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This question is about defensive city walls, not longer walls such as the Great Wall of China or Hadrian's wall.


After the Norman conquest, many defensive city walls were built by Norman kings in troubled areas. But why did the pre-Norman kings not build these walls?

Did they think there was no need of such walls?

I disagree. We know that building or burhs was common during the period1. England certainly faced many domestic as well as international battles1. We know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that Roman walls, that is stone walls originally built by Romans during their occupation of Britain, were of strategic value in battles. There is evidence that such walls were tended to and maintained by quite a few pre-Norman English kings (e.g., Alfred with the London walls and Æthelflæd with the Chester city walls [1, 3]).

Was it a question of money?

Robert Tombs1 writes that England was quite rich at the time. He does not cite or note how rich but he notes that Æthelred was able to raise £250,000 to pay off the Danish invaders. Edward the Confessor built Westminster Abbey in Romanesque style which would have cost a lot of money. He also writes that some Anglo-Saxon kings were richer than their European counterparts and even their later Norman successors. But besides these one off claims, do we know how rich pre-Norman English kingdoms were and how much such wall building would have cost at that time? Was the money spent elsewhere?

Was it a question of skill?

If it was not a question of money then was it a question of know-how? We know that stone defensive walls were being built on the European mainland and in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire well into the 10th century as a continuation of ancient Roman era practices2. England did have trade connections to the continent --English wool was sold in France and Italy and Byzantine pottery from the 6th century has been found in England[4]. England also had diplomatic connections to various mainland kingdoms and also the Eastern Roman empire (Wessex records from Alfred's time record diplomatic visits both ways, Cnut attended Conrad II's coronation1, Edward the confessor sent ambassadors to Roman emperors[5] etc.). So if the mainland Europeans and Byzantines knew how to build walls then surely such knowledge could have come to England.


References:

  1. The English and their history, Robert Tombs

  2. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, Judith Herrin

  3. Wikipedia:ChesterCityWalls

  4. National Trust: How did Byzantium influence the British Isles

  5. Byzantine Ambassador: Agreed this is an internet source but it appears well cited.

  6. The English and Byzantium: A Study of Their Role in the Byzantine Army in the Later Eleventh Century. This reference is mainly concerned with eleventh century but there are some references to earlier exchanges between Byzantium and England.

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    "Rich" is a relative term. While England might've been doing fine when compared to its contemporary kingdoms, there was a great collapse of trade and economic activity across Europe in late antiquity. New Roman-style walls might've just been too expensive.
    – antlersoft
    Dec 14 '20 at 1:07
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    One might suspect that geometry was a major factor. The smaller a polity, the greater the ratio of wall to available resources needed to construct and defend the wall. E.g. Hadrian's Wall was fairly small compared to the Roman Empire's resources, but gigantic in terms of any British king.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 14 '20 at 3:33
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    Thank you - upvote! I don't think there is such a thing as "too detailed" for H:SE
    – MCW
    Dec 14 '20 at 13:00
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    I suspect the answer will be not that English kings weren't wealthy enough, but that England wasn't urban enough to make the effort worthwhile. Also cities with walls have a tendency to become independent of their kings (see Hanseatic league) and thus it's not always in royal interest to make personal investment in suh. Dec 14 '20 at 13:10
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    @ApoorvKhurasia: Also remember the etymology of Chester: from Latin castrum "fortified place". Dec 14 '20 at 15:03
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Pre-Norman English (or Anglo-Saxons) didn't build primarily in stone for their town defenses because a) it would have been prohibitively expensive; b) it would have required much more time than they originally had; and c) it did not correspond to the primary use of the burh system. After the early construction of the burh system, successful townships did upgrade their defenses to stone when this was possible.


Regardless of how wealthy the kingdom was, there were scores of burhs, due to the requirement that no part of the kingdom be more than 20 miles from a fortification. This would have meant a massive expense that did not work with the concept to build a defensive system that would guarantee safety for the English people along with an assembly place for the defending armies.

