Aldgate was the original London gate on the road towards Essex.

The Roman road out of Aldgate led east towards the original Roman capital of Britain at Colchester, and it remains as a very straight road through Whitechapel, Mile End, Stratford and beyond. The gate stood adjacent to the modern-day Aldgate Square, where Jewry Street meets Aldgate High Street. There was a Roman burial ground outside the wall to the south-east of Aldgate, beside what later became The Minories.

As with the other gates, there are various theories regarding the etymology. One is that the name possibly evolved from ‘Ale Gate’, based on an early 12th century spelling, indicating an inn or tavern, and another, preferred by the tudor historian John Stowe, is simply an evolution of ‘old gate’. The earliest known record, from the 11th century, spells it as ‘Æst geat’, meaning east gate, and the earliest record of ‘Aldgate’ occurred in the late 15th century.

Outside the wall on the north side of the street we can find St. Botolph-without-Aldgate, another of the surviving churches dedicated to the saint. During Saxon times it was the church of the Cnihtengild (or Knighten Guild), a group of military and religious warriors who held the strip of land outside the wall from Spitalfields south to the Thames known as the Portsoken. They were founded during the time of King Edgar and continued until the Norman Conquest. The medieval church was rebuilt in the mid-18th century. Just inside the gate, where the ancient Aldgate Street (now Leadenhall Street) and Fenchurch Street meet, stood a well that was later replaced by Aldgate Pump.

Aldgate High Street was once lined with inns and accommodation for travellers, of which the sole survivor is the Hoop and Grapes. Two important religious buildings stood on either side of Aldgate. Inside the wall, to the west of the gate was the Holy Trinity Priory of Augustinian friars, the Black Canons. It was founded by Queen Matilda in 1108 and became one of the wealthiest religious institutions in England. After it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1532 the property came into the ownership of the Duke of Norfolk, and the location became known as Duke’s Place.  The Franciscan Abbey of St. Clare was established outside the wall to the south-east of the gate in the late 13th century. It was home to the Minoress nuns who give the modern-day street of The Minories its name. (In recent times the street has become more usually known simply as “Minories”).

Stowe wrote in 1598 that Aldgate previously had two portcullises but during his time “one of them remaineth, the other wanteth”. He explained that it was through Aldgate that the barons entered at the time when they sacked the houses of the Jews. As with Ludgate, Aldgate was another of those they rebuilt in 1215, partly using the materials “after the manner of the Normans, strongly arched with bulwarks of stone of stone from Caen…and small brick, called Flanders tiles”.

From the early 14th century rooms above the gate were rented out. The official Geoffrey Chaucer lived there from 1371, during which time he wrote some of his poems. He was living at the gate in 1381 when thousands of rebels entered through Aldgate during the Peasants’ Revolt before carrying out much damage within the city.

There was more drama at Aldgate in 1471 when 5,000 troops led by Thomas Neville, the ‘Bastard of Fauconberg’, forced open the gates in an unsuccessful attempt to free King Henry VI from imprisonment in the Tower of London. On that occasion the gate’s defenders lowered the portcullis and trapped some of Neville’s men within the gate, where they were killed. The portcullis was then raised to allow London’s defenders to rush out, forcing Neville’s army to retreat to Stratford. Neville and his surviving men then fled from the London area.

Aldgate was rebuilt during the 12th century. It was rebuilt again in the early 17th century in a more classical style, with statues of two Roman soldiers on the outer side, beneath which was another of James I with loyal supporters at his feet. On the inner side stood a large statue of Fortune, as well as gilded figures of Peace and Charity that were copied from Roman coins that had been discovered while digging the gate’s foundations. On the north side of the gate was a postern for pedestrians.

Aldgate was finally demolished in 1761 at about the same time as Ludgate, Aldersgate, Cripplegate and Bishopsgate. It was purchased by Ebenezer Mussell, an antiquarian who lived in a mansion belonging to Lord Viscount Wentworth at Bethnal Green. Mussell had the gate rebuilt on the north side of the house and renamed his property Aldgate House. After his death, however, his widow re-married and her new husband cleared the site for redevelopment.

<Back to The City Wall and Gates of London

Sources include:

  • Alan Brooke ‘Gates of the City of London’
  • Walter Thornbury ‘Old & New London’
  • John Stow ‘A Survey of London’ (1598)
  • Stephen Millar ‘London’s City Churches’
  • Dominic Perring ‘Roman London’

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