The image left attempts to give some idea of how the exterior of Exeter's South Gate might've appeared today had it not been demolished in 1819. Located at the end of South Street, the South Gate was the main entrance into the city for nearly 1700 years.
Built by the Romans, altered by the Saxons and rebuilt by the Normans, the gate acquired its final form in the Late Middle Ages and remained little altered until it was pulled down at the beginning of the 19th century.
The first Roman gatehouse on the site was built c140 AD, a product of the transformation of Isca Dumnoniorum from a former military fortress into a civilian settlement. As the population had increased the perimeter of the settlement was extended outwards to cover the area still bounded by the city walls. A defensive ditch with an earthen bank topped by a wooden palisade was constructed around the newly-enlarged civitas. The Roman South Gate would've been part of this expansion and was originally built of wood. (Timber from this earliest incarnation of the South Gate was excavated in February 1989.) In c180 AD the wooden palisade and bank were replaced with a thick stone wall, parts of which can still be seen today, and the South Gate was rebuilt in stone at the same time.
The aerial view of Exeter right shows the circuit of the Roman and medieval city walls highlighted in purple (missing sections are highlighted in red). No. 2 marks the former location of the South Gate. South Street can clearly be seen heading towards the city centre where it meets Fore Street, North Street and the High Street at the ancient crossroad known as the Carfoix.
The Roman South Gate is the only one of Exeter's Roman gatehouses for which archaeological evidence has been found and its remains still lie beneath the modern road. The stone gatehouse consisted of two tall square towers flanking a central entrance. It was about 55ft (17m) wide, including both towers. Unfortunately very little is known about Exeter during the so-called Dark Ages, but the South Gate, along with the city walls, must've remained standing after the decline of the Roman administration of Britain in the early 5th century. When Alfred the Great refortified Exeter between 880 and 895, one of the measures taken to improve security probably included rebuilding the South Gate.
(The late medieval South Gate is shown in Hogenburg's 1587 map of Exeter left. The crenellated wall with an archway is presumably the priest's house projecting over the street from the tower of Holy Trinity church.)
Christopher Hendersen in his 2001 paper 'The Development of the South Gate of Exeter and its Role in the City Defences' believed that the Anglo-Saxon gate was probably constructed primarily of timber but also included some "elements" of the old Roman gate that were still standing some 600 years after it had first been built. Hendersen also believed that the late 9th century gatehouse was itself probably rebuilt again, this time in stone, during the 11th century, either just before or just after the Norman Conquest.
For some reason, perhaps French raids on the south coast of England, the South Gate received a massive overhaul between 1410 and 1420, transforming the earlier structure into what Hoskins called "one of the most impressive things of its kind in England". Like the outer face of the East Gate, the new South Gate was also probably built of the extremely durable grey/purple volcanic trap quarried from a variety of sites around Exeter. The early 15th century South Gate consisted of a bastion in the form of a rectangular block. The rear of the block lay flush with the line of the city wall and projected outwards over the old town ditch. The block was flanked on either side by huge drum towers, each tower being of four storeys and at least 50ft high. There was a drawbridge set into the carriageway and deep ditches ran away on either side.
A central passageway some 16ft (5m) tall, the interior of which was constructed with rib vaulting, ran through the centre of the bastion and a niche on the outer face contained a statue. The exterior face also had arrow slits and carved shields set into square stone plaques. The towers were subdivided into separate rooms and there were also chambers in the part of the gatehouse that spanned the central passageway. When the Tudor antiquarian, John Leland, visited Exeter in 1542 he believed that the South Gate was "the strongest" of the city's four main medieval gatehouses although the East Gate was perhaps larger.
Alexander Jenkins left an eyewitness description of the South Gate as it appeared in 1806: "The gate is a massy [massive] building of hewn stone. The entrance from the suburbs is through a lofty pointed arch, flanked by circular towers, over the gateway is a niche, where lately stood a mutilated statue in a magisterial robe; this front is likewise decorated with angels, supporting the Royal and City arms; the interior arch of the gateway from its semi-circular form, appears of Saxon construction, and is probably some remains of the ancient gate".
