Medieval York

England, York Guide (A): Medieval York

A walk inside the city walls introducing visitors to York's picturesque medieval half-timbered buildings, guild halls and churches. Discover hidden gems and popular attractions to find out how the Church and the merchants of York have shaped this historic place.
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Walk Route

Guide Name: Medieval York
Guide Location: England » York
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 12
Tour Duration: 3.0 hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.4 km
Sight(s) featured in this guide: Merchant Adventurers' Hall   The Golden Fleece   Little Shambles   4 Jubbergate   The Guild Hall   St Helen Stonegate   Mulberry Hall   Barley Hall   Church of Holy Trinity   Lady Row   Covered Walkway   Bedern Chapel  
Author: Julia Hickey
Author Bio: I am a university lecturer and writer currently living in the north of England. In addition to professional qualifications, I hold a masters degree in English Literature and a B.A.(hons) in English and History. I am passionate about history and enjoy nothing more than exploring the UK's historic cities and buildings. In addition to travel writing and educational writing, I also write fiction for a range of women's magazines including the Woman's Weekly.
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Merchant Adventurers' Hall

1) Merchant Adventurers' Hall

You're entering the Merchant Adventurers' Hall from Piccadilly. The coat of arms is at the Fossgate entrance, so don’t forget to have a look at it before you leave. The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall is one of the best examples of a guild hall in the country. It’s certainly very photographic and there are some lovely spots in the garden. You can see as well how much the ground level has changed over the centuries.

The Merchant Adventurers held the monopoly on the sale of imported and exported goods, so they were very wealthy. It was a gamble though; they had to risk their own money on their overseas trade.

Building work began in 1357 and it is still used for meetings and functions. The lower floor, or undercroft, used to be a hospital for the sick and the poor while meetings were held upstairs in the grand hall with its open timbered roof.

Over the last six hundred or so years the guild has collected some wonderful treasures including paintings, furniture and a set of scales that were used as the standard to measure all weights and scales in York to make sure that York traders behaved fairly when they sold their goods.

The hall is open, Easter to October, from 9.00 am - 5.00pm Monday -Thursday, until 3.30 pm Friday and Saturday and 4.00 pm Sunday. From October to March the hall is closed on Sunday and closes at 4.00 pm Monday to Thursday.
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The Golden Fleece

2) The Golden Fleece

This pub looks as though it’s being squashed by its larger neighbours but you can’t miss it. The sign is an impressive golden sheep. Apart from claiming to be one of the most haunted pubs in York it also claims to be one of the oldest. Records have dated it back to 1503 and in those days it was in the hands of the Merchant Adventurers' which goes some way to explaining the sheep too. As the notice outside the pub explains, the Merchant Adventurers made money from the sale of fleeces as well as other goods. The wool trade was an important one in England during the Middle Ages. It is conveniently located for the adventurers’ guildhall as well.
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Little Shambles

3) Little Shambles

This tiny street, over-shadowed by jutting first storeys is a snickleway. It leads from the Shambles into York's open market. There are four snickleways leading from the famous street into the market but this is by far the largest. The buildings in the Little Shambles aren’t as picturesque as those in the Shambles. You certainly get a sense of what it must have been like to live here in the past though. The Little Shambles are always in the shade.

Once you're in the market pause to look at the back of the houses with their timber frames and sturdy looking beams. Dr Jane Grenville explains “timber framing characterises the houses of the medieval city using home grown green oak put together by very competent and highly skilled master carpenters from about the fourteenth century.” http://www.yorkcivictrust.co.uk/?idno=772 No wonder the beams have contorted into such wonderful shapes over the centuries and no wonder the buildings have lasted so long. Oak is one of the most durable timbers. The English used to have abundant oak forests for their buildings and their ships.
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4 Jubbergate

4) 4 Jubbergate

Today Jubbergate stands out with its higgedly-piggedly roofing, its gables and its herringbone brickwork. Brickwork infill like this is sometimes called nogging. The upper storeys jut out above the ground floor with their striking black and white half timbering. It's like an island surrounded by a sea of striped canvas and busy shoppers in search of a bargain.

