Canterbury: Walls and ditches

The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 11. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1800.

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Edward Hasted, 'Canterbury: Walls and ditches', The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 11, (Canterbury, 1800), pp. 69-74. British History Online [accessed 23 June 2024].

Edward Hasted. "Canterbury: Walls and ditches", in The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 11, (Canterbury, 1800) 69-74. British History Online, accessed June 23, 2024,

Hasted, Edward. "Canterbury: Walls and ditches", The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 11, (Canterbury, 1800). 69-74. British History Online. Web. 23 June 2024,

Walls and ditches

WHEN THIS CITY was first inclosed with A WALL is nowhere to be found; but the many British bricks still to be seen in different parts of it are no small token of its antiquity. These bricks were in particular to be seen in the wall on the south side near to where Riding-gate stood; at the remains of the gate now pulled down called Worthgate, leading from the Castle-yard to Wincheap; at the place in the city wall, where Queningate once stood, at a few yards distance northward of the present postern opposite to St. Augustine's abbey; and on the bank on either side of the river behind St. Mildred's church, in the remains of the wall there, where there is a course of these bricks quite through the wall.

That this city was walled in the time of the English Saxons, may be proved from several records, among the archives of the cathedral; (fn. 1) that it was walled before the Norman conquest, is evident by the testimony of Roger Hoveden, who, in his account of the siege and surprisal of the city anno 1011, by the Danes, in the time of king Ethelred, mentions many of the English having been cast, by them heading from the wall of the city, which being taken, was, with the cathedral, burnt and utterly wasted; in the rage of which, the city wall, as being its best recurity against a like surprisal, was not at all likely to be spared by that destroying enemy. (fn. 2) However this might be, it seems afterwards to have been again repaired, and archbishop Lanfranc, in the Conqueror's time, was a great benefactor for that purpose; and William of Malmsbury, who wrote in king Stephen's reign, tells us, that in his time the walls of it were whole and undecayed, inclosing it round about. After which there are several instances of the attention paid towards the support of them. Queen Alianor, on her son's, king Richard I.'s absence, when he was taken a prisoner on his return from the holy land, gave orders in her son's behalf for the better strenghening of this city, in regard to the ditches, walls and other fortresses belonging to it; (fn. 3) and king Richard II. gave two hundred and fifty marcs for the same purpose; in which reign archbishop Sudbury, after this royal example, at his own expence, rebuilt the western gate of the city, as well as the wall, called the Long wall, between that and Northgate, and intended, had he lived, to have done the same by the rest of the wall round the city, much of which was at that time in a tottering and decayed state, insomuch, that Sir Simon de Burley, then constable of Dover castle, and warden of the cinque ports, advised, that the rich jewels of Christ-church and of St. Augustine's, should be removed for more safety to Dover castle. (fn. 4)

What cost it had in reparation afterwards bestowed on it, was chiesly raised in king Henry IV.'s reign, by the general tax of the whole city, as appears by the book of murage, in the city chamber. Towards the sustaining of this charge, the citizens having begun to strengthen it with a wall of stone, as well as by a ditch, and as an encouragement for them to proceed, as well then as in future, the king in his 10th year, considering that the city was situated near the sea, and was a port or entry to all strangers coming into the realm by the same parts, by his writ of privy seal, granted to them a licence to purchase lands and tenements, to the value of twenty pounds within the city, in mortmain, to hold to them and their successors, in help towards the building and making the same wall and ditch, for ever; and he also granted to them, that they might arrent and build up all lands and places voyd and waste within the city, and hold the same to them and their successors in help and relief of the charge, and in maintenance of the premises and other charges to the city happening in the fortifying of it, for ever. The charge of this work may be best judged and estimated by the compass and circuit of the wall, which was measured in the 3d year of the above reign of king Henry IV. by Thomas Ickham, an honorable citizen, and an alderman of this city, (fn. 5) and a note taken of it, was registered in the records of the city chamber. The total measure of the wall, as cast up at the end of it, being 569 perches, and the 4th part of one. (fn. 6) But it is miscast, for exclusive of the gates and the bank of the river, the whole is 572 perches and a quarter, to which add the six gates and the bank of the river ten perches, the whole compass of the city is, as Mr. Somner has made the sum total, in his Appendix, as below recited, 582 perches, and the fourth part of one, besides Quyningate, which was a very small one. (fn. 7) By this record, it may be perceived, that the whole wall between Westgate and Northgate, was not then built as it was afterwards; for on either side the river, the wall, as appears by the record, clearly breaks off, so that there is an interjected distance of eighteen perches long between the one and the other wall, and indeed it appeared to but a slight observation, that so much of the wall as stood, and was made up in that, then, as it seems, unwalled part, namely, between the postern and the waterlock next Northgate, through which, under three arches with a portcullis, the river, till of late, passed from Abbot's mill, was in the stone work much different from the rest of the wall, and shewed not in any part the least wreck or decay, as the other doth. This, therefore, was an exception to what archbishop Sudbury is said to have built, and was, no doubt, made afterwards. (fn. 8)

