th Anniversary of the granting of its Charter by King James I with a programme of events from March through September, including a visit on 8 June from the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Subsequently. the cost of the visit has created some local political controversy.
Romsey today appears to be in sound economic health. Whilst there is significant commuting out of the town for work - particularly to Southampton and Winchester, and also, to some extent, London - it could not be described as a dormitory town.
Whilst heavy industry in the town has long since declined, three industrial and trading estates focus mainly on service industries and small-scale manufacturing. Three major scientific and high technology employers — Roke Manor Research, Southampton Science Park and IBM — have large establishments in the nearby countryside.
The recently renovated town centre contains a Waitrose supermarket, a small department store, and over 100 other retail outlets of various kinds, including both high street chains and local independent shops.
There is concern about the decline of local independent shops due to the high business rates, and threat from large supermarkets, which may be increased as Tesco unveiled plans in January 2012 to build an out of town supermarket on six acres of leased land on the Broadlands Estate.