London history over 2000 years

London history over 2000 years

Roman London, the remains of the London Wall - circa 1926

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THE DEFENSIVE WALL OF LONDINIUM - described in 1926 by Gordon Home

Right up to the eighteenth century the ancient nucleus of the city of London was engirdled by the wall erected by its citizens in the third or fourth century of the Christian era. As late as 1477, Ralph Josceline, Lord Mayor of that year, restored the whole of the northern face from Aldgate to Aldersgate, and it was only in 1766, that the Commissioners of Sewers sought permission from Parliament to sweep away this enduring monument of the Roman epoch of London. The work of destruction was fortunately by no means complete, many long sections having been left for piecemeal destruction in later years, and happily builders have often preferred to utilise portions of the ancient structure rather than face the heavy work of demolition. Thus, buried out of sight and wellnigh forgotten by its citizens, the historic bulwarks of Londinium still exist in fragmentary fashion throughout nearly the whole of their length.
The general conclusion arrived at by those who have watched excavations on the wall is that the landward sides were built first without bastions, and with a comparatively small ditch; that the river wall was added at some subsequent period; and either at the same time or shortly afterwards the whole enceinte was strengthened with bastions and the ditch widened and deepened.

On the landward sides there is a certain uniformity of plan throughout, and the plinth, the one feature which breaks the exterior surface, is found at every point where the lowest portion of the structure has been exposed. Courses of bonding brick also impart an appearance of great regularity and the thickness remains practically uniform throughout the entire perimeter. At all points examined, the external as well as internal surfaces are faced with hammer-dressed roughly squared stones, and the bulk of this material is of Kentish rag.
However carefully the work is examined, the comprehensive character of the whole remains indubitable, but in detail there is very obvious evidence of a certain indifference, the bonding bricks being in layers of varying thickness and in places not extending through the whole fabric. A careful comparison of eight sections reveals complete diversity of treatment of the bonding courses and the stepping on the internal face varies also.

The position of the wall has been ascertained with certainty on the landward sides except between Ludgate and the river where there is a little doubt. Facing the Thames, there is no room for doubt as to the line of the wall, but east of the Wallbrook the discoveries are restricted to a few short lengths.

Commencing at the south-western corner, the great defensive work seems to have passed through Printing House Square, now enclosed by the buildings of Times newspaper, and went a little east of due north to Ludgate. It is probable that this did not represent the original line, for under No. 56 Carter Lane was found a wall which in thickness and other respects agrees with the rest of the landward construction. There appear to be no drawings or records of this section and therefore the matter is just a little in doubt, but as the description given by the builder, who saw and measured the wall laid bare on this site, could scarcely have been invented, there is every reason to think that the original wall sloped in a south-easterly direction from Ludgate, so that this entry and Newgate to the north form the angles of the western lobe of the original city enceinte which followed the contour of the western hill. Perhaps when the river front was fortified the south-eastern corner was enlarged.
The curtain wall extending between Ludgate and Newgate has been very definitely located, and while no records of bastions exist, there may have been two in this sector. At Newgate have been found portions of the foundations of the Roman structure, and it is a curious fact that the name of this entry into the city should have been so entirely misleading, for here, and nowhere else up to the present time, have the original foundations been discovered.

Two towers, 30 feet square, flanked an opening of about 35 feet, almost certainly divided into two road-ways, each about 15 feet in width. The gate was set at an irregular angle in the wall, the northern tower projecting about 7 feet, while its southern fellow stood out for double that distance. To resist the thrust of the curtain wall, the sides of the towers crossing it were of exceptional thickness — about 9 feet compared with 5 on the other faces. Where the lower parts of the gateway towers have come to light, they show superior workmanship to the main wall. Dr Philip Norman describes the discovery in 1903 of the plinth stones on the inner face of the southern tower, and mentions that all the stones were clamped with iron embedded in lead.
Immediately to the north of Newgate the wall turned eastward in an open curve, and at this point excavation proves that a bastion was subsequently erected. It was especially necessary here, in view of the fact that the wall had sagged very seriously and was leaning outwards at a dangerous angle. This bastion was larger than those hitherto discovered, and its wall was 7 1/2 feet thick, only a foot less than that of the curtain which it supported. Fortunately this notable feature of the great bulwark of Roman London was preserved beneath the General Post Office yard in Giltspur Street, and can be seen if permission be applied for.
The wall from this point continues eastward to a short distance beyond Aldersgate, where it turns rather sharply N.N.E., making thereby a re-entrant angle, the purpose of which has puzzled investigators. If the builders had in view the avoidance of the slight hollow, probably somewhat damp owing to the existence of springs in that locality, the deflection of the wall may be explained, for, although several additional yards of construction were entailed, the saving of complications in the making of the foundations was evidently a matter of great importance. The mere fact that the builders were anxious to avoid even tEe slightest engineering operation seems to point once more in the direction of haste in construction.

