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Exploring the Walls and Gates of the City of London

Gillian Laidlaw delves into the history of the principal gates through the defensive wall which surrounds the City of London


hen the Romans conquered Britain in 43AD a major river disrupted their journey

north. However they found a suitable crossing point between marshes on the south bank and two low gravel hills on the north bank. The Roman army surveyors probably decided that north of the river on the hills above the flood plain was suitable for a military base. Subsequently the Roman government and private traders settled on the hills of what are now St Paul’s and Cornhill and Londinium was born. It became the lowest convenient bridging point of the Thames, the first bridge probably being built of wood during the Roman occupation.

How London got its name is unclear. The Oxford Dictionary of London Place Names says “until very recently (it) eluded any really convincing etymological explanation” but recently a plausible case suggests that “Londinium may derive from pre-Celtic roots meaning something like place at the navigable or unfordable river.” The dictionary cites complex philology to support this case. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s claim in the 12th century that London is named after the legendary King Lud therefore seems a more attractive explanation even if it is incorrect.

There was presumably some sort of defensive boundary around the settlement but it cannot have been very effective. In 60AD Queen Boudiccca destroyed the settlement by fire and massacred all those left behind. By the 70s AD the settlement was expanding again and public buildings, like a basilica and forum, were being established. Emperor Hadrian visited in 122AD by which time a fort had been built to the north west of the settled areas. This probably consisted of barracks for the garrison rather than a defensive structure. It stretched south from the


Map showing location of City of London’s gates (Courtesy

portion of wall still standing within the Barbican Estate along Wallside to approximately Love Lane and Oat Lane, and from the fragment of wall on Noble Street east towards Aldermanbury. Substantial portions of the barracks are buried beneath Wood Street police station.

In about 200AD the whole city was encircled by a wall for the first time. The wall was an unusual shape because it had to incorporate the fort. There was no suitable building stone nearby so Kentish ragstone was quarried near Maidstone and brought by barge along the River Medway and up the Thames. One such barge sank at its moorings and was found during excavations near Blackfriars Bridge. The wall was just over three kilometres long and enclosed about 330 acres. It is estimated that it was 1.8 – 2.7 metres wide and 5.5 metres high with a parapet and walkway along the top. There was a deep ditch on the outer side. In the mid third century bastions were added on the eastern side of the wall; those near the Barbican Estate are medieval in date.

The wall continued in use after the Romans left Britain. In 457AD it was substantial enough to defend London against Saxon raids. Over time the wall fell into disrepair and sections were rebuilt but by the17th century it had ceased to be defensive. For 1500 years it

had constrained the growth of the City; only in the 16th century did London begin to extend significantly beyond its wall. Building and redevelopment in the 18th and 19th centuries led to large parts of the wall being destroyed when contractors finally learned how to overcome the substantial work of the Romans. Small sections of the London Wall remain above ground but much became buried under and incorporated into buildings and has been rediscovered during 20th and 21st century excavations. Roman Londinium had four main gates at Aldgate, Bishop’s Gate, Newgate and Ludgate. Cripplegate only led into the fort. There was also a western gate into the fort which was closed in the 4th century and replaced by Aldersgate. During the medieval period a gate was added at Moorgate and postern gates at Aldermanbury and next to The Tower of London. The seven principal gates to the City of London, from east to west, became Aldgate, Bishop’s Gate, Moorgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, Newgate and Ludgate

The Roman road east to Colchester, once the capital of Britain, left the City through Aldgate. In 1052 the Saxons called it aest geat or “east gate”. It was rebuilt between 1108 and 1147 when it is referred to as “Alegate” from the Old English ealu and geat, probably a place where ale was sold and consumed. By

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