York's Historical Architecture (Self Guided), York

Being home to some of the best preserved historic architecture in England, York screams history and is undoubtedly the must-go destination for anyone keen on the country’s past. While the more recent history has also characterized York, it is the abundance of the ancient sites retained in their variety – from Medieval times to the Georgian and Victorian eras, and more – that makes the city stand out from the crowd.

As you explore York you will discover that every aspect of its modern life is inextricably linked with its past. To get you started, here’s a list of some of the top architectural jewels worth visiting in the historic heart of the city.

Clifford's Tower – what’s left of the York Castle built by William the Conqueror; the iconic structure offers stunning views from its vantage point on top of a mound.

Fairfax House – a Georgian townhouse, displaying a collection of 18th-century furniture and period lifestyle; open to the public between February and December.

Merchant Adventurers' Hall – one of the most important medieval buildings, dated 1357; currently a museum, hosting collections of silver, furniture and paintings; open during summer.

Thomas Atkinson's House – an 18th-century, Gothic Revival edifice built by the English architect famous for remaking the Bishopthorpe Palace in York.

Treasurer's House – spanning 2,000 years of history, one of the first major properties of the National Trust since 1930; features a collection of antiques including furniture, ceramics, textiles and paintings.

The King's Manor – part of the University of York; originally built to house the abbots of St Mary's Abbey.

To discover the vast array of medieval and neoclassical buildings in York and to visit some of the best local museums, check out this self-guided walking tour.
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York's Historical Architecture Map

Guide Name: York's Historical Architecture
Guide Location: England » York (See other walking tours in York)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 17
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.1 Km or 1.9 Miles
Author: val
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Clifford's Tower
  • Fairfax House
  • Merchant Adventurers' Hall
  • Thomas Atkinson's House
  • Bedern Hall
  • St. William's College
  • Treasurer's House
  • York Minster
  • St Michael-le-Belfrey
  • The King's Manor
  • York Theatre Royal
  • York Assembly Rooms
  • Mansion House
  • York Guildhall
  • St. Leonard's Hospital
  • The Hospitium
  • St Mary's Abbey
1
Clifford's Tower

1) Clifford's Tower (must see)

Clifford's Tower is an excellent first stop when visiting York. The panoramic views from the top of the tower give visitors a spectacular overview of Old Minister, York, and the North York Views.

The tower is situated on a tall hill, perfect for providing defense to York. Clifford's Tower represents the most significant portion of the remains of York Castle.

William the Conqueror originally built a castle here between 1068 and 1069. From Clifford's Tower, visitors can also see the mound of the second castle William the Conqueror built.

This original tower was the site of a horrific massacre in 1190. A group of about 150 Jews sought protection in the tower. Unfortunately, trust broke down, and the Jews committed suicide and set the tower on fire rather than be slaughtered by Christians.

The tower was rebuilt almost immediately. Construction on the current stone tower was completed by the late 13th century.

Visitors can tour the tower and climb to the top. At the top of the tower, you can walk the open-air wall walk. Tower guards used to patrol the wall walk while watching out for enemy intruders. In addition to fabulous views of the city and countryside, the vantage point provides a look at the rest of the castle's layout. Visitors can also see the "Eye of York" buildings. These include the Female Prison, Debtor's Prison, and the Assize Courts.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am-6pm (Apr-Sep); 10am-5pm (Oct); 10am-4pm (Nov-Mar)
Sight description based on wikipedia
2
Fairfax House

2) Fairfax House

Designed in fine Georgian style, the Fairfax House was built in 1762 as a dowry for Anne Fairfax, daughter of Viscount Fairfax. The house’s interior is the masterpiece of John Carr, the most eminent architect in York at the time. In 1982 the house was restored by the York Civic Trust and it became, as mentioned in the best-selling book England’s Thousand Best Houses, “the most perfect eighteenth-century townhouse to come across anywhere in England.” Discover its decorative flourishes and artistic treasures, including the Great Staircase, the Venetian Window, and its decorative wrought iron.

