The City Of Londonderry

The Building of the Maiden City

In 1610 about 130 stonemasons and carpenters were sent over from London to begin the process of building the new city of Londonderry.

It was an extraordinary undertaking. Most of what had survived from the medieval period was in ruins. Apparently, only two of these structures would survive into the new city: the church of the ancient Augustan monastery and the old O’Donnell tower-house castle. Whatever houses still remained, only those required for the workers were to be retained; the rest were to be demolished. The new city was to be built on what was, effectively, a green-field site. It was to be the first planned city or town in Ireland.

A drawing dated 1611 survives, showing what layout was intended at that stage. The city as actually built, however, was a slightly modified version of that plan, the layout of which, with only a few minor changes, has survived to the present day. In that sense Londonderry can be said to stand at the forefront of the history of Irish town planning.

Town planning had, of course, been revitalised during the Renaissance, drawing on ideas derived from the classical world. New towns, designed in imitation of the geometric layout of Roman military camps, were being built all over Europe. Londonderry bears a striking resemblance in layout (although not in topography), to the frontier city of Vitry-le-Francois in eastern France. Vitry had been finished in 1560 for Francis II, King of France, who was married to Mary Queen of Scots, mother of James I who was the progenitor of Londonderry. It is possible that this family connection may have influenced the design of the new city in Ulster.

It took many years for the houses to be erected along the streets and for the public buildings of the town to be completed. The walls and gates were not finished until 1618 and it was another ten years before the main church of the settlement, St Columb’s Cathedral, was even begun. Gradually the city also filled up with people as settlers moved to Derry from England and Scotland.

In 1615, while construction work was still ongoing, a conspiracy by some of the native Irish to rebel and burn all the colonial settlements was uncovered. The perpetrators were arrested and brought to trial. The hearing, which was held amidst the confusion of the half-built city, interestingly included two native Irishmen on the jury.

Seventeen defendants were put on trial. Eleven were released but six were found guilty and sentenced to be drawn ‘in chains to the gallows where they would be hanged but when only half dead to be cut down, disembowelled, beheaded, the body quartered and then burned’. Following the executions the heads of these men were to be exhibited on the city gates.