DEFENCE AND SECURITY Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London defences administration wards guard duty security regulations barriers night-watch scavager gatekeeper sergeant curfew gates walls construction maintenance murage taxation artillery
Subject: Watch and ward
Original source: 1. British Library, Add. Ms. 14252, f.166; 2. Corporation of London Records Office, Letter Book C, f.52 (schedule).
Transcription in: 1. J.H. Round, The Commune of London and Other Studies, Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co., 1899, 255; 2. >Henry Thomas Riley, ed., Memorials of London Life in the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth Centuries, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1868, 21-22.
Original language: Latin (translation of item 2 is Riley's)
Location: London
Date: 13th century


1. Concerning the watches at Christmas, Easter and Whitsun


The great guard should comprise 12 men, but at the discretion of the sheriffs it has been the practice to reduce it to 8 men. The intermediate guard should be 8 watchmen, but has similarly been reduced to six. The lesser guard should be six, but has likewise been reduced to four. Furthermore, there ought to be elected scavagers who, every day from Christmas Eve to Epiphany, are to inspect those who ought to keep watch overnight, who are to be men capable of putting up a defence and properly armed for that task.

On the day, they should appear [for duty] at Vespers and head out [to their posts] at the hour of Compline; throughout the entire night they should peacefully mount a watch and keep the streets safe, until what is called the "day-bell" is rung at Matins from the chapels.

Should it happen that anyone defaults in his guard-duty, the scavagers should make a note of their names and hand them over to the sheriffs at the first husting session [following]. A sheriff may, if he wishes, require them to swear oaths concerning the defaults, so that no-one gives false evidence, or conceals anything, on the matter.

2. Provisions for the Safe-keeping of the City, the City Gates, and the River Thames.

On Wednesday next before the feast of Pentecost, in the 10th year of the reign of King Edward [13 May 1282], by Henry le Galeys, Mayor, the Aldermen, and the then Chamberlain of Guildhall, the following provisions were subscribed:

As to the trades: that every trade shall present the names of all persons in that trade, and of all who have been serving therein; where they dwell, and in what Ward.

First, as to enquiry about suspected persons:
Also, each Alderman, with two of the best men of his Ward, shall make inquisition as to persons keeping hostreys, and the persons lodging in the same, making enquiry one by one, and from house to house; that so he may know how many, and who, and of what kind of condition they are, clerks or laymen, who are residing in his Ward, of the age of twelve years and upwards.

To be remembered: as to provision made how suspected persons, when found, ought to be removed, or under what security to remain.

Secondly, as to the safe-keeping of the City:
All the Gates of the City are to be open by day; and at each Gate there are to be two serjeants to open the same, skilful men, and fluent of speech, who are to keep a good watch upon persons coming in and going out; that so no evil may befall the City.

At every Parish Church, curfew is to be rung at the same hour as at St. Martin's le Grand; so that they begin together, and end together; and then all the Gates are to be shut, as well as all taverns for wine or for ale; and no one is then to go about the streets or ways. Six persons are to watch in each Ward by night, of the most competent men of the Ward thereto; and the two serjeants who guard the Gates by day are to lie at night either within the Gates, or near thereto.

The serjeants of Billingesgate and Queen Hythe are to see that all boats are moored on the City side at night, and are to have the names of all boats; and no one is to cross the Thames at night. And each serjeant must have his own boat with four men, to guard the water by night, on either side of the bridge.

The serjeants at the Gates are to receive four pence each per day, and the boatmen at night, one penny each.



For the most part, medieval London relied for its protection on the Roman-built walls that formed a rectangle around Londinium. Most of the medieval gateways were on the site of Roman gates: Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Bishopsgate and Aldgate (to take them clockwise from the west side of the city). The walls did not mark the boundary of the medieval city, several of whose wards extended well beyond the walled line, while one – the originally the soke of the Cnihtengild – lay entirely outside the walls. However, the walls symbolically defined the city; they were featured on a communal seal and in a rare medieval illustration of an English town; the areas of the wards which lay outside them came to be viewed as suburbs.

