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The ECW defences of London

Since 1945, London’s continual development has enabled archaeologists to uncover its past, although there is one major feature which is elusive: the 18km circuit of fortifications constructed during the English Civil War to defend the capital. These evolved from an initial ad hoc construction in the autumn of 1642 to become, in 1643, the largest defensive system constructed during the entire Civil War period. They comprised of more than 20 forts and batteries (probably 15 north of the River Thames and 7 south the river – accounts vary) connected by ramparts, ditches and trenches. Decommissioned in 1647 (and superseded by probably three ‘citadels’), over subsequent centuries they have almost completely vanished.

There isn’t a known contemporary plan of London’s fortifications. Instead, virtually every study of them has been based on George Vertue’s Plan of the City and Suburbs of London as fortified by Order of Parliament in the years 1642 and 1643 which appeared in William Maitland's 1738 History of London. Cromwell Mortimer FSA claimed that this plan was “copyed from Wenceslaus Hollar’s map of England”, a claim that has never been substantiated. Doubts about Vertue’s plan extend far beyond this, however, as it doesn’t match London’s 17th century geography, nor does it correlate either with the official order for the fortifications or a contemporary description. In addition, Vertue has been implicated in several other forgeries.

In 1644, The Prague-born artist, Wenceslas Hollar produced what has become known as the Quartermaster Map, featuring this outline of London’s fortifications. Together with the simpler sketch which formed part of the background to his 1643 etching of the Parliamentary General, the Earl of Essex, these are the earliest-known maps of the defences. Unlike George Vertue’s well known 1738 representation, Hollar’s maps are a genuine representation of London’s fortifications.

Except for a short stretch of rampart in Hyde Park, it is only through archaeology that the fortifications can be found. Generally, however, remnants are encountered more often by chance than by design: the scarcity of contemporary mapping makes targeted investigation difficult, and when potential features are encountered, they can easily be misinterpreted. It has become clear to archaeologists Mills Whipp Projects (MWP) that there was a major discrepancy between the suggested locations of the fortifications indicated by the Historic England Record (based on Vertue’s now discredited plan) and other documentary evidence. Ultimately, MWP were engaged by Historic England to undertake a pilot study to ascertain whether the locations of the fortifications could be identified with more confidence. I am privileged to be able to work with MWP on this project.

The area for the pilot study is east of the City, the fortifications which stretched from Wapping on the Thames, northwards to Shoreditch, an area defined by the City of London’s Court of Common Council resolution dated 23rd February 1643:

“That a small Fort conteyning one bulwarke and halfe and a battery in the rear of the flanke to be made at Gravel [Wapping] lane end. A hornworke with two flankers to be placed at Whitechapell windmills. One redoubt with two flankers betwixt Whitechapell Church and Shoreditch. Two redoubts with flankers neere Shoreditch Church with battery.”

The fortifications are also detailed in a comprehensive eyewitness account written in May 1643 by a Scottish traveller, William Lithgow.

The key breakthrough was the discovery of a map produced in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666. Although this ‘Great Fire map’ is of no great consequence in itself, between 1666 and 1680, someone added a sketch line showing the Lines of Communication, as the fortifications became known, to the east and north of the City. As the lines were used as a physical definition of London’s monetary liabilities during the latter years of the 17th century, it is presumed that the annotator was providing a visual aid for tax purposes. This map demonstrated the wide difference between the lines visible following the Great Fire and those Vertue depicted.

Overall, MWP’s study has radically revised the location of the forts and the lines, and has also identified archaeological evidence for several of them. But perhaps the most striking finding concerns the location of the fort in Whitechapel, where traditional thinking places it close to the Royal London Hospital. However, the location stated in the City Orders was for “A hornworke with two flankers be placed at Whitechappell windmills.” 17th century Whitechapel was a linear suburb between Aldgate and modern Fieldgate Street / Greatorex Street (and not the area surrounding the ‘modern’ Whitechapel station) . The 1658 Faithorne and Newcourt map also places the fort closer to Aldgate, straddling the main road, its southern flank standing roughly on the site of the former Whitechapel Bell Foundry on Whitechapel High Street (which was also the site of the windmill ). John Rocque’s 1747 map also depicts irregular boundaries, probably reflecting vestiges of the fort.

So where does this leave the site known as Whitechapel Mount? There was certainly something substantial on this site, but this wasn’t the 1643 fort. The answer could be found in the events of the second half of 1647 when the New Model Army under Sir Thomas Fairfax occupied London. In August 1647, Fairfax ordered the slighting of the London’s fortifications, but laid the foundations of “three citadels to bridle the city”. In the background of his 1647 Long View of London from Bankside, Hollar included a fort on the future site of the Royal London Hospital, and so it is concluded that the fort at the Royal London Hospital is one of these three citadels. This citadel was noted by Christopher Wren in 1673, and its remains would later become a well-known local landmark.

Following the New Model Army’s occupation of London during the autumn of 1647, Sir Thomas Fairfax ordered the construction of three citadels. Hollar is now thought to have depicted one of them (marked ‘a’), on the site of the Royal London Hospital, in the background of his 1647 Long View of London from Bankside. Hollar depicts what looks to be a quadrangle fort with four bastions.

The accepted norm for Civil War fortifications was a ditch-fronted rampart, and it was accepted that London’s defences followed this pattern. But Lithgow is quite precise in his description, and identifies trenches instead of a typical rampart and ditch in places. There are several other accounts mentioning trenches, and together demonstrate that instead of London’s forts being entirely connected by ditch-fronted ramparts, dependent upon the terrain, in some places they were connected by trenches, probably fronted by a low parapet.

MWP have undertaken fresh analysis of the evidence, combining a careful reading of contemporary documents and a re-examination of the records of archaeological excavations. The study has also tentatively quantified conceivable archaeological survival at the locations of the fortifications.

Identifying sites to be designated as Greater London Archaeological Priority Areas (APA) is a key purpose for the project. This research forms a significant addition to the planning tools used by Historic England’s Greater London Archaeological Advisory Service (GLAAS) to assess planning applications in sensitive areas. So, in conjunction with Historic England, MWP will publish a detailed report of the findings in due course.

The boundary of the pilot study undertaken by Mills Whipp Projects is enclosed within the green line. The previously-thought course of the defences is shown in black, whilst the revised course is shown as a red line. The forts are signified as F-numbers (F1, F2, etc.), and the connecting lines as LoC-numbers (LoC1, LoC2, etc.).

For copyright reasons, some of the research material cannot be reproduced at present but Historic England feels the results are so significant that a precis needs to be in the public domain to assist developers in central London. So, in order to provide a planning tool to developers, planners and archaeologists, an outline of the conclusions has been published in the Winter 2021 issue of London Archaeologist. For an overview of this article click here.

The results of the research have been dramatic, and challenges, and even upends some of the conventional thinking about London’s fortifications, including revealing the well-known Vertue plan as a hoax.

With phase 2 now underway, it is certain that the future findings of the project will be equally spectacular, significantly increasing understanding of London’s Civil War defences, providing a vital planning tool for the City’s developers and archaeologists. Historic England are to be applauded for this initiative, and are urged to see this project through to its conclusion.

Over the years, much of my research into London's Civil War defences has been published. The published works are:

  • ‘The Topography of the Lines of the Communication - Mapping the Civil War Defences of London’ in London Topographical Society Newsletter, 45, (London Topographical Society, 1997)
  • ‘Archaeological investigations into the English Civil War Defences of London’ in London Archaeologist, 8, (London Archaeologist, 1998)
  • ‘Whitechapel Mount and the London Hospital’ ( - Tower Hamlets History Online, 1999)
  • ‘Whitechapel Mount’, Fort, 35, (Fortress Study Group, 2007)
  • ‘London's Fort Royal’, Casemate, 80, (Fortress Study Group, 2007)
  • London in the Civil War, (Partizan Press, 2008)
  • ‘Civil War fortifications of London’ ( Fortified Places, 2008)
  • ‘London's Civil War Defences’, Arquebusier, 32, (Pike and Shot Society, 2010)
  • ‘A Tale of Two Forts - London's Hyde Park and St. George's Fields Forts’, (Part 1 and Part 2), Fort, 38, (Fortress Study Group, 2011)
  • ‘The Defence of London’, Military History Monthly, 24, (2012)
  • ‘Fortress Islington’, Journal of the Islington Archaeology & Historical Society, 2, (Islington Archaeology & Historical Society, 2012)
  • The English Civil War Defences of London, (The Stuart Press, 2014)
  • Civil War London: A Military History of London Under Charles I and Oliver Cromwell (Helion, 2017). 
  • The Town Well Fortified: The Fortresses of the Civil Wars in Britain, 1639 - 1660 (Helion, 2023)
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