London is full of historic gems: blue plaques mark important residences, building cornerstones have dates from centuries past, and street names harken back to the times when those streets peddled those wares – like Shoulder of Mutton Alley, Wardrobe Place, or Pudding Lane. Some of London’s history is a bit harder to uncover, as I’ve discovered through my fascination with the London Wall and Roman history in London.
Through this avenue, I began to ponder the fabled gates of London along the London Wall, which served as protection and passageway to the city from the time of the Romans through the birth of the modern era in the late 18th century. I decided to learn a bit more, and ended up in a delightful rabbit hole of London history. This history is part of what compelled me to move to London in the first place; I love walking around the city knowing how much history surrounds me – it puts my modern day inconveniences in perspective.
So whether you are academically inclined or planning a London trip and keen to learn more about the history beneath the streets you’ll tread, after reading this post, you’ll know plenty about the gates of London – and loads of other London history too. Read on to discover a fascinating – and important – chapter of London’s long and detailed history.
The Great Debate of the Seven Gates
There is some confusion about which London gates exactly “count” on the list of the official “seven gates of London.” One of the oldest accounts of London, written in the 1170s by William Fitzstephen in the prologue of his Vita Sancti Thomae (Life of St. Thomas), says that there were “seven double gates” in the London Wall. He does not name them, which has – of course – created great debate through the centuries since.
Another source, A Survey of London, written in 1598 (and again in 1633) by a London merchant named John Stow, cites four Roman gates, and seven Medieval gates, however his seven London gates doesn’t match most common lists you’ll see today.
Based on archaeological research, we now believe that there were six Roman gates, and seven double gates by the Medieval period. The seven double-gates of London were Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, Newgate, and Ludgate.
But according to Stow, the original four gates in the Roman fortifications of London were: Aldgate, Aldersgate, Ludgate, and Bridgegate; he does not mention Newgate or Bishopsgate in this list. (He is, perhaps, unaware of their Roman origin and has no source to claim it, so ignores that fact.) Similarly, he doesn’t count Moorgate or Newgate in his list of the seven Medieval gates of London, instead including Bridgegate and a Postern Gate at the Tower of London. He hypothesizes that Fitzstephen included the Postern Gate in his list of seven (along with all other main gates except Moorgate, which had not been built in Fitzstephen’s time).
Despite Stow’s consistent endorsement of it as an important London gate, most other sources omit Bridesgate entirely form all lists of London gates, and skip over postern gates even when they were significant (like the Tower Postern).
My personal conclusion – after days of research, reading original sources in olde English, and gazing at countless maps from centuries past – is that historians and archaeologists should “count” more than seven gates of London; looking at historical significance, there are nine important gates of London: the Tower Postern Gate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, Newgate, Ludgate, and Bridgegate.
A Brief Overview of London’s Long History
The first maps of London weren’t produced until the mid-1500s; before this time we rely entirely on written sources to understand London’s long history. But it actually helps to start a little earlier – before the founding of London, to understand what London was like as a geography before humans came to establish a city there.
The River Thames is London’s most defining geographic feature, and thousands of years ago, it was wider and shallower that in is today. With natural banks and tidal action, the Thames created mudflats and marshes along its route, and was joined by dozens of tributary streams and smaller rivers. Beyond that, there were moors (boggy rolling hills), forests, and (eventually) fields.
So with that scene in mind, imagine the Romans arriving in the area after sailing ships from the empire for several weeks. They find a huge bay on the eastern coast of the (someday) British isles and sail up it. Being navigable under the right tidal conditions, they eventually arrive at a point where the river narrows too much to continue sailing inland, and decide to set up shop. Thus London was founded in 43 AD by the Romans, and came to be called Londinium.
The Romans built up Londinium for several centuries, until their numbers – in conjunction with native Britons living in the city – reached about 50,000 in the third century.
Upon repeated attacks from the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century, the Romans abandoned London to them, and it became the capital of Essex in the eight century. By the ninth century, the Vikings attacked the city several times, leading to Danish settlement and, eventually, Danish attacks and occupation. This period is generally considered to be Britain’s “Dark Ages.” (These are marked in blue and yellow below.)
This remained until the victory and ascendancy of William the Conquerer, a Norman, also called William Duke of Normandy as the first King of England in 1067. London then enters the Medieval period, which lasts some 400 years in a succession of various kings.
