History of medieval York

York at the close of the Middle Ages

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This map is based on one of the series produced by John Speed in the early seventeenth century.


The Abbey of St. Mary
St. Mary's became the wealthiest and most influential Benedictine house in northern England. Its origins can be traced back to a gift by Count Alan of Brittany, prior to 1086, of St. Olave's Church and some nearby land to monks displaced from Whitby and Lastingham. William Rufus enlarged the site in 1088 and construction of the abbey began the following year. As can be seen from Speed's map, the abbey precinct grew to cover a sizable area on the west side of the city: when walled in stone in 1334 (except for the wall on the Ouse side, set back from the river's edge, which was completed in 1354) about 12 acres of land were enclosed; the main gate faced away from the city, onto Marygate – Speed shows the large gatehouse, which accommodated the abbey court, although the monastic church which stood in the centre of the precinct has disappeared. Rufus' charter to the abbey granted the monks and their tenants exemption from the jurisdiction of external authorities, thus creating an enclave beyond the control of city or shire authorities and setting the stage for rivalry, disputes and bitterness.
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Holy Trinity priory
The priory occupied a site of roughly 7 acres at the southern end of the city. It is believed to have been the successor to a pre-Conquest house of canons which had dwindled to almost nothing. The re-foundation in 1089 was the work of Ralph Paynell and took the form of an alien priory of Benedictines, subject to the French abby of Marmoutier; many of the properties with which Paynell endowed it had belonged to the earlier house of canons. As a alien priory, it was looked on with suspicion during the Hundred Years War and charges of harbouring spies and sending supplies to the enemy were flung at it. There were occasionally disturbances aimed at it. Nonetheless it survived the suppression of alien priories in the early 15th century and successfully petitioned for naturalization in 1426, thereafter having the effective status of an abbey, free from any foreign jurisdiction. During the reign of Henry VI it took over responsibility for the hospital of St. Nicholas in the suburbs. It was dissolved in 1538.


Cathedral precinct
The dedication of the cathedral was to St. Peter.
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A Norman motte-and-bailey ortification on the site of the present Clifford's Tower (named, in the late 16th century, possibly after someone hanged there or possibly for one of the castellans), built in 1068, rebuilt on an enlarged motte after being destroyed in the anti-Jewish riot of 1190, blown down in a gale in 1228, and gradually rebuilt in stone between about 1245 and 1270. The outer wall of the castle perimeter enclosed not only the motte-and-bailey but halls and other buildings. Damming of the Foss created an additional defence on the outer perimeter, in the form of a lake. Uses of the castle included:

  • as a fortress (although after 1190 it never experienced a siege);
  • for housing the courts and departments of the royal government, when that was based in York for periods during the campaigns against the Scots in the early 14th century;
  • as the location where circuit and county courts were convened;
  • as the base for shrieval administration;
  • as the county gaol.
The castle was a separate jurisdiction ("liberty") from the city, although the precise boundaries of that jurisdiction were a matter of dispute between the city authorities and Yorkshire's sheriff.
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Clifford's Tower
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Common Hall
A "common hall" is heard of by 1256, although its location was not identified. It is only speculation whether this might have been the hansehouse (i.e. gild hall) whose existence is inferred from a charter of 1154, in which the archbishop granted the burgesses of Beverley the same privileges as York. The connection of a community building with the present Guildhall site is evidenced only from 1378. This hall was capable of hosting large civic assemblies, and is presumed to be the predecessor of the Guildhall which represents a 15th-century renovation and enlargement. In 1445 there was an agreement between the city authorities and St. Christopher's Gild to share the costs of such a project; the gild's recompense was a gift of city-owned land nearby, on which it built a chapel and maison dieu, and the right to use the Guildhall during the 10 days surrounding the festival of St. James. Construction was underway during the 1446/47 fiscal year and sufficiently advanced to allow a council meeting to be held there in 1459. The great hall was the building's main feature, and was the location of mayoral elections and discussion of important business which required the presence of community representatives; a chamber at the west end was used for the council to meet in private. The present Guildhall is a reconstruction necessitated by damage to the original during the Second World War.
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The Thursday Market was the principal site for the retailing of foodstuffs; retailing could begin there at 5.00 a.m. in summer, 7.00 a.m. in winter. The market was supervised by a warden and by the fifteenth century that officer was farming revenues due the city from the market (e.g. stallage). The warden had to police city regulations regarding trading, such as the prohibitions against regrating and selling goods in private places. In 1421 John Brathwayt's widow Mary gave £13.6s.8d towards the construction of a new stone cross in the Thursday Market, as a work of charity for the benefit of the souls of herself and her late husband. She was very explicit that the money could only be applied to that purpose.
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The Shambles
Parts of this butcher's market were also known as Haymongergate and Nedlergate during the Middle Ages.
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St. Leonard's Hospital
Tradition has it that the hospital's origins lay in the canons' responsibility for the welfare of the poor servants of the cathedral, to which King Athelstan gave support in 936 by requiring every plough operating in the diocese of York to contribute 20 sheaves of corn as alms towards this effort. A small hospital was then built on royal land west of the cathedral and given the same dedication as the cathedral. In 1246 an inquisition jury attributed the foundation to the Conqueror and identified the recipients of hospitality as the poor, sick and infirm who had no homes but slept in the streets at night. The next generation credited Rufus with the foundation. William Rufus' actual role seems instead to have been to move the hospital a little further west. Stephen constructed on the growing site a church dedicated to St. Leonard, and the hospital was henceforth known by that name.