At irregular intervals along the re-entrant angle no fewer than seven bastions have been located, and in addition, close to the N.E. salient, just south of the bastion in Gripplegate Churchyard, there is marked on Ogilby and Morgan’s plan, dated 1677, what appears to be a rectangular internal tower larger than the bastions. If this were Roman — unfortunately there is no proof — it might conceivably have been a store for reserve ammunition and other supplies for this section of the defence, since every bastion would have had its proper armament of large and small military engines. However, it is quite possible that this tower was of post-Roman date, similar to that found a little to the north of Ludgate, shown on the large plan.
Along the whole length of the Wall one bastion alone shows above the modern ground level. It stands in the churchyard of Cripplegate, overhung by lofty modern buildings, and perhaps all that is visible to the eye is of mediaeval workmanship. Beneath the surface, however, is the undoubted Roman substructure, set in characteristic pink mortar.

Where the modern Aldersgate Street crosses the wall, stood the third gate, of which no remains have yet been discovered. The north and north-eastern faces of the wall ran from the Cripplegate bastion to Aldgate. It was pierced by Cripplegate and Bishopsgate. In its central sector the wall cut athwart three feeders of the Wallbrook, and, in order to allow for the free flow of the streams, openings were provided in the wall at the necessary points. Two of these have been discovered in the street called London Wall close to Finsbury Gircus. The passage of bulky rubbish was guarded against by iron gratings, of which portions have been found. It seems probable that there were other opening besides these two at this particular point, irrespective of those undoubtedly necessarp elsewhere. So long as the culverts and their gratings were properly cared for, no trouble arose with the streams, but as soon as the general disorder produced neglect, they became choked, and the pent-up waters began to accumulate against the face of the wall until, by the twelfth century, a broad shallow mere lay immediately to the north of the city, between the roads emerging from Bishopsgate and Cripplegate. In course of time this mere naturally became"" contaminated, and its presence was eventually a danger to health.

On the purely northern front of the Wall only two bastions have been located. One of these just to the west of Moorgate is only inferred from a mass of masonry containing pink cement having been found abutting upon the Wall, the other was located under the foundations of the semi-circular vestry of All Hallows’ Church, London Wall. That it was later than the wall itself was proved by the finding of many architectural fragments from other buildings — a feature never discovered in the curtain. Further, the mortar once more was of the characteristic pounded brick variety of the Roman period.

Between Bishopsgate and Aldgate there were five bastions, all of which are either well-authenticated, or have actually been discovered. The most notable is probably that in Camomile Street, which was excavated in 1876. Its special interest is due to the fact that in its construction the fragments of a demolished monument had been worked up. In addition to this there was found a sculptured lion in the act of devouring, its prey, much on the same lines as that discovered at Corbridge in 1907, but, although the head is very much worn, the artistry is distinctly superior.

In Goring Street (formerly Castle Street), a little south-east of Camomile Street, the remains of a bastion were uncovered in 1884, but, despite the momentary enthusiasm at the time, nothing was done to preserve it. Like its companion in Camomile Street, it included many architectural fragments taken from demolished buildings, as well as a sarcophagus.’-

Proceeding south-eastwards along Bevis Marks, a fine fragment of the wall was brought to light in 1880, and associated with it was what seems to have been an extremely important bastion, together with a section of the city ditch. The contemporary description was most inadequate, for there were several features of unusual interest, including a massive channel of solid stone, leading from the centre of the bastion to the ditch, as well as an earthen counterscarp or “ vallum.” Such treatment of the ditch not having been discovered or noted elsewhere, the feature is especially informative. Among the architectural fragments found in this bastion was part of a column about 9 inches in diameter with a lozenge pattern sculptured on its surface.

Between this Bevis Mark bastion and Aldgate two others are shown on Ogilby and Morgan’s plan published in 1677, and, in greater detail, in the Holy Trinity Priory Survey of 1592. These plans appear to show the ordinary Roman form of the bastions. It is suggested that one of them was identical with that' drawn by Gough in 1763, but this was very obviously square, and may therefore have been a variant upon the normal rounded bastion, and may perhaps belong to a very late period. It should be noted that this is on the north-eastern and most threatened face.

Of the Roman gateway at Aldgate, the sixth from Ludgate, no indications have been found. Between Aldgate and the river, the wall takes a direct course almost due south, terminating, as far as actual remains have been seen, in the ruins of the Wardrobe Tower, at a point opposite the south-easterly turret of the great keep, built by William the Conqueror, who does not appear, however, to have destroyed any of the Roman wall ; this was, it seems, to be the work of his successor. It is generally considered that this was not the actual termination, and that the Lanthorn Tower of the Inner Bailey occupies the site of the south-eastern corner bastion. The site of a mediaeval postern on Tower Hill may perhaps mark the position of a similar outlet in Roman times, but this is mere surmise. The fact that no road of any consequence left the city south of Aldgate certainly removes the need for any important gateway on this sector.

