Some Noted Walled Towns
Most towns which grew to importance in medieval England were protected by mural defences. In some of them, where local vigilance has arrested the process of demolition, town walls, towers and gatehouses still survive. These form a framework, alike picturesque and instructive, wherein to set the story of the growth of municipal institutions and the development of social and economic life.
Some towns there are whose protective shield grew out of the earthworks of pre-Roman Britain, and the stone or brick walls erected upon them or in new localities during the Roman occupation. Here and there defensive bulwarks, sometimes no more than a palisaded mound, were formed by the Anglo-Saxon communities, especially after they began to feel the pressure of Viking irruptions. Domesday Book mentions casually that at the Norman Conquest, Canterbury, Colchester, Oxford, Lincoln and York were surrounded by walls or ditches, and this was true also of London, Winchester, Exeter and other towns.
But for the most part existing town walls pertain to the early centuries after the Conquest, and especially to the thirteenth-century reigns of Henry III and Edward I. Walled towns developed in an environment differing wholly from that which gave rise to the baronial castles and their mural enceintes. The principles of military engineering which the latter worked out were based on Continental practice. Apart from the Romano - British legacy, the masonry defences of English towns came later on. They were always dependent upon royal sanction, because the Crown came to recognize that the growing wealth of the towns could be turned to account to check the growing independence of the baronage. Hence, when the time came the borough engineer had before him examples of castle-building by whose lessons he was quick to profit. So he adapted to his long encircling walls, with their embattled ramparts, drum towers, portcullises and machicolated gates, methods of defence already tested in warfare by feudal castellans.
For the walling of their towns was deemed by Englishmen to be a precious privilege, to be accepted with satisfaction when imposed by the royal will, to be sought for tenaciously when opposed. Happily those of most account were held directly from the Crown, and but a few from a lay overlord or from a religious foundation. Again and again the king directed them to put their defences in order. The cost was provided by grants from the exchequer, by allocations of specific revenues or estates, by permits to quarry in the king's demesnes, by licences to raise a murage tax from local tenement-holders in town and suburb.
In one town-Rye-a tax was imposed on strangers when leaving; in others bequests for the wall and gate fund were made by public-spirited burgesses. The mayor and commonalty were responsible for watch and ward, for making repairs, for manning the walls in time of civil stress. Many a conflict arose out of the refusal of monastic bodies to contribute their share of tax or service. In the fourteenth century the development of explosive ordnance reduced the military value of town walling, and the spread of civil peace rendered it less and less purposeful, until mural enclosures came to be retained mainly as aids to the enforcement of local taxation and the conservation of local privileges.
It was no part of a town's intention to encompass the whole of the borough land. The circumvallation was commonly confined to the habitations and working streets. Much tilth and pasturage lay outside, and was left to itself when at the threat of attack the townsmen were bidden to take refuge within the walls. The intramural acreage was often but a fraction of that controlled by mayor and commonalty.
Oxford never had more than 80 acres enwalled. As towns grew in importance suburbs sprang up around them whose occupants were assessed for murage. A graphic picture of sixteenth-century England is drawn by John Leland as he approaches and departs from town after town through busy suburbs without the walls.
Because, too, the walls were later in date than the streets within them there was no town-planning, even where two main streets crossing from north to south gate and from east to west gate perpetuated to that extent the Roman tradition. The larger towns-Norwich, Coventry, Lincoln - show a huddle of tortuous streets. The greatest town-planner in medieval England was Edward I, who served his apprenticeship amid the bastides of Gascony. To him was due the fortified towns established in Wales for the occupation of English settlers protected by English garrisons, and they were laid out, as at Carnarvon and Conway, after the walls were planned.
The chance disappearance by marine action of two old English burghs enabled him to plan new towns also at Hull and Winchelsea. The street planning endured, but the walls of the former, which used brick for the first time in systematic walling since the Roman occupation, have vanished, and of the latter there remain only some ruined gates: Henry III, too, had a chance when Old Sarum was abandoned for new Salisbury. The planning was beyond reproach, and the burghers were licensed to erect stone walls, but they were content with gates, and gates alone.