Then, there might be names you recognize: the Tudor period started with Henry VII and ended with his granddaughters, Mary and Elizabeth; the Stuarts (some Charles’s, William’s, and James’s, as well as Queen Anne); the Hanoverians (a whole load of George’s with a couple of William’s and finally Victoria); and finally the period of transition to the House of Windsor which still rules today (QE2 is on her 70th year!). (Oh, and there was a Commonwealth period in there for a while too where there was no officially recognized monarch…)
All this to say: London has seen a lot in her 2,000 years of being a city. That’s part of what fascinates me so much about London!
The Significant Gates of London
Why start with a huge section about London history? Because it hopefully illustrates that London has had many chapters – which means that the list of London gates varies depending on when you’re looking at the list. In short, here’s a list of the gates of London and when each one was constructed:
- Aldgate (Roman) – Built into the original London Wall, accessing the area east of London like Colchester and Essex
- Bishopsgate (Roman/Medieval) – Built into the London Wall for better access to the north and east like Cambridge, Norfolk, and Suffolk
- Cripplegate (Roman/Medieval) – Built into the London Wall for additional access north
- Aldersgate (Roman) – Built into the original London Wall, accessing the area north of London
- Newgate (Roman/Medieval) – Built into the London Wall as an additional gate to the west
- Ludgate (Roman) – Built into the original London Wall, accessing the area west of London
- Bridgegate (Roman) – Built at the southern terminus of the original London Bridge, accessing the area south of London like Southwark
- Postern at the Tower of London (Medieval) – Built (or enhanced) after the building of the Tower of London to provide access between the two
- Moorgate (Later Medieval) – First a postern* gate, later enhanced to provide access to the northern Moors
- Additional Posterns and Watergates (Later Medieval) – Including a postern at Christeshospital, and 3-4 relevant watergates along the River Thames
*A postern is a smaller, secondary entrance; it’s possible many posterns were built in the original Roman wall, but many were enhanced in the Medieval period.
Curious to learn more about each gate? Read on! I’ve organized the gates in a counter-clockwise direction around the City of London, starting at the Tower of London.
Postern at the Tower
Photo of the Tower Postern by -JvL- via Flickr
Given that the Roman wall around Londinium predates the Tower of London by some 800 years, originally the London Wall ran straight down to the banks of the Thames, with perhaps a few bastions for defense; there seems to be the ruins of one within the grounds of the Tower of London visible today.
However, after the construction of the Tower of London in 1066-1067, parts of the Roman wall were removed and a Postern Gate was added at some time unknown. Stow describes it as “a faire and strong arched Gate, partly builded of hard stone of Kent, and partly of stone brought from Cane in Normandy,” suggesting it was more than a standard Postern and likely the seventh gate that Fitzstephen referenced in his 1170 description of London.
Stow reports that expansion at the Tower in 1190 destabilized the Postern Gate, and the postern finally fell in 1440 and was never rebuilt; instead a “homely cottage with a narrow passage made of timber, lath, and loame [sic]” was erected in its place.
Evidence of that postern gate still exists today, and can be seen at the first stop on the London Wall Walk.
If you recognize the name “Aldgate,” that’s because the name is still in use today, referring to a small region of London directly east of the City. It takes its name from the original Aldgate, which stood where modern-day Aldgate High Street meets Jewry Street. As Aldgate High Street becomes Fenchurch Street after the threshold of the former Aldgate, it’s likely modern Fenchurch Street follows the same route as the paved Roman road did within the city walls – at least for a little while.
There isn’t much known about the history of the Aldgate; it first appears in documents drafted on behalf of King Edgar, who ruled from 959 to 975. It was still in existence some two hundred years later during the reign of Henry I (1100-1135) when his wife built a priory near the gate.
In his Survey of London, Stow doesn’t comment on the current state of the Aldgate in 1598 as he does about other gates. The plaque at this point on the London Wall walk notes that the Aldgate was rebuilt in both 1108-47, and again in 1215. It was rebuilt a final time in 1607-1609 before being torn down in 1760/1761* to improve traffic in the City. (*There’s some confusion here, as the plaque says 1761, yet you can see the mounted marker in the wall where the Aldgate stood says 1760.)
