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The Medieval Defences of Hartlepool

The peninsula of Hartlepool, boasting a natural harbour, was an ideal location for a medieval port. With its limestone cliffs to the north and east, much of the headland is naturally defendable. As the importance of the town’s maritime trade grew, Britain moved into one of its most violent periods of history. The people of Hartlepool were suddenly vulnerable to piracy and open warfare.

 

During the 14th century a substantial wall was constructed to defend the landward western side of the peninsula and the beach on the south side. This enclosed the harbour and made Hartlepool one of the most fortified port towns, and the only walled town without a castle, in England.

Hartlepool Town Wall and Fish Sands
   

Although only circumstantial, documentary evidence for the construction of the town wall gives a rough date of the early 14th century, coinciding with the Scottish Wars. This is supported by archaeological excavation of the wall. A plea to King Edward II in 1319 makes clear the threat to the people of Hartlepool :-

 

“The King’s lieges, the mayor and the commons of Hartlepool petition the King that whereas Sir Robert de Brus had granted a truce to the whole bishopric of Durham except Hartlepool, which he intended to burn and destroy because of a ship they captured at sea charged with his armaments and victuals, the mayor and commons enclosed a great part of the town and are building a wall to the best of their power. They crave a grant of 100 marks which are owed the King.” (Fraser 1981, 177).

 

The stone town wall was preceded by a bank and ditch with timber ramparts which enclosed the isthmus of the headland. This was probably what was referred to in the plea of 1319 and would have been eventually replaced in stone.

Numerous grants were made during the period from 1315 to 1418 for the building of the town wall.

Archaeological excavation of the Town Wall
   

The medieval town wall contained three gates. A gate on the road to Hart, called the Northgate, protected the main land route into town. The Watergate provided access to the harbour, and Sandwell Gate, the only one to survive, provided access from the Fish Sands through the south wall. Three further gates are known to have been added later.

Round, semi-circular and square towers or bastions projected along the length of the wall at intervals, including two large round towers which guarded the Watergate.  Evidence for these structures is scarce, but it is clear that the town wall was a substantial undertaking, particularly the harbour wall and towers/turrets. The harbour itself would have been protected by a boom chain hung between two large boom towers.

Positions of town defences
   

The Scottish Wars had provided a huge economic boost to Hartlepool, but by the 17th century, as the English Civil War loomed, Hartlepool was once again looking at its defensive capabilities, and the possibility of placing a magazine of arms in the town. However, a report in 1638 stated: “The towne and walls are very ruinous, and will require a great charge, and a great time to repair.” (Victoria County History 1928, page 267).

 

An engraving of the walls published by Sir Cuthbert Sharp in 1816 shows them in their neglected state. They were largely demolished, to vociferous complaints by the locals, in the 1830s.

Today the surviving section of the town wall at the Fish Sands acts as a sea defence system and is well worth a visit.

The Sandwell Gate
   

Further Information

A downloadable leafter about the Town Wall is available below along with a poster showing the medieval town and its defences. For more technical information please see our monograph on the Medieval Town of Hartlepool available from our Shop. General information on the medieval period is available in our Medieval Booklet.

Medieval Hartlepool Poster Medieval Booklet Cover

Leaflet

(5MB)

Medieval Poster 1485 AD

(0.2MB)

Medieval Booklet

(5 MB)

 
 

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