Monday, September 8, 2014

The Walls of Old London (Part One)

I love old city walls. From York, Avignon, and tiny villages along the Rhine, to Rhodes, Istanbul and Iznik (the city in Turkey known in Roman times as Nicaea), one can find city walls built in classical and medieval times still standing tall and proud today. But not in London.

the medieval walls of Rhodes
London was once protected by a wall - an aspect of the old city it is easy to overlook now.

I hunted around London and discovered that only odd fragments of the walls the Romans built with their typical alternating courses of tile and stone around the 3rd century C.E. remain today. My photo above shows one of the most complete and accessible sections - near Tower Hill Station. (For more on the remaining remnants, there’s a wonderful blog post with images of all the remaining visible sections here.)

Source: Schofield, London, 1100-1600
From repairs in King Alfred’s reign to Mayor Ralph Jocelyn’s remodelling in 1477, medieval Londoners maintained, built upon, and even slightly extended the original Roman wall. In the above picture, you can see the medieval construction on top of the Roman, and then Tudor brickwork on top of that. At its height, the Wall was about 9.5m high from the outside.

But the part of the wall facing onto the river was a lost cause. As William Fitz Stephen tells us in c.1173, between the Tower of London to the east and Baynard’s Castle in the west:

there runs a high and massive wall with seven double gates and with towers along the north at regular intervals. London was once also walled and turreted on the south, but the mighty Thames, so full of fish, has with the sea's ebb and flow washed against, loosened, and thrown down those walls in the course of time.

As you can see in the map, London Wall was punctured by seven major gates. Anticlockwise from the Tower of London, they were: Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, Newgate and Ludgate. Each of these gates was fortified by towers, great oaken doors and guards, and were vital for retaining the integrity of London. They were conduits for controlling entry to the city, exacting tolls, and enforcing the nightly curfew. They were decorated with sculpture (a headless statue of St Peter was found at Bishopsgate) and occasionally with traitors’ heads or other assorted limbs. Newgate and Ludgate were utilised as prisons.

London’s wall defined the medieval city. It constrained its shape and growth. It bestowed privileges on those entitled to live and trade within. So important was the wall to London’s identity that it featured prominently on the City’s official seal.

 Jon E. Lewis (ed.), London: The Autobiography, Constable & Robinson, 2012.
John Schofield, London, 1100-1600: The Archaeology of a Capital City, Equinox Publishing, 2011.
Anthony Sutcliffe, An Architectural History of London, Yale University Press, 2006.

While London Wall exerts only a fragmented presence on London today, it plays a key role in my tale of plague and flagellation in 14th century London – hence my investigation. My Lady of the Whip is released in e-book on the 17th September.


Suzi Love said...

I love learning more about the history of London. Thanks, Venetia.

Venetia Green said...

Thanks for dropping by, Suzi!