Note: I am working to procure a better photo of Bishopsgate, particularly of the Bishop’s Mitre. Thanks for your patience!
Bishopsgate is the first gate of some debate; some historians say the gate was built as a defense over Ermine Street (now Bishopsgate). Stow does not include it on his original list, nor does he know when or for which Bishop the gate is named.
In any event, Bishopsgate was built for practical reasons: northeasterly destinations like Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridge were apparently quite inconvenienced by going round to the north Aldersgate or further down to the east Aldgate and thus Bishopsgate was needed to aid in the commerce that helped London grow. It also became a common location for churches and hospitals, including “S. Mary Spittle Without Bishopsgate,” which later inspired Spitalfields that’s easily reached by following Bishopsgate out of the City.
In any case, or as Stow says, “Thus much for Antiquitie [sic[, now for repayring [sic] of this gate,” Bishopsgate was repaired repeatedly, including likely around 1280 and again in 1479. The gate was taken down in 1760-1761 like all the others that remained to that point, and the original marker denoting the gate was destroyed during an IRA bomb in 1993. Today, the only indication of where the Bishopsgate stood is a Bishops mitre (hats) affixed to a building at the intersection of Bishopsgate and Wormwood Street (the latter of which follows the London Wall for a time).
Moorgate is the only London gate that historians agree was not originally a Roman gate. Moorgate looked out over the northeastern field of moors north of the city, which might explain its slow development: the land was boggy and marshy and not good for much – there also weren’t roads or causeways through it until the gate was built.
Stow cites a source from 1415 who says that during the reign of Henry V, it was decreed to open a postern gate at this location, which was rebuilt into a better gate in 1472 and causeways through the moors were added. The gate was further improved in 1515, making it relatively modern by Stow’s standard in 1598. (Given its late development, it isn’t generally considered one of the main gates of London.)
Like other gates, Moorgate was demolished in 1761 and a plaque now stands on the side of a building to mark where it once stood.
Cripplegate is another gate that historians are split on; Stow does not include it as a significant Roman gate, instead saying it was a postern while others say that it was part of the Roman fort that stood in this part of the City. We know for certain that it was developed into a major gate during the Early Middle Ages.
The gate was so named for crippled individuals who hung out around the gate, which was said to have miraculous healing powers. Cripplegate existed dating back to at least 869, for it was at this time that the body of Edmund the Martyr (King of East Anglia) was brought through the gate to rest in a church within the City for three years. It was also noted specifically by William the Conquerer in his official charter in 1067. It was repaired in 1244 by the Brewers of London, in 1491, and was enhanced in 1660 under the charge of Charles II.
Like most gates, Cripplegate was destroyed in the mid-18th century; today a sign marks the location on the aptly-named Roman House, and can be seen along the London Wall Walk.
Nobody – including Stow – is quite sure why the Romans had two such similarly-named gates; surely there was occasional confusion about “Aldgate” and “Aldersgate” that got more than one young Centurion reprimanded for sending a supply wagon to one instead of the other… However some researchers believe this gate was built later than Aldgate, in the latter half of the Roman period, to defend the city from Anglo-Saxon attacks.
In any case, Aldersgate stood on the northern part of the Roman wall, and was heavily defensed with a number of bastions and a garrison stationed nearby. The road which now runs through where Aldersgate once stood is Aldersgate Street outside the gate, becoming St. Martins Le Grand inside the walls.
Stow also omits much information about the current state (in 1598) of the Aldersgate, though does note it has been built up to include a number of buildings and a particularly interesting two-story water well. By the mid-1600s, Aldersgate was – like many later gates – being used as a jail, and was also demolished in 1761 like its eastern bretheren.
Photo of the Ludgate plaque by Tammy Young Heck via Flickr
Legend has it that Ludgate was built by King Lud, after whom London is named… but we know that this doesn’t square with historical fact mentioned above. (And also the source, Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth, is generally considered to be “pseudohistorical.”) Instead, it’s more likely that the Romans built the Ludgate to serve as the western portal of the city, and so named it perhaps referring to flooding of the River Fleet which ran next to the gate (“Fludgate”) or after the Fleet itself (“Fleedgate”) or using the word “ludgeat” which at the time meant postern or back gate.