Why You Should Visit:
To really get a feel for what it was like to live as an aristocrat in a Georgian home. Better than visiting a castle or a palace, as you can get very close to all of the displays – no velvet ropes here!
Friendly volunteers are stationed throughout the house offering an excellent level of historical detail and their own color commentary, complete with pithy British humor.

Tip:
If available on a Monday, make sure you catch one of the tours as it will make your visit more personal, with less external chatter from other guests.
Remember to look up at the ceilings. They also have a gift shop which is well stocked with unusual gifts and interesting in its own right.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sat: 10am-5pm; Sun: 11am-4pm
On regular Mondays, entrance is by guided tour at 11am & 2pm. No bookings required. Please just arrive 10 mins early. Tours last approx 1 hour.
On Bank Holiday Mondays, the House is open as normal (10am-5pm) and there are no guided tours.
3
Merchant Adventurers' Hall

3) Merchant Adventurers' Hall

This guildhall in the city of York was one of the most important buildings in the medieval city. The majority of the Hall was built in 1357 by a group of influential men and women who came together to form a religious fraternity called the Guild of Our Lord Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The main part of the building consists of the Great Hall, the Undercroft and the Chapel.

The Great Hall is where is where the medieval merchants first gathered to conduct their business and to socialize. It is the largest timber-framed building in the UK still standing and used for its original purpose. The roof of the hall is of two spans supported by a row of large central timber posts. It includes complex crown posts and is held together by wooden pegs.

The Undercroft was was originally a hospital or almshouse for poor people of York. Like the Great Hall, the Undercroft is divided in two by its supporting row of timber posts. The undercroft also provides access to an attached chapel.

The Chapel was build for the spiritual use of the ill and poor in the hospital as well as the members of the the Merchant Adventurers' Guild. It is still used for worship today.

Merchant Adventurers' Hall is one of the best preserved medieval guildhalls in the world and is well worth being included on your York itinerary.

Opening Hours:
Sun-Fri: 10am–4:30pm; Sat: 10am–1:30pm
Last admission 30 mins before the Hall closes
4
Thomas Atkinson's House

4) Thomas Atkinson's House

Thomas Atkinson, an 18th century English architect, is famous for remaking the Bishopthorpe Palace in York in the Gothic Revival style. Though a rather influential figure of his time, very little is known about Atkinson's private life. His house, located at 20 St. Andrewgate, is one of the sparse evidences of his life in York.

Atkinson was born at York, the son of Thomas and Jane Marshall Atkinson. His father was a mason. He worked with his father and later developed an architectural practice based in York. The house that he built there for himself in about 1780 still stands in the city center. He was the leading Yorkshire-based architect of the second half of the 18th century.

Atkinson converted to Roman Catholicism; he received a number of commissions from the Yorkshire Catholic gentry. He was commissioned to design a new chapel for Bar Convent. The dome was concealed beneath a slate roof, so that it was hidden from view. Atkinson also built eight different escape routes into the Chapel, to ensure that if the building was stormed, the worshippers would be able to escape. In 1776, he produced designs for a planned development of the city of Sheffield which never came to pass.
Sight description based on wikipedia
5
Bedern Hall

5) Bedern Hall

Bedern Hall is a fine 13th century meeting-hall in York, hidden away barely 100 metres from the east front of York Minster.

Bedern Hall was built for the “College of Vicars Choral” (est. c.1250), whose members were the priests who deputised for the Minster canons when they were away.

The northernmost building was a huge timber-framed dormitory, at least 50 metres long and 12 metres wide. The first floor was shared by the vicars, each of whom used the space of one bay against one or other wall. Clearly the original aim was for a communal establishment perhaps similar to that at Fountains Abbey.

However, pecking-orders soon developed, and by the 1330s the dormitory had been divide into relatively large individual rooms.
Sight description based on wikipedia
6
St. William's College

6) St. William's College

St William's College is a Mediaeval building in York in England, originally built in 1465 to provide accommodation for priests attached to chantry chapels at nearby York Minster. The college was founded in 1460 by George Neville and the Earl of Warwick to house twenty-three priests and a provost. It was named after St William of York.

