Researching the history of town walls and gates

View from the walls of Chester by Thomas Allom 1830s.Walled towns dotted the British Isles in the Middle Ages. Some dated back to Roman days (see town development). Crumbling Roman town walls were shored up in the warring between Saxon and Dane. Both sides also created new boroughs. The charter of Worcester reveals the thinking behind them. A successful market town would generate revenue and pay for its own defence.

The Domesday Book records 112 boroughs (walled towns), thoughtown walls are only specifically mentioned at Canterbury, Chester, Colchester, Hereford, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Oxford, Stafford and York. (Bristol, London and Winchester were omitted from the survey.) It also reveals that in Oxford, specific houses were calledmural houses, as they were rent-free or tax-free in return for repairing the town wall. Whereas in Chester, the reeve used to call out one man to come from each hide in the county to repair the city wall andbridge.

Fears of invasion, uprising and civil war made town walls seem a necessary security throughout the medieval period, though in times of peace they could be neglected. The Crown sometimes had to chivvy boroughs to maintain town walls, towers and gates. The expense was heavy, particularly where new walls were needed to incorporate an expanding town. So boroughs could seek royal permission to collect a tax called murage especially for work on town walls. Records of such royal orders and licences for England, Ireland and Wales can be found in The Calendar of Patent Rolls, for example this grant of murage to Northampton, and this grant of murage to Bristol.

Payments for wall repairs may be found in borough records, some of which have been calendared in print: see Texts and Calendars. Some references to the town walls of the Anglo-Norman settlement in Leinster can be found in the collection Historical and Municipal Documents of Ireland, AD 1172-1320, Rolls Series (1870).

Though some town defences were strengthened during the English Civil War, by the 18th century town walls and gates began to seem not only outdated, but a hindrance to urban growth and traffic. Borough records and local newspapers may reveal a process of demolition.

The North Gate, Durham by T.M. Richardson, before it was demolished in 1818.Medieval town gates were usually massive structures. While minor gates might be small and simple, the main town gates could have several archways: a large one for wheeled traffic flanked by one or two smaller ones for pedestrians. They could be several storeys high and incorporate a church or chapel, a gaol or even a school. Broad Gate, Durham (shown right) housed a prison until 1819, but was demolished the following year. Gates were often removed as too narrow for modern traffic. So those that survive are likely to be lesser gates, not those on major thoroughfares.

Studies and gazetteers

Images

Town walls appear on early bird's-eye views, while town gates and towers were quite popular subjects for 18th and 19th-century artists. Topographical engravings are listed and in some cases illustrated online by print sellers and some public repositories. See Images, Image finder and books of engravings, listed by Anderson. It is always worth checking the picture collection of the local museum or gallery.