Living in a fortified medieval stronghold: Inside The Broad Gate, Ludlow, a 13th armoured gatehouse that became a family home

The Broad Gate in Ludlow, Shropshire — the home of Sir Keith and Lady Thomas — is a 13th-century fortification that defined medieval Ludlow has been transformed into a Georgian townhouse. John Goodall examines its remarkable story and restoration, with photographs by Paul Highnam for Country Life.

As darkness fell on October 12, 1459, during the dynastic struggle familiarly known as the Wars of the Roses, the Duke of York and his followers found themselves trapped by a royalist army just to the south of Ludlow. Hopelessly outnumbered, the Duke’s force ‘stole away’ at about midnight — by the contemptuous report of The Rolls of Parliament — ‘leaving their standards and banners… and fled out of the town unarmed’. According to Gregory’s Chronicle, the triumphant royalist ‘gallants’ then poured into Ludlow and, having drunk their fill, ‘they full ungoodly smote out the heads of the pipes and hogsheads of wine, that men went wet-shod in wine, and then they robbed the town and bore away bedding, cloth and other stuff and defouled many women’.

Accounts of this brutal episode, known as the Rout of Ludford Bridge, offer no description of the town, but one surviving building must have figured prominently in the event. This is the medieval south gate of Ludlow, known as the Broad Gate, which overlooks the eponymous bridge of the rout. Certainly, it must have been through its narrow entrance passage — which still remains open to vehicular traffic today — that the fleeing Duke and the pursuing royalists entered Ludlow.

Fig 3: The back of the gate, which closes the view from the centre of town. North view of house. The Broad Gate, Ludlow, Shropshire. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

It’s doubtful, however, that those who passed through the Broad Gate in 1459 would immediately recognise the building today. Although the medieval form of the gatehouse with its flanking drum towers remains clearly legible, the whole has been absorbed picturesquely within the fabric of the town (Fig 2) and its upper stages redeveloped as a Georgian townhouse. The process of this architectural transformation, and the families involved in it, has been presented in an exemplary new history by the present owner, Lady Thomas. Her research provides the foundations for this short account of the building.

The Broad Gate was erected in the 13th century as one of the four main gates of the town. It forms the entrance to Broad Street, a wide thoroughfare that rises to one end of the medieval market area and the great parish church of St Laurence. The precise date of its construction is not clear, but ‘the men of Ludlow’ first received royal permission to raise money for town fortifications in 1233 and, in 1272, the gate is documented in the Assize Rolls as the scene of a murder: ‘Roger de la Haye and Henry le Mon together guarded the gate of the Brodestrete in the town of Ludlow, and, moved by contention, Henry killed Roger.’

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Fig 1: The garden of the Broad Gate extends along the line of the town wall to the west. Garden view of house. The Broad Gate, Ludlow, Shropshire. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

By this date, it’s likely that the architectural bones of the present gate — comprising a passage set between two towers, which project beyond the town wall — was in existence. Remarkably, the line of the wall walk seems to have been fossilised as a corridor, as the Broad Gate has expanded beyond its original footprint. In points of technical detail, including the form of the arrow loops, the design of the building has been compared to that of other 13th-century gate- houses, such as those erected in the 1280s to protect the town of Conwy.

As originally constructed, the rear of the building was closed in with timber walls and its internal floors were connected with a narrow stone stair, part of which survives. From about 1300, the gatehouse seems to have undergone various alterations, including the raising of the towers to create a third internal floor, the enlargement of the rear section of the building inside the town wall and the creation of a postern (to allow passage in and out of the town when the main gates were shut).

The Broad Gate was approached across the town ditch by a bridge that was initially constructed of timber and later of stone. Remains of the masonry bridge survive beneath the Wheatsheaf pub immediately in front of the eastern tower. Stone for the building and walls was probably quarried from the town ditch, which was about 25ft wide. The steeply sloping gate passage was closed by a heavy portcullis that dropped down within a massively moulded arch.

Fig 6: The spacious hall with its elegant staircase. The corridor to the left follows the line of the medieval wall walk. The Broad Gate, Ludlow, Shropshire. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

In the Middle Ages, town walls were an important mark of civic status and the gates were conventionally used both to enforce security and levy tolls. This latter activity was farmed out at the Broad Gate from at least 1482 until 1741. A door — now blocked — in the entrance passage was probably created to manage toll collection. It was also presumably within the lowest level of the east tower that a gaol briefly operated in the gate; in 1554, one chained prisoner called Massey escaped from it by burning down his cell door.

Concurrent with these civic uses, parts of the Broad Gate were also leased out by the town corporation. As the defensive function of the gate became less important — and when Ludlow itself enjoyed prosperity as the seat of the administration of Wales, with the president of the Council of the Marches in occupation of the castle — the upper floors of the gate underwent their first properly documented transformation. In February 1565, Edmund Walter, Chief Justice of South Wales, leased the property with the exception of the tower basements and agreed to pull down ‘all the timber work of the gate’ and rebuild the ‘overhouse’.

As part of this rebuilding work, Walter probably erected the three outward-facing gables over the gate and also the main chimney stacks, the bases of which are clearly Tudor. Soon afterwards, Walter also constructed a fine brick house on Broad Street immediately adjacent to the gate. The rebuilding of the gate must have been connected with this project, but it is not clear how.

