Newcastle : Medieval defences
Newcastle was a major medieval town and important place of trade but also lay close to the borders in what were often troubled times. The town’s first defensive structure (other than the Roman fort of course) was its castle which protected the river crossing and actually facilitated the rapid growth of the town. The Blackgate (1247) was a later addition to the castle’s defences.
The second major step in the development of Newcastle’s medieval defences was the building of the extensive town walls which to some extent made the earlier castle redundant. Both the castle keep and Blackgate survive along with some notable sections of the town wall and its associated towers. You can view a map of the Newcastle walls here.
It is uncertain whether the Roman bridge at Monkchester survived into Norman times but it is likely that, at the very least, the foundations remained. In Anglo-Saxon times the fort was reused as a cemetery and an Anglo-Saxon church was built.
Like the Romans, the Normans recognised the strategic importance of this bridging point. In September 1080, Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, who was returning from a military expedition in Scotland, built a ‘castle of earth and wood’ on the site of the Roman fort overlooking the bridge. The Anglo-Saxon church seems to have been enclosed within its walls.
In 1172 the ‘new castle’ as it was named, was rebuilt with a stone keep by Maurice the Engineer (Mauricius Caementarius) who was working for Henry II. Most of the stonework of the present keep dates from this period.
One factor in strengthening the fortification was that Henry had relocated the Sheriff of Northumberland from Bamburgh Castle to Newcastle. We can still see the solid square keep of Newcastle’s castle today and it is surely one of the city’s most precious monuments. It is, after all, the castle that gave the city its name.
The castle was built partly as a defence against the threat of Scottish raids but more significantly it kept the unruly locals in check. The murder of the Norman-appointed Bishop of Durham by a mob across the river at Gateshead in May 1080 was probably an important factor in the decision to build a castle on the Tyne later that year.
The castle seems to have performed its defensive role quite well up until 1095 when it was seized by Norman barons under Robert De Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland, during a rebellion against King William Rufus. The king sent north an army to quash the rebellion and the castle of Newcastle was forced to surrender.
A medieval walled town grew up around this new castle which became an important stronghold in the northern defences against the Scots. Its military importance stimulated trade and commerce and the expanding town developed into a major sea port. By 1300 Newcastle’s importance was such that it was permitted to appoint its own mayor and a century later the town became a county in its own right. It became independent of Northumberland, which lay outside its walls.
Rope making, shipbuilding and glass making were among the early trades to develop in Newcastle but without a doubt the most important of all the industries in the town was the mining and export of coal. The Tyneside pits were among the first to be worked in England and for centuries Newcastle was the most important exporter of coals to London. Thus we have the familiar phrase ‘to carry coals to Newcastle’ to describe a rather pointless exercise, rather like the similar phrase ‘selling sand to the Arabs’.
In 1247 a major addition to the castle was constructed to the north of the keep in the form of a gateway. Built on the orders of Henry III, this gateway is known today as the Blackgate.
This oval-shaped fortified building was converted into a house in 1618 when the roof and windows were added. In the eighteenth century it was made up of tenements when one of its residents, a Patrick Black, is said to have given his name to the building.
Sadly, in the nineteenth century, when the Victorian railway tore its way through the castle site, the Blackgate was permanently separated from the castle keep.
Newcastle Town Walls
In 1265 the burgesses of Newcastle recognised the need to supplement the defences of the castle by building town walls to protect the town’s trade and commerce from the raids of invading Scots.
A tax was introduced for funding the construction. When the walls were completed they extended for over two miles around the town. These walls were never less than 7 feet thick and were up to 25 feet high. Newcastle castle and its Black Gate were not part of the town wall but were enclosed within them and their once important status in defending the town now became secondary to the town wall.
It is tempting to describe this as a ‘city wall’ and this seems appropriate given the size and extent of the walls, although of course Newcastle didn’t gain city status until 1882.
The town wall consisted of gateways called Sand Gate, West Gate, New Gate, Pandon Gate, Pilgrim Gate, Close Gate along with nineteen towers and a number of smaller turrets built as lookout posts situated at intervals between the towers and gates.
During Henry VIII’s reign the King’s antiquarian John Leland described Newcastle’s walls. He observed:
“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.”
Today remnants of seven of the wall’s nineteen towers can still be seen along with some impressive surviving sections of wall.
Tracing the course of the town wall
The map below shows the course of the Newcastle town wall; both the surviving and lost sections and the locations of the towers and gates. To open the Newcastle town wall map full size in a new window click or tap on the map.
Starting from the riverside at the most southerly corner of the wall, nothing can be seen. The wall’s Riverside Tower stood between the Close and the river with the Close Gate, straddling the Close itself in this riverside area to the west of the old Tyne Bridge. A plaque in the Close marks the site of the Close Gate, which was breached during the Scottish siege of Newcastle in 1644, repaired and later used as a prison before its demolition in 1797.
From there the wall headed up the river bank where the next tower was the Whitefriar Tower, named from a nearby friary which stood in the Hanover Square and Clavering Place area. The tower was in the area of present day Hanover Street close to where that street runs along the southern edge of the Orchard Street Car Park.
Orchard Street is the site of one of two continuous remaining sections of the town wall (the other being the West Walls) and it borders the car park here. This remaining section of the wall disappears as we reach Forth Street to the north near the Central Railway station.
Somewhere roughly in the present car park on the east side of the Central Station was a tower called the Neville or Denton Tower where the wall turned westward roughly following the course of one of the platforms in the railway station. Somewhere around here within the station area was a tower called West Spital Tower from which the wall veered off to the north west across Neville Street towards Pink Lane.
The next tower was called Stank Tower. In medieval times a Stank was often a large damned fish pond or vivarium used for the breeding of fish. Stank Tower was situated where the port cochère or grand entranceway to Newcastle Central station is now located.
