Aldgate, Chaucer, and literary history

Aldgate 1609
A 17-century engraving of Aldgate

Our last post was about Pardoner Street, named for one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrim; following the Chaucer theme today let’s take a look at Aldgate. A lease of 1374 granted the whole of the house above the gate of Aldgate to the Chaucer, and he lived there while he carried out his duties as a customs official.

Aldgate was one of the original Roman gates set into London Wall (which also survives as a street name); the others are Ludgate, Newgate, Cripplegate, and Bishopsgate, along with the later additions of Aldersgate and Moorgate.

The derivation of the name Aldgate has been much contended. In the 17th century John Stow maintained that it was ‘old gate’ from Aeld Gate, but later historians claim that pre-15th century documents show the name without a ‘d’.

With that letter missing, suggestions for alternative derivations include Ale Gate, presumably where there may have been an ale house; and All Gate, meaning that the gate was open to all. It was also considered to have been once called Aest Gate, or ‘east gate’ as it was the easternmost of London Wall’s gates.

The gates were all taken down between 1760 and 1762; Aldgate was bought by Ebenezeer Mussell who rebuilt it on the north side of his mansion, which he then renamed Aldgate House. Mussell, described by 19th century historian and author Walter Thornbury as a “zealous antiquary”, also had a bas-relief on the south front of his house, carved from Wat Tyler’s tree, an old oak that once grew on Bow Common and had been carved to adorn the old City gate.

Phyllis WheatleyIn 1773, Boston publishers were unwilling to produce the book Poems on various subjects, religious and moral by African-American Phillis Wheatley, so it was printed by a bookseller in Aldgate. This made Wheatley the first African-American woman to have her work published.

Wheatley, who purchased at the age of by the wealthy John Wheatley of Boston, was named after the ship on which she had been taken to America. The Wheatley family encouraged her in her education and poetry writing and, in 1778, she was legally freed from slavery by John Wheatley’s will.

Unfortunately, her emancipation left her unexperienced in domestic work, into which she was forced following the imprisonment for debt of her husband John Peters. She died shortly afterwards, closely followed by her baby son.

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