The image above is one of the few surviving depictions of the interior elevation of the early 15th century rebuilding. This view was obscured for centuries by the priest's house of Holy Trinity church which spanned South Street almost directly behind the gate. The drawing was executed in the very short space of time between the demolition of the priest's house and the gatehouse itself. The location of what was probably part of the side wall of the priest's house is highlighted in purple. The semi-circular inner archway of the gatehouse is clearly visible. The north wall had stone mullion windows with what looks like cusped tracery. The upper chambers could be accessed from the top of the city walls via a doorway. The debris on the ground to the left is demolition rubble from the church and the priest's house.
The fact that the exterior arch was pointed and the interior arch was semi-circular strongly suggests that the gatehouse built between 1410 and 1420 also retained elements of a much earlier structure. The disparity between the two styles of arch was noted in the 1720s by the English antiquarian William Stukeley. He wrote that "one arch of South-gate seems to be Roman", a surviving component of the gatehouse built one-and-a-half thousand years earlier.
The idea that the interior arch of the late medieval South Gate was part of the original Roman building has been banded around ever since. As late as 1971 Aileen Fox wrote that "it is possible that the round arch that is shown on the inside of the South Gate in early nineteenth century prints was a Roman survival". Wacher went further in 1975 when he stated that the arch "almost certainly" dated to the Roman period. A partial excavation of the site in 1992 indicated that parts of the Roman gatehouse had been demolished by c1200. A small guide to the city walls, written in association with the Exeter Archaeology unit and published in 1998 maintained that "the archway was probably Roman". Chris Hendersen, in the above-mentioned paper of 2001, supported Jenkins' belief that the archway was probably late Saxon or early Norman and dated to the 11th century. Unfortunately, now the South Gate no longer exists, it's not possible to say categorically whether the arch was Roman or Saxo-Norman in date, although the latter seems most likely.
Chris Hendersen described the process whereby the Roman/Saxo-Norman arch at the South Gate might've been retained. Before it was rebuilt in the early 15th century, the exterior face of the South Gate was flush with the city wall and didn't project out from the city as it did after 1420. Following the construction of the bastion and the two flanking towers, what was once the exterior arch of the Saxo-Norman gatehouse became the interior arch of the early 15th century gatehouse.
It probably didn't seem worth rebuilding a semi-circular arch that was being protected by the tremendous strength of the new outwork. This is perhaps why the new exterior arch was a pointed Gothic arch in keeping with the 15th century and yet the interior remained as an old-fashioned semi-circular arch, familiar to the Romans, Saxons and Normans. Two very similar archways to that which has prompted so much discussion still exist in Exeter at the gatehouse of Rougemont Castle above left. The two castle arches of c1068 are constructed from white sandstone. The interior arch at the South Gate was similar in appearance. The general colour scheme of the castle gatehouse, with its contrast between the white dressed stone of the arches and the purple volcanic trap of the walls, is also very reminiscent of what would've been the colouring of the South Gate.
Another uncertainty surrounding the architecture of the South Gate was the close proximity of the house used by the priest of Holy Trinity church. The church was sited just within the city walls, almost adjacent to the South Gate itself. Jenkins complained in 1806 that the South Gate and the church's bell tower constricted the flow of traffic in and out of Exeter, a situation "rendered still worse by an arched building adjoining the tower, once the habitation of the Priest, but now of the Sexton". An 1853 article by William Harding also refers to this property. Harding cites a document relating to the parish of Holy Trinity dated 18 May 1615 which, according to him, "mentions also the Parsonage House, which was built over the king's high way; the entrance to which was by a Gothic door, forming an inconvenient projection into the street".
This structure, with a pointed gable roof, is shown in the drawing above right. The arch of the South Gate itself can just be seen in the distance. The few surviving images of the priest's house suggest that it too had semi-circular arches but it was quite separate from the South Gate as a gap existed between the front wall of the priest's house and the back wall of the South Gate itself although the two were built of a similar material. In fact, prior to 1819, anyone walking down South Street would've had their view of the South Gate almost completely obscured by the presence of the overarching priest's house.
The South Gate and the priest's house were accurately depicted by Caleb Hedgeland on his early 19th century model of the city, a detail of which is shown left. The early 15th century reconstruction of the South Gate is highlighted in red. The priest's house is highlighted in purple connected directly to the church of Holy Trinity. Holy Trinity was itself remodelled around the same time that the South Gate was rebuilt. Was the priest's house originally part of the South Gate and only later used by the priests? Was it constructed at the same time or was it part of an earlier building? Unfortunately I can't find out much else about it.
