Between the late 2nd century AD and the early 3rd century AD the Romans built a wall surrounding the strategic port on the north bank of the Thames River. They named the city Londinium, present day London. Parts of this wall survives today, its history reflecting the story of London over the centuries. The London Wall Walk, first established by the Museum of London in 1984, is a popular activity, starting at the Tower of London and ending at the Museum of London near the Barbican.
08 January 2020: this article is currently being revamped, with new photographs, an new interactive map and much more information being added. Please bear with us over the next day or two.
At this section of the London Wall, known as Cooper’s Row, the wall survives to a height of 10.6m (35 ft). Of that only the first 4.4m (14.5 ft) is Roman construction.
You might think, given how built up London is – and has been for many centuries now, that there is not much original archaeology to see in the city. And, that all the best archaeology is only to be seen in a museum. True, the Museum of London is a must for anyone interested in the archaeology of London, but there are a number of archaeological sites sites scattered around the city.
There are also quite substantial remains of the London Wall. A wall that was initially built by the Romans and subsequently rebuilt and repurposed at various times throughout the medieval period of London. Today a 2.8 kilometre or 1.75 mile Wall Walk follows the route of the wall, which starts at the Tower of London and leads you to the Museum of London. Besides seeing London’s Roman Wall, those who follow the route also get to see a number of the City of London’s significant historical landmarks and sites.
London’s Roman Wall
A bronze statue of the Emperor Trajan in full regalia in front of the Tower Hill section of the Roman Wall, which survives to 4.4m here.
In AD 43 the Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain, and by 50 AD the port of Londinium was established on the north bank at a point on the Thames River narrow enough for a bridge but still deep enough for ocean going craft. Although there is no evidence, physical or otherwise, there must have been some kind of fortification defending the strategically important port at this early stage.
Using a hard limestone quarried near Maidstone in Kent (south east England) the Romans built the landward section of the wall between 190 and 225 AD. The riverside section was built later, between 250 and 270 AD. These dates have been obtained from coins recovered during excavations at various points along the wall.
Just under 4kms in length the wall enclosed an area of 1.33km², an area that roughly corresponds to the present day City of London. This was the largest walled urban centre in Roman Britain. Why the wall was built, some 70 years after the city’s fort was constructed, is unclear. A seemingly obvious reason is that it was raised to defend the city against attack. The large scale and high quality of the wall’s construction does not support this idea.
There is nothing to suggest that the wall was hastily built. On the contrary. Land for a wall and an outer ditch had to be cleared and levelled. Small tributaries of the Thames River, such as the Walbrook, had to be canalised. Stone had to be brought by boat from Kent.
The wall was substantial, varying in width from 2.5 m to 3 m and up to 6 m in height. The outer ditch was 2 m deep and up to 5 m wide. The distinctive D shaped bastions, of which there were at least 22 along the eastern section of the wall, were not built until the 4th century.
The extent of the Roman wall around Londinium in the 4th century AD. Adapted from a drawing by Drallim on Wikipedia.
The threat of Saxon raids in the 4th century AD caused the Romans to strengthen the City Wall. It appears that this involved the closing of the west gate (point 18) and a new, much more substantial gate being constructed here. This gate allowed for twin roadways that were flanked by semi-circular projecting towers built of solid masonry.
Medieval Additions and Alterations
A medieval tower added to the Roman wall at the north west corner of London’s City Wall in the Barbican estate (Plaque 15).
The Roman wall influenced the shape of London for the next 1600 years. Throughout these medieval times the wall was maintained, with even additions added to it. An example being the circular towers or bastions that can be seen at points 15, 16 and 17. Thus the wall retained its defensive function.
In 1666 it was the wall that stopped the Great Fire of London spreading further than it did. From around this time on, sections of the wall were demolished, and in some places it was replaced with brick, or it was incorporated into new buildings and warehouses.
It was the bombing raids of 1940 that not only destroyed this area of London, but also revealed the foundations of the Roman Wall at many points, including those in Noble Street. For about 20 years the area lay undeveloped, and during this time archaeologists were able to identify the foundations of the Roman Fort. In 1956 a new road was constructed, London Wall Road. And all new buildings were then designed to preserve and enhance London’s history.
Best Places to See the Roman Wall in London
The London City Wall Walk was devised by the Museum of London. With 21 points of interest, the route more or less follows the exact line of the city wall from the Tower of London to the Museum of London. A length of 2.8km that takes anywhere from one to two hours. The route is wheelchair accessible.
Perhaps you do not want to walk the route and only want to see the best surviving sections of the wall. In which case there are two places where you can see impressive sections of the wall. The first is at Tower Hill, a stone’s throw from a tube station, and the second is in the immediate vicinity of the Museum of London (also within easy reach of a tube station).
