Dada Masilo

Street Tales: The Medieval Town Wall

4 May 15 words: Street Tales
We delve a little deeper into the history of our city's streets to give you the tales they'd never have taught you at school
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Illustration: Mike Driver

Keeping people out is no new venture, and where UKIP immigration policy rears its ugly head today, there were more basic methods used in the past. Replacing twelfth century earthen defences and ditches, Nottingham’s town wall took about sixty years to complete, starting around 1260. But these days, there’s only one part of Nottingham’s original medieval town wall - located within a hotel complex close to Chapel Bar - that can be seen in its original position. 

The wall was needed after what Stapleton (1912) described as “the virtual anarchy of the Barons’ Wars”. He went on to say, “In the the course of the Baron’s Wall, Nottingham was thrice sacked and burnt. Whether in consequence of these sanguinary experiences, or because it was becoming the contemporary practice, the project of adequately fortifying the town with stone walls and gates was seriously taken in hand.”

Extending well over 1km, it started at Nottingham Castle’s defences to the west, down Park Row and along Parliament Street to the east. Stone gates at Chapel Bar, Cow Gate, St John’s Bar and Swine Bar controlled the roads into the town. East of Swine Bar, the defences remained as an earth bank with a ditch at the front.

The defences linked the old Anglo-Saxon town and the castle, enclosing a lower ground only occupied since the Norman Conquest (1066). There’s no evidence of southern defences apart from the river, marsh and cliff - which provided perfectly adequate natural defences - and until the mid-nineteenth century, Nottingham’s physical extent remained unaltered.

Much of the town wall was demolished by 1540. People weren’t shy about pinching building stones from it either, meaning it virtually disappeared by the late seventeenth century. The surviving medieval wall is overlain by a nineteenth century stone brick wall and floor - which overlays a seventeenth and eighteenth century brick wall - projecting at right angles from beneath the floor. The bricks have been left in place because they support the original medieval wall.

The impressive face of the wall is made of ‘ashlar’: flat-faced, coarse blocks of local sandstone bonded with mortar. Behind the face of it, there are less expensive building materials - I suppose that’s one way of making construction cheaper.

Irregular foundation stones at the foot of the face indicate the original ground level - the full height of the wall could have been a massive 8m (26ft, three times the surviving height) with a path along the top defended by battlements. A wide ditch lay along the front of the wall and an earth bank was heaped up at the back over the lower courses.

At the far end of the surviving wall, a stone in the lowest course bears an incised mason’s mark - a simple cross. Each mason had their own mark to show who had laid each piece of masonry work. Stick that in your spray can.

Nottingham Hidden History on Wordpress

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