Newcastle-upon-Tyne is an old city. Very old. With deep history. Of course, it wasn’t always called by its present name. This area was known as Pons Aelius (named after the emperor Hadrian who’s clan name was Aelius). He visited Britain in the year 122 and determined that a settlement was needed on this spot. And so a Roman settlement and fort was established on the Northern bank of the river Tyne. Of course, Hadrian’s Wall was also built around this time and Newcastle (or Pons Aelius) was situated on the Eastern-most end of the frontier wall. But that is a story for another time.
As I was saying, it is a very old city. And located where it is (not too far from the Scottish border), you can imagine that it saw its fair share of war and violence. Today though, Newcastle is known for its friendly people, beautiful bridges and close proximity to the gorgeousness of rural Northumberland. So it should be no surprise then that I chose to move here, more than a decade ago. And I absolutely love living here. What is surprising (even to me) is that it took me this long to explore the medieval town walls!
Structure of Newcastle’s Town Walls
The town wall is a medieval defensive structure (now a Scheduled Ancient Monument) built during the 13thand 14thcenturies.
It was originally around 2 miles long, starting on the river bank (west of the bridge) and circling around in an arc (northwards) and then down to the river again, on the east side of the bridge.
The wall was at least two meters thick and up to 7.6 meters high. On one part of the wall, which I explored, I managed to climb up onto the wall to walk between two towers (Ever Tower and Morden Tower). As I was walking on the wall, it struck me how uneven the surface is! Can you imagine soldiers running between towers during an attack – under pressure and stress – to defend the city against the Scots! They would have been carrying weapons that may have been quite heavy. There would have been many soldiers milling about. Noise. Shouts. Wounded friends. And all of that on a wall where I had to tread very carefully so as to not fall off! Respect to them.
Newcastle’s town walls had a total of six main gates: Close Gate, West Gate, New Gate, Pilgrim Gate, Pandon Gate and Sand Gate (I’ll talk more about each gate, later). There were seventeen towers and several smaller turrets and postern gates. So, all in all, it was a substantial defensive structure.
Building the Medieval Walls
One has to remember what it was like to live in medieval Northern England. The English and the Scots were almost constantly at war with each other. And with Newcastle being so close (about 60 miles) from the Scottish border, this city was a prime target for Scottish attackers. A castle was built in 1080 (and later improved) but this was not nearly enough to protect the merchants and other residents of Newcastle. So, in 1265, a special tax (called a Murage) was levied to pay for the construction of a defensive wall around Newcastle. (Murage is a word taken from the Latin “murus” meaning “wall”).
It is interesting how long construction actually took. Indeed, the Murage was paid for more than 100 years so we can assume from this that the building of the wall continued for at least the same period.
The original route plan for the walls is quite different from what was actually built. At first, the Castle was to be incorporated as a strong
point. The Castle, however, is located on high ground and a little distance North from the river. If this original plan was followed, it would have excluded several wealthy merchant’s houses and shops and left them unprotected. There is a large area near the quayside, which were known as a merchant’s space, where ships would unload goods and where merchants lived and traded. (One such house from the 15thcentury is still there – Bessie Surtees House). So, instead the route was changed to veer South at Neville Tower and stretch to the river bank and then along the river.
Another change in the original route plan was on the East side of Newcastle. In 1299, the village of Pandon was formally incorporated as part of the city. So a change was made to the plan to encompass Pandon. The change meant that the wall veered Eastwards at Corner Tower, went around Pandon and then straight down to the river. At the riverside, the wall was built along the river and quayside towards the bridge.
Sieges of Newcastle
As mentioned earlier, the town walls were very important in the protection of Newcastle. The city was often under attack from the Scots.
William Wallace (Braveheart) crossed the border into England in 1297. He laid waste to large parts of Northumberland, burning Hexham, Corbridge and Ryton. When he reached Newcastle however, his armies were driven back.
