The Walls of Newcastle

The Walls of Newcastle 2

In the Middle Ages the great cities and towns of England, like those of the Continent of Europe, and indeed of most parts of the world, were girded about by fortified walls. Such provisions for defence were indispensable. Rebellions, civil wars, and invasions were of frequent occurrence, and the strength of a kingdom, and the very stability of a throne, depended upon the possibility of rapidly and effectively putting the great military centres and outposts into an efficient state of defence. Especially was this the case with fortresses and fortified towns in proximity to a contested borderland. Every student of Border history is aware of the part played by Carlisle and Berwick and Newcastle in the oft-revived struggle between England and Scotland. But this state of things has for ever passed away. The great castles have either become the peaceful abodes of splendid wealth or have fallen into ruin, whilst the walls of the towns have been piece by piece removed to make way for modern extensions and improvements. Of the many English towns which were formerly fortified, only York, Chester, and Conway retain their walls even in a comparatively perfect state. In most cases, only a few fragments remain, while in some the fortifications have entirely disappeared.

It is not necessary, in writing about the walls of Newcastle, to recapitulate the history of the founding of the town. It is sufficient to say that the fortress to which Newcastle owes its name was erected by Robert, Duke of Normandy, in 1080, for the express purpose of resisting such invasions in future as that of King Malcolm which he had then led an army into the North to avenge. It is, however, to William Rufus that Newcastle owes its foundation, not as a military outpost, but as a great commercial centre. Hardinge, the metrical chronicler, in recording the deeds of Rufus, tells us that

He builded the New Castle upon Tyne
The Scots to gainstand and to defend
And dwell therein. The people to incline
The town to build, and wall as did append,
He gave them ground and gold full great to spend;
To build it well, and wall it all about;
And franchised them to pay a free rent out.

This passage clearly refers to the building of the town, and there is evidence to show that the works to which it relates dated from the year 1095. It must not be supposed, however, that the walls erected in the time of Rufus occupied even the same sites as those of later times. They may have done so to a very limited extent, but it is certain that, as the town extended, portions of the walls were rebuilt, so as to enclose an enlarged area. Of this process we have one extremely interesting instance recorded, to which we shall again refer.

The later lines of mural fortification were due in the main to the Edwardian period. Leland, the antiquary, after quoting Hardinge’s account of the erection of the walls, adds, “This is clean false as concerning the town wall”. But whilst his legend that the capture of the wealthy merchant by the Scots was the occasion of the first walling of the town must be discarded as mere fable, he is undoubtedly right in ascribing the walls, as they existed in his day, to the three first Edwards.

The walls never quite encircled the town. Before the Edwardian fortifications were commenced the river side of the street known as the Close seems to have been so completely occupied as to preclude the erection of a wall there. And besides this, there could not have been the same necessity for a mural defence there as round other parts of the town. The Close could only be attacked from the river, and the existence of the bridge was an effectual barrier to the approach of an enemy in that direction. But, from the west end of the Close, the wall extended in an unbroken line round the town, till it joined the north end of Tyne Bridge. The whole length of the wall was about eighty yards less than two miles, but the circumference of the enclosed part of the town was a little over two miles and a furlong. The wall had six principal gates; but, besides these, there were two or three posterns, and between the corner of Sandhill and the Sand Gate were several small gates which had been made for the purpose of carrying merchandise to and from the vessels lying in the river. Between the gates, and at irregular distances, averaging 116 yards, were towers, and between these again were small turrets, built upon the battlements of the wall. The towers were twenty in number; and, according to Bourne, there were generally two wall-turrets between one tower and the next. On the turrets figures of soldiers, rudely cut in stone, were mounted. Several of these have been preserved, and may be seen in the guard-room of the Old Castle.

Not one of the gates of Newcastle has been allowed to remain, but we possess drawings or engravings of the whole of them, and from these we learn much about their architectural character and their military importance. Several of the towers still exist, though in almost every instance they have been greatly modernised, or entirely rebuilt. But considerable portions of the wall are yet standing, and, although we cannot but regret that so much has been in many cases needlessly destroyed, we must be grateful for what is left. These fragments of the ancient fortifications of the town enable us to realise the character of its military defences in bygone times in a way immeasurably more accurate and valuable than could be possible from written or printed records and pictures. We are thankful for records and pictures, but let us cling tenaciously to existing remains.

The first thing to be noticed is the strength of the walls themselves. Leland assures us that “the strength and magnificence of the walling of this town far passeth all the walls of the cities of England, and most of the towns of Europe.” William Lithgow, the traveller, bears similar testimony. He says: “The walls about the town are both high and strong, built both within and without with saxo quadrato, and mainly fenced with dungeon towers, interlarded also with turrets, and along with them a large and defensive battlement. . . . The walls here of Newcastle are a great deal stronger than those of York, and not unlike to the walls of Avignon, but especially of Jerusalem.”

