Longer, taller, and wider than its more famous Roman ancestor, there used to be a massive wall surrounding London – and yet it vanished within a decade of being built. What happened?
This was the Lines of Communication, a massive earth wall and ditch fortification built to protect Parliamentary London from Royalist attack. It was about three times longer than its Roman ancestor and physically much bigger – yet despite its huge size, outside academic circles, it is now almost totally forgotten.
At the time, the wall which ran around Greater London — from Wapping to Hyde Park, from Shoreditch to Southwark — was considered to have been the largest fortification of its type in Europe, but so scarce are the records of its existence that even today, no one is exactly sure where it was built.
Other cities, such as Oxford also had temporary walls built to protect themselves, but nothing on the scale of what London was to achieve.
Despite the scale of the construction, contemporary details about it are few and due to its total demolition, once the civil war was over, there is nothing above ground to indicate where it once ran. However, some accounts and later maps can be used to get an idea of the extent of the fortifications.
As the English Civil War started in 1642, London was loyal to the Parliamentarians and against the King. To protect the city from attack at the start of the civil war, the City of London erected some basic defences, mainly near the city gates and the riverside, and had chains ready to string across streets to slow an advancing army .
A letter sent in November 1642 from by Venetian ambassador, Giovanni Giustiniani describing the works said that “at the approaches to London, they are putting up trenches and small forts of earthwork, at which a great number of people are at work, including the women and … children.”
It’s estimated as well that the city had in total around 12,000 people made up of 12 regiments to man the barriers.
However, on 7th March 1643, Parliament ordered the construction of a much larger formal fortification.
“It is this day ordered by the Lords and Commons in Parliament, that the Lord Mayor and Citizens of the City of London, for the better securing and safety of the said City, Suburbs, Parliament and City of Westminster and Borough of Southwark, shall have power to entrench and stop all such highways and byways leading into the said City, as well as within as without the Liberties, as they shall see cause; and shall also have full power and authority, according to their discretion, to fortify and intrench the places afirsaid with such Outworks and in such Places as they shall think meet”
As part of the regulations, the City of London authorities were given jurisdiction over Westminster, the Strand and all the Liberties within. There was also a concerted attempt to suppress dissent among those in the city who still supported the King, with one protest being put down violently, leading to the deaths of several women.
The Venetian Secretary, who wrote letters about the wall observed that it seemed as much to protect the city from without, as it was to subdue the population within.
The City authorities were also given the powers to build the wall around what might be considered an early variant of “Greater London”, in that it not only exceeded the City of London’s own boundaries but was wider even than what was considered to be London proper at the time. The size of London was at the time defined by the Bills of Mortality, weekly lists of the dead drawn up for each parish in the London area.
The fortification wall covers a larger area than the parish boundaries, for reasons which are unclear, but probably based on convenience and strategic defences.
The cost was not insignificant either – equating to 2 pence in the pound for every tenant renting a home that was worth more than five pounds per year in rent. In addition to the cost, was the marshalling of “volunteers” to work on building the fortifications.
In December 1644, the Commons in the Ordinance required the levying of moneies with the boundary created by the fortification walls for the “better maintenance of the Guards, Works and Forts, about the City”
The cost of the fortifications was put at £6,952 and 4 shillings, which was borne largely by the City of London, but also Southwark and Westminster.
Each of the Livery Companies – the tailors, watermen, potters, etc, would close down for a day at a time and all labour together. Contemporary reports suggest around 100,000 men worked on the fortifications at various times.
This was satirised by Samuel Butler in Hudibras:
What have they done, or left undone,
That might advance the Cause at London?
March’d rank and file, with drum and ensign,
T’entrench the city for defence in;
Rais’d rampires with their own soft hands,
To put the enemy to stands;
From ladies down to oyster-wenches
Labour’d like pioneers in trenches,
Fell to their pick-axes and tools,
And help’d the men to dig like moles?
A contemporary report suggests that each of the major trades would stop work on a set day and all labour on the fortifications. This had a significant impact on the reason London existed — trade and commerce — and there were petitions to Parliament to relax the restrictions.
Unusually for a Parliamentary supporting city, people even worked on a Sunday. At the time, the Puritans had campaigned to abolish the many holy days and replace them with strict observance on Sundays, so breaking that religious law shows just how worried they were about an attack by the King.
Much of the fortification wall was made of earth banks. This would have been constructed by digging a deep ditch on the outside of the wall, and piling the soil up on the inside so that the end result is an outer facing wall twice the height it could have been without the ditch in front.
The ditch was probably dry, but there is some suggestion that at least the sections close to the Thames might have been flooded, either deliberately, or by virtue of being in boggy land and just filling up. Excavations in 1992-1994 near the site of one of the forts show clear evidence that the lower sections of the ditch would have been waterlogged.
It’s also thought that they used earthworks rather than masonry as it was better at absorbing the impact from cannon fire, but some masonry works do appear to have been carried out — as evidenced by bills paid to a John Young, a mason, for overseeing the stoneworks .