For the time came when, save for one dying flicker, the walls of towns ceased to function. They were destined to have their place in the strategy of the Rebellion and of the Stuart risings. A long period of internal peace then ensued, during which these defensive fortifications were neglected, and in great measure swept away.
A competent authority has estimated that the number of towns in England and Wales which offer evidence of medieval walling and gating exceeds seventy. The only municipality which has made a systematic survey of its mural remains is Norwich; for the rest reliance has to be placed on local antiquarian research. The varying interest of the story enshrined in them may best be illustrated by selecting some famous examples.
Let us begin with the approaches from the Channel ports to London, which, although itself tailing outside the present survey, is a pre-eminent example of a walled town.
Dominating the river-crossing where the Con tinental traffic from the coast converged upon the road to London, Canterbury had its British earthwork, repaired and perhaps encased and re-gated by the Romans. It was maintained throughout the early English centuries by the Kentish folk as a matter of tribal concern. Restored again by the Normans, the burgesses claimed in 1142 that their walling was then " whole and undecayed."
Long afterwards, in 1380, Archbishop Simon of Sudbury, the king's chancellor, obtained permission to rebuild the West gate, which was outside the Roman town, and to repair the watch-towers and walls. But the city had to maintain an age-long struggle with the Church. The convent of Christ Church sought for nearly 350 years to gain possession of the city walls where they touched the cathedral precincts. The West gate (page 906), with its bold drum towers, machicolated parapet and battlements, is the finest surviving town gate in the realm. Of the two-mile circuit of walling about half is preserved, with half a dozen semicircular towers. A century ago there were more than a score of them, and six or seven other gates.
The next westward approach to London was the Stane Street, and where it joined the road from Portchester lay the city of Chichester, whose four main streets intersecting the civic centre still-as at Exeter-perpetuate, if not intentionally, the Roman planning. Of the four town gates only the sites remain, but the medieval walls, sixteen to twenty feet high, repeatedly restored and stiffened, have been substantially preserved in parts, and five of the sixteen bastions survive. Walls were standing at the time of the Conquest, and although Roger de Montgomery received the city from William I and built a castle there it was already in the thirteenth century a thing of the past.
Southampton was an Anglo-Saxon settlement which superseded the Roman port and naval yard farther upstream. Among the first to be walled after the Conquest, its Norman defences were in part embellished in Edwardian times with mural towers, of which some remain. It is an example of the special fortification needed to withstand hostile attacks from the sea. The lofty walls, thirty to forty feet high and one and a quarter miles round, more impressive though less complete than York or Chester, display two interesting devices- the parapetted arcading on the outer face of one sector, for showering missiles downward, and a lofty square outwork or spur, to prevent the outflanking of a dangerous salient. Of the three extant gates the Bar gate on the north is a Norman structure with Edwardian remodelling and later additions. Its upper storey, once a prison, is now a town hall.
Once a Romano-British country town on the junction of six roads, and for centuries the capital of England, Winchester built its Norman walls on the Anglo-Saxon enceinte, except where they were diverted by Wolvesey Castle. King John gave the profits of two mills for their maintenance. But the franchises claimed by cathedral and priory were so wide that town government was hampered. For centuries the bishop controlled one gate, the convent two, and both fostered the growth of suburbs defiant of municipal authority. At length, in 1604, the mayor was charged with the repair of the walls and the wardership of the castle. The city is walled no more, save in part of the boundary of the close. The King's gate stands, as well as the West gate, a thirteenth- century building refaced with Perpendicular additions, as at Canterbury. There is kept in it a warder's horn of Henry II.
