Oxford History: City Wall


The Smith Gate and its Chapel

Smith Gate

Smith Gate

This gate stood just to the north of New College Lane, where Catte Street then came to an end. (The north end of the present Catte Street was then outside the city, and until the twentieth century was regarded as the east side of Broad Street.) This gate was little more than a postern, and was removed between 1661 and 1675.

Agas' map of 1575 showing Smith Gate

Right: Detail from Agas's map of 1575 showing the small Smith Gate in the centre foreground, with “Ladies Chapel” (the octagonal chapel built into the city wall) to the right.

Hart Hall is behind the gate, with a street in front called St John's Street that no longer exists

Anthony Wood described how a removable locked post at the Smith Gate put up by the Vice-Chancellor of the University to protect the Schools from heavy carriages was regularly pulled down by the city chamberlains in the 1650s:

In Convocation, W., 5 May 1658, it was stated that the passage at Smith Gate was so narrow till 1643 that carts could not pass, and therefore 'twas ordered by the king and lords of counsell that a house belnging to one John Treder should be pulled downe: that, being so enlarged there was a post with a lock to it to put up and downe according to pleasure to prevent it from being a common thoroughfare; but, when Oxon was a garrison in 1643 and after, that post was commanded to be taken away and so to have it free for commers and goers: this post continuing so taken away till 1652, Dr. [Daniel] Greenwood, vicechancellor, commanded it to be put up againe to keep out heavy carriages from going through Cat Street to the end that the foundation of the schooles might be preserved: which post continuing so up till 26 Apr., M., 1658, the chamberlaynes [of the City] with workmen (as they did several stones and posts to divide the foot from the horseway) plucked downe: and being set up againe by the vicechancellor, were plucked downe a second time, notwithstanding the care and government of the streets belong to the chancellour.—But this buisness being referred to the Convocation, W., 5 May 1658, they caused the post to be set up, and so it continues.

The Chapel of Our Lady at Smith Gate

This was a small octagonal chapel, formed out of a tower of the city wall. Later known as the Octagonal or Round House, it was already a private house in 1582, and a shop by 1708. In the nineteenth century it was numbered 29 Broad Street. The old chapel remained a shop for a number of years even after 1902, when it was incorporated into Hertford College’s new north quadrangle.

In 1931 it was altered to create Hertford’s junior common room, shown below viewed from Catte Street.

Outside of former octagonal chapel

Below: The inside of the former chapel, viewed from Hertford College’s quadrangle
Inside of former octagonal chapel

At a meeting of the Oxford Architectural and Historical Society reported in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 2 March 1889, the architect Edward George Bruton gave a paper entitled “The Town Walls of Oxford in the Thirteenth Century” and put forward his view on the octagonal chapel:

I am forced to the conclusion that the Ladie Chapel was not only outside the wall as shown by Agas, but was also outside the moat. Agas does not show any moat round the town walls; it had probably been filled in before his time. I am very much afraid that you will think I am treading upon dangerous ground, while some will regard my opinion as little short of rank heresy. Wood, speaking of our Lady's Chap[el, says, “it stood within the wall adjoining, or north of Smith gate opposite to cat-street, a stone rotund edifice.” The words “within the wall adjoining” have been held to mean the town or city wall. I submit the words are not, necessarily, to be so interpreted. The wall adjoining may merely mean that it had an enclosure of its own, as we are distinctly informed by the author, it was “on the North of Smith gate and opposite to Cat-street. Smith gate must, therefore, have been to the south of it, the consequential result being that it was outside the moat which separated the chapel from the gate. I have made enquiries of those under whose direction the surface water drain which runs from Broad-street to Cat street was laid only a few years ago, and the result exactly confirms my theory. In the excavation they crossed two walls – the one adjoining the Lady Chapel was of moderate substance and strength, while the other, which was found in the position indicated on my copy of the Ordnance Map, was much broader, and of so much greater strength, that it presented much greater resistance to the tools of the workmen.

The above article was accompanied by this drawing by Bruton:

Bruton drawing

The wall between Smith Gate and East Gate

The wall then went north for a short distance before turning to the east. Between Smith Gate and the East Gate the wall was (uniquely in England) double, but very little remains of the outer wall. The inner wall, however, is almost intact in a long section through New College.

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© Stephanie Jenkins

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