In 1342, King David II of Scotland invaded Northumberland. His armies laid siege to Newcastle, but the walls held. The population of Newcastle could breath a sigh of relief. But in 1388, Newcastle was attacked again. This time, it was the Earl of Douglas who brought his army to assault the city. Again, the attack was repulsed.
With almost constant war between England and Scotland, there is no question that Newcastle needed these walls. In fact, the wars were so intense that “traitors” were treated rather violently. In one such case, in 1323, Andrew Harclay was executed for visiting Robert Bruce in Scotland to make peace without King Edward’s consent. Harclay’s limbs were then displayed at various places, including Newcastle’s castle.
But of course, as time passed, the border wars between England and Scotland became less intense and attacks became less frequent. Following the union of the two crowns in 1603, the Newcastle town walls were allowed to deteriorate. But Newcastle was still not a very safe place. In 1640 (during the Bishops’ Wars) and again in 1644 (during the English Civil War), Newcastle was invaded by Scottish armies. By this time the walls were in such a bad state that it no longer protected the city.
In 1648, the governor had the wall repaired. Later, in 1667, further repairs were carried out. And of course, in 1715 and 1745 (during the Jacobite rebellions) Newcastle repaired and strengthened its walls again, expecting another invasion. No attacks occurred, though. After this, no further repaired were done and the walls started to go to ruin.
Newcastle no longer needed the protection of its medieval defensive fortifications.
The Gates in the Medieval Defences
In the two-mile stretch of walls, were six main gateways. These were used by travellers, merchants and local residents to enter and leave the city. Until 1695, all gates were closed at night, so if you found yourself outside the walls after curfew, you had to stay out until morning.
As large parts of the walls and several towers have been demolished, I’ll use my map as reference and to point out what can still be seen today (and where in the city it can be found!).
Close Gate was located near the river, between Riverside Tower (A on map) and White Friars Tower (B on map). This area of Newcastle was where wealthy merchants lived and worked. Many merchant houses backed onto the river and had their own wharves where their goods where received.
The section of wall near White Friars Tower is where the Scots broke through during the siege of 1644, using mines and artillery fire.
Close Gate was demolished 1797.
Today, there is not a great deal of wall left to see in this area. Both Riverside Tower and White Friars Tower are no longer there. Only a tiny bit of wall can still be seen between these two towers. To find it was a bit of a mission. It is best to work your way up from the B1600 road (also called Close) right opposite where the Copthorne Hotel now stands. A small bit of the old town wall is still there, hidden amongst the trees and bushes. There is also a plaque on the wall to indicate the right spot.
Working your way North from where White Friars Tower used to be, one can still see a rather large section of the wall. This is located parallel to Orchard Street (next to the car park). A smaller portion of the wall can be found just further along. These two sections of wall were completed in 1333. The wall ran through the precinct of the White Friars, whose house stood just East of the wall. The Friars had a postern gate in the wall, giving them access to their land outside the wall.
Just North of this section of wall is where Neville Tower (C on map) once stood. This is where the railway now runs. At Neville Tower, the town walls turned sharply Westward towards West Spital Tower (D on Map) and then on to Stank Tower (E on Map) and Gunner Tower (F on Map). None of these towers or sections of wall have survived. Today, Central Station and several large commercial buildings occupy this space.
A smaller gate (Forth Gate) was located between Gunner Tower and Pink Tower (G on Map) but it is unclear what this gate was used for. It is not classified as one of the main gates.
Between Pink Tower (G on Map) and Durham Tower (H on Map) used to be the mighty West Gate. This was a major gate leading to Westgate Road that followed the line of the old Roman Wall. West Gate had large oak gates and iron doors. It was a very solid, strong structure and was the main route to the West of the city. It is believed that this gate was built by Roger de Thornton (three times Mayor of Newcastle).
West Gate was also used as a prison, from time to time. During the Civil War, 17 prisoners were kept here but apparently managed to escape. Later, it became the hall of the incorporated company of House Carpenters. Sadly, West Gate was demolished in 1811.