The surviving portions of the curtain on the eastern front are important, while the position of some of the bastions is uncertain. On the east side of Jewry Street the wall lies beneath the frontages of the houses, and in 1861, a portion was uncovered, showing that at this point it was founded upon massive piles. There was probably hereabouts a bastion, but careless observation resulted in no definite records being taken. A particularly fine fragment was exposed in 1905, at the junction of Crutched Friars and Jewry Street, which, by the care of the Skinners’ Company, has been preserved and built into the basement of the block of offices called Roman Wall House. The interest of this fragment is the fine state of preservation of the inner facing.

A little to the south, the line of the wall is intersected by the railway to Tilbury and Southend. Part of this sector was destroyed in 1841, and thirty-nine years later, when the railway was widened, other sections were revealed in America Square. At that point indications of two bastions, not far apart, were brought to light, and there was also a small culvert penetrating the wall. These facts seem to indicate the need which existed for a certain amount of buttressing of the wall, here standing on alluvium, which only furnished an unstable foundation.

In the bonded warehouse of Messrs Barber, between the railway and Trinity Square, is the finest existing portion of the wall of London. On various calculations it stands from 25 to 43 feet in height, these differences being perhaps due to different measurements as to the original ground level. Nearly half of the height was the original Roman work, and it is given by Sir William Tite as less than 20 feet, the remainder consisting of mediaeval additions and repairs. It may be mentioned here that the actual parapet walk of the ancient defensive wall of London still exists here, supported in part by the work of the Romano-British builders, reared possibly as far back as the third century.

Between this fine survival and Tower Hill the wall is believed to be fairly continuous, and it is visible in a yard opening from Trinity Square. One sees only the patching of the Middle Ages, containing a good proportion of Roman materials ; but in a cellar adjoining a considerable fragment of the actual Roman wall exists, heavily coated with whitewash. At this point there was undoubtedly a bastion containing a number of architectural stone fragments. These appear to have represented the demolished sepulchral monument of a Roman officer named Alpinus Classicianus, and some of them are now in the British Museum. A drawing was made in 1852, by a Mr Fairholt, of the wall and remains of this bastion.

From the Lanthorn Tower of the Inner Bailey of the Tower o£ London to the point where it turned northwards towards Ludgate, the Wall, on the river side, followed approximately the line of Lower and Upper Thames Streets, except where it was broken by the Wallbrook. No traces of any gates, posterns, or bastions have been found on this front, and between the Tower and the Wallbrook scarcely half-a-dozen fragments of the curtain wall have been located. In the sector west of the Wallbrook, however, Roach Smith records the discovery of an almost continuous line from Lambeth Hill to Queenhithe. Unlike the landward wall, but like the bastions, it contained a great number of pieces of sculptured stone and marble, suggesting that the Thames front and the bastions were equally built at a time of dire necessity and subsequent to the land defences. The river wall, in spite of the ingredients just mentioned, seems to have been a very solid structure, superior in some ways to the earlier enceinte. Where the subsoil was alluvium the foundation was secured by driving oaken piles closely together on the inner and outer faces, the intervening space being filled with rammed chalk and stone. On this was laid a course of large hewn stones, forming a base for the usual concrete superstructure of ragstone and flint bedded in pounded brick mortar. The bonding was formed in places with roofing tiles as well as brick, again suggesting the demolition of buildings.

At the foot of Fish Street Hill, where the wall stood upon gravel, the foundation was laid on a bed of logs laid horizontally at right angles to the wall, and held in position by short and strong pointed stakes driven in up to the head.

At Brook’s Yard on the north side of Upper Thames Street a remarkable section has recently come to light. Within the outer wall, at a distance of 15 feet, is a second wall built in somewhat the same manner, but only 5 feet thick. The careful elaboration of the foundations would indicate that it was intended to be carried to a considerable height. As this inner wall has up to the present time been discovered in this one spot only, it is obviously unwise to generalise upon it. At a hazard one might suggest that this inner and less substantial wall was of earlier date, and, being considered too weak, was superseded subsequently by a much more powerful outer rampart.

In advance of the whole of the landward wall was carried a ditch of the usual V-shaped Roman section. This original fosse was rather in the nature of a draining channel than of a formidable obstacle, being only about 10 or 12 feet wide and 6 or 7 feet deep. When the bastions were added they somewhat encroached upon it, necessitating the construction of a new one, which, naturally, in the threatening conditions of the times, was made on more formidable lines. So far as can be judged from one or two points where it has been detected, it was 25 feet wide and 14 feet deep, while at the gates it seems to have been widened out to no less than 75 feet, including a mound or ridge in the centre to carry a single or double drawbridge.

Thus in its last and fully developed stage, the defensive system of Londinium comprised more than three miles of a fairly solid concrete wall, strengthened by some forty or fifty bastions, besides the fortified gateways, and, where the Thames did not afford a natural wet ditch, the wall was further protected by a fosse from 25 to 75 feet broad. Further, there is slight indication of earthworks outside the ditch. So far as the normal engineering skill of the age could achieve protection to a city, Londinium was adequately guarded, and, according to the knowledge at present available, until the ninth century no foreign invader succeeded in penetrating by force those sturdy bulwarks.


And Last updated on: Tuesday, 16-Apr-2019 12:00:52 BST

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The remains of the London Wall - circa 1926

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