The façade generally survives as built, with an ashlar ground floor and a timber-framed, jettied upper floor. The doorway itself is a replacement, but the coats of arms above are from about 1670, and carvings of Saint Christopher and the Virgin and Child either side of the entrance also survive.

Recently, this historic building was restored and nowadays functions as a visitor center, a conference hall, and a restaurant offering a true medieval dining experience.
7
Treasurer's House

7) Treasurer's House (must see)

In the care of the National Trust since 1930 (it was one of its first major properties), and tucked away behind the Minster, the Treasurer's House has both a lovely garden and fascinating collection of art and antiques.

The name derives from it being on the site of the medieval house of the Minster's Treasurer, a post abolished at the Reformation. The present building dates from the 17th century, but had been added to with various accretions and was actually three separate houses when in 1897 it was bought by Frank Green (1861-1954).

Green was a wealthy local industrialist and used his considerable wealth and educated taste to restore the house to what he thought it should look like in its heyday, albeit with a central great hall which was entirely of his own imagination.

He was an early collector of antiques, and his aim to deliver a home as a showcase for his collection of furniture, paintings and other treasures, with great attention to paid to the detail of their presentation. Each room was designed in the style of a different period as a setting for his period furniture collection.

He was famously fastidious – not to say fussy – and the house abounds with notices telling the staff what to do and how to behave, and metal floor studs to indicate the exact position of the furniture. It is said he even wandered around to check on things at night! A bachelor, he gave the house to the Trust in 1930, while he moved on to Ashwick House in Somerset.

Visitors can wander on their own, and there is an audio guide available on request, as well as braille and large print guides. In each room, there is a separate guide to the paintings on display. Afterwards, the gardens make a great place to escape the touristy bustle of the city.

Tip:
To reach the cellar and attic you need to go on an accompanied tour: the cellar tour is mainly of interest to ghost enthusiasts (there are still people who claim to see them!), while the attic tour gives a great insight into the servants' lives. You can also have a wander round the very pleasant, photogenic garden and go down in the basement to find a reasonably priced tearoom, toilets, and maybe a ghost or two.

Opening Hours: 11am–4:30pm daily
8
York Minster

8) York Minster (must see)

The York Minister is an impressive cathedral with a long and storied history. The Romans settled here and named the area Eboracum in 71 AD. King Edwin was baptized in a small wooden church here in 625. A stone church was built, and King Edwin was buried in the stone church in 633. In 1088, a new Minister was built. The Minister was expanded between 1154 and 1225. In 1328, the York Minister hosted a royal wedding between King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault.

Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York, was accused of treason by Henry IV and beheaded in 1405. His tomb lies in the Minister.

The Minister as it stands today was completed in 1471. It is the second-largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. The name "minister" harkens to Anglo-Saxon missionary churches. The cathedral's official name is the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York.

The Minister features majestic architecture, including a Gothic nave and a Perpendicular Gothic quire. The 1408 Great East Window is the largest expanse of stained glass in the world. Each lancet in the magnificent Five Sisters Window is 53 feet tall. A gorgeous rose window graces the south transept. The design of the west window is known as The Heart of Yorkshire.

The transepts feature wooden roofs. The nave was completed in 1350 and is England's widest Gothic nave. The central tower is 235 feet tall (72 meters). The choir is 102 feet tall (31 meters). The octagonal Chapter House was built in 1280 and features wonderful stone carvings.

Visitors can view the remains of the Roman fort in the cathedral's museum.

Why You Should Visit

The York Minister is one of the most impressive churches in Northern Europe. It was one of the few Catholic churches not destroyed by Henry VIII, as he wanted to convert it to an Anglican church. The soaring nave, impressive towers, storied history, and Gothic architecture are the highlight of any York visit.

Tips

Go for an evensong service, usually held in the evenings at 5:15 pm, and experience the acoustic wonders of the choir and organ.

The 35 church bells ring at 10:00 am on Sundays.