Tower of London and Tower Hill
Tower Hill: one of the most substantial surviving sections of the city wall in London.
Near the Tower Hill tube station are two impressive sections of the city wall. On the path from the station to the Tower of London is a small garden in which stands a bronze statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan. Behind the statue is one of the best, if not the best, sections of the wall still standing.
Here the wall stands to a height of 10.6 m (35 ft) – the Roman component survives to the level of the sentry walkway at 4.4 m (14 ft) with the rest being medieval. Originally, the Roman wall would have stood to a height of about 20 feet or 6.3 metres.
Clearly visible in the wall behind Trajan are the distinctive horizontal layers of flat red tiles.
The bulk of the wall is made up of hard limestone, Kentish ragstone rubble that was bound with mortar. On both sides the wall was then faced with roughly dressed square ragstone blocks. The band of red ceramic tiles was placed after the fifth or sixth course so that courses remained level over long distances.
You can see a section with its dressed outer face on the left of this section of the wall; it is obviously neater than the section next to it where the dressed stone has not survived and all you see is the limestone rubble.
There is another section, equally impressive, close by. Just around the corner from the Tower Hill tube station, on Coopers Row, is The Grange City Hotel. Go through the courtyard to see the City Wall behind the hotel. Again it is a combination of both Roman and Medieval construction. What intrigues me about this section of the wall is the artful way in which very recent buildings have been built around the wall – even a walkway from one street into the hotel courtyard makes use of an old entrance in the wall.
Museum of London and Noble Street
London’s Roman past makes up a substantial part of the Museum of London’s displays of the city’s history. For anyone with an interest in the Romans, this is a good place to start for learning about the Romans in London.
The Roman galleries have been placed within the museum in such a way that they include a viewing window out on to the portion of the the city wall that runs alongside the museum (the medieval tower featured on plaque 17). Although much of what you see from the viewing window is not Roman in date. The circular structure is a medieval tower or bastion that was added to the outer side of the wall during the 17th and 19th centuries. Like many of the remnants we see today, however, the tower is built on the foundations of the Roman wall.
Beyond this point on the City Wall there are the remains of a few other circular bastions. You can walk in the gardens surrounding the museum to see the bastions at points 16 and 15.
Across the road from the Museum of London, which is appropriately named London Wall Road, is Noble Street – which has visible remains of the Roman Fort. This fort was built in about 110 AD and housed about a thousand Roman soldiers. The fort then formed the boundary of the wall when construction began about 90 years later.
There are a series of black information panels that show the map of the wall and how it changed through the following centuries – all the while pointing to features on the walls in front of view.
London Wall Walk Map
Guide to Walking the London WallIn 1984 the Museum of London devised what has become known as the London Wall Walk. This walk traces the path of the wall from Tower Hill (marked in red on the tile map) to the Museum of London (coloured in green on the tile map, which has an exception permanent exhibition of Roman London).
The path was marked out with 21 blue and white tiled information panels, allowing people to move from one location to the next. Sadly, not all of these survive today. Some have disappeared as a consequence of the ongoing construction in the city. One became a victim of more recent history of London. Tile number 8, which marked the site of Bishopsgate, was destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1993.
The map indicates the 21 locations, from from Tower Hill (marked in red on the tile map above, or with a yellow marker on the Google map) to the Museum of London (indicated in green on the tile map above, or with a blue marker on the Google map) and continues the line of the wall from the museum to the other end where New Bridge Street meets the Thames. Interesting and related diversions are marked in yellow. Without these diversions, walking the wall from Tower Hill to Blackfriars Underground Station takes is about two miles and can take anything from one to two hours. And, most of the surviving remnants of the wall on this route are wheelchair accessible.
The walk as devised by the Museum of London starts in the underpass that leads from Tower Hill tube station to the Tower of London. So this is the tube station to head to for to start your self guided tour of the London Roman Wall. As this is also the tube station for the Tower of London, one of London’s more popular tourist attractions this can be a very busy station.
The first, introductory information panel is in the underpass. Click on the photographs of the information tiles, and read the text supplied for each point of interest.
Tower of London
Starting at the eastern end, the first signs of the landward wall that people can see today is in the inner ward of the Tower of London. There are no remains of the wall itself, rather the position of the wall before it was destroyed to make way for the castle, the white tower. The position is marked in the ground.
The position of the Roman wall in the inner ward of the Tower of London is marked on the ground. The structure at the end of these lines is not part of the Roman wall, as is incorrectly labelled on Google’s map. Those are the remains of a late 11th century/early 12th century Wardrobe Tower.
Medieval Postern – Plaque 1
The Medieval postern is thought to have been built in the 13th century. It is the only gate tower on the city wall.
