Among the great cathedral cities of England, Exeter must be almost unique in having none of it's medieval gateways surviving intact. Nothing remains above ground of the five gates into the city or of the seven 13th century gates that gave access into the cathedral precinct. York is justifiably famous for the survival of most of its city gates. Several of Lincoln Cathedral's gateways survive. Canterbury still has it 14th century West Gate as well as the magnificent Christchurch Gate and St Augustine Gate. Salisbury has several of its city and cathedral gates intact. Winchester has both the Westgate and King's Gate. Even Gloucester, almost as comprehensibly shredded as Exeter, retains portions of its city and cathedral gateways.
At Exeter all the gates had been demolished by 1825. A Roman gatehouse was located very close to the site of the medieval East Gate. It would've been a substantial structure, built of stone with perhaps two square towers projecting from the city wall. Archaeological evidence suggests that this was the form of the South Gate which the Romans constructed c200 AD. It's also likely that the Roman structure was revitalised by the Britons following the end of Roman rule c410 and probably again by the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan c920.
One of the first pieces of documentary evidence which cites the medieval East Gate appears in the 12th century writings of William of Malmesbury. The story goes that in the 10th century an Anglo-Saxon giant and Ealdorman of Devonshire called Ordulf travelled to Exeter with King Edward. Upon arriving at the East Gate, and finding the gates shut and the porter absent, Ordulf tore down a portion of the city wall before breaking the gates open with his foot. (Ordulf's bones were said to be buried under the floor at the church of Tavistock abbey which he completed in 981.) The aerial photograph above right shows the modern city with the remaining city walls outlined in purple, the gaps in the circuit highlighted in red. The location of the East Gate is at No. 1. The South Gate is at No. 2.
Fortunately the site of the East Gate is marked on old maps of Exeter. The image left shows part of the 1905 map of Exeter overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area. The site of the East Gate is clearly marked with a cross. It would've stood looking east into Sidwell Street, close to the western edge of the new Next building.
The Anglo-Saxon fortifications were certainly put to the test after the Conquest of 1066. Gytha, the mother of the late King Harold took refuge at Exeter following the death of her son. The entire city went into open revolt against the Conqueror, perhaps instigated by Gytha or possibly because William demanded an increase in the £18 tribute the city paid to the monarch each year. Either way, and given Exeter's strategic importance in controlling the entire south-west peninsula, William the Conqueror had to return in person from Normandy to try and crush the rebellion. Camped beyond the East Gate, the new Norman king ordered a series of tunnels to be dug in an attempt to undermine both the city walls and the East Gate itself. Archaeological excavations in 1993 unearthed one of these tunnels still buried beneath the High Street, perfectly preserved and almost directly under the site of the East Gate. After an 18-day siege the city surrendered, possibly because a section of the city wall had been successfully undermined by the Norman sappers. And so the Conqueror rode into Exeter taking possession of one of the last places in England to resist the Norman Invasion. The result of the city's disobedience was Rougemont Castle, number six on the map above right.
The image above shows an engraving of the exterior of the East Gate by John Hayman dating to 1785. The house on the left, dating to the first quarter of the 18th century was the residence of the headmaster of St John's Hospital School.
The East Gate was repaired or fully rebuilt after the siege. By c1200 there was a small chapel built into the gate itself. Dedicated to St Bartholomew it was one of the city's many chapels mentioned by Peter de Palerna at the beginning of the 13th century but there seems to be some confusion as to the exact location of the chapel. Was it next to the gate or actually inside it? The 19th century antiquarian, William Harding, believed that it adjoined the north side of the East Gate, but David Francis in his booklet entitled 'Lost Churches' wrote that "recent archaeological evidence indicates that the chapel was actually in the gate." Either way, the little chapel was probably suppressed at the Reformation in the 1530s as nothing more is heard of it after the 16th century.
On 26 September 1459 the East Gate suddenly collapsed, taking the chapel of St Bartholomew with it. Samuel Izacke in his 'Remarkable Antiquities of Exeter' of 1723, itself based on the late-16th century writings of John Hooker, noted that "the East Gate of this City, being in a ruinous condition by reason of its long standing, fell down in the middle of the day, without hurting any person." Perhaps one of William the Conqueror's long-forgotten tunnels finally gave way. The gate was rebuilt and the survival of a deed dated 25 June 1481 shows that the chapel was also rebuilt. Incredibly, this newly-built gatehouse survived just 38 years before being severely damaged in yet another siege after Perkin Warbeck decided to pay the city a visit.
Perkin Warbeck was one of two pretenders to the English throne who emerged at the end of the 15th century to challenge the reign of the usurping Henry VII left. Perkin Warbeck claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, the youngest son of Edward IV, the nephew of Richard III and the brother of Henry VII's own queen, Elizabeth of York, and one of the two princes who were allegedly killed in the Tower of London in 1483.