Opening Hours:
[General Visiting] Mon-Sat: 9am–4:30pm; Sun: 12:30–3pm
[Undercroft Museum] Mon-Sat: 10am–4:30pm; Sun: 1–3:15pm
[Shop] Mon-Sat: 10am–5:30pm; Sun: 12:30–5:30pm
[Worship] Daily: 7:30am–6pm
9
St Michael-le-Belfrey

9) St Michael-le-Belfrey

Built between 1525 and 1537, St Michael's replaced an earlier church on the site during the reign of Henry VIII and sits at the end of Petergate in the shadow of the Minster. It is famous for being the place where Guy Fawkes was baptized in 1570 and many visitors come to see the enlarged copy of his baptismal entry in the church's registers.

The exterior is (predictably) executed in Tudor Gothic, and is wide and low. The west front is newer, as it was rebuilt in the 19th century when adjacent houses were demolished.

Inside, there are generous aisles running the length of the church, but the real reason for a visit is to see the fine 18th-century Baroque altarpiece and the collection of late medieval glass: that in the East window dates from the mid-14th century and comes from the previous church, whereas that in the aisles dates from its rebuilding in the mid 16th century, in the Flemish style. There is also an extensive collection of 18th-century monuments and memorials.

Tip:
When the sun is going down this church really does stand out!

Opening Hours:
Sun: 10am-1pm; Mon, Fri: 1-3pm; Tue, Wed: 10am-3pm; Thu: 11am-3pm
Free admission
10
The King's Manor

10) The King's Manor

The King's Manor is a Grade I listed historical building and is part of the University of York. It lies on Exhibition Square, in the city center.

King's Manor was originally built to house the abbots of St Mary's Abbey, York. The Abbot's house probably occupied the site since the eleventh century, but the earliest remains date from the fifteenth century. When the abbey was dissolved in 1539, Henry VIII instructed that it be the seat of the Council of the North. It performed this role until the Council was abolished in 1641.

From 1667 to 1688, it was the residence of the Governor of York. During the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Governor, Sir John Reresby, 2nd Baronet, remained loyal to the King, James II, but a party of armed men, led by Thomas Osborne, Earl of Danby, captured the Manor and the City of York, and held them for William of Orange. After 1688, the building was hired out to private tenants until the nineteenth century, when it was taken over and expanded by the Yorkshire School for the Blind.

On the departure of the Blind School in 1958, the Manor was acquired by York City Council, who leased it to the University of York in 1963.
Sight description based on wikipedia
11
York Theatre Royal

11) York Theatre Royal

The York Theatre Royal was built in 1744 on the site of the medieval St. Leonard’s Hospital. Parts of the old hospital can still be seen, including archways and walls. Under the stage lies a well, which is believed to be from the Roman era. Under the direction of Tate Wilkinson, it attracted many of the finest actors of the period, including John Philip Kemble and his sister Sarah Siddons, Dorothea Jordan and Elizabeth Farren.

In the late 1800s, it was refurbished in the Victorian style, including the addition of a Victorian Gothic frontage, which is decorated with carved heads representing Elizabeth I and characters from Shakespeare’s plays. Following a £6million redevelopment, the theatre reopened in April 2016 with a new roof, an extended and re-modelled front of house area, a refurbished and redecorated main auditorium and with major improvements to access and environmental impact.

Why You Should Visit:
While the entrance is modern and functional, the theatre itself has maintained all of its historic charm and the variety & quality of shows for children as much for adults are excellent.
The new café created downstairs, with glass windows looking out through the gothic arches, offers the expected cakes and drinks at very reasonable prices.

Tip:
If you only do one pantomime performance, make sure it is the one here – quite unique and an experience you won't forget.
Sight description based on wikipedia
12
York Assembly Rooms

12) York Assembly Rooms

The York Assembly Rooms is a listed historical building and one of the most influential pieces of architecture of the early 18th century. Perhaps the earliest example of neoclassical design in Europe, the Rooms emerged as part of the city’s new wave in design replacing the dark Gothic style.