The south-western section of wall was compromised by the construction of Baynard's Castle and Montfichet Castle and their demolition and replacement in the 1270s by a Dominican friary; with financial support from the friars, the city rebuilt this stretch of wall further west, running between the friary and the Fleet River; this was the only major wall-building effort undertaken during the Middle Ages, requiring many decades of stop-and-start efforts. The south-eastern wall was likewise breached by the Tower, which initially incorporated a stretch of city wall, then tore it down as the Tower was expanded. A postern gate was built at the point where the surviving city wall met the Tower grounds. The southern wall, which probably ran close to the line of the later Thames Street, is mentioned by FitzStephen as having been undermined by the tidal effect of the river before his time. Archaeology has confirmed this and also found indications of deliberate demolition around the late twelfth century; this may have been due to scavenging (in 1310 the king condemned those who removed building materials from walls or gates) or perhaps to the extension of port facilities and associated mercantile buildings along the Thames. The latter, which mainly took place in the thirteenth century, may have stifled any desire to rebuild a wall here; instead efforts were later made to fortify the wharfs. The name Billingsgate remembers an opening made in the southern wall, at some early date, to give access to the waterfront.

During the Middle Ages, most of the work on the walls was in the way of repairs and maintenance. A wide ditch was dug, or re-dug, around the walls during the unsettled years of King John's reign (but thereafter became notorious as a dumping-ground for waste), and during the same period Ludgate was rebuilt and the walls were strengthened by the construction of some additional bastions. London Bridge also had a gate installed around its mid-point. London's Barbican complex recalls a medieval effort (prior to1300) to construct additional defences outside Aldersgate; by 1377 it was expected that each gate have a portcullis and barbican, although we do not know if this was or became a reality. Another small gate (Moorgate) was added in the early fifteenth century, to give access to land reclaimed from the marsh beyond the northern wall and to the hamlets further north.

Other than when they deal with provisions for deployment of guards at times of threat or perceived threat, London's letter-books contain only scattered references to the walls and gates, giving no sign that their maintenance was a matter of continual concern or cost. More information on work on the walls would have been forthcoming from financial accounts, now largely lost. Extracts from a murage account (ca.13332) copied into a letter-book show revenues of £235.13s.4d over a two year period, On this only £40 was expended for repairs to the city walls and one of its prisons; and the rest was spent on construction of the Guildhall chapel, gifts to influence persons of power, and other miscellanea. Apart from reconstruction of the Blackfriars stretch (for whose subsequent maintenance the Dominicans were responsible), serious attention to the state of the walls may have been limited to when there was fear of attack. In the 1370s there was some repair activity and it was ordered that every householder work, or send a substitute labourer, to fix up city ditches, conduits and walls for one day every five weeks. Communal labour does not seem to have been called on much for wall work, although it was occasionally for cleaning out the ditches. The city authorities relied on a mix of murage, taxation, and donations to finance wall maintenance. In the 1470s more substantial repairs were undertaken to the northern stretch of wall, using brick, and two of the gates along that stretch (Bishopsgate and Moorgate) were rebuilt; this programme was probably in response to a general sense of threat during the Wars of the Roses, and particularly assaults on the city in 1460 and 1471.

We know of plans to rebuild the wall beside Cripplegate ca.1334, but it is less clear whether they were carried out; part of the aim at that time was to repair Cripplegate and Aldersgate, roof them with lead, and install beneath the gates facilities for lodging the gatekeepers. In August 1375 gatekeepers for all of the gates, including the postern, were sworn in, but it is not clear that such officers were a regular feature of the city bureaucracy. At some other times city sergeants were doubling in the role; for instance, in 1383 custody of the Bridge gate was committed to one of the mayor's sergeants, for as long as he should hold the latter office..

The roofing of the gates, mentioned above, may have been connected with a growing trend to seek income from the city defences, by leasing rooms in the upper levels of the gates, or properties adjacent to gates of walls. Such leases seem typically to have included obligations for maintenance and cleaning by the tenants, extending to roadways underneath or beside the gates. The ten-year renewal, in 1375, of a jeweller's lease on a stall beneath Ludgate, from which to sell his wares, at 40s. a year, appears an isolated instance, although the chamberlain's account for 1339 refers to city-owned shops built beside Aldersgate and Cripplegate. More common was for rooms inside the gates to be granted to civic officials (below the executive level) as perks of office or pension components. For example, in September 1375 one of the city sergeants, who had earlier that year received a thirty-year lease, at 10s. a year, on a garden beside the wall in Tower Ward, was given a life lease of a dwelling on the upper level of Cripplegate, together with a stable attached to the gate, on condition he use part of the space as a lock-up for prisoners sent thither by the authorities; by contrast, when the poet Geoffrey Chaucer took a life lease on a multi-room living space above Aldgate in 1374, it was on the guarantee that the Corporation would not use any part of it to house prisoners during his tenancy . On the same date, a second sergeant was given a life lease of buildings beside the Tower postern (again apparently rent-free), together with the custody of the gate. The following month another bureaucrat was granted a residence above Aldersgate, with a garden associated, for as long as he was in the office of Countor; he was promised that the chamberlain would have all necessary repairs made to the property, at city expense.