From later evidence it appears that the charitable functions of the hospital were to distribute daily alms at its gates to 30 poor people, give alms to prisoners in the city and to leper houses, and maintain 206 sick poor folk within the hospital until they had convalesced sufficiently to be able to return to work. The hospital was staffed by 13 brethren and 8 sisters (who had special responsibility for tending to the sick and poor) pursuing a quasi-monastic lifestyle, involving chastity and renunciation of worldly goods; those with an aptitude for learning were placed in theological schools in York. Beds in the hospital might be endowed by private benefaction, with benefactors (or their heirs) nominating persons to be maintained by the hospital. In the building housing the infirmary, whose chapel still survives as a ruin, the lower floor was allocated to nursing exposed infants and looking after orphans and poor children; it was required that the chimney here function well, to avoid the children being harmed by smoke.

The extensive lands accumulated by the hospital were carefully cultivated and their crops, along with the sheaf-alms, sold to finance the hospital's work. However, this income proved increasingly insufficient to support needs – despite master and brethren being exhorted to avoid unnecessary expenses and forbidden to sell or pledge books, chalices, or vestments from the church – and the number of residents had declined by the early 14th century. By the end of the century, due partly to mismanagement by the masters of the hospital, as well as delinquency on the part of many in paying the sheaf-alms, the hospital was in rough shape. Fire had destroyed the church's bell-tower, and the roofs of the infirmary and dormitory badly needed repair, as did other buildings of the hospital, its manors, and the rentable properties it owned in town. The foundation alms had been pilfered and church ornaments and vestments pawned to pay the hospital's debts, while the masters' personal household had run up high expenses. The hospital's debt was £543. Despite this, the hospital managed to survive until the Dissolution.

The hospital precinct, which occupied a site of 4 acres with one gateway opening onto the road to the east and another accessing a lane running south to St. Leonard's Landing on the river, was one of the special "liberties" within the city; it was and home not only to monks but also to laymen who might have trade privileges without the accompanying civic or gild obligations. This was inevitably resented by the citizens and the brethren of the hospital at times found themselves unpopular. In 1482 the cappers gild ordered that none of its members contract out work to anyone in St. Leonards' (or other liberties), because the gild had no authority to resolve any problems that might arise between master and worker. The location of the hospital grounds against part of the city walls meant that it was responsible for upkeep of that part of the walls, another likely bone of contention.
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The Multangular Tower at the south-west corner of the precinct was part of the original Roman defences and marks the south-west corner of the castra.


This was one of the major highways within the city, an important street connecting the Minster with the heart of the city; civic processions to the Minster would follow that route. Many of the houses in Stonegate belonged to the church. They included shops where theological or school books were sold, as well as shops of goldsmiths (who also did a lot of business with the church). The origin and meaning of the name are debated. It seems doubtful that it could have any bearing on a paved Roman road, which would have largely disappeared by the time when the Viking "gate" was applied. Possibly it was associated with a stone entrance to the Roman city, situated at the bottom of Stonegate, which is more likely to have survived to the 10th century.
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Bootham Bar
On, or very near, the site of one of the entrances into the Roman settlement (it even being possible that some Roman material was incorporated in the structure), this was the major entrance into the city from the north. Parts of the structure can be dated back to the 11th century. The Norse derivation of the name suggests that already before the Conquest there may have been a street market whose booths clustered just beyond the gateway.
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Monk Bar
The most elaborate of the surviving medieval city gates, Monk Bar is also the highest (four storeys, with the topmost being a 15th century addition). It was constructed in the early 14th century and was equipped with portcullis; it had a barbican which was removed in the 19th century. There is no evidence for a gate here before the 14th century, but perhaps there was some minor access way through the walls for the monks attached to the cathedral.


