Gateshead Origins : At the ‘Goat’s Head’

Roman Gateshead

The Roman fort of Pons Aelius at Newcastle upon Tyne protected a bridge across the Tyne which stood where the Swing Bridge crosses the Tyne today. There is no evidence for a fort on the Gateshead bank but excavations have revealed that there was a small Roman-British civilian settlement in Bottle Bank where Gateshead’s Hilton Hotel stands today. Pottery and traces of tenements have been found which existed before Pons Aelius came into being.

The Swing Bridge and Hilton Hotel
The Swing Bridge and Hilton Hotel at Gateshead occupy Roman sites © David Simpson

Although there is no evidence, it would seem a reasonable possibility that there was some kind of Roman defensive structure or small fort guarding the southern side of the Roman bridge but the finding of Roman coins and artefacts in the vicinity of Church Street and Bottle Bank in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries do not confirm this. If there was such a fort or even a small defensive site, the most likely setting would be the site now occupied by the old Gateshead parish church of St Mary on a high spot close to the edge of the Tyne.

There is one known Roman fort within the Borough of Gateshead. In 1970 an aerial photograph of crop marks revealed a Roman fort south of Washingwell Farm between Dunston Hill and Whickham. Known as Washingwell Fort, its actual Roman name is unknown. The nearby village of Street Gate at Sunniside between Whickham Fell and Blackburn Fell recalls a Roman road connected with this fort. It probably linked Gateshead’s Cade’s Road to the north’s premier Roman highway of Dere Street at Leadgate and may have followed the course of Lobley Hill Road.

The Swing Bridge Newcastle
The Swing Bridge from the Gateshead side looking towards Newcastle castle on the site of the Roman and Medieval Bridge. Newcastle castle stands on the site of the Roman fort of Pons Aelius © David Simpson

Gateshead’s Roman road

Gateshead was of course the site of an important Roman road and Old Durham Road more or less followed its course. Known to later historians as Cade’s Road, the Roman road ran from the fort at Chester-le-Street (Concangis) to Newcastle (Pons Aelius).

Further south it probably crossed the Wear at Kepier in the Gilesgate area of Durham City running close to a Roman site known as ‘Old Durham‘. Continuing its journey it crossed the Tees at ‘Pons Tesie’ near Middleton St George, to the east of Darlington and then headed south via York to Brough on the Humber which could be crossed en route to Lincoln. Roman roads were often known as ‘streets’ in later times (from ‘via strata’ – paved way) which is why neighbouring Chester-le-Street was given its suffix by the Normans.

Gateshead’s Roman road may have partly followed the course of the modern Gateshead High Street and crossed the Tyne by means of a Roman bridge upon which some say there was inscribed the emblem of a goat’s head. The Roman bridge was located where the present Swing Bridge stands today. Cade’s Road was named, incidentally, from John Cade, an eighteenth century Durham antiquarian.

At Wrekenton Cade’s Road was joined by another Roman road called the Wrekendyke (or Leam Lane) which headed out in a north easterly direction to the Roman fort and supply-port of Arbeia at South Shields.

Ad Caprae Caput : ‘Goat’s Head’

From these earliest times Gateshead had been at the head of an important road or ‘gate’ from the south that terminated at the Tyne and this would suggest the name of the place is a reference to its location at the head of the ‘gate’.

Gateshead Arms Goat's Head
Gateshead’s old coat of arms traditionally featured a goat’s head

There is, however, an alternative suggestion that Gateshead means ‘Goats Head’ – a headland frequented by wild goats and this is supported by the Venerable Bede who, writing in the seventh century, described Gateshead under the Latin name of Ad Caprae Caput meaning ‘Goat’s Head’.

Perhaps Gateshead was a headland frequented by wild goats or the site of a totem or emblem with a goat’s head overlooking the Tyne Bridge. Bede referred to Ad Caprae Caput as the site of a monastery belonging in 653 AD to an abbot called Utta, a renowned priest who Bede described as a ‘truthful and serious man’.

We know little about Utta or his monastery but Bede said that Utta’s brother Adda had played a part in converting the people of Mercia (the Kingdom situated in what later became the English Midlands) to Christianity.

Utta was once sent by Oswy, King of Northumbria to Kent to collect the king’s wife, Eanfleda, and he returned by sea with this queen, so Utta must have been held in high esteem. Apart from Bede’s reference to Utta, we know virtually nothing else about Gateshead in Anglo-Saxon times despite the location at what must have been an important crossing point of the Tyne and despite the learned and curious Bede living so close by. Similarly there is strangely little known about Newcastle during this era known as the Golden Age of Northumbria.