There were mixed feelings within the community about non-defensive uses of the city fortifications. The concerns appear to have been that the defences would fall into disrepair or be inaccessible at times of need; the collapse of the postern in 1440 was probably due to neglect. In 1442 a by-law required tenants of city gates to keep them in repair, although this probably only generalized a clause customary in leases. In October 1386 a resolution by the Common Council asked that no grants henceforth be made of city gates, residences over the gates, or plots of land adjacent to the city walls, gates or ditches; after the termination of current leases, custody of those properties should remain in city hands. Yet the very next day Mayor Brembre granted a private citizen a life lease on a dwelling-place over Aldgate, and we continue to find further such leases or grants in the decades that followed. However, we also start to find contractual clauses that tenants should return custody to the authorities at times when the city had to be defended. It was stated in 1435 to be a custom or by-law that no buildings constructed near the city walls or gates should be closer than 16 feet from them, with the intervening land being considered common soil; the reason is indicated by orders given in 1347 for a private structure built too close to the to be pulled down, on the grounds that it interfered with perambulations (probably referring to inspections of the defences, although convenient access for defenders must also have been a concern).

The backbone of the defensive system may have been the city walls and gates, but its lifeblood was the city watch. Like militia musters, the watch arrangements might be necessitated by particular threats, but was also a matter of city routine. Watches were mounted as a matter of course at festive seasons when celebrations could become boisterous (sometimes with intentional elements of "misrule"), and the raised level of public presence in the streets gave opportunities to criminals and created fears about risk to public order.

The first document above is extracted from a compilation of administrative documents, made ca.1215. Round places the text on f.106 of the manuscript, but Bateson ["A London Municipal Collection of the Reign of John," English Historical Review, vol.17 (1902). 505] more credibly places it at f.166. It provides an early reference to the organization of the civic watches, at a time when the sheriffs of London appear to have played a greater role, the ward aldermen having taken the lead later. It was more practical to have the watches organized on a ward basis, and historians have often argued for a close connection between the development of military and security functions and of the wards as territorial units of administration. However, the document may be misleading; quite possibly originating at a time before the mayoralty was established (or at least had received royal approval), it was natural enough for overall responsibility for city defence to be on the shoulders of the earlier city executive, the sheriff, over the election of which official the citizens had only relatively recently gained control. Provisions put in place ca.1285 throw more light on how the watch was put together.

The second document, which was overlooked by the later finding-aid compiled for the Liber Albus, provides a few intimate details not given in later sets of provisions for city defence.

Apart from their personal armour and armament, the city's defenders had, by the Late Middle Ages, some heavier defensive weaponry, city-owned, at their disposal. A bretask for storing some of them was constructed over the Thames, near the Tower, in 1339. An entry in Letter-Book F, undated but probably from about the same time, indicates that 7 springalds, with spare parts (8 bows and 29 bow-strings) and missiles (880 quarrels, some with metal points) were kept there. In some building just outside Aldgate another springald was kept, with a small supply of parts and missiles. In one of the rooms in the Guildhall were held 6 hand-guns, with 5 stocks (to support the guns when firing) and a supply of small balls and gunpowder; also (according to the chamberlain's account of that year) more springalds. In the provisions for defending the city ca. 1377 there is passing reference to ordnance positioned on London Bridge, but we it is not clear whether these were guns or springalds.



excubis, more literally sentry-duty, whereas the term commonly used later, vigiliis, strictly meant night-watch, but was used more broadly.

Riley assumed, based on information in the Liber Albus [xli, 223] that the name originated in association with scawangia, a toll on mostly foreign goods imported by non-citizens, collected at the time their importers showed them to the sheriffs (i.e. before they were allowed to be sold); these scavagers would have been subordinates to the sheriffs. We hear of scavagers operating in London's port as late as 1392, and scavage was still being collected in the following century, when Italian merchants were challenging it. By the close of the fourteenth century ward-based officials (i.e. presumably subordinates to the aldermen) with the title of scavengers were charged with inspecting the city fabric, to ensure that standards and by-laws were being respected in regard to matters such as fire safety, hygiene, and street repair; the etymology of their title appears confirmed by references in Letter-Books F, f.165 and H, f.134). However, there is no evidence that the scavagers associated with the watch were connected with either of the other functions. The term was probably used for various kinds of inspectors; this interpretation is supported, though not proven, by references in Letter-Book C (ff. 89, 124) to the mayor and aldermen acting as a "court of scavagers" apparently for the purpose of overseeing certain transactions between citizens.