Walmgate Bar (not seen on this map)
First mentioned in the mid-12th century, when likely a wooden gate guarding an entrance through earthern fortifications, its lower section of stone may date to 1215, when a new ditch was dug around the eastern sector of the city. However, the present structure was largely part of the initiative to wall the city with stone in the 14th century.
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Fishergate Bar
This "bar" was in fact only a small postern gate beside one of the defensive towers in the wall, which might explain why it receives no mention in any early city documents. It probably had no superstructure during the Middle Ages. The present-day tower is an early 16th century replacement.


Layerthorpe gate
This is generally interpreted as another postern gate, of lesser significance than the principal bars of the city, although it too was referred to as a bar in the Middle Ages, and had iron-bound doors. Nonetheless, it was a public entrance, at the city end of the bridge to Layerthorpe (which at one time would have been a village independent of York, until absorbed as the suburbs expanded) and its arch over the roadway was large enough for wagons to pass underneath; it was a location for toll collection. By the beginning of the 15th century, there was a hospital (maison dieu) atop it. When the bridge was built is uncertain, but possibly not until the beginning of the Late Middle Ages; it was in existence by 1309, but there is slight evidence that a ford may have been there earlier.


Micklegate Bar
As the entrance into the city from the south, this was the most important of the city gates. Its importance is reflected in the fact that, in a list of leading townsmen to whom the keys of the various gates were entrusted for safekeeping in 1380, the keys to Micklegate were kept by the mayor himself; but this was during a time of political strife in the city, and it was more commonly sergeants or gatekeepers who kept the keys. It was usually through Micklegate Bar that kings entered the city and were there greeted with ceremony by mayor, council, and citizens. The present structure is three storeys high. The original gate was built in the early 12th century, the archway still showing Norman influence; in the 14th century it was heightened to accommodate a portcullis, and a barbican was added (removed in the 19th century).
"Mickle" means "much" and Micklegate might today be interpreted as High Street, Micklegate being the major route through the section of the city on the west side of the Ouse. However, the gate does not lie on the route of the Roman road that had headed south out of the city, but rather on what was probably a post-Roman track.


Ouse Bridge
A Roman bridge crossing the Ouse was upstream from the site of the medieval bridge. There may, however, have been a wooden bridge on or near the medieval site in the time of the Vikings, connecting the area of Roman settlement and Scandinavian suburb with an extension of the settlement across the river. A stone bridge is first referred to in the late 12th century. Along the river on either side of the bridge, on both sides but particularly the eastern bank, were the staiths where ships loaded and unloaded cargoes. A little further east of the staith at which cargoes of fish were supposed to be unloaded stood the church of St. Michael, whose Vespers bell marked the close of activities in the Thursday Market not far off.

It was atop the west end of this bridge, on the north side, that sat a building housing the city council chamber; the room in which mayor and council conducted their discussions of civic business was on the upper floor, while the bureaucratic administration had its desks on the lower floor; the treasury and the prisons (often called kidcotes) associated with mayor's and sheriffs' courts were also here, or nearby. A city rental of 1376 refers to 36 shops and 5 tenements on, or at the end of, Ouse bridge. They included at least one house "overhanging the river" and the chapel of St. William, also on the north side at the west end; by mid-15th century the chapel housed the city clock. Opposite the chapel, on the south side of the bridge, was a small hospital – one of several in the city called a maison dieu – sheltering poor men and women. It was said to have been founded by the citizens in ancient times and endowed with lands and rents for the support of the poor and lepers; many citizens falling on hard times were given a home there, but neglect and mismanagement had led to its decline. This was the defence made by a group of citizens accused, in 1305, of illegally forming a gild a few years earlier; they explained that their fraternity was for the purpose of refounding the charitable hospital. Public latrines were, from 1367, situated within a (dry) arch of the bridge near the hospital. Also near the hospital was the Tollbooth, an earlier base for civic officials: some financial administration is documented as taking place there, and it may have been the earliest meeting-space for officials.