Although larger fortifications were obviously more effective in resisting attack, the kingdom could not rely upon investing its resources in a small number of large fortifications, as this would have meant that some areas would not have been within reach of a fortification. The Burghal Hidage shows that a balance had to be struck; even if some of the smaller fortifications which it records were too small to be efficiently supported by the kingdom's pool of manpower and supplies, and were later to fall out of use, in the short term they played a vital part in maintaining the integrity of the network of defence across the kingdom.
—Lavelle, 'Fortifications in Wessex c. 800–1066'

The construction of the burhs was a rapid process, at least in the early years, which had to give people as much protection in as short a time as possible. Building stone walls immediately was impossible, because earth had to settle under ramparts (lest the stone walls subside and collapse). Instead, timber fortifications were much more suitable for the early rapid construction phase of burhs. These earlier walls could be reinforced or rebuilt in stone during later phases of consolidation, as evidenced in the later 10th century when (the successful) burhs went through upgrades from timber to stone defences.

Also, when and where Roman fortifications stood in useful places, Anglo-Saxons happily rebuilt them into new burhs, repairing the stonework and improving upon it when and where they could:

Such repair work upon Roman fortifications was probably undertaken in stone, as Anglo-Saxon builders constructed high-quality stonework, but in the conditions of the time, gaps in some of these walls may have been temporarily shored up with timber as formerly abandoned or under-populated Roman towns became important centres once more.
—Lavelle, 'Fortifications in Wessex c. 800–1066'

Lastly, burhs were not meant to be a defensive strongholds on which the enemy would break itself. The number and location of the burhs meant that as an invader approached one burh, troops from nearby ones could assemble to jointly defeat the invaders. At the same time, because the Norse were relatively unskilled in siege warfare (and they never had as strong a base in Southern England as in Normandy when they attacked Paris), the wooden defenses, with occasional stone improvements, largely stood strong against invaders where the sieges lasted for a short time.

However, the strategic thinking that lay behind the construction of the burhs was more than simply the creation of an armoured shell around the existing structure of the countryside. The burhs were integrated into a landscape of defence, controlling the nodes of communication and allowing armies to move quickly along roads that were maintained for the use of armies. ... If, as Alfred intended, a garrison was present in each of the burhs, the intricate network of fortifications and road communication allowed the West Saxons to gather an army, often from more than one burh, to the area and defeat an invading Viking force.
—Lavelle, 'Fortifications in Wessex c. 800–1066'

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  • Congrats on the 'tick'. Apart from that, I always read all As on this until now as rather complemtary, rather than "contradictory". This is indeed a good answer. Very good. Just a slight difference in focus and presentation. Do you have any idea why both our As could be read as 'contradictory? Does it hinge on "primarily"? Just too curious about the differential reactions and reception in readership(s). If this all is in error, or you disagree, plz comment. Am interested in audience reaction/reception; your perspective on this (plz, keep the tick: just: 'why any controversy about it') Dec 18 '20 at 22:55
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    @LаngLаngС: Hey, indeed, I didn't see the controversy between the two examples either. Some of our reasoning is very similar, you only had the 'luck' of posting about twenty seconds before me. Someone didn't think something in my post worked (one DV vs none on yours), but no comments so not sure whether an inaccuracy was spotted. Overall, though, I think we cover similar ground with slightly different emphasis. And, yes, I think my "primarily not in stone" vs your "they did build in stone" are the 'contradictions', but we explain both of these and they don't turn out that opposing...
    – gktscrk
    Dec 19 '20 at 9:07
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They did.

The Anglo-Saxons still used fortified areas and cities or towns, re-used old ones and build them anew.

It just takes a bit of time, effort and money to develop those walls and fortifications, to build and to maintain them. And perhaps a bit of an incentive. Like say, not Norman but simply Viking incursions, or earlier some extended 'local troubles'.

The central word to look for is 'burh', cognate to burg, burgh burough etc.

Though they nearly always started with ditches and palisades, or whatever was locally available. That is of course exactly the same for later Norman developments of fortifications.

One prime example would be Alfred the Great's capital Winchester, with it's wall remnants still standing:

The burhs were made in a variety of different ways, depending on materials available locally, and the size of the settlement or area it was intended to defend.

