Ludgate was the original London gate in the south-west of the city.

A road ran west from the centre of Roman Londinium, the modern Cheapside. After passing down the steep Ludgate Hill it passed through the most south-westerly of the city gates – Lud Gate – at roughly what is now Ludgate Circus. From there it continued westwards, passing over a bridge across the River Fleet and then running in parallel with the north bank of the Thames, along what is now Fleet Street and Strand towards today’s Westminster. (The name Strand comes from old English, meaning water’s edge).

The belief throughout the Middle Ages, and certainly in the Tudor period when it was recounted by the London historian John Stow, was that the original Lud Gate was built by the mythical King Lud, King of Britain in the 1st century BC. Stow was repeating the legend written in 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia regum Britanniae, a highly inaccurate history of Britain. With our modern knowledge we know that London was really established by the Romans a century later. It is certainly plausible that in medieval times Ludgate Hill was named after the legendary king and the gate then took its name from the hill. During the late 19th century the building that still stands on the north-west corner of Ludgate Circus, close to the site of the gate, was The King Lud pub. Another possible explanation is that the name is derived from Saxon, meaning ‘swing gate’. Yet another possibility is that, with its proximity to the River Fleet, it comes from ‘flood gate’, and Stow recounts it may have been known as Fludsgate in earlier times.

Ludgate is probably one of the earliest of London’s gates, built around 90AD. No doubt the Roman structure must have been rebuilt or repaired during the later Saxon period. It was certainly rebuilt in 1215 at a time when armed English barons, on their way to meet King John to have him sign the Magna Carta, entered the city with the consent of London’s citizens, and robbed the Jews of their money. They ruthlessly destroyed the houses of the Jews and used the materials to strengthen the city’s walls and gates.

Throughout the Middle Ages, from 1278, a major Dominican friary – the ‘Black Friars’ – gradually developed south of Ludgate on what had been since Norman times the sites of Baynard’s Castle and Montfichet’s Tower. The friary gradually expanded to fill the entire area east to the River Fleet, requiring the city wall to be realigned around it.

From the 15th until 19th centuries a major coaching inn was located on Ludgate Hill, from where passengers could catch a coach west from London. It was variously known at different times by the names Belle Sauvage, Bell Savage, or Bell and Hoop. The inn was one of the locations for the staging of plays in the 15th century, before London’s purpose-built playhouses came into existence. At its peak the Belle Sauvage could boast 40 rooms and stables for 100 horses.

Sir Thomas Wyatt led a rebellion in 1554 in protest against Queen Mary’s proposed marriage to the King of Spain. His army of 4,000 Protestant men approached Ludgate but it was closed to them. They were soon defeated by royalist troops. Wyatt was taken prisoner and executed on Tower Hill, as were 150 of his men. Although she had no part in the rebellion, it prompted the execution of Mary’s rival for the throne, Lady Jane Grey.

Various accounts of Wyatt’s rebellion state that Ludgate was closed to him so he rested at the Beau Sauvage Inn. Those two points appear to be contradictory. The inn was certainly on Ludgate Hill, so it must have been on the inside of the gate, and thus he would not have been able to rest there if the gate was locked.

The “sore decayed” Ludgate was rebuilt in 1586 to the design of William Kerwin. A statue of Queen Elizabeth was added to the west side, with earlier statues of Lud and the others on the east face. St. Martin-within-Ludgate church has a silver model of the 1586 gate. During the work a stone was uncovered that had been used for the rebuilding by the barons in 1215. It contained Hebrew text and had come from a doorway stating it was the home of Rabbi Moyses, son of Rabbi Isaac.

From 1378 the upper floors of Ludgate became a debtors’ prison. It was enlarged in 1454 for the benefit of inmates at the cost of Agnes, the widow of Stephen Foster, a former Mayor of London who had once served time there as a prisoner. The gate was only partially damaged in the Great Fire, although the prison had to be rebuilt.

Inside Ludgate stood, and still remains, St. Martin-within-Ludgate church, dedicated to the 4th century Bishop of Tours, patron saint of beggars. There is a legend that it was originally built in the 7th century but the earliest records date from the early 12th century. The medieval church was rebuilt in 1437 but the steeple was damaged in the same storm of 1561 that destroyed the spire of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The entire building was lost in the Great Fire, following which it was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren.

The road down Ludgate Hill and out through the gate to Fleet Street was one of the busiest in London and by the 17th century often jammed with wagons and other traffic. The gate was a major bottleneck and in 1760 was demolished, along with London’s other gates. The materials were sold for £148. The gate’s statue of Queen Elizabeth was put into a niche in the facia of St. Dunstan’s church in Fleet Street where it remains today, and that of Lud and the others in the porchway of the building. Elizabeth’s statue is the only surviving example of the Queen made during her lifetime. The goal’s prisoners were sent to the Bishopsgate workhouse.

<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’

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