In the Pink Lane area there were a further two towers on the wall. The first was the Gunner Tower (also called Gunnerton Tower) and apparently named from Gunnerton in North Tynedale, a seat for the Swinburne family who owned a house just within the town wall. The next tower was the Pink Tower from which Pink Lane was named and presumably had pink-coloured stone.
Just to the north the wall crossed the Westgate Road near Bath Lane where we found the West Gate, being the main entrance to the city from the west. Of course the Westgate Road more or less follows the course of Hadrian’s Wall so here the medieval town wall crossed the course of that yet more ancient defensive structure.
Just after crossing the Westgate Road we find the most extensive surviving sections of the town wall in the West Walls and Stowell Street area stretching north to St Andrew’s church and Gallowgate. Here part of the ditch (or dry moat called the King’s Dyke), which runs outside the wall can be seen along with four surviving towers.
The first notable feature of the West Walls is Durham Tower which is largely intact. In the nineteenth century it was used for storing coal for a school.
Next of the drum-shaped towers is Heber Tower on an angled corner and also called Herber or Harbot Tower. The Heber Tower was once used by the Company of Armourers, Curriers and Feltmakers who restored it in the early 1770s. Several of the towns incorporated trading guilds and companies used the towers as meeting places. For example, the Gunner Tower was used as a hall for the Slaters and Tylers.
At Heber Tower the wall makes a sudden bend north east towards Gallowgate. Here it runs parallel to Stowell Street (noted today for its China town dining establishments and is a street that lies within the wall).
Also within the walls here is the nearby Blackfriars monastery (see Friars Street) which is now a restaurant. This section of wall between Heber Tower and Morden Tower was the site of a minor gateway or postern, called the Blackfriars Postern built in 1280 for the Blackfriars who gained special permission to construct their own entrance.
The extensive ditch on the outside of the wall is very prominent along this stretch of the wall. At the centre of this section is Morden Tower. In the seventeenth century it had been home to the Company of Plumbers, Glaziers and Pewterers as a meeting place. Since the 1960s it has been a cultural venue used for poetry recitals. The North East poet, Basil Bunting first recited his epic Briggflatts here.
The last of the four towers on the surviving West Walls is the Ever Tower and is the most ruinous tower on this section of the wall with much of it demolished in the Edwardian era of the early twentieth century. Named from a thirteenth century noble family who funded its construction, the tower was used by the Company of Paviers, Colliers and Carriagemen in the nineteenth century.
Ever Tower has of course faired better than many others on the wall which have been lost altogether including the nearby Andrew Tower which was situated on the wall near St Andrew’s church.
From Ever Tower this last continuous section of the wall is briefly broken by St Andrew’s Street (or Darn Crook) close to the Chinese arch at the entrance to Newcastle’s ‘China Town’. The wall then runs to the rear of the buildings in Gallowgate alongside St Andrews and its churchyard.
The next feature on the wall would have been the New Gate situated where Newgate Street becomes Percy Street. At this point the course of the wall would have run along what is now the entire course of Blackett Street now marked by the north-facing wall of the Eldon Square shopping centre. Blackett Street (and Old Eldon Square) lie just outside the area of the town walls.
There were two towers on this stretch of the wall in what is now the Blackett Street area. The first was the rather grand sounding Bertram Momboucher Tower named from a late thirteenth century Sheriff of Northumberland. Long since gone, its site lies just within the Eldon Square Shopping centre looking out onto the green of Old Eldon Square.
The tower’s next neighbour was called the Fickett Tower and would have stood where the rounded glass tower at the entrance to Eldon Square shopping centre now stands today near Grey’s monument.
At the east end of Blackett Street at the top of Pilgrim Street was the Pilgrim Gate on the main north-to south routeway through Newcastle and part of the route from London to Edinburgh.
From the Pilgrim Gate the wall roughly ran along the course of what is now New Bridge Street to its far north eastern corner at the Carliol Tower. This was located roughly where the pedestrian crossing is now located outside the Laing Art Gallery, on John Dobson Street opposite the City Library.
From the Carliol Tower the wall then turned south east towards Carliol Square where the next surviving feature of the wall – the Plummer Tower – can still be seen though it was considerably altered by the Company of Masons who were granted it in 1742.
The next tower on the lost course of the wall was the Austin Tower on a site where the A167(M) passes through the centre of the city. It was named from the Austin Friars. The Holy Jesus Hospital near 55° North more or less occupies their friary site.
Beyond to the south on the corner of City Road and Melburne Street where the Croft Stairs descend towards Pandon, Manor Chare and All Saint’s church is the remnant of a Corner turret (though often referred to a ‘tower’) at an angled nick in the wall.
At the Corner Tower the wall changed direction slightly to the east to take in the district of Pandon which was added to the town of Newcastle during the building of the wall. Here on Pandon Bank was the Pandon Gate and then close by the surviving Wall Knoll Tower and Sally Port, a postern gate from which the townsmen could sally forth in attack. It is known today as ‘The Secret Tower’.
The tower has also been known as the Carpenters’ Tower because it was once the meeting place of the Carpenters and Shipwrights. It was they that built the upper storey of the building.
The building faces out to Garth Heads, Tower Street and Causey Bank. A garth is an enclosure, a causey a causeway. Nearby we find the eighteenth century Keelmen’s Hospital.
From Wall Knoll, the wall continued south east along the street of Milk Market to Sandgate, and the site of the Sand Gate on the riverside from where the wall continued west to the entrance to Sandhill where a gate protected the north side of the old Tyne bridge.
A2 Poster print map of the Newcastle town walls, castle and defences by Tangled Worm: