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The Multangular Tower - an insight into Roman York


With lockdown restrictions starting to ease, I have been lucky over the past week, to have completed 3 virtual tours of York for US clients. It’s a bit strange going round with a gimbal (posh selfie stick), my mobile phone and using zoom to show people half way around the world York, but it was great to get a bit of income and explore the historic city again.


My tours tended to start in Museum Gardens, so early on I was showing people the magnificent Multangular Tower, located between St.Leonard’s Hospital and The Yorkshire Museum.


The Tower is one of the few places within York where you can see Roman remains above ground, so I thought it would be interesting to share some of the history behind the structure.

The Romans arrived in York in AD 71 when 5000 men of the 9th Legion marched from Lincoln and set up camp and Eboracum, as the Romans called York was born.The Romans had been in Southern Britain for more than quarter of a century before, so what brought them North?


It was actually love triangle!



Northern England and much of Yorkshire as we know it was populated by the Brigantes, a collection of iron age tribal groups. Their queen Cartimundua liked to work with the Romans but her estranged husband did not! The queen actually took her husband’s former arm’s bearer as her lover, needless to say the fighting started as her husband started attacking Roman trading parties. This led to the Romans moving North to impose their authority on the troublesome Northerners.


At that time York was little more than marshy meadowland, but the joining of the River Foss and River Ouse was a good strategic location for the Roman’s Yorkshire base, as men and supplies could be transported from the North Sea via the River Ouse.


They didn’t build their fortress on the higher land for defence, but between the rivers instead. What they lost in height they gained in defensive advantage of having rivers on both sides. The land would have also been slightly raised at that time as the rivers would have been a much as 3 metres lower than they are now.


A Roman fortress was built. All Roman fortresses were built to a standard plan, outer walls enclosed a space to house soldiers with the Headquarters, Grand Hall or Principia at the centre . The Principia is now beneath the main York Minster site.


The fortress was playing card shaped and enclosed an area the size of 50 football pitches.

The original fortress was built with timber and earth around 71 AD but rebuilt with stone, around 210AD during the reign of Emperor Severus.


So what we have here with the Multangular Tower is tower of the South West Corner of the fort. There was a multangular tower at each corner of the wall (as well as other interval towers along the sides) but what we now can see in Museum Gardens is the only surviving one.


The tower has 10 sides, from which it derives its modern name "multangular", and would have been 10 metres high during Roman times.


These limestone stone defenses used stone which came from Tadcaster which was known by the Romans as Calcaria. The tower during Roman times was believed to have had three floors, the top floor housing a catapult.


If you look at the tower, you can see that about two thirds of the way up, at about a height of 6 metres that the size of the stone changes.


The Roman parts of the wall and towers are constructed of smaller regular rectangular limestone blocks with a band of red tile running through them, which as well as being decorative, helped with drainage.

After the Romans left York in the early 400’s, the walls gradually fell into disrepair. But fast forwarding to the 1300’s new city walls were required to defend York, covering a much greater area than the original Roman fort.


Where Roman walls still existed, they were used as foundations for the new medieval city walls and that is what you can see here on the tower. If you look at the tower, you can see just above the red tiles – where where an extra 3 metres of wall have been added on top of the Roman remains using larger stone blocks.


As late as the English Civil War the city walls were being used to defend the city, and there is a hole in the wall along from the Multangular Tower that was made by a cannon ball during this period.


Can you also see the cross shaped slits on the Multangular Tower. These were holes made specially for medieval archers to operate from behind. The area behind the slit in the tower opened up as a wedge to allow the archer to move his aim whilst offering him a great deal of protection.