Each of the two major bridges within the city had a pair of wardens, city employees, in charge of it. They were responsible for levying and accounting for revenues associated with the bridges, such as rents from the properties built on or in the neighbourhood of the bridges. A tollbooth situated at the west end of the bridge, near the hospital, was presumably used for collecting customs and tolls of passage, although there is reference to a building of that name associated with the hearing of pleas. The bridge encompassed six arches, but it was probably only the two central that accommodated vessels plying the river. The city was in a long contest with St. Mary's Abbey to ensure ships could move freely along the Ouse. As well, the bridge wardens were responsible for arranging maintenance work on the bridges and any civic buildings associated with them, dealt with some expenses related to the chapels (and the chapels' various chantries, founded by private citizens) on the bridges.

Such was the burden of all these buildings to the bridge that frequent repair was necessary, notably in 1307 and 1377, while several grants of pontage were made by the king in support of repair work in the early 15th century. In the 16th century the bridge collapsed due to its deterioration and the weight of the buildings.


Foss Bridge
The earliest reference to a bridge at the end of Fossgate was ca.1145/48; doubtless it was made of wood at that time. Rebuilding in stone occurred in the early 15th century, although it is not impossible the structure replaced was also of stone. Like the Ouse bridge, the bridge over the Foss had numerous shops and other buildings atop it and retail stalls were also set up on the bridge. The buildings included a chapel dedicated to St. Anne, whose chaplain received his salary from the city. The west end of the pond which formed after damming, and served as a royal fishery, is seen at the right edge of the map, but the larger part of the pond is not seen in this edited version of Speed's original (which showed the entire pond). The king's interests in the fishery were represented by an officer who was probably based at the Foss Bridge. The bridge was the site of the market in saltwater fish, mentioned as early as 1253; consequently a number of those living near to the bridge were fishmongers.


Merchant Adventurers' Hall
Some of York's wealthier citizens formed the Gild of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin in the 1350s; after obtaining royal approval in 1357, they had a hall built for themselves in Fossgate, probably completed by 1361, apparently with the intent of founding a hospital there. What became of this plan and the gild is not certain, but by 1420 the property was in the hands of the mercers gild (itself dedicated to the Holy Trinity) which seems never to have been subject to any city regulations, in contrast to most trades, but instead received a royal charter of incorporation in 1430. In the 16th century this became the Merchant Adventurers which, like its more famous London counterpart, played a major role in controlling foreign trade.

This is one of the most impressive examples of a timber-framed gildhall (with brick undercroft) to survive today,. The upper floor was the great hall where gild members met. On the lower level was a charitable hospital (for pensioners of the gild) and chapel – the charter of 1430 having granted the right to hold real estate worth up to £10 annually, from the revenues of which the gild would support impoverished or needy members and pay the salary of a chaplain.
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Old Baile
The Conqueror had two castles built in York, one in 1068 the other in 1069. Although not all are in agreement, it is generally felt the castle on the west bank of the Ouse was the younger. It had acquired the epithet "old" attached to "bailey" by 1268. By 1308 it is found in the hands of the Archbishop of York, and this transfer may have taken place as early as ca.1194. What he used it for is uncertain; one suggested use has been a prison for criminal clerics. In 1423 the city was suing the archbishop for failing to keep in good repair the section of the city wall that was part of the Old Baile perimeter; this was one episode in a recurring argument over who was responsible for defence in that sector of the city. Finally, possibly in 1464 (but certainly by 1487), the archbishop handed over the castle to the city. By Speed's time only some of the earthworks, and the outer defence that was part of the city wall, survived.
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Carmelite friary
The Carmelites established themselves York in the early 1250s, their first residence in fact being in Bootham (outside the walls). They acquired ca.1295 a new site in St. Saviour's parish, they moved into this over the next few years – a church was under construction in 1300 and its cemetary was consecrated in 1304 – coming to terms with the parish rector and St. Saviour's patron (St. Mary's Abbey) concerning tithes, burial rights and other mutual concerns. About two dozen friars belonged to the house at this time. In 1314 they obtained two grants from the king. The first was permission to alienate in mortmain their previous home to the Dean of York (who used it to found the hospital of St. Mary), while the second was permission to build a quay on the king's fishpond in the Foss, for the purpose of transporting necessaries to the friary by water.

