Liberties Without the Walls

Above: Map showing the Roman Wall of the City, the modern boundary of the City and the main Liberties that lay outside the Roman Wall (Click image to enlarge to 1280×800).

The City of London came about as the continuation of occupation of a small piece of land on the north side of the Thames that had been established by the Romans in AD 43. Called Londinium, it was not protected by the defences of the Roman Wall until around the year AD 200. That wall, being so sturdy, was to remain in place until the 18th century. The Romans inhabited Londinium for nearly four centuries, although the settlement was in decline towards the end of that time. There was then a couple of centuries when the land inside the Roman Wall may not have been occupied – apart from possibly the land near the Thames – because there was an early Saxon settlement established along the thoroughfare called the Strand. This settlement is known as Lundenwic. In the 9th century, the streets within the old Roman Wall were to be re-established after Alfred the Great took back the City from Viking occupation in AD 886. This led to the formation of what is known today as Lundenbugh.

After 1066, the City of London continued to flourish in status and as a port. It was allowed its own government under the Normans which is why the City has its own form of government under the Lord Mayor of London – independent of the rest of Greater London, overseen by the Mayor of London.

Although the walled City of London stood on the north bank of the Thames, it was never administratively part of the surrounding land which was the County of Middlesex. That county extended east as far as the River Lea which acted as the boundary between the County of Middlesex and the County of Essex.

It was Edward the Confessor who, in 1050, established a new palace on a new site beside a small Saxon church, called St Peter, on Thorney Island, a piece of gravel surrounded by marshes. He was responsible for founding a new palace – which was known as the Palace of Westminster. Its site is now the Houses of Parliament. The adjacent site of the early church was also redeveloped as a religious house whose site is today known as Westminster Abbey.

Between the City of London and the power base of the kings at Westminster was founded a religious establishment which was one of the many properties of the Knights Templar. Their order was suppressed in England in the 15th century and the land was given to the Knights Hospitaller (or Knights of St John). That land near the City was little-used by the new owners which is why it became acquired by the lawyers – known today and the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple, forming two of the main legal centres in London. The land has always been considered a liberty. On the west side of The Temple was the land of the Priory of the Whitefriars. Being a religious house, its land was another liberty.

Liberties in London are rather difficult to understand. In simple terms a liberty was where an owner of the land was ‘at liberty’ to define the laws governing the land, meaning that the land was ‘outside’ the local laws governing any surrounding land. Many liberties evolved from having been land owned by the king. If a king owned a piece of land, it was not subject to the local laws. If that land was sold by the king, the new owner would then claim that because it has been exempt from local laws, it was still exempt when that new owner took over. Other liberties evolved from having a special status – like being the land of a religious house.

If you are having difficulty following the theme in this article, here is a summary so far. We started with the walled City of London with Westminster around the bend of the river (err, to the west). Immediately west of the City is the land of The Temple, later to become two of four centres for the legal profession in London. Beside it was the land of the Whitefriars.

A stone London Bridge was constructed between 1176 and 1209 which linked a separate community known as Southwark, for which the City took an active role in its administration. Because, in early times, most of the land around Borough High Street and Tooley Street was divided up into liberties, Southwark was often referred to as ‘liberties without the walls’ meaning land outside the City – in this case across the Thames from the City. However, there were other ‘liberties without the walls’ as we shall see.

The Tower of London, with all its land surrounded by a moat, was originally in royal ownership and therefore was a liberty. It is still a liberty today. The Tower of London lies outside the boundary of the City of London. A short distance east of the Roman Wall was another religious house – the Hospital of St Katharine, which was later known as the Royal Foundation of St Katharine. Its original site is now occupied by the St Katharine Docks. Being a religious house, under royal patronage, the land was another liberty.

If you walk up Bishopsgate (Street) far enough you will notice that the name of the street changes to Norton Folgate. That, too, was the site of a small liberty. A short distance further north, the name of the street changes to Shoreditch High Street. Much of the land between Shoreditch High Street and Curtain Road was another religious house – the Priory of St John the Baptist. That was yet another liberty.

Working west from Shoreditch, the land is called Clerkenwell. It is situated to the north of Smithfield. In Clerkenwell there were no less than three religious houses and, of course, each one was a separate liberty. Moving west again, to the street called Holborn, there was the Inn of the Bishops of Ely. The street called Ely Place stands on part of the original land. That, too, was a liberty – under the jurisdiction of the City of Ely.

There were many liberties within the ancient Roman Wall but this article is attempting to build up a picture of the liberties outside the wall. In medieval times – and, indeed, into the 17th and 18th centuries – the impact of liberties on the land around the City was so noticeable that the phrase ‘the Liberties Without the Walls’ was in constant use. It is a phrase that is sometimes to be found on maps of the City for the surrounding land.

This article lists the more important liberties. There are others that could be added, however, it will provide you with a lead to the main liberties that surrounded the City. It will, hopefully, introduce you to a new way of looking at medieval aspects of the City and some of the land that surrounded it.


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