In search of Aldersgate | The story of the City of London’s northern gate
The history of one of Roman London’s first gates.
Today, the City of London covers the area of the original Roman settlement of Londinium. Although the capital’s population spread out far beyond these boundaries in more recent centuries, the City gates remained until the mid 18th century.
One of the four original gates of London was Aldersgate, located in the north corner. It’s believed it was built by the Romans in the late 4th century to replace an older gate to the nearby Cripplegate Fort. It was built into the defensive City wall, which had been erected between 190-220 AD. The gates were designed to control traffic in and out of Londinium so taxes could be imposed on incoming goods. The first Aldersgate is believed to have had semi-circular towers with a pair of roadways and a platform for catapults.
After the Romans abandoned the City in the early 5th century, Londinium rapidly deteriorated over the years. It wasn’t until the 9th century that the Saxons began to resettle the area under Alfred the Great (847/9-899 AD). At some point in the Medieval period, the gate was named Ealdredesgate (AEldresgate). When it comes to what inspired the name, there has been much debate. In his 1603 Survey of London, John Stow (1524/5-1605) wrote some Londoners claimed it was named after a Saxon man Aldrich, while others believed it was after the alder trees which grew nearby. However, Stow theorised it was called so due to its age, writing: “The next is AEldresgate, or Aldersgate, so-called not of Aldrich, or of Elders, that is to say, ancient men, builders therefore, nor of Eldarne trees, growing there more abundantly than in other places as some have fabuled, but for the very antiquity of the gate itself, as being one of the first 4 gates of the city and serving for the Northerne parts, as Aldegate for the East.” The Anglo-Saxon word ‘Aeld’ was used to describe the type of tree or an older person. Another suggestion is the gate may have been named after Ealdrād, Archbishop of York (d.1069), who crowned King William I (1028-1087) in 1066. It’s likely we’ll never know for sure which theory is correct.
Throughout the early centuries of the second millennium, the gate was frequently used by Londoners heading to nearby Smithfield, known for its fairs, markets, executions and jousting competitions, as well as St Bartholomew’s Priory. During the mid 16th century, the gate was home to Protestant printer John Day (1522-1584), who printed the Bible dedicated to the young King Edward VI (1537-1553) from the building in May 1551. His work was forced underground during Catholic Queen Mary I’s (1516-1558) reign and he was arrested and imprisoned at the Tower of London in 1554. He was later released and returned to live at Aldersgate during the reign of Mary’s Protestant sister Queen Elizabeth I (1553-1603).
In May 1603, Aldersgate was part of history when James VI of Scotland (aka James I of England) rode through it to claim the thrones of England and Scotland following the death of his cousin Elizabeth. By this period, the gate was in a bad state of disrepair. In 1617, the original gate was pulled down and rebuilt to a new design by the (brilliantly named) carver Gerard Christmas (d.1634). The new design was funded by a merchant tailor named William Parker to a cost of £1,000 and commemorated the Stuart king’s ascent to the throne. The new gate featured a big central arch for vehicle and horse traffic, with a pair of smaller posterns for pedestrians. The building was flanked by two projecting towers, with a statue of the King on horseback over the main arch on the north-facing side, with a relief of the monarch in his stately dress on the south. The gate also featured the imperial arms, and effigies of the prophets Jeremiah and Samuel. Underneath the likeness of Jeremiah, an inscription from his book 17:25: “Then shall enter into the gates of this city kings and princes, sitting upon the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their princes, the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall remain for ever.” Meanwhile, Samuel’s image was accompanied by a passage from 12:1: “And Samuel said unto all Israel, Behold, I have hearkened unto your voice in all that you said unto me, and have made a king over you.” The north-facing side was the grandest of the two because it sent a message to those entering London. It symbolised the power and wealth of the City, while also urging those arriving to behave themselves, or else.
Being so close to Smithfield, a popular locations for executions, Aldersgate was often decorated with body parts of dead prisoners. In 1660, diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) commented on this gruesome sight: “I saw the limbs of some of our new trytors set upon Aldersgate. A bloody week this and the last have been, there being 10 hanged, drawn and quartered.” The gate was damaged during the Great Fire of London in 1666, but repaired three years later. By the 18th century, the Common Crier lived in the apartments over the gate. However, in the 1750s, City chiefs decided to formally open up the boundaries of the capital to accommodate the growing population and increasing traffic. Parts of Aldersgate were sold off for £91 and the gate was taken down in April 1761. Other City gates demolished around this period include Ludgate (1760), Bishopsgate (1760), Aldgate (1761), Moorgate (1762), and Newgate (1767).
Although the Aldersgate vanished in 1761, its name lives on in Aldersgate Street (which passed through it), as well as the City Ward of Aldersgate. Roman and Medieval ruins of the Aldersgate have been found in deep excavations in the early 20th century (documented by Historic England), although are not on public display. The site is now marked by a City of London blue plaque on Alder Castle House, right beside the Lord Raglan pub and opposite the entrance to Postman’s Park. In fact, the pub’s website boasts “remains of an old Roman wall in the cellar”.
- The plaque marking the site of the Aldersgate is on Alder Castle House, 1-6 Aldersgate Street, City of London, EC2. Nearest stations: St Paul’s or Barbican.
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Posted on 6 Jun 2020, in History, London and tagged City of London, Roman. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.
I have a map of Roman London published by the Museum of London and was surprised to see that the south bank didn’t really exist in Roman times. The water extended sometimes for hundreds of yards south of its current position, partly open water, partly marshland and mudflats. I am not sure when it was drained or reclaimed but I would guess in the early middle ages. I assume knowledge of this was gained from modern archaeology rather than original Roman maps or Walter Thornbury would have known in 1873.
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