London's City Wall

Visited 17 March 2006

Above: The remnants of the postern gate that controlled entrance to the London Walls near its east end.
Bronzed Boudica and her daughters rise again near Westminster Bridge.

Starting with third-century Romans,  these stones (in much better shape) kept the barbarians outside and protected the inhabitants of London for a thousand years.  The Romans first built their city of Londinium without walls in 43 AD.  Seventeen years later, the Celtic queen Boudica burnt it to the ground and killed over 70,000 people in Britain (including anyone foolish enough to still be in Londinium) in a failed effort to get the Romans to adopt an exit strategy.  (Don't say quotas or timetables, please!)  After the Romans flogged her, enslaved her nobles, and raped her daughters, she was none too pleased.  (It was probably not the best way for them to assuage her widow's grief after her husband-king died).   Emperor Nero did not fiddle while Londinium burned, sending Gaius Suetonius Paulinus to restore the Pax Romana to Britain.  History treated Boudica better than the Romans did; after being forgotten during the middle ages, this iron-age woman who fought an empire came ironically to symbolize Empress Victoria. Victoria's husband Albert commissioned Boudica's statue that still gallops majestically near the House of Parliament.  Rule Boudica!

But the Romans slowly learned their lesson.  Despite what Robert Frost would say, good fences kept out bad neighbors.  A hundred years after they rebuilt Londinium, around the year 200AD,  the Romans surrounded their Boudica-savaged city with about 5 miles of walls at least 18 feet high.  Many boatloads of Kentish sandstone were shipped up the Thames and from its last tributary.  The original walls enclosed about a square mile in a large letter "C" from today's present Tower of London on the east to Blackfriars on the West. Later, one of Roman Britannia's last construction projects was to further fortify Londinium's defenses around 410 AD including adding a wall along the river.  Soon thereafter, Roman rule dissipated for good and Londinium was all but abandoned until marauding Vikings drove townspeople back behind the walls.

But London was literally set in stone.  Roman walls imprinted the area north of the Thames pool with a shape that lasts to the present day in the municipality called The City of London (also called The Square Mile or just The City.)   The walls defended London for more than a thousand years as successive invasions of Saxons, Vikings, and Normans replaced the Romans.  Made obsolete by gunpowder, they still were effective in controlling commerce.   It's easier to extract the tax at a gate than in a market place.  So the walls stayed (and were often further fortified) until 1761 when they fell to the emerging modern god of traffic management.  Before the walls fell, the Great Fire of 1666 drastically altered the buildings, but unfortunately not the street configuration which today chokes the largest financial district in Europe.  Three centuries after the walls disappeared, WWII German bombs nearly leveled the Square Mile within -- but ironically unearthed many of Rome's original fortifications.


In 1984, the City of London Museum made a valiant effort to document the wall.  Their display (below) contains this photograph with the white outline of the wall superimposed over today's financial district.  Just beyond this display, the museum's windows show substantial remnants of the wall in the Barbican Centre Area.

In a few cases, the actual fortifications still stand among modern buildings.  However, in most cases, the museum installed ceramic plaques strategically placed (and often destroyed by later renovations or IRA bombs) along the site of the old wall. (Sample above).  While these are very helpful, they can be tough to find in many cases.  For a complete list, try this site.

Modern London pretty much ignores their historic wall fragments but a few intrepid tourists search for the Museum's plaques.  You can virtually as well: Click here to walk the walls in the counter-clockwise order set up by the Museum of London, or select any of the pages below:

For an index of all of our London pictures, click here
Created on 1 November 2006

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