Friday, 16 December 2011

The Broad Gate at Broadgate

The beautiful late-19th century bronze plaque left commemorates the location of Broad Gate, the most substantial and impressive of all the gatehouses which were built as part of the Cathedral Close wall at the end of the 13th century. It reads: "Site of Broad Gate. One of the seven gates of the Close for which Royal Licence was granted 1286. Gate removed 1825".

The plaque now rests on the Broadgate facade of Nos. 65 & 67 High Street. The Close wall and the seven gates were constructed as a security measure following the murder of the cathedral's Precentor, Walter Lechlade, in 1283. The Broad Gate is the only one of the Close gates for which relatively accurate contemporary drawings survive.

It seems likely that some sort of passageway or alleyway existed at Broadgate prior to the gate being built. Broadgate is referred to as 'Fishfoldyete' in 1344 because of a nearby fish market in the High Street. In the 16th century John Hooker recorded that the gate was sometimes called Fissand, either a reference to the fish market or a commentary on what was still a relatively narrow, fissure-like opening between the High Street and the Cathedral Close. Situated almost opposite the West door of the cathedral, the Broad Gate was the ceremonial entrance into the Cathedral Precinct, a status which was reflected in the weighty architecture of the gate.

Some of the most famous kings in English history would've entered into the precinct via the Broad Gate: Henry VI in 1452, Richard III in 1483, Henry VII in 1501, Charles I in 1644, Charles II in 1670, George III in 1789, and the gate was probably already completed when Edward I made his second visit to the city in 1297. There is also a tradition in Exeter of the city mayor welcoming a newly-appointed Bishop of Exeter at the East Gate before processing down the High Street to Broadgate from where the Bishop enters his cathedral.

Hooker's 1587 map of Exeter right shows a rather crude representation of the Broad Gate, highlighted here in red. The West front of the Cathedral is on the far right. The High Street runs up towards the East Gate on the far left.

In his interesting booklet 'Gates of the Close', Michael Fodor wrote that the Broad Gate depicted in early 19th century drawings was probably 15th century in date, a remodelled version of the late-13th century original. Many of the city's parish churches were rebuilt in the 1400s so it's entirely possible that the Close's most important gatehouse was given a makeover at the same time. If true then it was this version of the Broad Gate which remained until its demolition in the 1820s. An inn called The Beaufitz or Beavis' Tavern is known to have adjoined the outer face of the Broadgate in the mid-15th century. The mayor at the time, John Shillingford, accused members of the Cathedral's clergy of entering The Beaufitz via a wicket gate where they caused such "noyse, affrays and debates" that they woke the citizens living in the High Street.

The illustration left, from a work by J Farington, is one of the most accurate representations of what the Broad Gate looked like at the beginning of the 19th century. It shows the interior face of the gatehouse from inside the Cathedral Close looking down through Broadgate towards the High Street.

It was built on three floors although according to Lega-Weekes there was once an arched tunnel which ran beneath the Broad Gate from east to west. This tunnel led into the groin vaulted undercrofts at No. 65 prior to that building's demolition c1904.

An arched gateway with wooden doors was on the ground floor of the gatehouse. The thoroughfare connecting the Cathedral Precinct to the High Street was approximately 12ft wide, large enough to take horse-drawn carts and waggons. The gatekeeper, who was also a member of the clergy, resided in the accommodation on the first floor. Between the two cusped, two-light Gothic windows was a niche containing a statue. Alexander Jenkins left an invaluable eyewitness description of the Broad Gate in 1806: "The principal gate is now called Broad-Gate, anciently St. Michael's, from its having the statue of that Archangel, overcoming Satan, placed in the interior front". Jenkins added that "this embellishment is now much mutilated". Lega-Weekes wondered whether the alternative name of St Michael's Gate wasn't actually derived from the Anglo-Saxon word 'micel', meaning 'great', an epithet also attached to the nearby church of St Mary Major. Above the gatekeeper's accommodation was a third floor containing another chamber with a cockloft inserted into the roof. It's possible that the third floor and roof visible in Farington's picture were a later addition.

At each corner of the interior face stood tall polygonal turreted towers. A doorway leading into one of the towers can be seen at ground level on the right. From here a spiral staircase probably rose through the full height of the building. The right-hand tower is shown capped with a squat roof. The interior of the ground floor passageway which ran underneath the gatekeeper's accommodation had a stone vaulted ceiling decorated with what Jenkins described as "elegant tracery". There was some decoration on the outer arch. A rough sketch by John Gendall from c1820 shows what appear to have been alternating blocks of different coloured stone used for the voussoirs (something similar can be seen on a couple of the surviving arches of the early 13th century Exe Bridge above right). More decoration consisting of a form of blind arcading existed on the walls of the passageway itself.

