Compared to some of the walled towns of continental Europe, the urban defences of English towns are rather less striking, visually, At most places they have not fared well through the post-medieval centuries, for at few places were defences needed after the conclusion of the civil War of the seventeenth century. Much of their fabric has been torn down in the course of urban exansion and redevelopment (notably provision for better traffic circulation), and only growing concern for heritage preservation in the nineteenth century and growing desire to exploit the tourism potential of historic structures in the twentieth has assured the survival of at least parts of a number of urban defensive circuits.
Canterbury was encircled by a wall about one and a half miles in circumference. The Lydgate llustration shows an extensive stretch of the walls, including 8 round towers and one gateway. Braun and Hogenberg's birds-eye view of Canterbury (ca.1580) shows the entire circuit, in lesser detail, incorporating just over 30 towers. However, it is now believed there were 24 interval towers, a few square, most round (or, technically, horseshoe-shaped, since they were open-backed). There were six gates providing access through the walls during the Middle Ages.
Canterbury had been walled by the Romans in the late third century. Those defences were still sufficient to hold off, in 1010, a besieging Danish force for twenty days, but were eventually overcome. The surviving medieval stretches are essentially repaired and re-heightened Roman works. We know that repair work was being carried out around 1166, and archaeological evidence suggests some rebuilding in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Notwithstanding such efforts, a royal commission of enquiry found, in 1363, that the walls were in bad disrepair; in places the Roman walls had been reduced to little more than half their original height. Although the city bailiffs subsequently took action to remove encroachments on the wall and ditches, repairs to the walls may not have been underway much before 1378, when the bailiffs were authorized to engage masons from the county, and the king permitted the collection of murage for five years.
A series of further murage grants covered the rest of the century. A survey conducted in 1402 showed that most of the circuit had been rebuilt. A further grant in that year may have been intended to finance work on one short stretch of wall still needing attention. The last murage grant expired in 1408, and in the following year the city authorities were licenced to acquire properties to generate income to offset costs of maintenance of the defences. The same late fourteenth century building programme also saw new towers added to supplement the handful of Roman towers, and renewal of the Westgate, although other gates had to wait until the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century before they were rebuilt.
Five of the city gates, along with almost half of the walls, were demolished during the nineteenth century, under pressures of street widening and other urban redevelopment. Once more stone from the walls (and from the castle) was carried off for use in public works. Parts of the wall and towers are now incorporated into or obscured by later buildings. Short stretches were reconstructed in the twentieth century.
As in the case of Canterbury, it was the threat posed by the Hundred Years War, together with the insistence of the king, that spurred on the citizens of Southampton to serious effort on their defences, although Southampton had had no Roman defences to use as a foundation. Initiatives prior to the fourteenth century had been either half-hearted or inadequately financed, and only parts of the town were protected by earthen ramparts and/or stone wall when the town suffered a damaging raid by the French in 1338. Much of the town walls were built in the decades that followed.
The completed defensive enclosure was roughly rectangular, over a mile in length, and incorporated 29 towers and 7 gates. About half of the walls, towers, and gates still stand, some of them well preserved, some fragmentary. Some features are the only examples to survive in England.
The city walls at York are some two-and-a-half miles in length, but do not comprise a complete circuit, for the citizens relied partly on the obstacles of the Rivers Ouse and Foss the latter bursting its banks (as a result of diversion of water into the castle moat) to form a shallow lake on the eastern side of the city, known as the King's Fishpool. One consequence was the need to protect the city at either end where it was intersected by the Ouse; this was done by stringing chains between pair of towers on opposite banks. For most of their length the walls stand atop an earlier defence, in the form of an earthen rampart; this placement made it unnecessary to build the fourteenth-century walls as high as they would otherwise have needed to be. All that would have been necessary was to remove the wooden palisade and to prepare a firm foundation for the stones.
The greater part of York's walls still stand, together with 34 of the 39 interval towers and all four of its main gates. Despite periodic proposals to demolish the walls, the preservationist lobby prevailed, and only four postern gates and the barbicans of three of the main gates met that fate in the post-medieval centuries. The remaining barbican is the only English urban example still standing.
York's walls were built mainly from a Yorkshire limestone probably brought in by river, although some of its stones appear to have been cannibalized from Roman structures.