The building was masterminded by Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, as an establishment of leisure for the upper class after a group of York’s gentry approached him with a request to create a place to accommodate dance parties, card games and other social activities.

Burlington, a talented practitioner of the English classical architectural movement, known as Palladianism, produced a stylish interpretation of an ancient Egyptian Hall for festivals based on an illustration by the 16th century Italian architect Palladio, featuring theatrical interior of Corinthian columns and bays, contrasted by the elegantly simple exterior.

The Assembly Rooms' construction lasted from 1730 until 1735. Nonetheless, the building was first used already in August 1732, during race week, and soon became a model for formal reception rooms in country houses throughout Britain.

In the course of history the edifice has been altered several times: first after a fire in 1773 – with alterations to the Lesser Assembly Room; then in 1791 – with the steps in front of the portico replaced by an internal set; and, finally, in 1828 – with a new façade.

In 1925 the building was purchased by York Corporation, who fully restored it in 1951.

Currently, the Assembly Rooms are used as a restaurant.
13
Mansion House

13) Mansion House

The Georgian-style Mansion House in York is the home of the city's Lord Mayors during their term in office. This is the earliest purpose-built house of this sort still in use – it predates the Mansion House in London by at least 20 years.

The foundation stone for the building was laid in 1725, and it was completed seven years later, in 1732. The architect is unknown, although the frontage is tentatively attributed to William Etty.

The house was built on the site of the old "Common Hall Gates" which provided entrance to the 15th-century York Guildhall situated behind – there the medieval city council previously met. Nowadays, each year, in May, the Mayor Making ceremony is also held in the Guildhall prior to the Lord Mayor taking up residence in the Mansion House.

Among other things, the place holds one of the largest civic silver collections in England. The exhibits include a 17th-century silver chamber pot and gold cup which were bought for the City of York with the monies bequeathed by Marmaduke Rawdon in 1669. The collection of civic regalia also features a 17th-century mace and two city swords: the Bowes Sword – donated to the city by Sir Martin Bowes, Lord Mayor of London, in 1545; and the Sigismund sword (aka York's Great Sword of the State) – once owned by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, dating 1416.

Additionally, the Mansion House holds a collection of antique furniture and oil paintings of previous Lord Mayors of York, such as George IV as Prince Regent, Charles Watson-Wentworth, Marquis of Rockingham and George Hudson.

The building's most recent restoration took place in 1998 courtesy of the York Civic Trust.
Sight description based on wikipedia
14
York Guildhall

14) York Guildhall

York Guildhall is a municipal building located behind York's Mansion House. It is a Grade I listed historical building. The building was constructed as a meeting place for the City's guilds between 1449 and 1459.

Richard III was entertained in the building in 1483 and the guildhall was the venue for the trial of Margaret Clitherow, a catholic martyr, in 1586. it was also the place where a ransom of £200,000 was counted before being given to the Scots in payment for the release of Charles I in 1647 during the English Civil War. Prince Albert, the Prince Consort to Queen Victoria was a guest of honor at a Royal banquet in the building in October 1850. At the north end of the guildhall was a stained glass window painted by Henry Gyles in about 1682.

In 1811 a building, designed by Peter Atkinson the younger as a council chamber, was erected to the south of the original hall (this is now known as "the Atkinson Room"). Then in 1891, another building, designed by Enoch Mawbey, the city surveyor, accommodating a larger council chamber, was built to the north of the original hall (this building is now known as "the Municipal Offices"). The new council chamber was decorated by Kendal, Milne and Co in the 1890s.

Because of damage sustained during an air raid in 1942, the present Guildhall is a rebuilt version of the 15th century building, opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1960. The original stone walls, however, remain intact, as well as the Inner Room and its paneled walls, masons' marks, two hidden stairways and decorated ceiling.
Sight description based on wikipedia
15
St. Leonard's Hospital

15) St. Leonard's Hospital

Tucked into the north-eastern corner of Museum Gardens in York are the ruins of what was once the largest medieval hospital in northern England. At the time it was an important institution run by the community of the Augustinian Order.

