The City Gates of London, UK
Created | Updated Dec 28, 2010
London's first defensive wall was built by the Romans around 200 AD, 150 years after Londinium was founded. There were seven main entrances through the wall into the City, five built by the Romans at different times in their occupation of London. They were the City Gates.
The gates that once guarded the entrances to the City of London through the City Wall weren't gates as we might imagine them; they were multi-story buildings that had one or two archways through the middle for traffic, protected by gates and portcullises. They were often used as prisons, or used to display dead bodies, or parts of dead bodies, to passers-by. Beheaded traitors often had their head stuck on a spike on London Bridge, then their body quartered and spread among the gates.
After the curfew, rung by the bells of St Mary le Bow and other churches at nine pm, or dusk, (whichever came earlier) the gates were shut. They reopened at sunrise, or six am, (whichever came later) next morning. Entry was forbidden during these times, along with everyone inside having to get off the streets and go home. The gates were also used as checkpoints, to check people entering the City, and to collect any tolls that were being charged for the upkeep of the wall, or any other purpose that might require money. It is possible that the wall was built for the sole purpose of collecting taxes, and not for defence at all.
The gates were repaired and rebuilt many times throughout their existence. After the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 all of the City gates were unhinged and had their portcullises wedged open, making them useless for defence. They were retained despite their uselessness for their original purpose because they were a visible sign of the prestige of the City. Most of them were finally demolished around a hundred years later in 1760 later due to a problem that still bothers us in the present - traffic congestion. Not a very glamorous end for such imposing and important structures that had been watching over the City for over 1500 years.
The positions of all the gates are now marked by a main road with the same name, except Cripplegate, which is a tiny street somewhat north of the position of the gate.
Cripplegate stood at the northern end of what is now Wood Street at the junction of St Alphage Gardens. It was already in place when the City Wall was built, as it was the northern gate of a Roman fort which was built 120 AD. The northern and western walls formed part of the new wall, although these defences were completely rebuilt in early medieval times. Like a number of its sister gates, it was used as a prison for part of its life, being leased for accommodation at other times.
The gate gave access to a substantial medieval suburb and to the village of Islington. Extra defensive works on the northern site outside the gate gave rise to the name 'barbican' (or outer fortification of the City), which was then taken as the name for the post World War 2 rebuilding of the area. It originally only led into the fort and became a gate into the City when the fort was demolished.
In 1244 it was rebuilt by the Brewers Company, and then rebuilt again in 1491, had alterations in 1663 and when it was finally demolished in 1760 so that the street could be widened. The materials were sold to a local carpenter for the princely sum of £91.
The name of the gate has obscure origins. It could be that it is so-called because of the cripples who used to beg there, which is unsubstantiated. The body of St Edmund the Martyr was said to have been carried through it in 1010 on its way from Bury St Edmunds to St Gregory's church to save it from the Danes. Lydgate, a monk of Bury, claimed that the body cured many lame peasants as it passed through the gate. Alternatively 'Cripplegate' could be an Anglo-Saxon term - crepel - which means a covered way/underground passage.
There was possibly already a gate spanning the road to Colchester, once the capital city of England, when the City Wall was built, but the gateway was rebuilt sometime between 1108-47, and again in 1215. It was completely rebuilt again in 1607-9 when Roman coins were found in the foundations, and was finally demolished in 1760 in order to improve traffic access. It was briefly re-erected at Bethnal Green. Its name was often corrupted to Ale-gate or All-gate and meant 'open to all'.
The gate was to be found at the corner of the streets now known as Aldgate and Duke's Palace; Geoffrey Chaucer lived in rooms over the gate between 1374-85 while he was working as a customs official in the Port of London.
The Augustinian Priory of Holy Trinity Aldgate was built just inside the gate, and assured the gateway's continued importance. The Priory was founded by Henry I's wife Queen Matilda in 1108. The ground level had already risen seven feet from Roman times.
This gate was of late Roman military design and was probably built to replace the western gate of the old Roman fort1, as a way of strengthening the City defences from the Saxon raids in the 4th century. It was built of solid masonry and provided a platform for catapults.
It was rebuilt in 1617 and again 1672 after being damaged in the Great Fire of 1666, and demolished in 1760 to improve the flow of traffic. It stood opposite what is now 62 Aldersgate Street.
It was an important gate in medieval times as it gave access to St Bartholomew's Priory, the London Charterhouse and the livestock market and fair on Smithfield, which all lay beyond the city wall and ditch. It was sometimes used as a prison, and the limbs of traitors were often displayed on it.
