The Walled City Of London
I’m plotting a fantasy novel – don’t laugh, it’ll be another of my ‘One Off’ books to sit beside my crime novels – and was reminding myself about the early days of London.
It’s easy to forget that our 2000 year+ city was as much of a walled city as any in Spain, Tunisia or Poland. As it continues to expand the edges blur ever more, but there are still sections of the wall to be seen all around.
Although the exact reason for the wall’s construction is unknown, it was probably built to provide defence and security to London citizens, and also represented the growing status of the city. Come inside if you want protection, stay out and be rural if not.
It was started in the late 2nd or early 3rd century, around 80 years after the construction of the city’s fort in 120AD. It was finished at the end of the 4th century, one of the last major building projects undertaken by the Romans before they headed home (probably fed up with the lousy weather) in 410. It was constructed of Kentish ragstone and may have been built because of the invasion of northern Britain by the Picts, who overran Hadrian’s Wall in the 180s. The central fort was the home of the official guard of the Governor of Britain, and housed around 1,000 men in a series of barrack blocks.
The seven gates that were added matched the Roman roads. Moorgate, Ludgate, Newgate, Cripplegate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate and Aldersgate remain largely in name only. The crumbling statues of King Lud and his two sons, which formerly stood on Ludgate, now stand in the porch of the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West on Flat Street, and there was a pub at Ludgate Circus called the King Lud, where prisoners from Newgate were given their last drink. Sadly it’s now a Leon takeout, but medallions of King Lud can be seen up on its roofline and over the doors.
But there is a substantial chunk of the wall you can still see. Set immediately north of the Tower of London, right in Tower Hill, it’s one of its most substantial and impressive surviving sections. It was once around two and a half miles long, and over time it was modified, adapted and added to, before finally being obscured and partially destroyed as new buildings were constructed around it.
Today, many of the buildings which had formerly hidden it have been cleared away, and you can get a clear view of what’s left. The wall remained standing through a long period when the city was largely abandoned. It was repaired in the late Anglo-Saxon period and survived to be an important feature of the city at the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066.
In about 1300 a new postern gateway through the wall was built immediately to the south of the standing portion, close to the edge of the Tower of London moat; it later slipped down the moat bank and can be seen at the end of the underpass under the main road.
In fact, there are plenty of pieces to explore and even those which have vanished (as at Bishopsgate) have wall plaques commemorating the sites. The odd juxtaposition of Roman wall and houses still surprises.
Aldgate was once the oldest gatehouse into London, build decades before the rest of the wall that subsequently adjoined it. It was also one of the busiest gatehouses, as it stood upon the main Roman road to Colchester. During its 1600 year history it was rebuilt three times and finally pulled down in 1761 to improve traffic access. Geoffrey Chaucer lived in the rooms over the gate from 1374. At the time he was working as a customs official at one of the local ports.
As Bryant & May readers will know, London itself slowly slipped from East to West, shifting away from its walled origins as rich merchants sought new land away from overcrowded streets.
When the Museum of London moves to Smithfield and the remaining bits of the wall in the Barbican are exposed, presumably they’ll be retained – but in today’s property developer-driven madness anything is possible.