The outer walls were also likely to have been lined with turf soil cut from the surrounding farmlands, with the resultant effect that growing crops in the fields was impaired for several years after the war.
By the middle of May 1643, the fortifications were largely complete.
Much of what we do know about the fortifications once completed, comes from a report, written by the Lanarkshire tailor and travel writer, William Lithgow who happened to be in London just after the completion of the wall.
And now the maine number of all these circulating fortresses (besides redoubtes, countercarps, and half moon workes, along the trenches) amount to twenty-foure forts in all; and upon them planted and resetled two hundred and twelve pieces of cannon; which, indeed, is a mighty and tremenduous sight; where Vulcan and Bellona mean to make a bloody match, if the esurious assailants should come, in a tragicall, inconsiderable way, to surpryse the virginitie of these new and now almost finished fortifications, which, indeed, have been very chargeable to the city, and daily will bee more; for all the port-holes are soled and syded with timber; the platformes where the cannons ly are laid with strong oaken planks; all the ordonance are mounted upon new wheeles; besides the pallosading and barrocading of them without, with yron workes and other engynes.
The fortifications were made up of a large earth wall with substantial ditch/moat on the outside and stone reinforced gates. A number of forts also dotted the wall at key locations, and there may have been a few isolated forts a bit further away from the city to protect key roads and water supplies – such as the New River. Where roads punched through the walls, it seems that ditches were dug, and possibly covered with a drawbridge.
At the river, on each bank two forts were built with cannon designed to prevent ships entering the city. Presumably, if the Royalists did start preparing a naval attack, the City would be aware of it and might have hastily constructed piers into the river to narrow the access and mounted cannon on the ends of the piers.
A similar process was carried out at Blackwall during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I
The fortifications never saw active use during the first civil war, as the Royalist forces never attacked London.
However, they proved to be needed, and impotent, when a very unexpected army attacked Parliamentary supporting London. Following the surrender of King Charles I in May 1646, Parliament struggled to raise the funds to pay its own military force, the New Model Army.
In the end, the army turned on its Parliamentary masters, and in July 1647 marched on London, arriving at Southwark, which swiftly surrendered and passed through the massive fortifications virtually unchallenged.
All that effort to construct, and it was overturned by a simple surrender.
The New Model Army demanded that the fortifications be demolished, arguing that the maintenance costs was ruinous to the people of London, and doubtless wanting to ensure that Parliament couldn’t fortify the city against them once more.
The walls were largely torn down in 1647, although not levelled completely, just destroyed to the point where reconstruction would be time-consuming.
Although nothing remains above ground today to mark where the wall once stood, sometimes during building work, archaeologists come across infilled ditches in roughly the right places, which they report as “possibly” associated with the wall.
Some illustrations do exist, such as this drawing of the abandoned fort at Vauxhall from around 1800.
However, before getting too excited, it’s worth noting at this point that many drawings of the fortifications are fakes, made in the 19th century by Peter Thompson, who claimed that they were drafted by a Captain John Eyre in 1643.
Regrettably, the fortification walls depicted here are nothing like the probably very roughly thrown together earth banks that would have been constructed.
One which is almost certainly correct though is a fairly well known earthen mound at Whitechapel, which was depicted in many drawings. Although subject to the usual Victorian exaggeration of scale, there was certainly something large and fortification like next to the Royal Free Hospital in Whitechapel until it was flattened in 1808 for redevelopment.
Another good source is the draftsman, Wenceslaus Hollar who, among his prodigious output included some drawings of areas thought to be associated with the fortifications showing deep ditches, which are known to have run around the outside of the fortification wall.
In May 1643, the Scottish travel writer, Mr Lithgow decided to walk the perimeter of the fortification, which he said was “painfully performed”.
Over the next few days, I am going to try and follow the footsteps of Mr Lithgow and also walk the perimeter of the Civil War fortifications. Hopefully, my perambulations will be less painful.
This will prove to be an exercise in mental leaps as much in physical steps, as there is a considerable amount of ambiguity about where the fortifications would have lain. With the earliest map dating from at least 50 years after its demolition, and maps of the time being rather less accurate than we expect today, the trap to avoid is seeing something that isn’t actually related to the fortification.
Is a large open space really the remains of a fort, or just a coincidence.
I have taken a number of maps and overlain them to try and derive where coincidence fades into possible facts.
1] Somers tracts, The present Surveigh of London and Englands State. page 557
2] Journal of the House of Lords: volume 5: 1642-1643 (1802), pp. 641-642
3] Perfect Diurnall of Some Passages in Parliament, December 1644
4] An Ordinance of the Lords and Commons for the Raifing of Money, December 1644
7] Illustrated London News, 28th April, 1860
9] The growth of Stuart London, by Norman G Brett-James
10] Calendar of State Papers, Venetian, 1642-43
11] Plan of the City of London as fortified by Order of Parliament in the years 1642 and 1643, Amended by Cromwell Mortimer M.D. in 1746, Kings Topographical Collection
12] Property destruction in Civil War London, Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, 35
13] The Excavation of Roman and Mediaeval London, by W.F. Grimes