Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Penrith Town Walls

Penrith Town Walls

Penrith was, during the 9th and 10th centuries, the capital of Cumbria....a semi-autonomous part of the country that paid homage to first the King of Scotland, and then the King of England. The town lies on a direct route from Scotland to England, and as such, was prone to attacks by the Scots. Most notably, in 1345, the Scottish army under Sir William Douglas, sacked the town. How much damage and the number of Penrithians killed in this attack is unknown. A few years later, a 3000 strong Scottish army raided Penrith again, clearing Inglewood Forest of all the live stock that could be found. By 1357, the situation was so bad, that the town of Penrith, and villages thereabouts, could no longer pay their rents to the King's agents. Luckily, Edward III sympathised with their perilous condition, and granted them unlimited rights of pasture in the forest of Ingelwood. A number of years prior to this, in 1346, a grant of murage was given to the people of Penrith. The grant gave a "licence for the good men of Penereth to crenellate their town." This licence was granted on the 10th of April in Westminster. The town's licence was renewed in again in 1391, most likely in response to a further raid by the Scots in 1389. Murage Grants were granted by the King, usually in response to a request, and gave those who received the grant, permission to raise and collect tolls to pay for the building or repairing of town walls and defences. However...it has to be remembered that documentary evidence of a grant, does not necessarily mean that a) the option to raise and collect tolls was carried out, and b) that the town walls or defences were built or repaired. This seems to be the case in Penrith. There's no evidence that the option to raise tolls and collect the dues was actually carried out, and there is certainly no evidence of any walls or earthwork defences being erected. Only street name evidence remains, with the survival of Middlegate, Borrowgate, Sandgate, Nethergate and Friargate. These streets form a rough and incomplete circuit around the centre of the town, encompassing St Andrews, but strangely missing the castle. M. W. Taylor, in his Old Manorial Halls of Westmorland and Cumberland, states that the circuit of narrow lanes, as named above, were probably built to resist attack and unwelcome entry by Scottish soldiers, using the gables of houses and some substantial walling. He goes onto say that some elements of the 'substantial walling' still exist, though having walked this rough circuit a number of times, I've been unable to find anything that looks vaguely medieval that would represent these walls.

 Above. Burrowgate.
144 metres in length. Runs from Middlegate to Sandgate, roughly West to East.

Above. Burrowgate from Middlegate. 

Above. Castlegate. 

313 metres in length. Runs from junction of Cromwell Road and Ullswater Road at its South West tip, to junction of Middlegate and King Street at its North Eastern tip.

Above. Castlegate, just around the corner from Penrith Castle. 

Above. Friargate (Friar Street)  

243 metres in length. Runs from junction of Benson Row and Folly Lane to the North, and the junction of Langton Street and Old London Road to the South.

Above. Friargate (Friar Street)

On an Ordnance Survey map of 1923, Friargate is shown as Friar Street, so can probably be ruled out of the search for Penrith's town walls. When, after 1923, the street became a gate, is unknown. Hutton Hall lays at the Northern tip of Friargate. This late 14th century tower may have formed part of the town's circuit of walls\defences, but it's difficult, if not impossible to say if it lay within, or without the town walls.

Above. Middlegate. 

261 metres in length. Runs from junction of Duke Street and Stricklandgate at its Northern tip, to junction of Castlegate and King Street at its Southern tip.

Above. Middlegate. 

Above. The wide open space of Sandgate. 
95 metres in length. Runs from the Eastern end of Burrowgate to the junction of Meeting House Lane and Benson Row at its North Eastern tip.

Above. Sandgate

The Penrith Town Trails leaflet tells us that Sandgate, the largest open space in Penrith, was once bounded on all sides by buildings, providing a protected space where livestock and people could safely congregate during an attack by the Scots. Quite where this story comes from, and how reliable it is, is impossible to say. 

The idea of a walled Penrith, obviously not as impressive as nearby Carlisle, is intriguing, and certainly deserving of more research and investigation.


Dennis Hodgson said...

Some interesting history here of which I was unaware, but also some inaccuracies:

1. Castlegate terminates at Great Dockray and does not connect to either Middlegate or King Street (Netherend).

2. Friargate terminates at Old London Road (Backhouse Bridge Road) and does not connect to Langton Street.

3. Middlegate does not connect to King Street. The two are separated by Devonshire Street and Market Square. I would also describe the northern end as starting from the junction of Brunswick Road (Scott Lane) and Duke Street. Middlegate and Stricklandgate would not have been contiguous, because they would have been separated by Thacka Beck.

Finally, there is the old canard, widely believed by locals, that the street names you describe indicate the one-time existence of gates. The reality is as follows: the Old Norse word gata and the Old English word geat both originally meant "a way through". In modern English, "gate" has come to mean "a way through a wall or fence". However, "gate" in street names in the north of England is not modern but reflects the Viking usage: "a way through a settlement", a thoroughfare or street. This cannot be taken as evidence that Penrith once had walls, especially as there is no physical evidence of such walls.

Philip Davis said...

It would seem most probable that the 'gate' street names are derived from gata. However this does not mean there were no gates in Penrith. Town gates, controlling access into a town, stopping wandering livestock and allowing for the collection of market taxes, were a known feature of several medieval towns although some may have been little more than large farm type gates.