The Romans built a road along the north bank of the River Thames westwards through the gate later called Lud Gate. Guarding the road from the west, it led to the Romans' main burial ground in what is now Fleet Street. The gate stood just above a crossing of the Fleet River (this now runs underground). It stood almost opposite what is now St Martin's Church on what is now called Ludgate Hill. The site of the gate is marked by a plaque on the north side of Ludgate Hill, halfway between Ludgate Circus and St Paul's Cathedral.
Tradition has it that the gate may have been built by an ancient Briton, King Lud, in 66 BC - but it is more likely that the Romans were the first to build it, and that it is simply named after him.
Rebuilt in 1215, the rooms above the gate became used as a prison for petty offenders. The gate was one of three separate sites that bore the name Ludgate Prison. In 1378 it was decided that Newgate Prison would be used for serious criminals, and Ludgate for Freemen of the City and clergy who were imprisoned for minor offences such as debt. By 1419 it became clear that prisoners were far too comfortable here, as they were more likely to want to stay than to pay their debts and leave. They were all transferred to Newgate for this reason, although that prison was so overcrowded and unhealthy that they soon returned. It had a flat lead roof for prisoners to exercise on, as well as a 'large walking place' at ground level.
Rebuilt by the City in 1586, a statue of King Lud was placed on the east side, and one of Queen Elizabeth I on the west. These statues are now outside St Dunstan's Church, Fleet Street. It was rebuilt again after being destroyed in the Great Fire. Like the other City gates it was demolished in 1760. The prisoners were moved to a section of the workhouse in Bishopsgate St.
The Romans built a road north through the gate in the wall called Ermine Street, which ran north to York (Eburacum) and then on to Hadrian's Wall. The gate later acquired the name Bishopsgate. It has never been excavated, and perhaps for this reason, the bishop or bishops who were possibly associated with this gate for it to gain this name remain unknown. This road led to an open space known as 'Spital'. It used to be part of the grounds of St Mary Spital, a priory and hospital, but was opened up to citizenry. In the present day it is more familiar as Spitalfields. The fields led to the villages of Shoreditch and Whitechapel.
To the east of Bishops Gate the dyers would stretch their textiles to dry along the wall once they had been dyed, this area was called the 'tenter grounds'. They fixed the edges to hooks on rails to keep them taut. The phrase 'on tenterhooks' means to be under nervous tension, and comes from this.
This gate often displayed the heads of criminals on spikes.
Rebuilt in 7th century by the Bishop of London, the Hansa merchants rebuilt the gate in 1471. Its final form was built in 1735 by the City authorities and demolished in 1760. It stood in the current Bishopsgate opposite Camomile Street.
The properties in what is now Wormwood Street started life with their backs against the City Wall at Bishopsgate, which stopped them from spreading northwards. In places where there is no visible sign of the City Wall, there are often property boundaries that mark the line. One of the properties built against the wall had inserted a staircase into part of the wall.
This was not one of the original Roman gates, but was built in the Middle Ages. It was rebuilt in 1415 by Mayor Thomas Falconer, repaired in 1472 and rebuilt again in 1672 as a ceremonial entrance. The stones were used to stop London Bridge being washed away by the tide.
This stretch of City Wall became incorporated into the Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam) for the insane and was finally demolished in 1817.
Going north through Moorgate led straight to the open spaces of Moorfields. This is the only gate whose name described its location.
It opened onto the moors or marsh which had once been well-drained by the Walbrook stream, but the construction of the City Wall effectively dammed the natural drainage, and a large marsh was created. The marsh was drained in 1527, and eventually the whole area was laid out with walks and avenues of trees.
In Elizabethan times half of the fields were strewn with sheets - the laundresses brought them here and spread them out on the ground to dry, and to either side were more tenter grounds.
The exact year when Newgate was built is not easy to pin down. Excavations through the years (in 1875, 1903 and 1909) have revealed a Roman-Type gateway on the site. However, it was built on approximately four feet of rubbish that had accumulated on top of the original Roman wall. An estimate of 875 has been suggested, although other sources claim that it was built 'about the reign of Henry I or King Stephen' (1100-54).
It has been suggested that the new gate was built because the church of St Paul's burned down in 1087. The rebuilding took up a lot more land, and it causing traffic problems for people wanting to travel out through Ludgate. The new gate avoided having to travel past the new St Paul's. This theory fits with the date of the 12th Century, but it cannot be confirmed.
The gate was always used as a prison for debtors and felons, serving not only Middlesex and London but often other neighbouring areas. The date that it became more than a simple prison gatehouse and became the large prison that it was 1000 years later when it was demolished for good is unknown. It was so notorious that it has its own h2g2 Entry - Life inside Newgate Prison.