Frequently, a burh was built on the site of pre-existing fortifications. Sometimes, the Anglo-Saxons would simply repair old Roman walls in towns such as Winchester, Exeter, York, Burgh Castle, Portchester and Dover. At other times, they would build on the site of old Iron Age forts, such as Dover, utilising the old ditches and ramparts.

However, the Anglo-Saxons did not just use old fortifications. Many of the burhs built by the Saxons were entirely new fortified sites, built on strategic sites on the coast, near ports or overlooking roads and trade routes. Substantial new towns were built on flat land with a rectangular layout, at for example Oxford, Wallingford, Cricklade and Wareham.

Traditionally, burhs were constructed first with a massive series of banks fronted by a ditch. The bank was typically timber faced and timber revetted. This was topped by a wooden palisade of stakes, up to 10 feet (3.0 m) high, with a walkway. At towns such as Tamworth, the ramparts would decay and push outwards over time, meaning that the ditch and bank would deteriorate. To solve this, Anglo-Saxon builders faced banks with stone, thus further reinforcing the defences and improving their life span.

enter image description here
"The walled defence around a burh. Alfred's capital, Winchester. Saxon and medieval work on Roman foundations."

WP: Burh

One important note may be here that it is not solely focused on defending one point, or one front-line, like Hadrian's Wall, but defending 'in-depth', controlling strategic points to cover the land with protection.

This is not to deny the important access rivers provided to inland regions, but it was in their use as a vector of entry to the overland road network that they were most significant in a military context. Travel along rivers did not automatically permit the pillaging of estate centres—in many places, a river such as the Thames is surrounded on one or both sides by a wide natural floodplain that probably consisted in the Anglo-Saxon period of heavy marshland. Disembarkation along these stretches of river would have been treacherous, and a ship-borne force would need to find appropriate places to come ashore—for example, established landing places or fords. Movement upstream could be slow and predictable from the viewpoint of defending forces. Roads, on the other hand, cut across important estates, regularly intersect with other roads, and allow more rapid movement by forces not excessively burdened with booty or equipment.

The fact that crossings were the priority of military planners can be seen from the location of strongholds throughout Wessex and especially along the Thames. The construction of forts at both ends of the same crossing simply provided a more reliable defence of that crossing and greater control of its use. The securing of major fords was important from both defensive and offensive perspectives. On the one hand, it allowed speedy and uninhibited movement of troops across Wessex and also, for campaigning purposes, into hostile territory; on the other, it denied enemy access to the same crossings into Wessex or easy movement within the kingdom.
— John Baker and Stuart Brookes: "Beyond the Burghal Hidage Anglo-Saxon Civil Defence in the Viking Age", History of Warfare 84, Brill: Leiden, Boston, 2013.

From that book, some illustrations:

enter image description here Anglo-Saxon Malmesbury

enter image description here Archaeological evidence from the 1968 excavations and imaginative reconstruction drawing of the Tamworth gatehouse.

enter image description here The areas of burhs.

enter image description here Models of warfare after Luttwak, showing A) Linear defence, B) Defence-in-Depth.

enter image description here Map of beacons in Kent, by William Lambarde, “commissioned by Lord Cobham in order to have multiple copies made, as a guide to the effective use of beacons. The posi- tions of about fifty beacons are marked, with lines indicating the direction of the signals given off by them.” Originally published/produced in 1585.

enter image description here 20-mile radii drawn around the first-phase burhs of the Burghal Hidage.