In c1600 the roof of the South Gate was strengthened to take guns and the height of the gate raised, but apart from these slight alterations the South Gate remained unchanged until the beginning of the 19th century. From the 16th century onwards the gatehouse was used as the city prison. The prison reformer, James Neild, visited the South Gate prison in 1806 and recorded that "it consists, amongst others, of two rooms in the Keeper's house called the Long Room and the Shoe".
According to Neild, the Shoe received its name from a shoe that was hung by the prisoners from a length of string and suspended from "the iron-grated window towards the street". The idea was that charitable passers-by would put a small amount of money into the shoe (hence the phrase "living on a shoestring"). Neild recorded that the Shoe was used by debtors that "bring their own beds and pay six-pence per week". The image right is an early 20th century postcard depicting a fictional view of prisoners lowering a shoe to pedestrians. The artist has shown the prisoners as being incarcerated in the priest's house of Holy Trinity rather than the South Gate.
The Long Room was used by the debtors for exercise, there being no courtyard. There were nine other rooms that could be let out by the jailer according to the debtors ability to pay. Jenkins reported that the room called the Shoe had formerly been a chapel as the remnants of the Ten Commandments, painted on the wall, could still be seen. He also believed that the debtors were sometimes allowed access to the tops of the towers, "which command a fine prospect", so they could enjoy some of the fresh air.
The felons had a much worse time of it. Neild stated that "on the side opposite of the Gaoler's apartments are the three wards appropriated to the felons, dark, dirty and offensive; - we went into them with lighted candles: they have no chimney for ventilation; no courtyard belonging to them; nor water, except what was brought by the Keeper". There were three cells, two for men and one for women, located in the western side of the gatehouse. Jenkins related that these cells were all on the ground floor and "from their damp situation, and darkness, may not improperly be termed dungeons". The presence of an open sewer flowing from nearby Southernhay didn't add much to the comfort of those unfortunate enough to be imprisoned there. The largest felon cell was just over 12ft high, 18ft wide and 11ft deep. Above these cells were two day rooms with fireplaces accessed from below via a trap door. Jenkins wrote that John Howard, the 18th century prison reformer, believed that the South Gate prison was one of the "most unwholesome and dismal places of confinement" in England.
In June 1818 the foundation stone for a new 'House of Correction' was laid by the mayor at Northernhay where the Rougemont Hotel now stands. According to the 'Exeter Flying Post', the mayor declared that the construction of the new prison would take approximately 12 months "when the completion of their labours would be the destruction of a building which has long outraged humanity, and disgraced the city of Exeter". It's likely that the gatehouse would've been removed irrespective of the presence of the prison itself.
All of the city's other medieval gatehouse had already been removed for street improvements and the South Gate was the last one to go. Exactly one year later, in June 1819, an advertisement right appeared in the 'Exeter Flying Post' announcing the sale of building material from the South Gate, comprising bricks, stone, woodwork, floor joists as well as doors, windows and slate and lead from the roof. Parts of the South Gate must still exist in Exeter, spread around the city in various houses. (Old beams from 17th century houses demolished outside the South Gate in the 1970s were reused in a similar way e.g. at a house in Sylvan Road, Pennsylvannia.) The priest's house of Holy Trinity was demolished, along with the church, at the same time.
As with the slum clearances at the beginning of the 20th century, although the philanthropic sentiment can't be faulted it's impossible not to regret the demolition of the South Gate. As Hoskins wrote, "it's a vast pity that this magnificent gateway, one of the most impressive things of its kind in England, should have been destroyed like this and not by-passed as it could easily have been. Through this gateway many kings of England had passed from William the Conqueror onwards: it ranked with the cathedral, the castle, and the guildhall, as one of the grandest monuments to the Middle Ages in Exeter". The only city gatehouse left in England that was similar to the South Gate at Exeter is probably the surviving West Gate at Canterbury (the many surviving medieval gatehouses in York are of a quite different design).
The site today is marked by a late 19th century bronze plaque. The footprint of one of the square Roman towers and one of the early 15th century drum towers is marked out on the pavement in brick, highlighted in purple and red on the aerial view above left. Unfortunately the approach to the gate, an area that survived the Exeter Blitz of 1942 and which contained many historically interesting properties from the 17th and 18th centuries, has been totally spoilt by the construction of the inner bypass in the 1960s and 1970s. But that's a whole different story.