The precise extent of the friary site is not certain, and expanded over time (into Holy Cross parish, for example); but part of the boundary was opposite St. Saviour's (on Hungate) and part on Fossgate, with the initial frontage probably facing onto Stonebow, a narrow passage connecting Fossgate and Hungate, although there was by mid-14th century a gateway onto Fossgate itself. The church itself stood in the northern section of this precinct. By the close of the century they had acquired enough adjacent land that they undertook an expansion of their church. The friary was dissolved in 1538.
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Franciscan friary
The Franciscans, or Friars Minor, came to York ca.1230; their first custodian had been personally associated with Francis of Assisi. This house became the head of one of the Franciscan administrative areas into which the English province was divided. The original site proved too small and ca.1243 they moved to a permanent location south of the castle, in the parish of St. Mary Castlegate. The king helped finance the original construction, although the church was rebuilt at the end of the 13th century. The same century saw adjacent properties acquired to expand the precinct; this included a number of houses in Castlegate, part of a street and one entire lane, and a section of the castle ditch.

The extent of the Franciscan precinct, which was walled (except on the south-eastern boundary, where the city wall itself served) is clearly indicated on Speed's map; the road on the west side was named Friargate, although the precinct did not extend quite as far as that road. The site ran southwards to the north bank of the Ouse – friars and monks liked to have access to a water supply – and there, ca.1290, the friars had a wall built; since this deflected the current to the south bank and threatened Skeldergate with flooding, the citizens had to obtain the king's permission (1305) to build a wall along the south bank as well, using money from murage. In 1299 the community of friars numbered 52. The importance of the friary, or perhaps of its proximity to the castle, is reflected in the fact that Edward II, Edward III and Richard II all lodged there when visiting York. The friary even had sanctuary privileges. It was dissolved in 1538.

A city ordinance of 1371 prohibited the dumping of offal into, and the cleaning of skins in, that part of the Ouse between its bridge and the friars' property, since water was taken from that part of the river for brewing and baking. Possibly the friars themselves were complainants, for in 1380 the king had to order that they not be inconvenienced by butchers dumping offal in the Ouse or in lanes by the friary. It again may have been partly for the friars' benefit that there was a postern gate in the small stretch of city wall below the castle, next to the friary.
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Dominican friary
In 1226 Henry III instructed some of his justices to consult with the mayor and leading citizens on a suitable site for the Dominicans. The recommendation was returned for a chapel of St. Mary Magdalene, with land behind it, in Kingstoft, on the south bank of the Ouse just within the city ditch. By the close of the following year, the friars had begun to wall in this property. They may previously have resided in Goodramgate, for they turned over a building there to the archbishop. Construction of the friary was going on until mid-century, and expansion of the precinct until at least the close of the century, although this was blocked on the southeastern side because the secular authorities did not want to give up land (Toft Green) which was needed for holding arrays of arms, trials by battle, and construction of military engines for defending the city; the green was also the site of horse and cattle fairs. Friary gateways opened onto the green and towards the Ouse. The precise boundaries of the friary are unknown, but at the Dissolution it occupied only 1 acre of land.

This was an important house for the Dominicans; provincial chapters were often held there during the later 13th and 14th centuries. The number of friars during the first half of the 14th century fluctuated between 47 and 60. It may be that the reformer John Wycliffe was one of their number in the 1350s, for there were acolytes of that name at the friary. The friary was destroyed by fire ca.1455 and a rebuilding effort was undertaken, supported by an indulgence proclaimed by the archbishop. The friary was dissolved in 1538.
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Augustinian friary
According to tradition, the Augustinians relocated from Tickhill to York, where they bought seven houses as the basis for a friary. Certainly they had established themselves in York by 1272. Their friary was in the south-west section of the city on a confined site (about 2 acres) north of the Ouse; it lay between present-day Lendal Street and the river, bounded on the west by the lane leading from St. Leonard's to a landing-place on the riverbank (just east of the present Lendal Bridge) and on the east by the lane next to the Common Hall. The walled precinct had its main gate opening onto Lendal Street. In 1300 it housed 35 friars. A catalogue of its library survives from 1372, listing 646 items. The friary was dissolved in 1538.
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Created: December 28, 1999. Last update: March 18, 2015 © Stephen Alsford, 1999-2015