Though West Gate is no longer there to explore, a bit further North-West (on the opposite side of Westgate Road) one can still see a bit of the medieval wall. In fact, this area has the largest surviving part of Newcastle’s town walls.
Durham Tower (H on Map) can be seen further along the wall. A short break in the wall is next (where Stowell Street is now), near today’s China Town. There is a lovely area to explore where the wall starts again. As mentioned earlier, this part of the wall is still mostly intact and provides much to explore.
Herber Tower (I on Map) is located on a corner in the wall, where the defences turn a bit more North. This tower has a delightful arched doorway and several arrow slits. It is one of the best-preserved towers along the wall. From its ground floor chambers, stairs lead up to the “wall-walk”. This is exactly that: a walkway along the top of the wall (now no longer accessible) where defenders had an excellent view of the defensive ditch and far beyond. This could be used to patrol the perimeter of the city.
Herber Tower became the Hall of the Armourers, Curriers and Felt-makers, who were made one Fellowship in the 36th of Henry VIII (1545). By the end of the 19thcentury, it became a blacksmith shop.
The next tower is Morden Tower (J on Map). This tower was used in the 17thand 18thcenturies as a meeting place for Glaziers, Plumbers, Pewterers and Painters. It is believed that it had a gilded ball hanging inside, from the ceiling. This ball is said to have been fired from a cannon by the Scots during the 1644 siege.
Ever Tower (K on Map) is further along the well-preserved wall. Sadly, there are only ruins left of this tower but still leaves much to be explored. This tower was built by the Eure (or Ever) family who were the Lords of Kirkley. It was used by Colliers, Carriage-men and Pavers as their hall.
It is here at Ever Tower that part of the wall was demolished again. This was to build a small road into China Town. On the other side of the road, a small section of the wall can however still be seen (in the grounds of St Andrew’s Church). This is also where Andrew Tower (L on Map) was.
Between Andrew Tower (L on Map) and Bertram-Momboucher Tower (M on Map) was New Gate. This is around the area of where Newgate Street and Gallowgate Street cross, today.
New Gate had heavy fortifications. It was used as the town goal from 1399 and condemned prisoners would be taken from here, along Gallowgate, to the Town Moor where the gallows stood. In 1702 and 1706, the gate was expanded with east and west wings, as well as a north gate. The building works in 1702 were undertaken by William Ramsey (Mayor) and William Boutflower (Sheriff). Sir Ralph Carr (Mayor) and William Ellison (Sheriff) were responsible for the 1706 expansion.
However, by 1820, the goal was considered to be in a bad state of repair and no longer suitable to house prisoners. A new goal was built (in Carliol Square) and New Gate was demolished in 1823. Sadly, there is nothing left of this gate today.
Bertram-Momboucher Tower (M on Map) was named after the High-Sheriff of the County of Northumberland between 1376 and 1380. This tower stood in what is now Blackett Street, near Eldon Square.
Moving East along the route of the wall, the next tower was Ficket Tower (N on Map). This tower (and all of this section of the wall) is no longer in existence. Instead, today one can see Monument on this spot as well as a variety of commercial buildings.
Pilgrim Street Gate
Pilgrim Street Gate was situated between Ficket Tower (N on Map) and Carliol Tower (O on Map), at the North end of Pilgrim Street. Pilgrims from all over the kingdom who came to visit St Mary’s Chapel in Jesmond used this gate. The area had many taverns and inns where pilgrims would rest before undertaking the last leg of their pilgrimage.
The Joiners’ Company used a room above the entrance as their hall. The wardens Thomas French and Paul Cook repaired pilgrim Street Gate in 1716. Sadly, the gate was demolished in 1802.
Carliol Tower (O on Map) is believed to have been built around 1330 and named after the then mayor of Newcastle, Nicholas de Carliol. The Weavers had their hall in the tower and did extensive repairs in 1682. This tower once stood where John Dobson Street now meets New Bridge Street.
