Waterford City’s ancient walls

Today we bring you the story of something we take very much for granted in this city and yet they shaped the story of this ancient place – our city walls.

Founded by the Vikings between 856 and 914 the city of Waterford was fortified from an early date and the annals of Ireland mention the existence of a dun or fort at Waterford in 1088. The remains of a stone built Viking Age gateway that once stood at the top of Peter Street was uncovered in 1989.

 

The city’s Hiberno-Norse defences feature prominently in Gerald of Wales’ account of the Anglo-Norman capture of the city in 1170. He tells us that Raymond Le Gros, an Anglo-Norman knight who commanded the besiegers, noticed “a small building (possibly a look-out tower) overhanging the city wall supported on the outside by a beam”.

On being attacked, the building collapsed and with it a considerable part of the wall. The invaders rushed into the city and won a most bloody victory. Within a few decades of the Anglo-Norman invasion, a major wall building programme was begun.

King John extended the city to the west with at least three new gates being built on the circuit before 1212. Murage grants were given to the City Council during the 13th century giving it permission to collect special taxes for the building and repair of the city walls. In the late 12th and 13th centuries the suburbs were occupied by the Anglo-Norman settlers. By the end of the middle ages a complete circuit of stone walls and towers existed.

However even when the suburbs were enclosed the line of wall and gates which divided the old Viking city from the Anglo-Norman suburbs remained intact, acting throughout the medieval period as a double line of defence. Developments towards the end of the 15th century resulted in the building of additional fortifications and the modification of existing structures to enable them to accommodate cannon.

As the use of cannon became more sophisticated, town walls, like the castles of the great lords, became redundant. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the medieval gates to the city were seen as a hindrance to development and their destruction began as early as 1695. By 1705 the wall running along the Quays was demolished. Fortunately six towers and large sections of city wall remain today.

The Beach Tower

The Beach Tower, with its 15th century Irish crennalations, is one of the finest towers on the circuit. It was built on a rocky outcrop which forms a natural defensive position and during the medieval period the area between the tower and the river was not developed.

The Tower commands a fine view of the River Suir and in particular it commands a superb view of the up-river approaches to Waterford. From the upper battlements you can see up river to Granagh Castle. From the Beach Tower proceed up King’s Terrace with its tall 18th century merchant houses built so that the occupiers could keep a watchful eye on their ships docking at the newly extended quay. This wall is part of St Patrick’s Fort built to accommodate cannon and begun in the 1590s during the reign of Queen Elizabeth IAs was the case with the other extensions to the medieval defence, fear of a Spanish landing was the reason for its construction.

Semi-Lunar Tower

Like the Double Tower, the semi-Lunar Tower is a flanking or “on the wall tower”. The purpose of these towers was to make the sectioning of the wall easier and so contain the attackers who got onto it. Because the tower rose well above wall level it could defend the adjacent wall-walk and act as a lookout and signalling post. The tower is vaulted at both the first floor level and at battlement level with no connecting stairs. The tower probably dates from the 13th century but was substantially altered towards the end of the medieval period to accommodate artillery.

During the mid sixteenth century the Spanish observer, Ortiz, noted that Waterford was surrounded by stone walls with seventeen towers with cannon on them. However in response to fears of a Spanish invasion, earthen outworks were constructed outside the walls with a view to making the walls more secure. These ran from the Beach Tower to the French Tower and appear to have been poorly built. It is likely that the citizens were not serious about the task as many would have supported catholic Spain at this time.

The French Tower

The top of Castle Street in Waterford is dominated by the French Tower. The origin of the name is uncertain. Many of the Anglo-Norman settlers who came to Waterford in the wake of the invasion were of French origin and the tower may owe its name to these. It may also be connected with the Huguenot, French protestant refugees who settled in Waterford after the victory of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The French settlers mixed well with the local population and contributed much to the city’s development.

The ‘Blaa’ (a popular and traditional breakfast-time bread found only in Waterford) is said to owe its origins to the 17th century immigrants who introduced this type of bread into the city. The French called it pain blanc which was corrupted by the locals into ‘Blaa’.

The Double Tower

Proceed up Castle St. where you will pass a stretch of city wall with small cannon openings which can be seen clearly on the inner face of the wall. The wall still retains the remains of the wall walk which would have projected out from the top of the wall.

The Double Tower is probably so called because the interior consists of two chambers, one of which comprises a passageway providing access to the Benedictine Priory; the other larger chamber housed a stairway for access to the upper floors and battlements. Although the Church of St. John’s priory was within the walled city, the priory’s lands and its chief buildings were located outside the walls. The Double Tower provided secure access to the church for the monks and those residing on their lands. During the Cromwellian siege of the city in 1649 this section of the city walls was pounded by cannon.

These towers were not built with cannon in mind and therefore had to be strengthened. The Double Tower was half filled with earth to help take the impact of the cannon. Continuing up Castle St. the section of wall that projects outwards is known as the “ramparts”. The “ramparts” belong to the age of gunpowder and were seen as a platform for heavy guns. Fear of a Spanish invasion during the 1580s and 1590s resulted in an upgrading of the city’s defences and it is thought that the “ramparts” date from this period. Waterford became the only Irish city that Oliver Cromwell failed to take. However, in the following summer, demoralised by blockade, plague and famine, the city surrendered to his son-in-law, General Ireton.

Saint Turgesius’s Tower

This tower was located roughly where the A.I.B. Bank stands at the intersection of Barronstrand St. and the Quay. At this point, the wall continued east up the Quay to Reginald’s Tower and south to St. Martin’s Gate. Both these stretches of wall together with their gates and towers were demolished during the 18th century.

Interestingly, excavations along the line of wall revealed that even where the wall has been removed its influence is not lost because in the older parts of the city the street pattern still reflects the line of the city wall.

St Martin’s Gate

The old triangular Viking city was enlarged after the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1170 when many fortifications were rebuilt or strengthened. The fortifications that ran along the south eastern side of the city connecting Reginald’s Tower to St. Martin’s Gate were rebuilt in stone prior to 1208 together with the wall that ran north from St. Martin’s Gate to Turgesius’s Tower on the quay.

Reginald’s Tower, St. Martin’s Gate and Turgesius’s Tower were the three terminal points of a triangular shaped enclosure which in about 1210 corresponded roughly to the area covered by the old Viking city. Excavations carried out in 1983 uncovered the remains of St. Martin’s Gate, a 13th century gate and portcullis flanked by twin towers. The passage or entrance was kept narrow to hinder invaders and to facilitate the collection of the murage tax levied on goods brought into the city.

It’s akin to Hamlet without the Prince not featuring Reginald’s Tower centre stage but for that very reason my friends, it deserves a column all to itself another day-soon! Our story today is courtesy of the City Council’s wonderful website.

 

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