There have been defences around York since AD 71, when the 9th Roman Legion arrived en masse at the point where the Rivers Ouse and Foss met, and built their standard defensive structure to protect themselves against the local populace.
The first defences were very simple – soil, which was dug out of a defensive ditch, was piled up inside to form an earthen rampart which was capped by a timber palisade; this palisade had been completely replaced by a stone wall by the 3rd century AD. These Roman fortress defences included four main gateways, and their siting has influenced the street pattern in York to the present day. The fortress was big. You could comfortably fit 50 football pitches inside the defences (20.3 hectares for the technically minded).We know how the fortress was laid out partly through excavation results and partly from looking at other fortresses of the same period.
A large and important town grew up around the fortress and on the opposite bank of the River Ouse over the following 150 years. The Romans called it Eboracum. By the early 3rd century a visitor to Eboracum would have seen a civilian town on one side of the river and a fortress on the other, both surrounded by strong stone walls. The walls were symbols of Eboracum and Rome’s importance as well as being serviceable defences.One of the most important parts of these defences – the Multangular Tower – is still standing today.Eboracum remained a very important settlement in the north of England. Constantine was declared emperor there in AD 306. During the 4th century, however, the fortress and town started to change in character and in the density of their occupation. How this affected the defences is not clear, although the so-called Anglian Tower, near the Multangular Tower, may have been built at this time to protect an area where a crack had developed in the earlier Roman wall.What is clear, however, is that the line of the defences established during the period from 71 to around 400 was to have a lasting effect on how York developed down to the present day.
The most spectacular part of the Roman defences that you can see today is the lower section of the Multangular Tower, which stands in the Museum Gardens in the centre of York. It has been called the Multangular Tower since 1683. Between 1315 and 1683 it was called Elrondyng. However; the tower is much older than its first mention in the records.It was first built as part of the Roman stone defences that replaced the earlier timber stockade and towers here in the early 3rd century AD. This south-west wall of the Roman fortress overlooked the River Ouse and the civilian town (called the colonia) on its opposite bank. This wall has been described as one of the grandest examples of military architecture of its age.There was a multangular tower at each end of the wall. The Multangular Tower in Museum Gardens is one – the other is buried underneath the street Feasegate. There were six other towers, three on either side of a central gateway that guarded the entrance to the fortress. The centre of the wall and cornices (mouldings at the top) of the towers were decorated with thin red bricks. The corner towers were at least 10m high.
The Multangular Tower and the lengths of wall to either side of it are the only sections of this wall that has survived. It was probably built during the reign of the Emperor Severus who was in York between 209 and 211. The tower has ten sides and is 9m high. Originally there would have been three floors on the inside and a roof on top. Only the bottom 6m of this surviving masonry is Roman. The tower and wall continued as defensive features long after the Romans had left, and the upper part of the tower is late medieval.