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The Wall

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Those walles of stone, as they were described by John Stow in A Survey of London, encircled the City of London, shaping both the urban footprint of the city and its social practices (Stow). Originally built as a Roman fortification for the provincial city of Londinium in the second century C.E., the London Wall remained a material and spatial boundary for the city throughout the early modern period. Described by Stow as high and great, the London Wall dominated the cityscape and spatial imaginations of Londoners for centuries. Increasingly, the eighteen-foot high wall created a pressurized constraint on the growing city; the various gates functioned as relief valves where development spilled out to occupy spaces outside the wall. Various church names in London today, such as St. Botolph-without-Aldgate, still retain the designation of their location within or without the city wall and a major street along the wall’s route bears the name of London Wall.


The London Wall started at the River Thames, near the eastern side of the White Tower in the Tower of London complex. From there, the wall ran north by northwest, crossing Tower Hill to Aldgate. At Aldgate it changed direction, running west by northwest to Bishopsgate. Continuing west from Bishopsgate, the wall began a long, almost straight stretch along the northern side of the city, ending at a bastion that still stands in the Churchyard of St. Giles, Cripplegate. Here the wall turned south, running parallel to Monkwell Street and Noble Street, before making an irregular jog to the west again. From there, the wall continued past Aldersgate before turning, just south of St. Bartholomew the Great, south toward the river, crossing Newgate Street and Ludgate Hill. From there, the exact course to the Thames is unknown, as the path of the Roman wall had been changed in the medieval era (Bell 23-24). In the later fourth-century C.E., the Romans extended the wall along the River Thames, a site of current archaeological interest (Smith), fully walling in the city. The riverside Roman wall, eroded by the elements, had collapsed by the twelfth-century. The last riverside portions of the wall were pulled down, with Thames Street laid out along its former course (Merrifield 222).


The Roman Wall

Sketch of what the Roman Wall might have looked like circa 200 C.E. Image courtesy of the Historic UK.
Sketch of what the Roman Wall might have looked like circa 200 C.E. Image courtesy of the Historic UK.
While Stow reports that the wall was built in 306 C.E., the building of the Roman Wall in London dates from much earlier. London was first founded as a trade port during the Roman Emperor Claudius’ conquests in Britain beginning in 43 C.E. After the native uprising against the occupying Roman force, led by Queen Boudica in 61 C.E., Londinium was burned and destroyed. At the time Boudica attacked, London had no encircling wall. The Romans subsequently rebuilt and expanded the city, including a fortifying wall, as part of the development of the provincial capital for Roman Britain. During the next thirty to forty years, the early settlement was rebuilt in the Roman style, with new streets laid out and large public buildings constructed (Bell 17). Between 120 and 130 C.E., the wall was finished, an imposing defensive structure that became the greatest manmade landmark of London through the early modern period—Stow’s walles of stone. The area enclosed by the wall made London the largest Romano-British town, and the fifth largest town of the Roman Empire north of the Alps (Bell 17-18).

Medieval Era

London Wall during the Yorkist siege of London in 1471, as depicted in MS 1168. Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.
London Wall during the Yorkist siege of London in 1471, as depicted in MS 1168. Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.
After the Roman withdrawal in the early fifth-century, few records of London exist for the next few hundred years. Although St. Augustine arrived in Britain in 597 C.E., he made little mention of London. The next historical mention of the Roman Wall appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, when Alfred the Great drove the Danes from London (c. 871-872 C.E.) and ordered the restoration of the city and its defenses (Bell 42-43).
In 1080, William the Conqueror began building the White Tower along the Roman Wall, using one of its towers or bastions for its base, thus establishing the Tower of London complex. Later construction under Henry III, begun around 1238 C.E. and continued by Edward I, saw the enlargement of the Tower of London and the demolition of that segment of the Roman Wall to make space for new defensive curtain walls and a moat (Bell 45).
By 1276, the Order of Dominican Friars had settled into the district that is still known today as Blackfriars. At this location, they built a church and convent house, but their home was outside of the wall. However, these friars enjoyed such favour and prestige that, in 1282, they were given permission from Edward I to pull down the wall near their site and rebuild the wall to enclose their religious house. This medieval portion of the wall forms the irregular jog along the western end of the wall (Bell 46-47; Stow). A continuous structure from the Tower to Blackfriars, the Roman Wall stood until it was cleared away in the eighteenth century. For 1600 years, London was a walled city.


