In 1043 Leofric, the husband of Lady Godiva, granted the Manor of Southam to Coventry Priory. St James Parish Church dates from the 13th Century but was pre-dated by a Saxon Church. The town’s Market Charter was granted in 1227 and focusing on agriculture, Southam grew substantially maintaining strong links with Coventry through the wool and weaving trades. After the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, in 1542 Southam was granted to Sir Edmund Knightley, who died later that same year. The manor was divided between his five nieces.
In 1227 Henry III granted Southam’s market by charter to the Lord of the Manor. From this date onwards Southam was entitled to call itself a town.
The town is particularly noted for its role in the English Civil Wars when both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell garrisoned troops here. A significant skirmish between Royalists and Parliamentarians took place near to the town in August 1642 and two months later in October Charles I stayed in the town’s new Manor House immediately before the Battle of Edge Hill. In 2013, Southam First, in partnership with the Sealed Knot, staged a major re-enactment of the 1642 Battle of Southam, also depicting events that took place in the town centre in the Civil War period.
Several of the town centre buildings, including the Manor House (now Southam Pharmacy) and The Olde Mint pub date from the 1600s, having survived the great fire of Southam in 1742.
Southam was once a noisy major transport hub in the heart of the country. Being on a main droving route from Wales to London, huge flocks of sheep and herds of cattle were regularly driven through the town on their way to market. It was also on the main stage coach route from Glasgow to London. Many traditional coaching inns and market taverns were established in the town. The Craven Arms (still standing, and now converted to private homes) was the town’s most significant coaching inn and at one time was said to stable 80 horses.
Later, because of its market town status, Southam hosted the district Magistrate’s Court and Union Workhouse.
Things started to change for the town with the development of the canals from the mid-18th century and later from the railways. Small cottage industries disappeared to be replaced in more recent years by light industrial units on the edge of town. The town has grown with the population increasing from 170 in 1086 to 6,509 in the year 2015, but Southam still retains its market town ambience.
In 1818, Mr Lilley-Smith, a local surgeon, founded an Eye and Ear Infirmary. In the 20th Century, the infirmary building was for many years the town’s principal hotel (The Stoneythorpe Hotel). It is now a popular wedding and event venue known as Warwick House. In 1823 Mr Lilley-Smith also founded the country’s first free dispensary at Southam – a forerunner of the National Health Service. The Dispensary cottage location is marked by a monument to the work of Mr Lilley Smith which is located on the junction of Warwick Street and Wattons Lane.
In the 19th Century the canals and railways passed Southam by and the town’s importance as a centre for trade gradually declined. However, the employment opportunities provided by nearby cement quarries at Long Itchington, Stockton, Harbury and Bishops Itchington, and the Coventry industrial manufacturing trades ensured its continuing prosperity. Southam expanded rapidly in the second half of the 20th Century with new houses, schools, industries and leisure facilities.