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  • Can one say that it took the Viking raids to motivate the Anglo-Saxons to spend big on fortifications?
    – Dohn Joe
    Dec 15 '20 at 10:35
  • Was there an unguarded gap in the Malmesbury wall just south of the West gate, or is that a map drawing issue?
    – FreeMan
    Dec 15 '20 at 14:51
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    @FreeMan I don't know for certain, but I was there on Saturday, and that side of Malmesbury is really steep OpenStreetMap (cycling view makes it clearer) show steps in about the right place. The layout is very well preserved
    – Chris H
    Dec 15 '20 at 15:30
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    @FreeMan sorry, hit return as I rushed off, without finishing that comment. Look up/East from the aptly named "King's Wall" on StreetView to see how steeply it rises, also Burnivale. These streets look like they follow the line of the walls closely. I suspect (but can't easily prove) a real break in the masonry where the steps are now, up something almost cliff-like, a natural wall.
    – Chris H
    Dec 15 '20 at 16:14
  • ... See also cotswoldarchaeology.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/… though the excavations they discuss were near the East Gate, on Holloway. This on the other hand suggests a postern gate at OS grid ST 93248721, the sharp bend in Gloucester St at the top of the steps - maybe that's what the break indicates on the map, given the way the road gates appear (also @FreeMan)
    – Chris H
    Dec 15 '20 at 16:21
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in troubled areas.

This is slightly to miss the point that these were troubled areas because of the Normans. In modern times, consider the defensive perimeters around the Green Zone in Iraq, or around army camps in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Regular family compounds have walls too, but on a very different scale because the level of risk is different.

In the Anglo-Saxon period, the purpose of town walls was primarily to defend the town's citizens against external aggressors, most notably Vikings. In the Norman period, the purpose of walls was primarily to defend the Normans against the people whose land they now occupied. The Normans are best known for building castles, not city walls.

many defensive city walls were built

And this is another misconception. The Normans built walls out of wood and earth. Even castles (the famous Norman motte-and-bailey design) were built out of wood.

A very, very few castles were originally built of stone, where they were at the highest risk. They represented a phenomenal investment in resources, and were correspondingly rare. See for example this link, and consider Edward I's architect's complaint with an expenditure of roughly £2000 annually, 200 years after the Norman Conquest:-

In case you should wonder where so much money could go in a week, we would have you know that we have needed – and shall continue to need 400 masons, both cutters and layers, together with 2,000 less skilled workmen, 100 carts, 60 wagons and 30 boats bringing stone and sea coal; 200 quarrymen; 30 smiths; and carpenters for putting in the joists and floor boards and other necessary jobs. All this takes no account of the garrison ... nor of purchases of material. Of which there will have to be a great quantity ... The men's pay has been and still is very much in arrears, and we are having the greatest difficulty in keeping them because they have simply nothing to live on.

And that's for a king in fairly-well-undisputed control of southern England and reasonable control over the rest of the country, and after the increases in agricultural productivity that the Normans brought in.

Was it a question of money?

Money and people, yes. You needed to hire enough stonemasons and labourers to make it happen, and this was never cheap.

Was it a question of skill?

This also is worth mentioning - not skill in construction, but in military imagination. The Saxons defended their towns, and they were all in it together. Once the town wall went down, that was it. But then you needed to invest enough to rebuild the whole town wall in stone, otherwise it was a waste of time. Some towns did, later, when they could afford it, and you got the prototypical curtain-wall design.

But the Saxons simply did not have the concept of a castle, or of defense in depth. The Normans did, and that gave them a two-stage defensive strategy where you could abandon the bailey if you were overrun and retreat to the more-strongly-built keep on the motte. At this point you have a defensive feature (the keep) which you can build fairly strongly and for not too much money.

And now you have the skills to do this, and when money allows, you can start building on that starting point. You often see with town walls that the keep defenses are extended with walls around the bailey, but leaving the houses outside the bailey less well defended; and then further walls are built beyond that; and so on. This is generally an process of progressive expansion as resources permit, not a top-down town planning exercise.

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    I wonder if you've hit something important here. The hypothesis seems to be that stone walls are appropriate for a persistent threat (like conquered natives), but aren't particularly useful against opportunistic nomadic threats (like vikings)
    – MCW
    Dec 15 '20 at 15:03
  • Yes, there's a difference building castles into cities (and flattening many city districts in the process like at Norwich) or when defending the entire town.
    – gktscrk
    Dec 15 '20 at 16:35
  • @MarkCWallace Not so much that they aren't useful - clearly they'd protect the people behind them. It's more that they're very expensive overkill against lightly equipped raiders.
    – Graham
    Dec 15 '20 at 21:17

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