Henry VIII Gate

The magnificent Henry VIII Gate, facing north onto the open space of Smithfield, was built in 1702. Long before this date, the main entrance to the hospital precinct was on this site, and it is possible that it was located there as early as the 12th century.

In August 1701, the Board of Governors gave instructions for the north gate to be rebuilt and flanked with tenements at higher rents to replace those already on site. In March 1702, the Governors’ minute book recorded an agreement ‘with Edward Strong junior, mason, to erect and build the front of this hospital’s north gate in Smithfield with Purbeck stone, according to the model drawn by the said Edward Strong . . . for the sum of £550’.

Edward Strong came from a notable family of stonemasons; his uncle had been Chief Mason to Sir Christopher Wren, and he himself had worked under Wren at St Paul’s Cathedral. The building work was completed in the late spring of 1703, but the cost proved to be considerably higher than the original estimate: £1493 had already been spent by Michaelmas 1702, and a further £1320 was spent before the Gate and adjoining houses were finished. A clock to adorn the facade of the Gate was made by Richard Horton in 1702.

Above the archway stands a statue of King Henry VIII; the only such statue in a public place in London. The statue is the work of the sculptor Francis Bird and is contemporary with the Gate; the King’s crown and sceptre were made in 1987 by John Sambrook, the crown replacing a decayed Victorian one. Above the King are two further sculptures, one holding a crutch, the other with his right arm in a sling. These are thought to be allegorical figures of Lameness and Disease.

The inscription on the Gate reads ‘St Bartholomew’s Hospital, founded by Rahere anno 1102, refounded by K. Henry VIII 1546. This front was rebuilt anno 1702 in the first year of Queen Anne; Sir Wm. Prichard K[nigh]t and Alder[man], President; John Nicholl Esq., Treasurer’. The date ‘1102’ is an error, for the hospital was actually founded in 1123. John Stow’s Survey of London, first published in 1598, wrongly stated that St Bartholomew’s Hospital was established in 1102, and the mistake gained wide circulation; as late as the 1840s an inscription was placed on what is now Lucas Block, giving Stow’s date for the founding of the hospital instead of the correct one.

In 1833-4 the Gate was substantially reconstructed. The 18th-century facade overlooking West Smithfield remained unaltered, but the houses immediately adjoining the Gate were demolished, and ground and first floor rooms were added on either side of the central arch. The rear of the Gate was re-modelled and faced with stone at the same time.

The Gate has had many uses. In 1834, it was employed as a residence for the house surgeons, and in the early 20th century the rooms were lived in by the hospital beadles and their families. More recently the Gate has been used as office accommodation. It was restored in 1969 and again in 1985-7 when a Civic Trust commendation was made for the restoration work.

Image courtesy of Barts Health NHS Trust Archives & Museums

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