The remains in Museum Gardens occupy the western corner of the Roman fortress of Eboracum and are probably part of the hospital infirmary, built by John Romanus, the Treasurer of York Minster, sometime between 1225 and 1250. It was built on the site of an earlier hospital of St Peter which, according to tradition, was established by King Athelstan around 937 AD and was destroyed by fire in 1137. King Stephen rebuilt the hospital church and dedicated it to St Leonard, whereas the hospital itself was called St Peter's for another century.

Records show that life at St Leonard's was akin to a monastery. During the 14th century the hospital was run by 18 clergy (13 chaplain brothers aided by regular sisters and lay brothers), 30 choristers, and servants, and contained beds for as many as 240 patients, provided by private benefactors. Apart from caring for the ill, it also distributed food to the poor as well as prisoners in York Castle.

As a religious institution, St Leonard’s fell victim to Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. After it was closed and destroyed, the city of York was left without hospital for another 200 years, until 1740.

Today all that is left is the entrance lobby, undercroft and part of the hospital chapel. The undercroft interior has a beautifully vaulted rib ceiling and houses a collection of Roman and medieval stonework. Part of the chapel features a lovely three-light window.
Sight description based on wikipedia
16
The Hospitium

16) The Hospitium

Located within York's Museum Gardens, between the ruins of St Mary's Abbey and the River Ouse, is a picturesque 14th-century building – the Hospitium. It was once part of a support complex on the abbey grounds which included a brewhouse, stables, mill, and a small boarding school.

While the original purpose of the building is not known for certain, the name Hospitium (related to hospitality) suggests that it was used for housing guests. The latter would have been visitors of low social rank, such as merchants, who were not allowed to stay in the main abbey with the monks.

Being so close to the river, it might also have been a warehouse or a barn, possibly with accommodation on the upper floor. The archway seen to the south east would have led to a water gate, well placed to serve guests arriving by boat. The lower storey of the building was most likely built from stone to withstand the regular floods occurring in the past.

The oldest parts of the stone ground floor mostly date to the 1300s, while the ruined gateway arch on the side was added around 1500.

Since the dissolution of the abbey, the Hospitium has gone through numerous stages of reuse, disrepair and renovation. In 1828, the newly founded Yorkshire Philosophical Society made significant repairs of the building and housed their collections here.

In the 1930s the upper storey was extended with a new roof. In 2008 the Hospitium underwent another key renovation with the installation, for the first time, of running water, toilets, a passenger lift, and a kitchen. Today the building serves as the centre of York Museum Trust's hospitality business.
Sight description based on wikipedia
17
St Mary's Abbey

17) St Mary's Abbey

Once the richest abbey in the north of England, St Mary's lies in what are now the York Museum Gardens, on a steeply-sloping site to the west of York Minster.

The abbey dates back to 1086 and over time became the wealthiest monastery in northern England before it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. Over the next 200 years, it fell into disrepair and was largely dismantled for its stone. Stones from the abbey can be seen lining paths throughout the York Museum Gardens, but the major ruins of the church are on the west side.

All that remains today of St Mary's are the north and west walls, plus a few other remnants: the half-timbered Pilgrims' Hospitium, the West Gate and the 14th-century timber-framed Abbot's House (now called the King's Manor). The remains of the Abbey were described by Edwin Ridsdale Tate in a 1929 publication in which he asserted that: "Nowhere in England is there another spot so full of charm as York and where in York is there a more charming spot than the Gardens of the Philosophical Society, in which stand the beautiful fragments of that once powerful and noble monastery of St. Mary's. Here we must leave the venerable pile in the evening of its glory."

Why You Should Visit:
Beautiful, tranquil, and so close to the centre that you can fit it into whatever else you are doing on your trip to York.

Tip:
Go into the Yorkshire Museum, itself a good place to go, and you get to go below to see even more of the Abbey which would be underground. Excavated finds and architectural features, particularly relating to the warming house and late 12th-century chapter house as well. Mesmerizing.
Sight description based on wikipedia

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