Half timbering describes the wonderful wooden beams that have been blackened by age. When these buildings were constructed the stout oak timbers were sawn in half or squared off. Then the gaps between the timbers were filled with wattle and daub. Wattle is a latticework frame woven from pliable branches such as hazel. This latticework was then covered with a combination of hair, clay and dung. When it dried it was then painted white.

It looks Medieval but actually this particular building was built about 1600 making it Tudor. It was only in the seventeenth century that merchants and the rising middle classes started building in stone because of their increasing wealth and the fire risks associated with timber buildings. York’s most noticeable stone constructed buildings date from the eighteenth century when it reinvented itself as a place for the wealthy to visit.
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The Guild Hall

5) The Guild Hall

Situated behind the Mansion House off St Helen's Square, this building backs on to the River Ouse and if you don't know York well you'd never guess it was here. It was completely destroyed by a fire bomb during a German air raid of April 1942. After the war it was rebuilt exactly as it had been before its destruction.

It is often open to the public when art and craft fairs are held. If you do get a chance of going in you'll be amazed that it seems bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.

The most striking thing about the Guild Hall, or Common Hall as it is sometimes known, is the ceiling. The wooden timbers are decorated by wonderfully carved and painted bosses. Bosses are found at intersections of vaulting and in this case where huge timber trusses meet. Look out for the green man with foliage sprouting from his mouth.

York’s coat of arms is set into the floor and is present in the beautiful stained glass window that tells York’s history. It depicts Vikings, Normans, kings, monks, the old bridge that once spanned the Ouse and a train. York is a railway city after all. George Hudson, called ‘The Railway King’ was an apprentice in York and the nationally acclaimed Railway Museum is here as well.
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St Helen Stonegate

6) St Helen Stonegate

This little church is where the Lord Mayor of York and the Corporation come to celebrate harvest thanksgiving. The church originates in the fourteenth century. In medieval times there were forty churches in York but St Helen’s history is a reminder of the Reformation and the turbulent Tudors. In 1552 it was sold off and partially demolished. The following year, following public outcry, it was reinstated. Later, the west end was rebuilt and in the nineteenth century the tower was added. The present layout is Victorian. Remnants of the earlier church remain though. The font dates from the medieval period and it is probable that much of the decoration from the medieval church was used. Architectural historians will be able to spot stonework in the wrong place or even upside down.

Take a peep inside to look at the stained glass windows. This is where the glass painters’ guild used to come to hold their services. Their coat of arms is in the west window of the south aisle. The west window above the door is made from medieval glass probably painted by some of the many glass painters who lived in the Stonegate area and worshipped here during the medieval period.
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Mulberry Hall

7) Mulberry Hall

Situated in Stonegate, the old Roman road or Via Principalis, leading from the main entrance to the Roman fort- now St Helen’s Square- to the fort headquarters currently beneath the south transept of the York Minster- Mulberry Hall claims a date of 1434. If you look up you can see the date beneath one of Mulberry Hall’s windows. It remains one of the grandest buildings on Stonegate.

In later centuries many householders updated the front of their homes to make them more modern looking. The old half timbering remains buried beneath the stone facades and on display at the back of the properties. It’s worth remembering too that the footprint of buildings on Stonegate remain as they did during the medieval period and earlier. It explains why some buildings are so narrow and why there are so many little lanes and alleys leading off into hidden courtyards.

This photographic half timbered building was built originally as the York residence of the Bishop of Chester, a reminder that during the medieval period bishops were important men. They were wealthy and wielded great political power.

Nowadays it's a family owned china shop. Even if you don't go in, its window displays are worth a look.
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Barley Hall

8) Barley Hall

The medieval timbers of this building were hidden beneath later additions and under different floor levels. The property was purchased by the York Archaeological Trust in 1987 and the transformation back to its former glory began. It opened to the public in 1993.