Having taken the crown of England from Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, Henry Tudor's own claim to the throne was tenuous and so the appearance of Warbeck in 1490 was a major threat. (Richard III himself had entered Exeter via the East Gate in 1483, having been given 200 gold nobles and the keys to the city by the mayor.) On 07 September 1497 Warbeck landed in Cornwall with just two ships and 120 men and agitated an already rebellious Cornish population into declaring him Richard IV on Bodmin Moor. He soon had an army of 6000 people behind him and, according to Sir Francis Bacon writing in 1622, took the advice of his counsellors who "advised him to make himself master of some good walled town...and went on, and beseiged the city of Exeter, the principal town for strength and wealth in those parts." Warbeck and his army first "made continual shouts and outcries to terrify the inhabitants" and then talked to them "under the walls, to join with them and be of their party".
None of Warbeck's initial attempts to gain access worked so he "resolved to use his utmost force to assault the town", using "scaling-ladders in divers places upon the walls", "ramming with logs of timber" and using "iron bars, crow bars and such other means at hand" to try and force the gates. When all of this still had no effect the gates themselves were set on fire. The North Gate was a particular target. According to Jenkins the "citizens repulsed [the Rebels] as often as they returned to the assault, opening their gates and discharging their portpieces, charged with pieces of glass, old iron and musquet balls, which made a great slaughter of the assailants". At one point Warbeck and his Cornish army managed to breach the East Gate which, writes Hooker, "they brake upon with force and entered into the city". Having gained access the Rebels fought in hand-to-hand combat with the city's militia down through the High Street as far as Castle Street before being repulsed by the defenders. Dejected after suffering significant losses, the Warbeck army eventually gave up and lifted the siege. Fearful that the king's army was heading towards Exeter the Rebels moved on to Taunton where Warbeck abandoned his followers and fled.
The citizens had indeed sent messengers to Henry VII, lowered down from the walls of the embattled city on ropes, who carried messages for the king appealing for him to come to the city's aid. A royal army assembled in London and began to march on Exeter. An army made up of the local gentry who weren't at court was also assembled, led by Edward Courtenay, the Earl of Devonshire. (Warbeck was eventually captured at Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire and was executed in 1499 at Tyburn in London.)
After Warbeck's capture Henry VII continued on to Exeter where many of the Cornish prisoners had been taken and where "he made a joyful entrance". He lodged at the Treasurer's House, once attached to the north transept of the Cathedral. It was while staying at Exeter that the king presented the city with two of its most important pieces of ceremonial regalia, the Ceremonial Sword and the Cap of Maintenance, to show his gratitude at the loyalty displayed by the city during the Warbeck revolt. He also ordered that a swordsman be appointed to carry the sword before the mayor on all civic occasions, a tradition that continues to this day. Both the sword and the cap can be seen at the Guildhall. The Cornish ringleaders were executed at Southernhay. The rest were granted clemency and freed. The photo above left shows the hilt of the sword which Henry VII gave to the city in 1497 and which is still used during civic events. It was probably the same sword that the king carried with him when he first entered the city. Exeter also has another ceremonial sword, given by Edward IV when he visited in the 1470s.
The damage caused to the East Gate by Warbeck's assault as well as fears of a prolonged war with France resulted in the entire structure being rebuilt yet again. Work began in 1511, at the beginning of the reign of Henry VIII. Six acres of woodland at Duryard (a former hunting ground of the Anglo-Saxon kings near to the city) was sold off in order to fund the reconstruction, the work being contracted out to a mason called Robert Poke from Thorverton. It was this final manifestation of the East Gate that survived until 1784, despite yet more significant assaults on the city during the sieges of the English Civil War in the 1640s.
the West Gate. It's possible that the six little houses shown outside the gate were endowed by former mayor William Hurst as almshouses in 1567. This was the site of the later Subscription Rooms.
Fortunately, in 1806 Jenkins left a description of the East Gate based on his own memory of having seen it. The East Gate "consisted of a curtain flanked by two bulwarks. The exterior arch was very strong and lofty. Near the bottom of the flanking towers, were port-holes for the great port cannons, and look-outs on each story. In the centre of the gateway was a strong semicircular arch, apparently very ancient". Jenkins also recalled seeing one of the portpieces, or cannon, that he believed had been used to repel Perkin Warbeck's army in 1497, which was "laid on the left side of the passage under the East Gate". "Composed of flat iron bars, strongly hooped together with iron (similar to a Cask)" it was 12ft long and approximately 12 inches in diameter. It wasn't set on wheels but had "strong iron rings on the sides for the purpose of moving it from place to place." According to Jenkins the cannon was sold by a city receiver being "eat out with rust". During the rebuilding of the East Gate in 1511 a large stone statue of Henry VII holding a globe and a sceptre and surrounded with various heraldic devices was placed in a niche over the entrance way, visible to anyone entering the city from the east and probably erected as a memorial to the king who had shown his gratitude for the city's loyalty in 1497.
