Behind No. 27 Goodramgate lies the Bedern, the former precinct of the Vicars Choral of York Minster from the 13th century. The word bedern is derived from Early English bede (prayer) and ærn (house). Today, few of the original buildings remain and the surviving Bedern Hall and chapel are surrounded by 20th-century development.
The Vicars Choral (1252-1936)
Vicars Choral were the priests who maintained the daily pattern of prayer and worship in secular, as distinct from monastic, medieval cathedrals. Beginning as deputies, even servants of the senior canons who comprised the cathedral’s chapter, the York vicars were the first in England to be formed as a college with their own precinct in Bedern in 1252 close to the Minster. They sang the cathedral’s 10 daily offices and drew much of their income from bequests to sing masses for the affluent dead – Chantry income. The 36 canons to whom they were attached, and whose numbers they at first matched, were mostly absentees, living in prosperous parishes elsewhere and sometimes on papal duty overseas.
Often starting as choir boys, the vicars received musical instruction from the Minster’s Precentor. They would be expected to know up to 5,000 ecclesiastical chants, improvise polyphony and to sight-read. Led by the Dean in a brief but impressive ceremony, new vicars were inducted in Bedern’s Chapel. The last induction there occurred in 1919. If starting as a chorister, progress to priesthood was usually through grammar school, the lower clerical orders and, sometimes, via university. None the less, as minor clergy they would rarely achieve preferment. Some, however, trained as organists, took on parish duties or administered the building and repairs of the Minster.
Selected by Dean and Chapter, college members were self-governing, choosing their own custos or warden (the Sub-Chanter) and accepting his rules including for confining new members to the precinct – forbidden to go out, even for haircuts – till they had served six months. At the height of their prosperity, in the 1380s, the vicars had an established hierarchy for their own management and possessed extensive estates. The Bedern vicars formed a strong community, dining together once a day, usually at 5pm, and had social links with the monks of St Leonard’s. Archaeological evidence suggests that they lived well with a high-status diet, including venison, and possessed some prestigious glassware. Hinting at transgressions, even impropriety, dice (expressly forbidden), items of jewellery, and traces of silk were also found. Written records witness to some striking moments of indiscipline over the years including brawling, riotous drinking, carrying swords and promiscuity though having a regular mistress seems to have been treated with some leniency.
York’s Vicars Choral endured as a diminished body for far longer than they thrived. St William’s College, founded in 1461, brought competition for chantry income but the Protestant Reformation had a greater impact, eroding their income, collegiate life and ecclesiastical function. In 1547, under Edward VI, endowed masses for the dead – a significant source of their funding – were suppressed by law. In 1548 priests were permitted to marry, destabilising collegiate life. As many as 10 Bedern vicars married within 10 years, often choosing to live outside the precinct and sometimes employing “singing men” as their substitutes. Elizabeth I’s injunction of 1561 forbidding married clergy to live with their families on cathedral or college premises can only have hastened the dispersal. In 1574, their communal dining ceased.
Above all, the English Book of Common Prayer Book which appeared in 1549, the gradual development of a distinct Anglican liturgy and choral tradition, and the increasing employment of professional lay organists, choir masters and choristers displaced the Minster’s Roman Catholic traditions for whose maintenance the Vicars’ college was founded. None the less, they continued in curtailed form for nearly 400 further years. In 1868, however, the remaining vicars ceded their rights in Bedern to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners whose job was to regularise the Church of England’s income, though the vicars continued to own the chapel.
The present passage from Goodramgate into Bedern, with the chapel on the right, marks the gateway to the college of the Vicars Choral. There was no through way and Bartle Garth, named after Robert Barthill, a college servant –he bequeathed the vicars his mite of three shillings and fourpence – was part of the enclosed complex. Adjacent parcels of land were purchased for the college by two Minster canons: Archdeacon Romeyn (described by a contemporary as ‘crammed with rents and treasures’), and William de Laneham. Their gifts suggest the formidable personal wealth of some senior cathedral clergy. The unified site seems to have comprised a lengthy courtyard with two buildings to accommodate the 36 vicars and a further building with an aisle. Within 50 years, the college acquired adjoining parts of Aldwark and Goodramgate and planted both a garden and an orchard. In prosperous times, sustained by rents from some 240 local properties, from three Yorkshire benefices, and one in Nether Wallop, by chantry income and, in the 15th century, profits from industrial works too, the vicars reshaped their accommodation. Notably, they replaced their dormitories with small houses (cubiculi) facing the hall across a grass yard. Archaeologists have also identified a kitchen, two wells, a brewhouse, a buttery and latrines. Their evidence shows too that the surviving hall is the last in a succession; in short, the site was constantly being remodelled.