Church of St Mary, Gateshead and Tyne Bridge
Church of St Mary, Gateshead and Tyne Bridge © David Simpson

Mob Murder

In the early 1100s the Norman writer Symeon of Durham described Ad Caprae Caput (Gateshead) as the place where Walcher, a Bishop of Durham was murdered in 1080 after the Bishop had called a meeting here. It was in Norman times that Gateshead had passed into the hands of the Prince Bishops of Durham who for centuries virtually ruled the land between the Tyne and the River Tees.

When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, Durham, Northumberland and Yorkshire had been ruled by Earls of Northumbria, virtual kings in the north, who had inherited their powers from the earlier kings of Northumbria.

During William the Conqueror’s reign there were nine successive earls. One outlived William, three were ousted by him, one resigned and three were murdered by the Northumbrians for supporting William. The first to die this way was Copsi, an Anglo-Saxon beheaded at a banquet at Newburn on Tyne in 1067. The other two were Frenchmen appointed by William. The first of these Frenchmen was a Norman Earl, Robert Comines, who was murdered in a Northumbrian massacre of Norman soldiers in Durham City in 1069 and the second was William Walcher who was murdered by a mob at Gateshead in 1080.

William Walcher of Loraine was the first French bishop of Durham and the first to hold political powers in the region. Unfortunately, Walcher managed to upset the locals of Gateshead when one of his men murdered a popular Anglo-Saxon noble called Liulf of Lumley in 1080.

Tyne Bridge and church of St Mary. Gateshead
Tyne Bridge and church of St Mary. Gateshead © David Simpson

Walcher was a very powerful man who had become Earl of Northumbria in 1075 in addition to his appointment as Bishop of Durham. His political powers effectively made him Durham’s first Prince Bishop and the supreme ruler of the North East.

He doesn’t seem to have been a particular strong leader as he seems to have been unable to control the actions of his men. Of course he may well have encouraged the trouble to defeat any opposition to his rule.

Whatever the reason, men working for Walcher murdered Liulf, a popular, powerful and influential Anglo-Saxon nobleman (supposedly the first member of the Lumley family) near Chester-le-Street. This roused much anger across Northumbria and Walcher agreed to meet protesters at Gateshead. His choice of Gateshead suggests Gateshead was already an important meeting place that was central to Northumbria.

The bishop was not successful in his attempts to make peace. On May 13, 1080, an angry mob assembled near the predecessor of St. Mary’s church near the Tyne Bridge. The assembled crowd drowned out the words of the bishop with a cry of “good rede short rede slea ye the Bishop” and sallied forth. The bishop took refuge in the nearby church but the mob set alight to the building causing the bishop to flee once again. He was then set upon and brutally murdered. Later his mangled body was found on the site by the monks of Jarrow who conveyed it first to their own monastery and then to Durham for a private interment.

St Marys churchyard Gateshead
St Marys churchyard Gateshead © David Simpson

Medieval Gateshead : the Prince Bishops

A borough charter was granted to Gateshead in 1164 by Hugh Pudsey, the powerful Prince Bishop of Durham. In most parts of England, charters were granted by the King, but places in Durham, including Gateshead received charters from the Prince Bishops who held similar rights and powers to the sovereign. The Gateshead charter granted certain privileges including Liberty of the Forest and freedom from toll within Durham and similar privileges to those enjoyed by Newcastle across the river.

During the twelfth century Gateshead was a favourite place of residence for Bishop Pudsey who was attracted by the extensive hunting forests in the vicinity of Gateshead and Heworth. Despite this attraction, the bishop instigated the clearance of some of these forests and the clearances continued into the following centuries. As the forests were cleared in these ‘Fellings’, subsequent Bishops of Durham gradually lost interest in Gateshead’s hunting grounds. They may have preferred to see the use of the forest timber in the construction of Tyneside pits which were an increasing source of revenue for the bishops.

Strangely, as with Sunderland, the Prince Bishops seem to have taken only minimal interest in Gateshead as a port, preferring Stockton on the River Tees and the accessible natural harbour of Hartlepool. Nevertheless they had certain rights to allow ships to trade from the south side of the River Tyne and some bishops were determined to protect these rights despite strong opposition from the merchants of Newcastle who wished to control the trade on both sides of the Tyne.

