Newcastle Castle: The Black Gate

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Black Gate just after restoration when it opened as a museum.

Built between 1247 and 1250 during the reign of King Henry III, The Black Gate was the last addition to the medieval Castle defences. Consisting of an arched passage, with what are thought to be guard chambers on either side it was the gatehouse of the barbican, a walled, defensive entrance passage for the Castle’s North Gate. The gatehouse could be sealed by a portcullis (latticed grille or gate made of wood, metal or a combination). Mounted in vertical grooves in the walls that are still visible today it could be raised or lowered quickly by means of chains or ropes attached to an internal winch. The narrowness of the barbican passage and its angle to the rest of the Castle wall meant that attackers were restricted in their means of attack, and were left exposed to fire from the Castle’s defenders.

At the front of the gate was a drawbridge with a turning bridge at the rear. Both have since been replaced with wooden footbridges. These bridges could be closed quickly using counterweights.

Due to its continuous occupancy and alteration from the 17th century right up until the present day very little remains of the medieval layout within the Black Gate, except the vaulted chambers thought to have been guardrooms.

One aspect of the Black Gate which remains a mystery is its height. The present top two floors, roof and additional arch over the passage were added by Alexander Stephenson in the 17th century. Stephenson leased the Castle in 1619 including the Black Gate (with the exception of The Keep, Moot Hall and gaoler’s house), from King James I and turned the Black Gate into a house.

Early to mid 19th century when the Black Gate and surrounding area had become one of the poorest areas of the town.

Early to mid 19th century when the Black Gate and surrounding area had become one of the poorest areas of the town.

After this period upper parts of the Black Gate were extensively remodelled to give the building its present appearance. Much of this work can be attributed to John Pickell whose name and the date 1636 appear on a stone high up on the south side of the building. Pickell used the Black Gate as a tavern. 

Popularly thought to describe its appearance, the name ‘Black Gate’ derives from Patrick Black, a London merchant who occupied the building in the first half of the 17th century.

By the early 19th century, the immediate neighbourhood around the Black Gate had become one of the poorest of the town and the building itself was a rabbit warren of slum dwellings. In 1856 there was a proposal to demolish the building on the grounds that it was classed as ‘a great nuisance’. The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne leased the Black Gate from the Corporation in 1883 to convert it into a museum. Over the next two years the Society of Antiquaries restored the gatehouse and it served as a museum until 1959. The Society continued to occupy it until 2009, using the gatehouse as a meeting place and library.