First built by the Romans in the 2nd century AD, the West Gate above was one of five defensive stone gatehouses set within the perimeter of Exeter's city wall. North Gate, East Gate, South Gate and West Gate all roughly aligned with the cardinal points of the compass but Water Gate, probably medieval in origin, was located near the Quay and straddled a route through the city wall from Exeter's port. Accurate information on the structural details of all of Exeter's gates is frustratingly sparse. It seems certain that there was a Roman gate in the vicinity which gave access to what was probably a timber bridge over the river Exe and the surrounding marshes. Despite the fact that Exeter was one of the most westerly outposts of the Roman Empire in Northern Europe, there were a number of small forts and Romano-British settlements west of Exeter which extended into Cornwall. A Roman road is believed to have lead from the West Gate, over the timber Exe bridge and into South Devon via Haldon, although most of these roads were probably little more than trackways perhaps first used by the Celts in prehistory.
The Anglo-Saxons reused and refortified the original Roman West Gate during Athelstan's overhaul of the city's defences in the early 10th century, but the West Gate which was known to 19th century antiquarians probably dated to the 14th or 15th century.
It was constructed from the exceptionally durable purple volcanic lava first quarried by the Romans within the city at Rougemont and, from the late-Middle Ages onwards, at other sites outside of the city e.g. Thorverton.
The East Gate was largely rebuilt in the 16th century and volcanic ashlar was used in the rebuilding so it seems likely that the other gates were built of a similar material. The local Heavitree breccia familiar from Exeter's parish churches was altogether too soft and friable for such strategically important locations. The image above right shows a section of the city wall that still contains some of the volcanic ashlar blocks quarried by the Romans at Rougemont in the 2nd century. Little holes left by bubbles of gas which coursed through the lava when it was first erupting are easily visible.
Before the construction of a new bridge over the river Exe in the 1770s, the West Gate was still the main entrance in and out of Exeter for anyone arriving or departing on this side of the city. Access from the far side of the river into Exeter was over a huge 700ft long, 13th century stone bridge which ended not far from the walls of the West Gate itself. An archway then lead through the gatehouse before a traveller had to make the long haul 150ft up to the city centre either via West Street and Fore Street or, at least during the Middle Ages, via the steep climb of Stepcote Hill and Smythen Street. The creation of the new Exe Bridge in the 1770s on a different alignment to its medieval forerunner also saw the building of a new access road into Exeter, rather uncreatively known as New Bridge Street, which literally bypassed the West Gate completely. Jenkins described the old route through the West Gate as "intricate and inconvenient".
The Tudor scholar, John Leland, visited Exeter in 1542 and left a brief description of the city's gates, stating that "the east and west gates are built in similar style and are now the best". Leland's note-taking is clearly in error though. The architectural form of the East Gate, a central gateway framed by two enormous drum towers, was radically different to that of the West Gate and the West Gate was far from being "the best", a term more appropriate for the great South Gate or East Gate. One of the earliest known representations of the West Gate appears in the Braun and Hogenberg map of 1587 left. The arches of the medieval Exe Bridge are just visible at the bottom with Frog Street on the left. The West Gate itself is shown as a simple crenellated structure. Almost on top of the city wall to the right is Allhallows-on-the-Wall, a medieval church that was almost totally destroyed during an assault on the city during the English Civil War. West Street runs to the left and right inside the City Wall and almost immediately behind the West Gate is the church of St Mary Steps with Stepcote Hill shown ascending past the church towards the centre of Exeter.
The image right shows a drawing of the West Gate executed long after the gate had been demolished. It is almost certainly based on the etching shown at the top of this post. From the 16th century onwards a small undercroft at St Mary Steps functioned as lodgings for the West Gate's porter. Jenkins recalls that all of the city gates were "constantly shut during the night; in winter, from nine in the evening to six in the morning; in summer, from ten to five". It was the porter's job to open and close the West Gate at the correct time and to quiz people who wanted to leave or enter the city outside of these hours. In 1330 the porter of the West Gate was apparently punished and removed from his position for leaving the gate open during the night against the mayor's instructions.
Although post-dating the West Gate's demolition in 1815, the image at the top of this post gives what is probably the most accurate depiction of the building itself. It shows a very simple structure built into the city wall consisting of little more than an arched entrance surmounted by a square crenellated tower. Through the archway can just be seen the corner of the church of St Mary Steps and the beginning of Stepcote Hill. Jenkins was less than complimentary when he recorded his impressions of the West Gate at the beginning of the 19th century:
"A very ancient but mean structure, and inferior in point of architecture to the other City gates; it consists of a square tower, something loftier than the walls, without any projection on the outside, or flanking bulwarks; in this tower is an ill-contrived room with a small window looking towards the suburbs; on the interior front is the remains of an inscription now obliterated: the entrance into the City is through an irregular pointed arch, and the whole has the appearance of remote antiquity; it has no insignia of arms or ornament remaining on it, and being now in a very ruinous state, will, in all probability, be soon taken down."