Exeter's two main streets intersect at right angles, as at Chichester. Of the four gates there remain only the foundations of the East gate, and a statue of Henry VII which formerly adorned it, as Fleet Street's Elizabeth once adorned Ludgate in London. The Romans found a British earthwork on this site, and after their withdrawal the town was captured by Athelstan, whose rebuilding, which probably governed the later planning, was so effective that the town was the last to submit fco the Conqueror's attack. The Edwardian walls, one and a quarter miles in circuit, vary in height, and more than three-fourths remain. There was age-long bickering between town and Church about the management and repair of towers and walls and the duty of sharing watch and ward. In 1927 part of the city wall, then in private hands, fell and demolished an inn.
Guarding the outermost extremity of England, the town of Launceston nestles beneath its late-Norman circular keep, already ruinous in the days of Edward III. It was erected on a British earthwork on the hill-head - Dunheved - which was seized and occupied by the Wessex folk. The Conqueror made it a royal borough, and the town walls which came later have perished save for some fragments, but the South gate, a square-towered edifice of the fourteenth century, with later super-structures, still stands. John Leland heard that some Cornish gentlemen held their lands by castleguard - i.e. for manning of Launceston's defences - which resolved itself in practice into a money payment.
When Alfred's son Edward annexed Mercia to Wessex he " took to himself " Oxford as well as London. That upper-Thames stronghold was attacked again and again by the Danes, and was one of the few towns girt with a wall - probably a mound - at the Conquest. Of those defences no trace remains. The present wall was perhaps built under Henry III, with a deep northern ditch, and the line may be followed afoot around the walled town. The most substantial portions that survive stand in New College gardens.
That old kingdom of Mercia possessed at the outlet of the Dee another stronghold with a more impressive past. Roman Chester is described elsewhere; here let it be noted that in after-time Northumbrian and Dane attacked it, that its walls were rebuilt in 908 by Ethelfleda, who diverted them around the site of the later castle, and that the red-sandstone Edwardian walls which arose thereon, twelve to forty feet high, patched and restored again and again, display in their two-mile circuit the finest mural enceinte in all England. The town gates are modern, as well as some of the mural towers.
On Mercia's eastern plain stood Lincoln, where, after a Roman garrison had walled a British hilltop fort, a colonia was created which outgrew its bounds and doubled them by creeping down the hill. Of that earlier walling there remain two gates, the Newport arch, the most imposing Roman gate in England, rivalling the Balkerne gate at Colchester, and the fifteenth-century Stonebow gate, whose upper room is the guildhall. When in the thirteenth century the cathedral was enlarged the old town wall was removed for its accommodation and a new bastioned and embattled wall strengthened the town defences, of which much remains.
Its woollen trade made of thirteenth-century A Coventry the largest town in the Midlands and the fourth in the kingdom. Edward the Black Prince licensed its circumvallation, which, begun in 1357, occupied forty years, with a circuit of three miles, thirty-two towers and twelve gates. Many expedients were devised for securing the requisite funds. Richard II granted the stone, a murage tax on food was tried and abandoned, and all the richer men were assessed. After the Peasant Revolt the king conceded some revenues derived from cloth dues. After Jack Cade's rebellion the corporation voluntarily undertook to strengthen the defences by cleansing the ditches, portcullising the gates and chaining the lane-ends. The demolition of the walls by Charles II as an act of reprisal occupied 500 men for twenty-four days. There stand to-day only two gates and some mural fragments.
The city of Norwich is of outstanding interest. A royal borough in the tenth century, it was ravaged again and again by the Danes, yet continued to prosper, and at the Conquest was one of England's largest towns. It continued for a time to be an open town, but modern research finds evidence of a gated ditch and mound of the twelfth century. After being empowered to elect its own rulers and later on to bring castle, cathedral and priory within the municipal rating, Norwich began in 1253 to wall the town upon the older tracing. The work occupied fifty years, and its cost was provided in part from a rate assessed upon all tenement holders. Because of the civic burdens the king's market jurisdiction was withdrawn, and later on royal revenues from shops and houses were relinquished. The four-mile circuit encompassed an area larger than any other in England, London not excepted. The twenty-feet walls had twelve gates and forty towers, including two designed for a boom defence of the river.
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