In the city wall there were built twenty-one turrets or small watch towers, orderly placed, though now, as well as the wall, all decayed and in ruins. (fn. 9)

These walls were of chalk, faced and lined with flint, excepting between Westgate and Northgate, where they are faced with squared stone. They were about six feet thick, the parapets and battlements well coped with mason's work, as were the tops and loopholes of the towers. The walls, except where the river runs at the foot of the wall, are incircled with a ditch, at first 150 feet, though now to all appearance not near so wide, and from the incroachments on it is distinguishable only from Northgate, round the east and south sides of the city, as far as the postern beyond Wincheap-gate; the whole of which is now either built on with tenements, or converted into gardens, under leases from the city, to whom it all belongs. (fn. 10) The wall on the west part of the city, a little westward of St. Mildred's church-yard, has several large breaches made in it, the work of the Parliamentarians, about the year 1648; in one of which, however, they seem to have been stopped by a course of Roman bricks, quite through the wall, of which notable feat further mention will be made hereafter.— This part of the wall being built on low ground, among the meads at but a small distance from the river, has never had any ditch, nor indeed any occasion for one.


  • 1. In king Ethelbert's charter of the scite of St. Augustine's monastery, anno 605, the ground for that purpose is described to lie under the east wall of the scite of Canterbury.
  • 2. See Battely's Somner, p. 4.
  • 3. See queen Ælianor's charter, that the assistance of the monks towards the repair and work of the city's fortification should not be drawn into a precedent, printed in Somner's. Append. No. ii. and the letters of Hubert de Burgh, chief justice in the reign of king John, to the same purpose, No. iii.
  • 4. Lamb. Per. p. 316. Weever, p. 225. Battely's Somner, p.6. In the city chest there is an order, dated in the 19th year of king Richard II.'s reign, issued from the court of chancery to the bailiss and citizens, for the speedy repair of the walls of this city.
  • 5. He was alderman of Burgate ward, and dying in the 3d year of king Henry V. was buried in Christ-church. Others of his name and family were benefactors to St. Peter's church, in this city, where they lie buried.
  • 6. The measurement, as registered in the records of the chamber, is as follows, viz. First from the little gate called Quyningate unto Burgate, xxxviii perches, and the gate Burgate contains one perch. Then from the said gate Burgate to Newingate xxxvii perches, and the gate Newingate contains one perch. Then from the said gate Newingate to Ridingate, xlviii perches, and the gate Ridingate contains one perch. Then from the said gate Ridingate to Worgate, lxxxiii perches, and the gate Worgate contains one perch. Then from the gate Worgate to the water which is behind St. Mildred's, lxi perches, and the bank of the river there contains iv perches. Then from the bank of the river to Westgate, cxviii perches and an half, and the gate Westgate contains one perch. Then from Westgate to the end of the wall, which is called Long Wall, containing lix perches and a quarter of a perch. Then the water which is called the Stowr, from that wall to the wall which is called Waterlocke, contains xviii perches and an half. The wall from that place to Northgate contains xl perches, and the gate Northgate contains one perch. Then from the gate Northgate to Quyningate contains lxix perches, which is towards the priory of Christ-church, Canterbury. The total sum is Dlxix perche-and a fourth part of a perch. Mr. Somner has added this measurement in his appendix in Latin, No. iv. but has given a different sum total, viz, Dlxxxii perches and the 4th part of a perch; which is the right sum total of it
  • 7. Battely's Somner, p. 8.
  • 8. Somner, p. 8. Upon the upper part of the wall, over these arches, was a pathway across the river, being the only dryshod communication between the east and western parts of the city, when the river had overflowed its banks both at Kingsbridge and Westgate, This wall, together with the arches, which were pointed and of rather an uncommon construction, were pulled down in 1769, and the materials made use of towards the widening of the passage over Kingsbridge.
  • 9. The walls are in general in a ruinous state, excepting that part of them which extends along the precincts of the cathedral, near the postern gate, opposite Lady Wotton's Green, which has been handsomely repaired at the expence of the dean and chapter. On the tower near the postern above-mentioned, are three shields of arms carved in stone, viz. those of England, of the City, and of the Priory.
  • 10. Somner says, that both the city wall and ditch were even in his days much neglected, little more that half the wall being then inditched, the rest being either swereved or filled up, and in many parts builded upon; the wall itself in some places easily scalable, what with piles and stacks of wood in some, and houses and the like in other parts of it. What a shame, he continues, that a little profit should banish all care of this kind, and that the greediness of a small advantage should be a means, as it then was, of betraying the city at once both to danger and deformity; but, he says, he might forbear to censure, for he despaired of its regard in those days. How much more applicable is this remark in these times, in which the private profit of some few is, with too many, more alluring than the common good.