Fig 5 : The drawing room amalgamates two former parlours. The Broad Gate, Ludlow, Shropshire. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

Over the next century the Broad Gate was leased in part or whole by a succession of owners, who used or occupied the building, and survived the upheavals of the Civil War. The next important stage in its development, however, followed the abolition of the Council of the Marches in 1689. This change was an economic disaster for Ludlow and condemned the castle — built by Walter de Lacy after the Norman Conquest — to ruin. It possibly saved the Broad Gate, however, because the townsfolk who might have viewed it as an obstruction — and would have provided the necessary money to demolish it — departed.

In 1693, a prosperous physician, John Stead, who had been involved in the affairs of the town for more than a decade, took out a lease not only on the Broad Gate, but also of a section of the neighbouring wall and ditch, creating a garden (Fig 1). By this means, the gate effectively became a genteel house. Parallels for such a conversion are hard to offer, although Esher Palace, Surrey, and Constable’s Gate, Dover Castle, Kent, underwent similar changes.

Fig 8: The kitchen occupies the position of its 18th-century predecessor. The range is set in the bow of the east tower. The Broad Gate, Ludlow, Shropshire. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

Three years later, Stead repaired the building with the help of a local plasterer, William Piper. Some details of the work are recorded in a law case fought over the settlement of Piper’s bill in the Court of Chancery in 1708. The evidence deposed refers to several interiors, including the study, hall, gallery, chamber, closet and parlour. It also makes mention of a fire in 1700, which presumably damaged much of what had been completed.

Further repairs evidently followed and, in 1705, Stead paid the window tax for 35 panes of glass. An impression of the house he owned, with its long, wall-top garden and stable — but reserving the basement of the east tower for what is now the Wheatsheaf pub — is provided by the renewed lease that he took out in 1724. The same year, he was described as living there with his wife, daughter and maid. He was almost immediately widowed, however, and, by 1726, the house had a new resident, the widow of a minor Shropshire gentry family, Joyce Sprott.

Madam Sprott died in 1732 and passed the property on to her son, another prosperous physician, Samuel, who lived at the Broad Gate alone until his marriage in 1745 to Mary Childe. It was probably at about the time of this match that the house was completely re-ordered once again. The circumstantial and stylistic evidence would strongly suggest that the Shrewsbury architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard (1723–77) was employed for the task. Whatever the case, the attempt to impose visual order on the asymmetry of the medieval building is successful enough to be eye-catching, yet sufficiently idiosyncratic to be charming as well.

The inner face of the Broad Gate was turned into a polite frontage with the front door and its curving steps set between the main block of the building and what reads externally as a subsidiary wing (Fig 3). The former is surmounted with battlements that step up to form a central pediment in a Gothic idiom. Set within it is a lead panel inscribed with interlaced Ss for Samuel Sprott. The Gothic flavour of the whole perfectly articulates the history of the building and its fashionable modern use.

Fig 7: A view of the dining room. The Broad Gate, Ludlow, Shropshire. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

Internally, the entertaining rooms, as well as the principal bedchambers and closets on the floor above, take advantage of the large windows on this side of the house (despite it facing north). There is a spacious stair hall (Fig 6) that gives direct access to a dining room (Fig 7) and what was originally a small parlour (subsequently enlarged as a drawing room) (Fig 5). A corridor next to the stair leads to the garden. Also opening off the hall were the domestic offices and kitchen, the range and ovens of the latter set in the curving internal volume of the medieval east tower (Fig 8). A brewhouse occupied the basement of the west tower.

The floor above preserves several striking 18th-century fixtures, including a painted fireplace overmantle (Fig 4) and closet or dressing room with a fitted desk. The shutter immediately beside it has a peep hole, making it possible to view activity on the street below. This was being improved at the same time as the construction of a handsome new terrace immediately next door in 1756.

In 1814, the Broad Gate was occupied by yet another widower, Henry Lloyd, a solicitor, and his family. At some point between 1824 and 1826, he reconfigured the building yet again to take advantage of the views towards Ludford Bridge by erecting an extension to the front of the medieval west tower as his legal chambers and what became a library. It may have been at about this time that a recess for displaying porcelain in the dining room was fitted with a fixed, but retractable serving table.

Fig 9: The upper landing of the main stair. Visible to either side are some of the bookcases installed by the current owners that fill every spare space within the house.
Stair landing, The Broad Gate, Ludlow, Shropshire. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

Several generations of the Lloyd family occupied the Broad Gate, but, in 1940, the last heirs, an unmarried brother and sister, decided to sell the property. In the event, only the contents sold and, in 1941, the empty building was requisitioned by the Army Pay Corps. In 1946, it was finally sold to Annie Richardson, who moved in with her husband and children and began to try to reverse the damage done by years of neglect and army occupation. The building proved too large for them, however, and, in the 1960s, they began to partition it up.

In 1991, the larger part house was bought by its present owners. Sir Keith Thomas is himself an eminent historian, but, in her recent book on the house, Lady Thomas demonstrates a formidable grasp of the same discipline. Between them, they have aimed to restore the Georgian character of the building, with a combination of careful collecting, repair and redecoration, and have furnished every free corner with books (Fig 9).

Fig 4: A bedroom with a naive 18th-century overmantle view of the towers of Ludlow Castle. Master bedroom,The Broad Gate, Ludlow, Shropshire. ©Paul Highnam for Country Life

One unusual challenge has been the problem of vehicle strikes; at one point, there was an accident on average once a month. A particularly disastrous strike in 2005 finally resulted in the installation of traffic calming and bollards. The change has restricted the traffic and reinforces the place of this exceptional house as a centrepiece of Ludlow.

‘The Broad Gate: A Ludlow House and its Inhabitants’ by Valerie Thomas is published by Left Field Editions (£25)