Whatever the origin of the name, Ludgate was one of the four principal gates of London during the Roman times. It was rebuilt in 1215 using the remnants of homes previously owned by persecuted Jews in this part of London (Hebrew characters were found engraved in some of the stones during later restorations), and again in 1586 when Queen Elizabeth decreed that the “decayed” gate should be torn down and entirely rebuilt. It stood until 1760 when it too was removed to aid traffic congestion.
Ludgate also had a second, darker life, serving as a prison during the medieval period in partnership with its neighbor, Newgate. Ludgate was the “misdemeanor” prison, while Newgate held the “felony” prisoners, using modern American legal terms.
Photo of the Newgate plaque by Christian Lüts via Flickr
Newgate is another gate up for debate. It’s widely agreed now that there was a Roman road that passed through the area of Newgate, and there are ruins of the gate and wall here; why Stow leaves it off his list is unknown.
What we do know is that in the late 1100s, it was either demolished and rebuilt or greatly repaired during either the end of the reign of Henry II or beginning of Richard I. The occasion was as much to celebrate the monarchs as to sort a major congestion issue near Ludgate, which at that time was accessed via smaller roadways after St. Paul’s Cathedral burned in 1086. Newgate solved the issue by providing access in and out of the City further north.
Since the time of King John (at the turn of the 13th century), Newgate was also used as a prison; this legacy stands today as both the Old Bailey and Central Criminal Courts are right in the area of Newgate. Like the other gates, a marker notes the place where Newgate stood until it was finally demolished in 1777.
The final Roman gate is the one most commonly overlooked in other modern sources on the the subject of London’s gates – it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page! (The horror!)
However, Bridgegate was a strategically significant gate in London, situated at the southern end of the original, wooden London Bridge built by the Romans to reach the southern shores of the Thames and expanding the Roman presence with a small settlement there.
The stone Bridgegate stood at the end of the wooden bridge until the bridge too became stone; it was repaired several times including after falling down in 1436. It was also burned in 1471 along with many homes on the bridge and the “Béere houses at S. Katherines” (Burning the breweries? Sacrilege!). Stow does not mention then if it was ever rebuilt, and there is no plaque or marker for it today. (There is, however, great food and drink at nearby Borough Market.)
Other Posterns & Water Gates in London
In addition to these nine significant gates of London, there are other interesting gates that no longer exist – though most won’t be marked if you’re looking for them on the street.
- There was a postern from Christehospital toward S. Bartelmewes Hospitall, which may well be the modern St. Bartholomew’s (St. Bart’s) just outside the Aldersgate.
- There was Buttolphes Gate, which I couldn’t figure out for the life of me. (There are several St. Butolph churches but all are near other gates.)
- Billingsgate was a water gate of sorts, used as a port or harbor dating way back in London history.
- Quéene Hith, now Queenhithe, is home to the only remaining Anglo-Saxon dock in the world, and a beautiful mosaic of British history.
- Called a “breach in the wal [sic]” by Stow, the Fleet dike was a bastion/tower, gate, and bridge crossing the River Fleet before it was diverted to become one of London’s underground rivers.
- There was also a gate called Downe gate near St. John (the Baptist upon Waldbrook), which was where the (also now subterranean) River Waldbrook once ran.
- Tying together several chapters of London history, All Hallows the Less was a church destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666; at one point the Downgate or Wolses Gate stood near the church, which is where modern day Upper Thames Street meets Angel Lane.
- Very close by, the Ebgate stood on what is now Swan Lane (Stow calls it Old Swanne, showing how what goes around, comes around!).
- There is, of course, the Traitor’s Gate, built into the bulwark of the Tower of London; many have seen this on a Thames river cruise!
And finally, the gate that inspired this whole post: I noticed while researching the route of the London Wall, there was an unnamed water gate by “Woole Wharf.” I saw this on the Agas map of 1561 and again on an 1893 map of London, and was verified by description in Stow’s survey of 1598 and the 1848 Crutchley Pocket Map of London. It was located where where Water Lane meets Pudding Dock – now Pudding Lane. Yes, you just read 3,000+ words so I could solve the mystery of one unnamed water gate! Don’t you just love how much history London has?
Have any questions about the gates of London or London Roman history? Let me know in the comments!