Now, Aldgate is an interesting one. As with Cripplegate, there’s some argument over where the name actually comes from. I’d originally assumed that it meant “old gate,” by contrast with “Newgate.” Actually, I wasn’t the only one to think this. In some ways it makes sense – I’ve come across an early version of the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ in which “old” rhymes with “Paul’s,” and of course the Scots dialect still uses “auld,” so by this logic “Old Gate” becoming “Aldgate” makes perfect sense.
Except it’s almost certainly wrong. It only became known as “Aldgate” in the 17th century – before that it was Algate, which rather blows the idea that “ald” = “old” out of the water.
Okay, so, what does it mean? Even eliminating that one, there’s some disagreement. The favoured explanation is that it means “all gate,” indicating that it was toll free – a useful piece of information to the traveller. The City itself is actually not very large, so one rather suspects that having travelled all the way up to London, a short detour to the free gate is peanuts by comparison.
A.D. Mills suggests it means “ale gate,” referring to a pub called the Saracen’s Head located just inside the walls that would have been a convenient refreshment point for travellers entering the city. This I’m not so sure about. I’d imagine that most, if not all of the gates had pubs near to them. Inns were very useful to the traveller. Not only would they provide food, drink and lodgings, but they were a useful meeting place. If you were out on the lawless open road, it was generally a good idea to stop off at a pub and join up with others heading in the same direction for the purposes of safety. This is famously described in the Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
Which brings me to perhaps Aldgate’s most notable resident – yes, he from the last paragraph (and the top of this entry), Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer’s day job from 1374 to 1386 was as Comptroller of Customs, a very prestigious post, and during this time he lived in an apartment above the Gate. It is almost certain that he was writing at this time – one can’t help wondering if the travellers passing beneath his window were perhaps a source of inspiration for the Canterbury Tales themselves. Was the Prioress an Essex girl?