Kentish ragstone. Image courtesy of Canterbury Historical & Archaeological Society (CHAS).
Kentish ragstone. Image courtesy of Canterbury Historical & Archaeological Society (CHAS).
Because the wall had an extensive history of being rebuilt and reinforced, the materials that made up the wall varied. An imposing eighteen feet high, the majority of the wall was built of Kentish rag-stone most likely harvested in the Maidstone district in Kent. The wall was originally built on a foundation constructed of flints and puddled clay often mixed with broken pieces of rag-stone. The external base of the wall, or the plinth, contains material made primarily of sandstone, also believed to be of Kentish origin. The base was then reinforced with a triple layer of brick. The stone of both the interior and exterior faces of the wall is coarse and set in a hard, white mortar (Cook 1-7). To further protect the integrity of the wall and to keep the construction level, double or triple rows of flat, red tiles were laid for every four to five courses of stone (English Heritage). Additional measures were taken as the wall aged in order to reinforce its outer and inner defenses. Originally, the wall was supplemented by an external ditch, ranging from about 10.5 to 15 feet from the base. An earthen bank was built up against it, and further defensive techniques were put in place in the form of additional, semi-circular bastions on the wall’s exterior (Cook 1-7; Stow).

Literary Significance

In addition to its functions of security and boundary marking, the wall also served governmental monitoring functions, controlling ingress and egress, and, as such, registered in the literary imagination of London writers.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer lived in apartments above Aldgate from 1374 to 1386. Chaucer was witness to the spectrum of life passing in and out of the gates, writing two of his works, The Parliament of Fowles and The House of Fame, while residing at the gate’s entrance (Benson xvi-xviii; Lyons). He may have there witnessed the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, where a tumultuous mob pressed its way through the city gate (Lyons), physically and symbolically laying claim to the elite space of London. In the Nun’s Priest Tale of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer makes an oblique reference to the Peasants’ Revolt (Astell), comparing the uproar of the barnyard at the fox’s intrusion to the rabble of the crowd streaming in through Aldgate under the leadership of Jack Straw:
So hydous was the noyse, a benedictee!
Certes, he jakke straw and his meynee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille
Whan that they wolden any flemyng kille.
(Chaucer 3393-3396)

William Shakespeare

While Shakespeare is primarily associated with urban London life, upon first coming to London he lived outside the wall in Shoreditch (Aubrey 97), a town known for its crime-ridden back alleys. The site of the first purpose-built theatres, the Theatre (built in 1576) and the Curtain (built in 1577), Shoreditch became the Bohemian haunt of Elizabethan London (Nicholl 39). Shoreditch lies just north of Bishopsgate, one of the major entrances into the City of London. Tax records of the time show that Shakespeare’s first recorded address inside the wall was in the north-eastern area of London, near Bishopsgate (Wood 131). In the Parish of St. Helen in Bishopsgate stood many inn yards such as the Four Swans Inn and the Black Bull Inn, where wooden galleries, three stories high, could be rented for a penny a night. Nearby lodgings would naturally have been a draw for the young playwright, as the inn yards were frequented by artists, poets, and actors. This area of London was within walking distance, approximately a mile away, to The Theatre in Shoreditch where Shakespeare continued to work.
The distinction between the relative order and protection within the walls and the lack thereof for those consigned to live outside of the city boundaries formed part of Shakespeare’s daily life as he passed through Bishopsgate from his residence inside the city wall to the Theatre, beyond the city gate. Outside the wall, there was a different world: over three hundred inns and brothels could be found outside the city walls, along with bull and bear baiting rings, and skittle and bowling alleys (Wood 186). Also just outside of Bishopsgate was the original site of the Bethlehem Hospital, which became known as Bedlam, a mental asylum. Walking along the streets there at night, one would have likely heard the howling of dogs, the roaring of chained bears, and even screams from patients at Bedlam Asylum.
Shakespeare subsequently moved to the quieter environs of Silver Street, near Cripplegate, where he was a lodger in a house at the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell Street (identified as Muggle Street on the Agas map) (Nicholl 4-6). Though farther from the boisterous world of the playgoers, Shakespeare’s daily life at his Silver Street residence provided a constant reminder of the spatial and social divisions formed by the wall: his lodgings were located just a short half-block from the section of the Wall that bounded Noble Street, marking the western boundary of the city.
Pyramus (Nick Bottom), Thisbe (Francis Flute), and Wall (Tom Snout) in 5.1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Image courtesy of Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.
Pyramus (Nick Bottom), Thisbe (Francis Flute), and Wall (Tom Snout) in 5.1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Image courtesy of Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.
The spatial and social barriers created by the London Wall find expression in Shakespeare’s plays in imagery of division and exclusion. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, the physical wall that separates the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe in the play-within-the-play is humorously embodied by the actor Snout. The inanimate materiality of the wall, observes Alexander Leggatt, achieves human qualities (Leggatt 203). O wicked Wall through whom I see no bliss! / Cursed be thy stones for thus deceiving me! (Shakespeare 5.1.175-176), cries Pyramus. The wall separates the two lovers, causing the melodramatic strife of the rustics’ drama. But Pyramus’ dying words suggest the possibility for social redemption: the wall is down that parted their fathers (Shakespeare 5.1.301). For early modern playgoers, this scene might have evoked the spatial and social boundaries imposed by the rough stones of the ancient Roman Wall in London.
The London Wall, as the primary remaining artifact of Roman London, may well have inspired Shakespeare to think about the connections between his early modern society and Roman times. Fully one third of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Italy, Rome, or the Mediterranean, and his play Cymbeline takes up the lore of the Roman War campaign. As Gail Kern Paster has noted, Shakespeare is particularly drawn to those moments in the Roman past which brought the internal order of the city to a point of critical change when one kind of city was giving way to another (Paster 58). Like the Rome depicted in plays like Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, early modern London was indeed such a city undergoing critical changes due to urbanization, immigration, and the emergence of an increasingly powerful mercantile class.