Despite the descriptions and the drawings, architectural details remain tantalisingly sketchy. No representation of the exterior High Street facade survives and there are no details about the layout of the interior. Little is really known about the decoration either, including the statue, and even the precise history of the different phases of construction is a mystery. One intriguing question is what was the gate actually built from? Clearly it was stone but various types of stone were used in Exeter during the medieval period. The late-13th century gatehouse would've been contemporary with the rebuilding of the cathedral, much of which was constructed from limestone, although the gates in the city walls were nearly all constructed from locally-sourced purple volcanic trap. An edition of the 'Exeter Flying Post' dated 29 December 1824 reported on the gate's demolition stating that "Several different kinds of stone were used in the building; some specimens, which we have seen, taken from the upper part, appear to abound in marine productions". These "marine productions" are almost certainly fossils and strongly suggest that the material was cretaceous limestone from East Devon. Several illustrations indicate that the lower levels of the gatehouse were constructed of purple volcanic trap with a paler stone used for the floors above although other illustrations suggest otherwise. If the gatehouse was rebuilt in the 15th century was the old stone recycled into the new structure? Or was the stone reclaimed from the demolition of another building? The questions are almost endless and most of the answers will remain unknown for ever.

The photograph left shows Broadgate today looking towards the High Street from inside the Cathedral Precinct. The white property in the background, now the entrance into the Guildhall Shopping Centre, was formerly No. 196 High Street. It was a Grade II listed building constructed around the core of a Tudor townhouse. It was demolished in 1973.

Unfortunately the destruction of the Broad Gate is much easier to uncover. The gatehouse was seen as an awkward obstacle to carriages wishing to access the Cathedral Precinct and in 1823 the Commissioners for Improvement, supported by the City Chamber, decided to remove the Broad Gate in its entirety. The decision wasn't accepted by all of Exeter's citizens. In August 1823 a letter appeared in the 'Exeter Flying Post' denouncing the plans to destroy the gatehouse. The letter begins: "Is it possible that Exonians can have so little respect for what was so valued by their forefathers, as to suffer Broadgate, the last remnant of ancient grandeur, to be levelled with the dust? How will men of taste and science cry out against our public spirit and sense of honour? What answer shall we make to their censures and reproaches?" The author wondered whether the clergy could remain silent when the gate, that "beautiful accompaniment and outwork of the very Cathedral" was being threatened with "Vandalic violence" and hoped that the "Classical minds" of several members of the City Chamber would prevent "this monument of former renown and and splendour" from being "annihilated for ever". His optimism was to be misplaced. A piece of doggerel verse was also apparently circulating at the time: "Broadgate now yields to Gothic sway, despoiled of every feature. St. Michael's driven thus away, the Lord defend St. Peter!" St Peter is the saint to whom the cathedral itself is dedicated. It was also suggested that the gate could be dismantled and re-erected at the entrance into Northernhay Gardens but, yet again, these plans came to nothing.

An editorial in the same newspaper, dated 01 July 1824, stated: "We understand that the Broad Gate will certainly be taken down in a few months". Another editorial appeared on 29 December 1824: "The final demolition of this venerable relic of antiquity was set about yesterday, and we shall soon have to congratulate our fellow citizens and visitors of the city on possessing a fine and appropriate approach to that beautiful and admired structure, the Cathedral". Presumably the demolition was completed in the early weeks of 1825, the date usually given for the destruction of the Broad Gate; and that was the full stop at the end of the Broad Gate's five hundred years of history, although its name lives on in the short street in which it stood. Horse and carriages needing to access the Cathedral Yard were re-routed down St Martin's Lane "while the site of Broad Gate is being cleared away". The gatehouse in St Martin's Lane had already been removed in 1819. Broadgate was 'improved' again in 1833 with more demolition. Thomas Hourston, tailor and draper, was forced to relocate to new premises in St Martin's Lane because his "house at Broadgate" was "about to be pulled down by the Commissioners". In 1826 posts were placed at the sites of the all of the demolished Cathedral Close gates. Some of these remain at Broadgate above right, St Martin's Lane and at Palace Gate.

The Broad Gate is long gone. To see similar surviving buildings in England you'd have to visit either the Exchequer Gate at Lincoln, the central portion of which has similar polygonal turreted towers, or the great Christ Church Gate at Canterbury which also has polygonal corner towers and a niche for a statue between two two-light Gothic windows. Below is an image showing how Exeter's finest precinct gatehouse might've appeared had it survived into the 21st century.


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