'the largest surviving city gate in England' (Urry) 1379 and onwards

Postcard from a set of 'Ancient gates of Canterbury', alongside modern photo.

Notes - taken from William Urry's account (1948):

Westgate is the largest surviving city gate in England. There was a gate here at the time of the Norman Conquest. Whether there was a Roman Gate or not is still a subject of doubt; it is not clear if the settlement in those days extended as far as Westgate, though the latest deductions by the archaeologists move them to accept the existence of a Roman Westgate on this site.

The early gate had over it a little parish church, that of Holy Cross. In 1379, both church and gate were taken down, the church being rebuilt in its present situation adjacent to the gate, which was reconstructed by Simon of Sudbury, the Archbishop who met his death at the hands of the revolted peasants when they occupied London in 1381. It consists of two huge drum towers, 60 feet in height, flanking a great entrance, which even nowadays is large enough to accommodate the biggest double-decker bus.

 

The entrance was originally protected by wooden doors, a portcullis and a draw-bridge. As a mark of gratitude the Mayor and Corporation were wont to go to pray at Sudbury's tomb in the Cathedral every year, except when they were quarrelling with the monks, when they held the service under the arch of Westgate itself.

In 1450, the Mayor and Citizens captured the rebel known as Bluebeard the Hermit, and handed him over to King Henry VI, who executed him and sent his head back to Canterbury as a souvenir of the episode, to be stuck on Westgate.

From the 15th century the gate became the City prison. Some centuries back the guardrooms, used as cells, were lined with massive timbering, and the portcullis was formed into the top of the condemned cell erected in the main chamber over the roadway.

Westgate is a tragic building and it is not pleasant to think of the amount of human misery with which its walls are saturated. For four centuries every class of prisoner was incarcerated here. Harmless debtors languished here for years as the price of a little improvidence. For the thief, sometimes for the most paltry bit of stealing, Westgate was the doorstep to the gallows, while in the reign of Mary, for the religious individualist it was the prelude to the stake. 'From Westgate the 11 of July, 1555 . . . ' ran the subscription to a letter from a martyr, 'written with his hand, and sealed with his blood, Nicolas Shetterden being appointed to be slayne.' He was burnt the next day in the Martyrs' Field at the back of Wincheap.

Westgate marks the end of the London Road. Through the present arch passed the Canterbury Pilgrims for one and a half centuries, Geoffrey Chaucer among the first. The Corporation welcomes visiting monarchs at the gate; many Kings of England have been received here, including King George VI, in 1946.

The use of the gate as a prison ceased a century back, and it became a depository for the City archives. At the beginning of this century [i.e. 20th century!] a museum chiefly of arms and armour was established within it.

 

 

Copyright Stephen Bax 2000. Click here for terms of use.