The West Gate might've been unimpressive as military architecture but it had played a role in some of the most important events in British history. During the reign of Edward VI left the city was placed under siege by Catholic rebels from Devon and Cornwall during an event known as the Prayer Book Rebellion. The rebels were opposed to the implementation of a new prayer book written by Thomas Cranmer and published in English rather than Latin. After amassing in Credition the rebels turned their attention to Exeter. The city's mayor, John Blackaller, was approached by the rebels and asked to open the city gates to give them free access. Blackaller refused and, according to John Hooker, who left an eyewitness account, on 02 July 1549 up to 2,000 rebels besieged Exeter, "in order to take by force that which by words they could not obtain."
The mayor ordered "great pieces of ordnance planted at every gate, and in all convenient places along the walls". The rebels proceded to fell all the large trees surrounding the city, demolishing several bridges and posting guards on every road leading to and from Exeter. They tried setting fire to the gates. They broke the pipes which led into the Underground Passages and which delivered fresh water to the Great Conduit in the High Street, and recycled the lead from the pipework to make bullets. Another rebel scheme involved undermining the city wall. Hooker writes that at the West Gate, having first tunnelled under the foundations of the gate itself, "the besiegers had placed a large quantity of gunpowder, pitch and other combustible matter".
A tinner from Teignmouth, John Newcombe, happened to be within the besieged city and noticed the rebels' excavations. Using a pan of water he was able to assess exactly where the rebels were mining "by the shaking of the water in the pan", and then "set about counter-mining them" i.e. digging a shaft directly above where the rebels had laid the explosives. As previously mentioned, the West Gate stood 150ft below the plateau upon which the centre of Exeter lies. The steepness of the descent became part of the city's attempt to foil the rebel plans.
The order was given for everyone living in the steep streets around the West Gate i.e. Stepcote Hill, shown right prior to its demolition in the 1930s, Smythen Street, Preston Street and West Street, to place large tubs of water outside their houses. Upon the given order, all the tubs were upturned at the same time sending a torrent down the streets towards Newcombe's shaft, flooding the tunnels dug by the rebels and rendering the explosives useless. Hooker writes that "the rebels, being thus disappointed, attempted nothing more of this kind". The siege lasted for five weeks. The Prayer Book Rebellion was a serious challenge to the religious policy of Edward VI and involved many thousands of people. Over 5500 rebels were killed during its suppression, most of them from Cornwall. Numerous battles took place around Exeter, and it wasn't until the rebels were repulsed by John Russell, the owner of Bedford House, that the siege was finally lifted.
The West Gate also saw a lot of action during the English Civil War. In July 1643 when Exeter was under siege by Royalists loyal to Charles I, over 1000 Parliamentarians rode out from the West Gate, dragging cannon behind them, crossed the medieval Exe Bridge and attacked Royalist soldiers who were holed up in the late-medieval manor house of Hayes Barton on the opposite bank of the river Exe. The Royalists were eventually forced to retreat but the house itself was destroyed during the battle.
The West Gate was also the scene of the entry into the city of William of Orange left, Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Guelders and Overjissel, later crowned as King William III of England, Scotland and Ireland. William of Orange was the son of Mary Stuart, the eldest daughter of Charles I, and William II, Prince of Orange, and he later married Mary, the daughter of James II. The Catholic James II was ousted from the throne of England and was replaced by William of Orange who landed with an expeditionary force at Brixham in South Devon on 05 November 1688. Exeter was the first city he arrived at.
It was by no means certain that Exeter would welcome the Prince. Some of William's attendants, including Lord Charles Mordaunt, the 3rd Earl of Peterborough, rode ahead of the huge convey moving towards the city from Brixham. Jenkins writes that "when they arrived at the West Gate they found it shut against them; upon which Lord Mordaunt ordered the porter to open the gate upon pain of death, which being presently done he required him on the same penalty not to shut it again". Despite the mayor's refusal to greet William of Orange at the West Gate, the Prince's entrance into the city was triumphant. The "streets were thronged, and the windows filled with joyful spectators". William of Orange stayed in Exeter for twelve days, lodging at the Deanery, before departing for London where he was eventually crowned on 11 April 1689.
Unfortunately Jenkins' prediction turned out to be accurate as the gatehouse was demolished in 1815 after almost 1600 years of existence. In the late-19th century the position of the gate was marked with a commemorative plaque right.
It reads: "Site of West Gate. Successfully defended against the Rebel attacks in 1549. William Prince of Orange with his army entered the city in 1688 through this gate which was removed in 1815."
The only part of the gatehouse to survive is the key that was used to lock the doors and which is currently in the local Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Unfortunately, all of the main entrances into the walled city Exeter have been destroyed or disfigured either by war-time bombing, post-war reconstruction or road-building.
The photograph below shows the area outside of the West Gate as it appears today, the plaque marking the location of the gate outlined with a red circle. The inner bypass now carves through the city almost at the exact point where the Rebels in 1549 started digging to lay their gunpowder.