From the underpass, walk back towards the Tower Hill tube station, the second point of interest, a substantial remnant of the wall can not be missed on your right.
Tower Hill City Wall – Plaque 2
From the Tower Hill section of the wall head in the direction of the Trinity Square gardens and turn right into Cooper’s Row in front of the tube station. Carry on up Cooper’s Row to the garage entrance to the Grange City hotel; the London Wall can be seen at the end of the courtyard from the street.
Cooper’s Row City Wall – Plaque 3
Emperor House – Plaque 4
A section of the City Wall can be seen in the basement of Emperor House. This section of the wall was excavated in 1979 and 1980, what was unearthed is a 10 metre long and 3 metre high portion of the wall along with the defensive ditch and the base of a Roman tower.
Algate City Gate – Plaque 5
Point of interest 5 marks the location of Aldgate The information panel is on a low brick wall that surrounds the playground of Sir John Cass’s Foundation Primary School.
It was at this point that the Roman road from Camulodunum (present day Colchester) entered Londinium. When the wall was built, it is thought that a stone gate with twin entrances and flanked by guard towers spanned the road. This Roman gate appears to have survived, perhaps having being altered for defensive purposes in the 4th century, until the start of the 12th century when it was rebuilt, and called Alegate or Algate. The medieval gate had a single entrance flanked by two large semi-circular towers. It was in the rooms over the gate that Geoffrey Chaucer lived from 1374 while he was a customs official for the port of London. In 1609 Aldgate was completely rebuilt only to be demolished in 1761 to improve the flow of traffic into the City.
From the school walk into the traffic circle and go down into the subway, where panel six is located.
Wall Remains – Plaque 6
A section of the wall was uncovered during the excavation of the subway in the mid 1970s. Sometimes the subway is closed to the public, in which case the panel is inaccessible.
From the subway head up Duke’s Place, which becomes Bevis Marks – information panel 7 can be found on the south side of the road next to the entrance to the London Synagogue.
Bevis Marks – Plaque 7
Although all traces of the Wall in this area have now disappeared, many of the streets indicate its location. Bevis Marks road follows the path of road that would have been just on the inside of the wall, while the parallel Houndsditch Road marks the location of the ditch outside the city walls. In the late 16th century the historian John Stow recorded various attempts to prevent the City ditch becoming a rubbish dump, including dead dogs, hence Houndsditch. The ditch was finally covered over in the 17th century and the area used for gardens.
Continue up Bevis Marks, the road becomes Camomile Street and intersects with Bishopsgate, after which it becomes Wormwood Street.
Bishopsgate – Plaque 8
The intersection of Camomile/Wormwood and Bishopsgate is the site of Bishopsgate – taken down at the same time as many of the others in 1760 – 1761 as they impeded the flow of traffic. It was from Bishopsgate that the Roman road Ermine Street left the city for York. There were cemeteries beyond the gateway. Information panel 8 was on a wall that was destroyed by the bomb planted in Bishopsgate in 1993. Today, bishop’s mitres have been placed on the buildings on either side of Bishopsgate road to mark the ancient gateway.
St Giles Cripplegate – Plaque 15
Westgate of the Roman Fort – Plaque 18
The Panel and Roman remains are in an underground car park beneath London Wall Road. Access to the site is possible by arrangement with the Museum of London.
Roman Fort and Wall – Plaques 19 & 20
Along the west side of Noble street is a long stretch of the Medieval Wall, with Roman foundations beneath Panels 19 and 20 have disappeared and been replaced by another series of information panels that show the development of the wall after its re-discovery following the bombing of London during World War II.
Starting at the top, where Noble Street meets London Road, we see the map of the wall as it was revealed after the bombing of London in the 1940s.
At the end of Noble Street, turn right onto Gresham Street, and then first right onto Aldersgate Street heading up to the Museum of London. Panel 21 is on the wall of a new building about halfway up.
Aldersgate, City Gate – Plaque 21
Aldersgate was an important gate well into the Medieval until it was damaged by the Great Fire of 1666. Although it was rebuilt, it was demolished along with the other gates including Bishopsgate and Aldgate in 1761 for traffic purposes.
- Londinium: a descriptive map & guide to Roman London on Amazon.co.uk. Published by the Ordnance Survey, which shows Roman features including the wall overlaid on a modern city map
- Walking London Wall by Ed Harris on Amazon.com (available on Amazon.co.uk)
- Londinium: London in the Roman Empire by John Morris on Amazon.co.uk
- Roman London (The archaeology of London) by Dominic Perring on Amazon.com (available on Amazon.co.uk)
- The Port of Roman London by Gustav Milne on Amazon.com (available on Amazon.co.uk)
Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate Archaeology Travel earns from qualifying purchases.