The photograph left shows part of the foundation for the East Gate which still exists underneath the modern-day High Street. Built from blocks of volcanic ashlar, the foundation is visible from a section of the medieval underground passages which criss-cross Exeter and which were built to carry water around the city.
In 1880, nearly a century after the gateway had been demolished and during the digging of the foundations for the Eastgate Arcade, the "base of one of the round side towers of the ancient East Gate" was unearthed by builders. A report on the discovery appeared in Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post', written by the antiquarian Robert Dymond. According to Dymond the remnant of the tower base was "formed of large ashlar blocks of reddish trap rock from Rougemont, carefully squared and fitted in regular horizontal courses, and accurately cut to the circular form of the tower, as if intended to be exposed to view." He continued, "the towers projected beyond the external face of the city walls and the moat or ditch abutted on them." Dymond then went on to give a general description of the gatehouse: "Two tall round towers, each about twenty-four feet in diameter, projected about thirty-five feet beyond the general line of the city walls, and were united by a flat wall or curtain, in the centre of which was the arched passage of the gate, only fourteen feet wide. Over it were guard rooms".
The images at the right and top of this post shows a model of the last manifestation of the East Gate. Although rebuilt in 1511 it's likely that it followed a similar design to its medieval predecessors.
The two enormous drum towers, the entrance way and the wall above were all constructed from the purple volcanic trap mentioned by Dymond. The trap was exceptionally hard-wearing, expensive, scarce and difficult to cut. The Romans had quarried most of it from the extinct volcanic cone at Rougemont in the north-eastern corner of the city and it's likely that the material used in 1511 was the recycled remains of the gate damaged by Warbeck in 1497.
Each tower was built with three floors, gunloops studding the lower courses, with windows in the upper levels overlooking the approach into the city. Both the towers and the exterior wall were crenellated. The passageway through into the High Street consisted of a series of pointed arches. There were arched doorways within the passageway that gave access directly into the gatehouse interior, probably with spiral staircases leading up into the guard rooms. Projecting from the back of the gate, over the arched passageway and safe behind the towers was probably where the chapel dedicated to St Bartholomew was located. Above the interior entrance was a clock and a dial. Interestingly, and perhaps in an effort to save money, it seems as if the early-16th century chapel building was constructed from the much softer, cheaper and more plentiful Heavitree breccia rather than the purple volcanic trap. If the chapel were in a position where it was being seriously damaged by an assault then the drum towers had failed anyway and the fall of the gate would've been imminent.
During the 18th century, their defensive importance long-forgotten, the drum towers and the rooms above the entrance were used as the Salutation inn. In 1784, "in order to improve the entrance into the City, it was deemed expedient to take down the Eastgate, by which a beautiful vista was opened from St Sidwell's into the High Street; a very great and necessary improvement." So wrote Jenkins in 1806. When reading accounts left by 19th century antiquarians and historians it is impossible not to be shocked by their cavalier attitude towards the demolition of structures of the greatest historical significance.
The composite image above shows how the the East Gate fitted into the townscape had it survived into the early 20th century. The perspective is looking out of the city towards Sidwell Street. Most of the buildings shown were destroyed in 1942. None survive today. The Eastgate Arcade is out of view, beyond the limit of the city walls and hidden behind the gatehouse itself. The entrance to Castle Street, where Warbeck's army reached in 1497, is visible to the left, near the street light.
Following its demolition bits of the East Gate found itself spread across the city. The clock and dial were both placed above the entrance into the nearby St John's Hospital School but most significant was the fate of the building materials and the statue of Henry VII. At the same time that the gate was demolished a new building was constructed just to the north of it, facing onto the High Street. The facade of Nos. 266 & 267 High Street was built from the purple ashlar blocks that had once been the outer face of the East Gate. Placed in the centre of the first floor of the new building, still in its niche, was the early-16th century statue of Henry VII and the heraldic devices. (This late-18th century building, along with the statue, was totally destroyed by bombs in 1942.) St John's Hospital School that was on the south side of the East Gate was demolished in 1880 and the wrought-iron and glass Eastgate Arcade and the city's new Post Office were built on the site of the ancient school.
04 May 1942 and today there is nothing of historic interest to be seen above ground or any sign that the East Gate ever existed. A plaque was placed on the front of No. 266 High Street in the 1880s which commemorated the site of the East Gate. It read: "Rebuilt by Athelstan. Finally Removed 1784. Here the Citizens Repelled the Assaults of William the Conqueror and Perkin Warbeck". The plaque was salvaged after World War Two from the ruins and relocated onto a post-war building called Eastgate House. During the recent redevelopment Eastgate House was demolished and the plaque was removed, and today Jenkins' "beautiful vista" from St Sidwell's into the High Street looks like this: