The Roman wall of Chichester

I love walled cities and have admired walls and walked on walls in various cities around the world, including Lucca, San Gimignano and Siena in Italy, Ronda in Spain and York in England.  York’s walls are considered the longest and most complete walls in England. Another favorite wall of mine surrounds the historic section of San Juan, Puerto Rico. A nice walkway follows along some of the exterior and along the top.

Here in North America, we don’t have many walls. Only two, according to a list on Wikipedia: the originally Spanish city of St. Augustine in Florida and French-founded Quebec City in the province of Quebec, two cities that should be on the destination list of any history lover. Both places played pivotal roles in the European fight over North America.

Chichester Cathedral

Chichester Cathedral

So, when traveling, I am drawn to walls. On a recent trip to England, I explored another walled city, Chichester, a cathedral town on the south coast. The walls there are well preserved and have a fascinating history. More than 80% of the walls are original and they are considered the most intact circuit of Roman town defenses in southern England. At first glance, the cathedral spire grabs a traveler’s attention. The 12th century Gothic and Norman building soars high above the narrow streets. But the city history goes back much earlier to the first century. It was founded as the Roman town of Noviomagus Reginorum with the usual Roman buildings: a forum, bath house, temples and a theater. The town flourished on the flat meadows of West Sussex for two hundred years and then, for some reason, the leaders decided to enclose the town with a wall. The wall served several purposes: defense, control of trade, and status indicator. It was seven meters tall with four massive gates at each main cardinal direction. At great cost in the late third and early fourth centuries, the town leaders added as many as seventy bastions, 12-meter tall artillery towers placed around the walls. They would hopefully ensure long-term survival of the city.

Eventually the Roman town was abandoned as the Anglo Saxons settled England and the Romano British left towns for a rural existence.  After over 500 years of neglect, the town of Chichester rose on the old Roman site and the decaying walls were repaired when Alfred the Great decided to build a chain of defenses against the threat of Viking attack.

The walls were last used as a defense in 1642 during the Civil War when Parliamentarian forces bombarded the city with artillery. After a week of bombardment the Royalists surrendered the city.

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But the walls survived and by the 18th and 19th centuries they were transformed again. The gates were demolished and sections were removed to create better traffic flow.  The City Council invested in a tree-lined trail atop the walls, the Walls Walk, as a promenade for residents. This may have saved the walls from demolition.

For the last 200 years, residents and visitors have been able to enjoy an elevated stroll around the city on the walls the Romans built. The view from the wall is ever-changing – from lush public gardens near the Cathedral, to private back gardens of homes adjacent to the wall and 19th century Priory Park with its cricket pitch and bowling green. If you get the chance, visit Chichester and walk the wall.

The Novium, bath excavation

The Novium, bath excavation

Not to miss: The Novium is a new museum about the city’s history built above the remains of a thermae, a large public Roman bath house. Visitors can peek into the unearthed excavation of the bath house which stood on the spot nearly 2000 years ago.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
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