Wall Turret Near St.Andrews Church

The height of the wall is said to have averaged twelve feet, while its thickness was at least eight feet at the ground level. Outside the wall was a deep and wide ditch or fosse. Its width was at least twenty-two yards. In considering the defence which such a structure afforded it must be remembered that it was built at a time when the use of gunpowder was unknown. The only means by which it could be attacked were, mining its foundations, employing the battering ram against it, and scaling its front. It would occupy more space than we can afford to describe the manner in which these systems of attack were carried out or the military engines which were employed. The military value, however, of such fortifications lay in the fact that a comparatively small garrison within could defy an immeasurably larger force without.

The great purpose of the towers was to enable the garrison to assail the enemy who might be attacking the walls themselves. The towers projected from the face of the wall, and thus afforded means of lateral defence, while the turrets afforded protection to the soldiers who were actually upon the battlements of the wall.

Herber Tower, Newcastle on Tyne

The wall may be said to have commenced on the brink of the river, a few yards south of the Close Gate. Here there was a tower. The site of the Close Gate is marked by an inscription in the wall on the north side of the street. Behind the houses, close to this inscription, some shapeless fragments of the wall remain, but there is no trace of the Break Neck Stairs by which the steep bank was ascended. On the crest of the bank stood the White Friar Tower, which derived its name from its proximity to the house of the White Friars. Immediately beyond this point a portion of the wall, with its battlements, still perfect, yet remains. It is one of the best preserved fragments now in existence. The masonry is distinctly of the Edwardian period. The next tower, which stood on a site now occupied by the new railway works, was the Denton or Neville Tower, the former designation due to the family who gave their name to Denton Chare, and the latter to the proximity of the town residence of the Nevilles. At this point the wall took a sudden turn to the west, and ran forward to the West Gate, passing on the way West Spital, Stank, Gunner, and Pink Towers, the last of which remained, though in a modernised form, till Pink Lane was widened a few years ago. With the exception of the New Gate, the West Gate was the finest of the town entrances. Leland describes it as a “mighty strong thing of four wards and an iron gate.” Tradition ascribes its erection to the great Roger Thornton, and, although there must have been a gate at this point long before his time, as, indeed, is implied in the legendary rhyme:

At the West Gate came Thornton in,
With a hap, and a halfpenny, and a lamb skin,

yet the architecture of the gate which was taken down in 1811 was certainly of his time.

Between West Gate and New Gate several considerable portions of the wall still exist. The most interesting part is that which runs along the back of Stowell Street, at the west end of which is the Berber Tower. The outer front of the tower forms a bastion-like projection from the face of the wall. The long stone corbels which stand out from the tower were intended to carry a timber gallery, from which the garrison could shower their arrows and other missiles down upon their assailants. The towers between West Gate and New Gate were called the Durham, Herber, Morden, Ever (from the family of Eure), and Andrew Towers. Then came New Gate, a truly majestic portal, and the main entrance to the town from the north. It had barbican, drawbridge, and portcullis, and was certainly one of the strongest and most magnificent gateways in England. Its architecture was of various periods, but much of it was at least as early as the end of the thirteenth century. Its name seems to imply the previous existence of a gateway on the same site. There were only two towers between New Gate and Pilgrim Street Gate. These were named Bertram Monboucher and Fickett Towers. Pilgrim Street Gate seems to have been an Edwardian structure, but had been greatly modernised. Then came Carliol Tower (named from the local family of Carliol), removed a few years ago to make way for the Public Library Buildings, and Carliol Croft (or Plummer) Tower, which still exists. This is the first part of the wall now in existence after we leave the precincts of St. Andrew’s Churchyard. Next came Austin Tower, which had its name from its nearness to the abode of the Augustinian Friars. No part of it now exists. Of the next tower, called the Corner Tower, a considerable portion remains, and forms an important landmark, not only of local topography, but of local history. Formerly the town wall ran southward from this point, by Cowgate and Broad Chare, to the brink of the river. The comparative width of these thoroughfares is due to the fact that they were formerly partly occupied by the wall. But in 1299 Pandon was annexed to Newcastle, and it became necessary to include it within the walls. For this purpose the part of the wall which ran along Cowgate and Broad Chare was taken down, and what is spoken of in documents of that period as a new wall was carried round Pandon by way of Wall Knoll. This accounts for the abrupt change in the direction of the wall at Corner Tower, and also for the name of that member of the fortifications. Wall Knoll or Carpenters’ Tower yet exists, but only a small portion of the wall itself (behind the warehouses of Messrs. Monkhouse and Brown and Messrs. Angus and Co. Stockbridge) now remains in this neighbourhood. Between Wall Knoll Tower and the site of the Sand Gate the wall has been almost, though not quite, destroyed. A small part of it may be found by the diligent seeker on the east side of a short cul-de-sac which leads from the Quayside just west of the Milk Market. Sand Gate was entirely taken down in 1798, and the part of the wall between it and Tyne Bridge had made way for the bales and barrels of Quayside commerce thirty-five years before. But, none the less, it may be truly said to still exist, for its stones were used, in part at least, to build the present church of St. Ann.


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