In 1548 Bedern was sold and, although the sale was annulled five years later, insecurity and decline were plainly in train. Lettings, at first to prosperous citizens on 40-year leases, descended the social scale and college incomes diminished further. The precinct became more secular, less cohesive, and the vicars’ numbers dropped; fewer than 30 in 1484, 20 in 1546, 10 in 1558 and, by 1736, they were down to four, fluctuating thereafter.
Perhaps recognising the potential of Bedern’s layout – similar to an Oxford college though less symmetrical – the City Council petitioned Parliament, in 1641 and 1648, for a university charter. They failed but perhaps something similar was achieved when, with its building damaged in the York siege of 1644, St Peter’s School moved in, remaining until 1730. At different times, other schools occupied parts of Bedern including an orphanage and a “ragged” school. In 1801 a Sunday school for girls transferred to the chapel from nearby St Andrewgate and, in 1872, following legislation for compulsory schooling passed in 1870, the Bedern National School was opened.
Meanwhile, Bedern diversified; the hall was divided into tenements, it was also used, variously, as a glass works, a meat pie factory, a bakery (1918) and pork butcher (1953). Industrial premises and a foundry crowded close by. In the early 1800s in Bedern, in much of Aldwark and St Andrewgate too, prostitution was widespread. Indeed, in1843, 33 prostitutes were recorded in Bedern alone. The Corporation appointed an officer to patrol the area. Lodging houses and multiple-occupation proliferated. In 1832, when cholera hit York, the site was severely overcrowded with the 98 poorest families packed into single rooms and there was no sewer. The Irish Potato Famine multiplied these tribulations; Bedern’s impoverished Irish population rose from seven in 1841 to 1,130 in 1851. In the next year Bedern was opened through to St Andrewgate.
Older York residents recall that the Bedern area retained an unfavourable reputation until the City Council purchased the land in 1970, flattening all but the then derelict hall and the chapel. Following the archaeological survey that this permitted, the prize-winning Esher Plan to revive inner-city living took shape in the 1980s and the hall of the Vicars Choral was painstakingly reconstructed.
With so many Minster services to lead, the vicars did not at first have their own chapel. However, Thomas de Otteby and William Cotyngham, both Vicars Choral, funded one themselves – a further sign of clerical wealth. Their chapel, completed in 1349, is still in place. Dedicated to the Holy Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Katherine, it was consecrated by the Archbishop of Damascus (a suffragan of York). The chapel was well furbished, including with six stained glass windows, one an image of St Katherine. A new marble altar was consecrated in 1393. However, both donors died before completion. Guided by their custos, Robert Swetmouth, the vicars appointed a chaplain from their number ‘who shall dayly celebrate for ever in the sd chapel’ the souls of the two donors and of Nic Hugate (by implication, a fellow donor), a Minster canon who held the affluent parish of Barnby. Funds, a missal and holy vessels were set aside and surviving documents suggest that the pledge was maintained for around 185 years.
The chapel was extended in 1400, refurbished three times in later centuries and damaged by fire in 1876 which, perhaps, explains its outward-leaning walls. Near derelict and no longer a place of worship, it was stripped and the roof and walls were lowered. A closing service was held in 1961. Its stained glass survived puritan iconoclasm, remaining in good order till 1816 when it was removed to furnish another church. However, the glass was placed in storage and its whereabouts are now unknown. The chapel survives as the workshop of the York Glaziers’ Trust.
Diagrams, and architectural details are available online at www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/york/vol5
Julian Richards’s impressive archaeological survey of Bedern (referenced below) provides a detailed picture of what was found shortly before the Esher Plan was implemented.
‘Bedern and St. William’s College’, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 5, Central (London, 1981), pp57-68, British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/york/vol5/pp57-68 [accessed 2 May 2018]
- Cambidge, (1906) Bedern and its Chapel (York, 1906)
Kathleen Edwards, English Secular Cathedrals in the Middle Ages, (2nd ed. Manchester, 1967)
Richard Hall, Bedern Hall and the Vicars Choral of York Minster (York Archaeological Trust, York, 2004)
Richard Hall and David Stocker (eds.), Vicars Choral at English Cathedrals, Cantate Domino, History, Architecture and Archaeology (Oxford, 2005)
- Harrison, The Bedern Chapel, York, reprint from the Journal of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Part 106 (Leeds, 1923)
- Harrison, ‘Bedern College and Chapel’, Proceedings of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Vol.2, No.4 (Leeds, 1936), pp19-44
Julian Richards, The Vicars Choral of York Minster, The College at Bedern, (York Archaeological Trust/Council for British Archaeology, York, 2001)
- Stockwell, A History of Bedern Hall, York (York, 1987)
© Graham Frater