As the old adage goes, an Englishman’s home is his castle. But where are London’s actual castles? Even the most fresh-off-the-boat tourist could not fail to notice that the Tower of London is central London’s sole surviving bastion; however, throughout the ages several castles and fortifications have existed within inner London.
Baynard’s Castle, named after Ralph Baynard – a nobleman who came to these shores with William the Conqueror — used to sit where the River Fleet met the Thames at Blackfriars. The Fleet is still there, but runs in a sewer beneath Farringdon Street and New Bridge Street.
Clues to the Castle’s location remain, if you know what to look for. Castle Baynard Street near Upper Thames Street gives a strong hint as to its vicinity, as does the blue plaque erected by the City of London Corporation to mark the spot – on Paul’s Walk, almost opposite the Tate Modern on the north bank of the Thames.
The soke, or right to hold court, in Baynard’s Castle was afforded to Robert Fitzwalter, a feudal baron of Little Dunmow, Essex. Fitzwalter led the baronial opposition against King John in the 1212 Conspiracy. On discovering the plot, John exiled Fitzwalter and demolished the castle a year after. It was rebuilt at a later stage, but succumbed to the flames of the Great Fire in 1666 and no visible trace of it remains today. That said, the church of St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, although rebuilt post-fire, was originally part of the castle complex, and was formerly known as St Andrew by Castle Baynard.
Almost a next-door neighbour to Baynard’s Castle, this Norman fortification once stood on Ludgate Hill from the 11th Century. This raised ground near the confluence of the Fleet and Thames would have had natural strategic importance.
According to John Stow, a 16th century historian, antiquarian and author of The Survey of London, the castle was named after the Baron of Mountfichet, who came to England during the Norman Conquest.
Archaeological work was undertaken in the area by the Museum of London between 1986 and 1990. It found ditches thought to be the southern defences of the tower, on the north side of Carter Lane between numbers 52–66 running east to west. The dig also found what signs of a bailey between other ditches, although no masonry was found.
Further evidence of the castle can also be adduced from the local road names. The Old Bailey is believed to have been named after the bailey of the castle and, in turn, has also lent its name to the Central Law Courts – more commonly known as the Old Bailey.
There is also now an office building at 29 Ludgate Hill called Montfichet House. A tantalising, but unreferenced, nugget on Wikipedia suggests that a series of tunnels were discovered under the building in 2009; however, requests to access these by archaeologists were denied.
The castle was demolished by castle-killer King John following the 1212 Conspiracy. The site was sold as part of a Baynard’s/Monfichet’s castle package to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Kilwardby, in 1275 for the precinct of the great Dominican Priory at Blackfriars.
Not a castle as such (despite its ramparts), but one of the grandest noble homes ever built in the country, Savoy Palace stretched from Strand to the river front, almost exactly where the Savoy Hotel and the Savoy Theatre live today.
The palace was in the desirable location between the City of London and the Palace of Westminster, where parliament and the Royal Court were enacted – but crucially upstream and downwind from the stink of peasant life and threat of fires to the east. It was also once home to Geoffrey Chaucer, who began writing The Canterbury Tales while living there as a clerk.
It was destroyed in 1381 during the Peasant’s Revolt after King Edward III’s son, John of Gaunt, who lived in the Palace, was blamed for introducing an unpopular ‘Poll Tax’ – anything that could not be smashed or burned was thrown into the Thames.
In a case of history repeating itself, riots and the torching of buildings ensued just 400m down the road in Trafalgar Square after Margaret Thatcher also tried to introduce an unpopular ‘Poll Tax’ in 1989.
London’s Roman Fort
As well as being the name of a major thoroughfare in the City, the London Wall was a Roman defensive wall built in the 2nd or 3rd Century. The wall survived intact until the middle ages and was the traditional boundary to the City of London.
Around a century before the wall was constructed, however, a Roman fort was built near what is now the Museum of London. The city wall later became incorporated into the structure, with the north and west walls thickened and doubled in height.
The fort had four gates – one in each of the walls, with the north wall eventually becoming Cripplegate – which was unfortunately destroyed during the Blitz.
Little of the fort remains today, but you can find remains on Noble Street and in a car park adjacent to the museum (opened to visitors on Open House weekend in September). Many sections of the greater wall are still prominent around the City, including one of its bastions in the gardens at Barbican.
An even earlier Roman fort was recently uncovered by archaeologists, close to London Bridge.
Lines of Communication
Lines of Communication might sound like a self-help book, but they were, in fact, fortifications commissioned by Parliament in 1643 during the English Civil War, which started the year previous.
The ramparts were made from earth, stretched for around 18km, featured 23 types of fortification and were built in less than two months by around 20,000 men. They were designed to protect the capital from attack by the Royalist armies of Charles I. The walls were never needed and were destroyed within a year or two of their creation. Very few clues to their existence remain. The line of Cannon Street Road in Shadwell closely follows the eastern perimeter, and Mount Street in Mayfair might be another reference.
The map below shows the Tower of London (mauve), City walls and fort (purple), Baynard's Castle (green), Montfichet's Castle (blue) and the Lines of Communication (red).
See also: London's best ruins.