John Stow’s Survey of London

As in Shakespeare’s work, Stow’s Survey of London gives evidence of the ubiquitous presence of Rome in Elizabethan culture (Miola 11), the lingering trace of Roman culture in defining the city’s boundaries, and the sense of continuity with the original builders of the wall. Stow repeatedly regards the Romans with admiration, claiming the Britons were unskilled, not able to defend themselves and thus sent word to Rome so that the Romaines woulde rescue them out of the hands of their enemies (Stow). Stow writes approvingly of the Romans’ impact on London such that, when describing the distance between the wall’s gates, he uses the Roman unit of measurement known as a perch. There was both admiration as well as ambivalence inherent in Britain’s emulation of Rome (Kahn 161), as evidenced by how the Agas map appropriates the language of Roman imperialism and downplays Britain’s former role as a colonized territory.

The Wall on the Agas Map

The wall of the ancient and famous City of London is depicted on the Agas map as a significant dividing line, keeping the inner city contained and rural practices strictly outside the wall. Strikingly, there are no human figures depicted within the enclosure of the wall. In this way, the urban space of the map adopts emerging cartographic practices of Ptolemaic-based mapping, emphasizing place names and linearity, while the surrounding countryside displays ethnographic practices of the medieval mappa mundi (Roland 128) as well as early modern landscape representations. The difference in shading between the top of the wall and the bottom on the Agas map suggests keen attentiveness to the realistic depiction of the multiple materials used to erect and maintain the wall. The main gates that allow passage in and out of the city, and the bastions in between, are prominently featured on the map.
London Wall on the Agas map, depicted here between Cripplegate and Bishopsgate.
London Wall on the Agas map, depicted here between Cripplegate and Bishopsgate.
There are two cartouches engraved on the Agas map, one poetic and the other a laudatory introduction to the City of London. The two cartouches, located near the bottom of the map, connect London to a mythological Roman heritage, each proudly stating that the city was founded by Brute the Trojan who, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, had come from Troy to claim a new land for himself and his people. The text of the prose cartouche emphasizes the fact that London was bounded: it is compaſſed with corne & paſture ground and incloſed with the river of Thames. The poetic cartouche, in contrast, points to King Lud’s increasing of the bounds of the city. On the map, many buildings push up against the very perimeter of the wall, enacting this process of exceeding the Roman-built boundaries. Compared to the openness of the countryside, London inside the city walls is compact, made up only of largely contiguous buildings. The people working the land, playing, fighting, or navigating boats along the Thames serve as a pastoral contrast to the crowded built environment inside the wall.
The first (laudatory) cartouche on the Agas map.
The first (laudatory) cartouche on the Agas map.
The second (poetic) cartouche on the Agas map.
The second (poetic) cartouche on the Agas map.
The cartouches not only proclaim London’s imperial history but also praise its abundant natural resources: London’s very good soyle, the Thames’s provision of all kind of fresh water-fish and a navigation system that bringeth abundance of commodities from all parts of the world. By incorporating Geoffrey of Monmouth’s myth of the founding of London, referenced in later works from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Holinshed’s Chronicles, the Agas map makes a claim that London, with its ample resources and prime location, is the global successor to the legacy of Rome. The decorative banner at the top of the map reinforces this message, by proclaiming the Latin title Civitas Londinum to be the subject of the map.