Turning South-East, the wall used to run to Plummer Tower (P on Map). This tower, thankfully, is still there to be observed and explored. It is a round-ish structure with a small bit of wall left, on the South side. It was built in the late 13thcentury.
In 1742, the Company of Masons took the tower over as their hall, and mostly rebuilt it. Plummer Tower is the only surviving two-storey tower in Newcastle and was also known as Cutler’s Tower and Carliol Croft Tower at different points in its history.
To the West of the tower (inside the town walls) was a large open area known as Carliol Croft. By the late 18thcentury, it was one of the largest open spaces remaining inside the walls. It was described as “a very agreeable walk, generally frequented in a summer’s evening by the Gentry of this part of town”.
From Plummer Tower, I cycled further South-East to where Austin Tower (Q on Map) used to be. Today, the motorway runs over this site but it is near where the Manors Multi-storey car park is today.
The Friars of St Augustine, who had their monastery in that area, built Austin Tower. It is believed that it was built during the reign of Edward I (r. 1272 – 1307). The tower was later used by the Company of Ropers as their hall and who repaired it in 1698, under the leadership of John Langlonds and John Dawson (wardens).
Just a short cycle from where Austin Tower used to be, one can still see the ruins of Corner Tower (R on Map). It is a bit tricky to find it but it is on City Road where it meets Melbourne Road. I spent quite a bit of time here (even climbing up onto the wall to explore) and found that one has to walk down the steps to get the best view from the South side.
Corner Tower was built after 1299 and it is here, at this tower, that the wall turns sharply East to encompass the area of Pandon. There are still substantial parts of the tower to explore.
A short distance from Corner Tower, towards the South East, is where Pandon Gate used to be. Sadly, like all the other gates, it was demolished (in 1795) and a road (City Road) built over its spot.
Pandon Gate had folding iron gates but no portcullis. It was named after the ancient town of Pampeden (later the area called Pandon). From this gate, a road went to a “place of recreation and perambulation” called Shields-Field as well as to the village of Wallsend. Until 1648, it was used as a hall for the Barber Chirurgeons.
A very short cycle further South-East, brings one to Wall Knoll Tower (S on Map) on Tower Street. This tower is in very good condition still. I realised that I have attended an event here, several years ago. It is currently occupied and used as an events space (called Secret Tower). It was also known as Sallyport at some point, as well as Carpenters Tower (as the Company of Carpenters or Shipwrights used to meet here).
Apparently, Wall Knoll Tower was one of the old Roman towers that were incorporated into the town walls. The Carpenters Company built an upper level on the old tower to add “a very grand and stately square-tower, adorned at the top corners with four fair turrets”.
It is here, at Wall Knoll Tower that the remaining walls end. From here, further South towards the river, the wall used to run to Sand Gate and then along the river. All of this has sadly been demolished.
Sand Gate was the Eastern-most gate of Newcastle. The gate was located right on the quayside, fairly near where the Millennium Bridge reaches the North side of the river Tyne today. Sand Gate was demolished in 1798.
From Sand Gate, the wall ran along the riverside for quite a distance. There were apparently several small gates in this part of the wall, where merchants could offload their goods from ships.
This is of course also a wonderful place to stop and rest, which is exactly what I did. Sitting on the quayside, enjoying a coffee and pondering how people lived within these walls in medieval times.
Historical Sites Nearby
- Bessie Surtees House is a medieval merchants house near the Quayside
- St John the Baptist Church is located within the town walls
- St Mary’s Chapel in Jesmond is a medieval religious site where pilgrims visited
- The Camera of Adam is a medieval fortified house in Jesmond
- Newcastle’s Castle Keep is nearby.
- The oldest church in the city, St Andrew’s Church is in the city centre.
- Wikipedia website
- “The ancient and present state of that town.” Bourne, Henry, 1696-1733. Chapter 3 pages 10-17.
- Various site visits and information boards onsite