St Mary's Church stands above the course of the street of Hillgate
St Mary’s Church stands above the course of the street of Hillgate © David Simpson

Gateshead was small compared to Newcastle with houses mostly clustered along the great road south (High Street) and adjoining riverside streets like Oakwellgate, Pipewellgate, Hillgate and Bottle Bank. As late as the 1830s Gateshead had grown little beyond these boundaries.

Much of the surrounding land was woodland and heath in medieval times. To the east of the main road the Bishop of Durham owned a park and further east still Heworth Wood was territory disputed between the Priory monks of Durham Cathedral and the Bishops of Durham. To the west of the High Street there was more undeveloped land which formed the Demesne land of the Bishop. Apart from this the other main features of medieval Gateshead were St Edmund’s Hospital along the highway to the south, St Mary’s church near the river and of course the bridge across the Tyne.

Gateshead versus Newcastle

Gateshead had the potential to rival Newcastle as a port as it shared a similar riverside setting but Newcastle’s wealthy merchants continuously tried to restrict trade on the south side of the river and Newcastle made several attempts to annex Gateshead so that it would belong to Newcastle.

Swing Bridge, Gateshead on site of medieval Tyne Bridge
Swing Bridge, Gateshead on site of medieval Tyne Bridge © David Simpson 2021

The constant efforts to annex Gateshead usually failed as on each occasion the king ultimately came out in support of the Bishops of Durham. However, in March 1553 John Dudley Duke of Northumberland, (who virtually ruled England during the reign of the boy-King Edward VI) finally annexed the town of Gateshead to Newcastle. The annexation only lasted a few months with Gateshead returning to Durham following the accession of Queen Mary to the throne.

Throughout Medieval and Tudor times Newcastle had forcefully and constantly protected its trade. By contrast, the Durham Prince Bishops, who owned Gateshead, were varied in their interest in Gateshead according to their political strength or desire for commercial profit. As we have noted they often preferred Hartlepool or Stockton as their personal ports though these ports were not yet coal ports in medieval times and would have focused more on agricultural and fishing trades.

Nevertheless, the bishops held rights allowing ships to trade from Gateshead and they defended these rights, despite the opposition from Newcastle’s wealthy merchants who wanted to control trade on both sides of the Tyne.

In 1576 Newcastle tried to annex Gateshead once again but the Gateshead people fiercely petitioned parliament fearing their merchants and their poor would suffer. Their petition was successful but Newcastle did not to give in. Finally, after 1583 Newcastle got what it wanted. The bishop gave Gateshead and its coal-rich environs to Elizabeth I in a grand lease of 99 years. The Queen handed Gateshead to the Corporation of Newcastle. Gateshead’s coal mines were heavily worked during this period. Of course, Newcastle reaped the rewards but Gateshead flourished too.

Bottle Bank, Gateshead
Bottle Bank, Gateshead

Oakwellgate and Bottle Bank

In Medieval times Oakwellgate was one of Gateshead’s main streets along with Pipewellgate, Hillgate and Bottle Bank. It led down towards Hillgate near the Tyne at a point roughly between St Mary’s Church and the land occupied by the Sage. It was linked to Bottle Bank and Church Street by Cannon Street at its north end and to the High Street at its south end by Oakwellgate Chare. A well is said to have stood in this street that was sheltered by an oak tree, but intriguingly in medieval times Oakwellgate was sometimes called Aquelgate. Fifteenth century records suggest the Prince Bishops of Durham owned a palace somewhere between Oakwellgate and the High Street.

A Tuesday and Friday market was once held in Gateshead from as early as 1246. It stretched along the High Street from the junction with Oakwellgate, where there was a toll booth then all the way up to the Blue Stone on the old Tyne Bridge which marked the boundary of Newcastle and Gateshead. Gateshead was also home to a medieval fair held every August from at least 1334.

Bottle Bank is an ancient street and like Oakwellgate, Pipewellgate and Hillgate has nothing to show for its history. Linking High Street to the old medieval bridge across the Tyne, the most northerly section of Bottle Bank down to the present Swing Bridge is now called Bridge Street.

On a Newcastle map of the 1700s the street is called ‘Battle Bank’, but the name derives from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘bothl’ meaning building. It has been suggested it was the site of an ancient hall. The curve of the adjoining Church Street which joins Bottle Bank to the east near St Mary’s Church was created in 1790 to lessen the steep descent of Bottle Bank.

