The medieval defences of St Albans

Unlike some towns and cities, medieval St Albans had no city wall. But, as Society Vice President Dr Peter Burley explains, St Albans possessed credible defensive features which took advantage of the town’s natural topography.

Following the lie of the land

The first point to make about the town’s medieval defences is that they exploited the natural lie of the land in a way that is much more difficult to appreciate today now that they all lie in built-up areas and the Ver is sometimes dry.  St Albans sits on a promontory on higher ground.  This promontory runs from the Abbey in the south to the King William IV pub in the north (just off our map), half way to Sandridge.  The central and highest part of the promontory is about one and a half miles long and about a quarter of a mile across.  The ground falls away quite sharply in some places coming down off it.

Elevation of St Albans (Saint Albans,UK Elevation Map)

This map shows flood risks in and around St Albans by colouring in the contours.  The promontory on which the medieval town sat is shown by the yellow and green shading.  The Abbey is shown faintly on the southwestern tip of the promontory (above “St Albans”).

St Albans’ outer layer of defence – the Tonman Ditch – follows the lip of this promontory (except for the northern side of the town) to exploit this small advantage of terrain.  Being on the lip of the promontory meant that any attack on the defences would be up-hill and there would be a short space of ground where a defender’s arrows could do some damage while an attacker’s might not.  There are a couple of medieval battles where exploiting the terrain this way led to victory for the army on higher ground.

Ditch and rampart

Construction of the defences began during the Viking Wars and took their final form in the “Anarchy” 1135-53 – the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. The man-made defences comprised a ditch and rampart surrounding the medieval town with seven openings through it and a hedge or palisade atop the rampart. The ditch was about 10 deep and the rampart rose about 15 feet high above the surrounding ground level. The defences were managed and maintained by the Abbey.

The formidable obstacle of the River Ver

The River Ver closed off the town to the south and no man-made defences were needed there. The Ver was much wider and deeper in 1213 than now, largely because of massive water extraction from the 20th century onwards.  Also, very few people could swim in the Middle Ages.  Stepping into deep water with any amount of armour on was usually a death sentence. Thousands of Lancastrian soldiers died trying to swim across the River Nene after the Battle of Northampton in 1460.

Purposes of the defences

Their purpose was to control access to the town, enforce the curfew, levy tolls and – above all – to make wagons stop and force horsemen to dismount before entering the town.  There has been detailed and rigorous archaeology on the defences in Keyfield and in Chime Square.

Inner defences around the Abbey

The inner defences round the Abbey Precinct would have been a masonry wall in 1213.  There were five gates into the Precinct and at its heart was the complex formed by the Abbey Gateway and the Watergate which acted as a keep.  It is also worth adding that the Abbey contained a suite of apartments for use by visiting royalty and dignitaries.  In the 15th century Henry VI was a regular visitor.  The main part of the “keep” – the Abbey Gateway – is still standing, although now a later version of what the Barons would have seen in 1213.

All this means that St Albans was laid out like a massive concentric castle with three circular layers of defences. Conceptually, it resembled the Tower of London, which also had three layers of defence: a moat (now dry), a curtain wall, other inner walls and then the keep (the White Tower) in the middle.

The Benjamin Hare map of 1634, the oldest map of St Albans, shows the town boundary and the Ditch very clearly [courtesy of St Albans Museum + Gallery].

If we start at St Michael’s top left hand corner, the Ditch and the town boundary run clockwise to the black arrow.  There the town boundary continued round St Peter’s Grange to the north (which we will see later) while the Ditch ran diagonally across the northern part of the town and round St Peter’s churchyard to come out on the east of the town at the blue arrow.  The Ditch then ran south along the eastern side of the town to Sopwell Lane, as shown by the red arrow.  It then ran outside the south side of Sopwell Lane to meet the Abbey Precinct’s defences on Holywell Hill and thence to the River Ver at the green arrow.  The Ver then runs north up the map back to St Michael’s.

The rampart along the dry moat of the Tonman Ditch would have been topped by a fence or hedge on the town side of the Ditch.  It should be immediately apparent that a horseman could not simply ride into the Ditch and up the other side.  This was its main military purpose.

Pulling all this together, we have a diagram of the town’s defences as they stood in February 1461, on the eve of the Second Battle of St Albans.

Map of the Second Battle of St Albans