"defaults in his guard-duty"
I.e. fails to show up for his shift.

"them to swear oaths"
This probably refers to the scavagers, rather than those who accused of the defaults.

Hostelries (i.e. hotels).

"To be remembered"
Riley believed this sentence had the status of a marginal note.

That is, guarantors of good behaviour.

"skilful men, and fluent of speech"
The original has scientes et eloquentes. Given the context, the qualities desired for the serjeants of the gate may have been the ability to question those passing through and to make a sound judgement based on the answers given.

"St. Martin's le Grand"
A conventual church founded shortly before the Conquest and given extensive liberties by William I, St. Martin-le-Grand was something of a symbol of the relationship between monarchy and city. Quite why it was designated to sound the official marker of curfew may have been something to do with its special role as a sanctuary precinct. At a later period, St. Mary-le-Bow was designated the official timepiece, but later still we hear of St. Martin's again. The hospital of St. Thomas of Acon was the place whose bell marked the time for opening the gates in the morning (at Prime).

"Billingesgate and Queen Hythe"
The two Thames-side wards where the principal city wharves were located.

Sharpe, in his calendar of the letter-book, noted that the entry had a third section, on the subject of punishments for offenders but that the space for details had been left blank. This section may have been intended to prescribe punishments for those breaking curfew, or for infringements of the peace generally. A slightly later set of ordinances in the Liber Albus addresses these.

The markers of the ward boundaries were instead (by the thirteenth century) "bars" across the streets which ran out through the gates to and beyond the ends of the wards. At a much later period the bars might be monumental gateways, but we do not know what form they took during the Middle Ages. Most of the parishes, on the other hand, used the wall as part of their boundaries.

Appearing in a 13th century itinerary written by Matthew Paris.

"postern gate was built"
According to Christopher Thomas [The Archaeology of Medieval London, Stroud: Sutton, 2002. 30], before 1190, although Caroline Barron[London in the Later Middle Ages, Oxford: University Press, 2004, 246] places it during the reign of Edward I.

London received its first grant of murage from the king in 1233, followed by repeated grants covering much of the period up until the early years of Edward III's reign. After a hiatus, perhaps due to the declining value of murage as many groups obtained exemptions from payment and a corresponding difficulty in farming out the revenue, a fresh grant was obtained in 1386 for a ten-year term; the intent being to fund repairs and maintenance, rather than construction of any new fortifications; the grant was prompted by anticipation of a French invasion attempt. A Committee was appointed to set up the organization for murage collection. Pairs of collectors were appointed for various parts of the city; those regions mostly focused on the city gates and the suburbs outside them, together with London Bridge and the riverside between the bridge and Blackfriars. It is tempting to assume that the gates themselves were the natural collection points, but there is no clear evidence for this; ca. 1357, however, the collection of a special toll to fund road repair was implicitly made at the gates. As the pairs of collectors included several aldermen, it is hard to imagine they were expected to do the work in person. Four men (two of them aldermen) were designated to be receivers of the money collected, perhaps with no greater role than to keep it secure until it was accounted for, and four others (all aldermen) were to act as supervisors of the collection system. There is no indication that such a complex administrative structure had been in place for earlier murages, but by the 1380s urban authorities were doubtless more conscious of the risks of embezzlement (or the perception thereof) associated with murage..

"taxation and donations"
For example, in 1378 it was decided to levy a special tax to finance repairs to the defences; financing repairs to the conduit was also on the agenda, but here the intent was to solicit donations from public-spirited residents. In 1379 and1386 we hear of taxes levied on rents for the purpose of repairs to the defences; on the earlier occasion it was understood that such a tax would not produce sufficient revenue and a tax on moveables was ordered to supplement it. Bequests contributed to improvements to the gates; Richard Whittington's executors devoted part of his legacy to rebuilding Newgate, although their focus was on the prison there, rather than the gate per se.

"sworn in"
Part of the oath was that they would deny entrance to lepers and arrest any who tried to force their way in; if they failed to do this, they risked being sentenced to the pillory. Possibly the preoccupation with lepers was the reason for appointing gatekeepers at this period.

Some kind of fortified building, probably independent of the main city fortifications, see examples at Lynn.

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Created: December 31, 2007. Last update: October 26, 2013 © Stephen Alsford, 2007-2013