The Walls of London
I adore ancient city walls. I’ve found them in York, Avignon, and tiny villages along the Rhine, as well as Rhodes, Istanbul and Iznik (the city in Turkey known in Roman times as Nicaea). In places like these one can find city walls built in classical and medieval times still standing tall and proud today. But not in London.
Image 1. The late-medieval walls of Rhodes (author's image)
London was once protected by a wall. It's hard to imagine it 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.
Image 2. (left) A typical portion of the city wall
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 picture to your left, 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 FitzStephen tells us in his Life of Thomas Becket (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.
Image 3. London, c.1200.
As you can see above, 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 used 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 it. So important was the wall to London’s identity that it featured prominently on the City’s official seal.
Image 4. Great Seal of the City of London
While London Wall exerts only a fragmented presence on London today, it plays a key role in my romance of plague and flagellation in 14th-century London – hence this investigation. My Lady of the Whip will shortly be available for purchase on Amazon and offered free as a thank you for joining my mailing list!
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.