Swing Bridge from the Gateshead side
Swing Bridge from the Gateshead side © David Simpson 2017

Pipewellgate and the Gategangs

Pipewellgate is one of Gateshead’s oldest streets, dating back to medieval times and although there is nothing of note to see today, it has a place of importance for being the first recorded urban development in Gateshead.

The street runs along the river front from the Swing Bridge (where the Tyne Bridge of old was located) and heads westward facing the historic streets of Sandhill and the Close on the Newcastle side of the Tyne.

Today much of Pipewellgate is little more than a wooded roadway landscaped with trees, but it was once a rather overcrowded narrow street of tightly clustered houses and tenements.

Pipewellgate was established in the late 1150s after Hugh Pudsey, the powerful Prince Bishop of Durham leased the riverside land here to a businessman called Thorald of London. Thorald named the street from the well and stream that supplied water by pipe to Gateshead. He then sublet properties in Pipewellgate for the development of businesses.

In the 1300s Pipewellgate’s Lord of the Manor was Alan Gategang, a member of a prominent medieval Gateshead family whose name may have somehow derived from Gateshead itself. The Gategang family line died out in the 1400s. Their coat of arms featured three goats.

During the nineteenth century Gateshead was home to one of the North East’s biggest Irish communities, many of whom lived in the crowded Pipewellgate area of the city. In 1861 more than seven per cent of Gateshead’s population were Irish born and in Pipewellgate it was much higher.

St Interior Mary's church, Gateshead
St Mary’s church, Gateshead © David Simpson 2015

St Mary’s Church Heritage Centre

St Mary’s church overlooks the Tyne Bridge above Hillgate and is a good place to explore Gateshead’s history. It is Gateshead’s most important link to its medieval past, as it very likely stands on the ‘Goat’s Headland’ of Gateshead’s name.

Since December 2008 it has been Gateshead’s heritage centre. Developed using funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and European Development Fund, it explores Gateshead’s history from Roman times. Standing on the site of a chapel where Gateshead’s recorded history begins with the Bishop of Durham’s murder in 1080 it is fitting that this site is now a shrine to Gateshead’s history.

At one time an anchorage (for an anchoress or female hermit) stood outside the church. Founded by a Bishop of Durham in 1340, in later centuries it served as a venue for early council meetings of Gateshead’s new borough council of 1836. It also served as a school but this closed in 1870. Sadly, the anchorage has long since gone.

Of St Mary’s church itself, parts date back to the twelfth century but the church has seen many alterations over time and its tower was rebuilt in Italian style in 1740 by George Cansfield. Unfortunately, St Mary’s suffered from major fires in 1854, 1979 and 1983.

St Edmund's Hospital, Gateshead
St Edmund’s Hospital, Gateshead as it appeared around 1810

Medieval Hospital

There were no Friaries in Gateshead as in Newcastle but there was a medieval hospital dedicated to St Edmund near the High Street. Founded by Nicholas Farnham, Bishop of Durham in 1247, the thirteenth century west front of the present church of St Edmund is all that remains.

Farnham had integrated an earlier hospital or almshouse called Holy Trinity into the foundation of St Edmund’s. It has been suggested that it stood on the site of the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Utta, though this was just as likely to have been on the site now occupied by St Mary’s church.

In 1448 another Bishop of Durham gave the hospital to the nuns of St Bartholomew’s convent in Newcastle whose nunnery had burned down in a fire. The prioress of St Bartholomew held court with her tenants at St. Edmund’s until the 1540s when the convent was closed by King Henry VIII.

St Edmund’s church, also once known as Holy Trinity, was partly restored by John Dobson in the 1830s. It now also serves as a community centre. It is, along with St Mary’s, church central Gateshead’s only Medieval survival.

Alongside St Edmund’s chapel once stood Gateshead House. It belonged to the powerful Newcastle and Gateshead family called Riddell, who were staunchly Catholic. Their house suffered severe damage at the hands of the Scots in the Civil War in 1640 and in 1746, when it belonged to the Claverings. English soldiers of the Duke of Cumberland destroyed it during their march north to Culloden. The Elizabethan gateway of the house survived and is set into a wall of St Edmund’s church.

Gateshead Quay and Town Centre 

Felling and Heworth

Angel of the North, Low Fell and Birtley

The Team Valley | Whickham and Gibside

 Blaydon and Ryton

Newcastle Hebburn 

Washington | Chester-le-Street

 Stanley and Beamish



North East England History and Culture