Canterbury's City Walls
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Text by William Urry (1948)

Canterbury was surrounded by a wall in Roman times. Traces survive here and there. A fragment of the Roman Queningate can be seen in the city wall opposite St. Augustine's Great Gate, and further up, nearer Burgate, the Roman foundation of the wall is visible.

The walls are mentioned in several Anglo-Saxon documents. In 1011 the Danes succeeded in breaking into the city, slaughtering the inhabitants, and tossing them over the walls.

It has not yet been established whether the Roman and Saxon walls ran altogether on the same line as the later medieval walls, but about 1100 A.D. the city fortifications included the same area as they did to the end of the 18th century.

There were six gates in use in medieval times:-Northgate, Burgate, Newingate, Ridingate, Worthgate and Westgate. Later another came into existence, Wincheap Gate. The walls were frequently rebuilt and reconstructed but never called upon to withstand any real siege after 1011, though the city represented an important strongpoint in the system of national defence.

The Royal government was always attentive to the condition of Canterbury's walls, and whenever they started to become ruinous a peremptory note from the Crown would order their restoration.

The continuation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales tells how when the Pilgrims reached Canterbury the Knight took his son, the Squire, to view the City Walls.

Round 1800 wholesale destruction of the city's historical monuments was allowed to start, due mainly to street-widening programmes, and before it was arrested by an awakening interest a century ago in medieval antiquities, five of the city gates and half of the walls had gone.

The length of the wall was 1.5 miles. It was strengthened by 21 Watch Towers, most of which survive, though embedded in houses. Half of the wall itself still exists, the best visible stretches being at the Dane John and Broad Street. Much of the City Ditch is now built upon. This process was far advanced by the 17th century when it was lamented that the military value of the wall was thus nullified. Even in the 12th century a certain amount of squatting in the Ditch had taken place.

Copyright Stephen Bax 2000. Click here for terms of use.