The house dates from 1360 and like so much else in York it belonged to a monastery, in this case Nostell Priory near Wakefield. By 1430 a new wing was added and it became private property. One of its owners was the fifthteenth century Lord Mayor of York, William Snawsell, a goldsmith by trade and friend of King Richard III. The great hall with its soaring wooden ceiling is as he would recognise it.

Coffee Yard itself evokes the feel of medieval York. You have to enter through a narrow snickelway to reach the courtyard and the entrance to the hall. Continue beyond the main entrance into a tunnel like alleyway and you can peer into the great hall through a large window. Be warned though, the twisting snickelway leading into Swinegate is not designed for tall people.

It opens April to October 10.00 am - 5.00 pm (last entry at 4.00 pm) and from November to March 10.00 am - 4.00 pm (last entry 3.00 pm). More information about current exhibitions and Christmas opening can be found at www.barleyhall.org.uk
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Church of Holy Trinity

9) Church of Holy Trinity

The church dates back to Norman times but the building you can see now was built, by a series of alterations, during the fifteenth century. Set in a tranquil area behind Goodramgate and Low Petergate with the Minster in the background, the Church of Holy Trinity is a delight. The whole place resonates with age and spirituality from the uneven and worn stone floor slabs to the rare saddleback roof that adorns the tower.

The Jacobean box pews are a wonderful surprise. They were a seventeenth century invention when sermons tended to be quite long. They were designed to allow families to sit together and for privacy. The pulpit dates from the same time. It's a double decker enabling the vicar to see into the pews when he preached his sermon.

Following the Reformation in England stone altars were largely removed from parish churches but if you look in the little side chapel here you'll find one that's survived all the religious upheaval.

According to stories the churchyard is haunted by the ghost of Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland who was executed for treason in 1572. A devoted catholic he prospered under Mary Tudor, the catholic queen, but when Queen Elizabeth came to the throne his Catholicism led him to take part in an uprising against Protestantism, destroying English Bibles, the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer and celebrating mass. He lost his head in York and legend says that he is in Holy Trinity searching for it still.
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Lady Row

10) Lady Row

This little white row of cottages is made up from the oldest houses in York. They were built in the churchyard of Holy Trinity which is why the church is so secluded. They date from 1316 and at that time they would have had thatched roofs. The tiles were a later addition made during the fifteenth century.

There's a very good reason why their upper floors jut out over the ground floor. Tax was charged on the area taken up by the ground floor but not anything else. The upper storey of the house was built so that it jutted out like a jetty, increased the living area and beat the taxman.
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Covered Walkway

11) Covered Walkway

We're on the edge of the Minster Precincts here, and you're now looking at all that remains of a covered walk way and bridge built for the vicars choral to allow them to cross from the Minster to their home in Bedern without having to come into contact with either the elements or the ordinary folk of York. Permission was granted for this by King Richard II.

Vicars choral deputised for the important clergy in the Minster during services. In the medieval period clergy were landowners, dispensed justice and often travelled widely. They also had duties that included singing mass. The vicars choral did this job for them.
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Bedern Chapel

12) Bedern Chapel

You're going to go down yet another snickleway to find the remains of the vicars' choral chapel. Bedern is an area of York. The name derives from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘prayer house’. The fact that Bedern has an Anglo-Saxon name and is bounded by the line of the old Roman fort leads experts to believe that it was here before the Vikings took over York. There's not much more to see of the chapel other than a sturdy looking door and a plaque. However if you are in York on a Wednesday or a Friday you can have a look inside provided you’re sufficiently organised. There is a medieval treasure waiting to be discovered.

Bedern Chapel houses the Bedern Glaziers Studio. Book a tour to find out how the York Glaziers Trust cares for York's magnificent medieval stained glass. Marvel at the Minster’s Great East Window as it is painstakingly cleaned, restored and protected. Get a glimpse of angels, saints and kings.

The tours take place on Wednesdays and Fridays at 2.00 pm. You need to book a place with the Minster Box Office by 1.45 pm on the day of the tour. There are only ten places per tour. The tour lasts an hour. The Minster box office can be reached on 0844 9390015 or at www.boxoffice.yorkminster.org