Great Fire of 1666

Londons Fier began Setember the Second 1666 (Samuel Rolle). Image courtesy of the Folger Digital Image Collection.
Londons Fier began Setember the Second 1666 (Samuel Rolle). Image courtesy of the Folger Digital Image Collection.
By the time the Agas map was completed in 1561, London was pushing past the confines of the wall. But the Great Fire of 1666 provided the definitive blow to the definition of the city as primarily enclosed within the London Wall. There had long been warnings of the potential for a destructive fire due to London’s narrow streets, thatched roofs, and strong east winds, all exacerbated by the unusually hot, dry summer of 1666. London was built mainly out of timber construction and the summer’s drought had drastically depleted the city’s water reserves (Robinson). Due to the high death rate from the plague, fires were the last thing on Londoner’s minds, the warnings were largely disregarded, and few precautions were taken. In the late hours of 2 September 1666, a spark in a baker’s unextinguished oven set the Great Fire in motion: the fire spread quickly, jumping over twenty houses at a time while gathering force from combustibles such as hemp, oil, tallow, hay, timber, coal, and spirits. Citizens began tearing down buildings, desperately hoping to widen the gap between buildings and deprive the fire of further fuel. Four days after the fire began, however, 13,200 houses, 84 churches, and 44 company halls had been destroyed, along with a third of London Bridge. Fewer than ten lives were lost, but 373 acres of land, approximately 80% of the interior walled London, had burned (Great Fire of London Map). Almost 100,000 people (1/6 of London’s population) became homeless (Robinson). Most of these homeless camped outside the walls of London; due to soaring rent rates from lack of housing, most eventually moved to other villages or found accommodation outside the city walls. Wealthier families began building larger residences, claiming valuable space within the city.
A Plan of the City and Liberties of London; Shewing the Extent of the Dreadful Conflagration in the Year 1666 (Wenceslaus Hollar). Image courtesy of Map and Plan Collection Online (MAPCO).
A Plan of the City and Liberties of London; Shewing the Extent of the Dreadful Conflagration in the Year 1666 (Wenceslaus Hollar). Image courtesy of Map and Plan Collection Online (MAPCO).
The fire irrevocably altered the spatial constructs of London: in October 1666, Charles II and the City appointed Commissioners to preside over the rebuilding of London. The gates damaged by the Great Fire, Ludgate, Newgate, and Moorgate, were rebuilt by the end of the 1670s (Hughes). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the gates, now superfluous in regulating egress and ingress, were removed (Schofield). Surviving sections of the wall remain visible in London today and parts of the riverside wall can be seen within the Tower of London (Londinium Today: Riverside Wall). Near the current site of the Museum of London, sections of the wall and the ruins of one of the bastions still stand (Londinium Today: City Wall and Gates). Neighborhoods around London still bear the names of the historic gates, providing a linguistic trace of the initial plan of the City of London.
By the time the Agas map was created, the city had rebuilt and repurposed the Wall, re-territorializing the city’s prior position as a colonized province of Rome. Sigmund Freud suggested a phantasy using the city of Rome as an analogy for the complexity of human memory in which all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one (Freud 18). If we want to represent historical sequence in spatial terms, Freud suggested, we can only do it by juxtaposition in space (Freud 19). While Freud ultimately rejects this pictorial model of human memory, this juxtaposition in space of the Roman wall amid the development of the city, asserted a visible, if fragmentary, trace of London’s Roman past as part of early modern English culture. Remnants of the past remain within the wall’s multiple layers and fragmentary remains, often side-by-side with contemporary streets and buildings, revealing a history of inspiration, exclusion, and control, and continuing to define the geographical and cultural space of modern day London.


Cite this page

MLA citation

Marylhurst University English 386 Summer 2014 Student Group 1, and Marylhurst University English 386 Fall 2014 Student Group 2. The Wall. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022,

Chicago citation

Marylhurst University English 386 Summer 2014 Student Group 1, and Marylhurst University English 386 Fall 2014 Student Group 2. The Wall. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022.

APA citation

Marylhurst University English 386 Summer 2014 Student Group 1, & Marylhurst University English 386 Fall 2014 Student Group 2. 2022. The Wall. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

RIS file (for RefMan, RefWorks, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

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A1  - Marylhurst University English 386 Fall 2014 Student Group 2
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - The Wall
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

TEI citation

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