Marygate, York YO30 7DR
Above may be seen a facsimile of the type of shutter which was used in medieval times to guard the bowman against a return flight of arrows. The Abbey wall which is 13th and 14th century is unique in that its battlements retain the grooves for these shutters which swing on trunnions the wooden guard after the bowman had fired his arrows in quick succession was swung down to protect him.
The grooves do not exist anywhere else on the City Walls and it is doubtful if there are any others in England except possibly at Alnwick.
Founded in 1088, St Mary’s Abbey was once the richest and most powerful Benedictine monastery in the North of England. It occupied a large site to the north-west of the city walls, running from Bootham to the River Ouse. The main building campaign for the Gothic abbey started in 1271 and continued until 1294, under the supervision of Simon de Warwick, Abbot of St Mary’s, 1258-96. The construction of a defensive wall was first mentioned in October 1260 and on 9 December that same year, the project received King Henry III’s approval. However, work did not start immediately and was further delayed by a dispute which broke out in August 1262 between the citizens of York and the abbey. The ownership of properties in Bootham, a busy street for traders outside the city wall on the main road to Scotland, and rights of access from the abbey precinct were to be the subject of a long-running dispute. In 1262 this turned to violence; some of the abbey’s tenants in Bootham were killed, their wares plundered and properties set on fire.\
Licence to crenellate
Although this attack on the abbey had underlined the need for a defensive wall, the first wall, commenced in 1266, was relatively insubstantial when compared with the city walls. Built of blocks of magnesium limestone, it was around 85cm thick and only 3.35m high. The first section to be constructed ran from the main gateway to the abbey precinct in Marygate up to Bootham and turned right, following the main street to Bootham Bar. A licence to crenellate the wall – to add battlements – was granted on 12 July 1318. The work involved raising the wall by up to 2m. Embrasures – openings through which arrows could be fired – were incorporated into the parapet at around 3m intervals. L-shaped slots in the stonework indicate that the embrasures could be closed by wooden shutters, one of the few examples of this type of defence in existence.
A new section of crenellated wall was built from the main gateway to the River Ouse. Here it was possible to construct a thicker wall with a masonry walkway behind the battlements. A timber walkway, which no longer survives, was constructed along the earlier sections of wall. Crenellation was not allowed on the new wall which ran parallel to the city wall from Bootham Bar to the River Ouse and this was limited in height to 16ft (4.87m). A large round corner tower, now known as St Mary’s Tower, was built in c.1324 at the junction of Marygate with Bootham and a similar tower, known as the Water Tower, at the River Ouse end of the wall. Intermediate towers were incorporated at intervals into the existing wall along Bootham and Marygate and into the new wall to the river.
In an attempt to resolve the dispute about access to Bootham, on 24 June 1354 the city authorities agreed that the abbey could dig a dyke from St Mary’s Tower to Bootham Bar to allow for the maintenance of the wall. The city agreed not to build houses along Bootham on the abbey wall side of the street and, if the abbey built houses there, these would become the property of the city authorities. In addition, the abbey was given permission to complete the construction of a wall along the River Ouse which had already been commenced in 1334. This wall was also crenellated and incorporated a water gate allowing for direct access from the river. There is now no trace of the river wall and its exact position is uncertain. By the mid- to late 14th century, the abbey was totally enclosed, with only two access points: the Abbey Gatehouse on Marygate and the water gate on the Ouse.
The walls remained intact for many years after the dissolution of the abbey in 1539. John Speed’s map of York of 1610 shows the complete circuit of the wall still standing. During the Siege of York, the wall came under attack. On 16 June 1644, the Parliamentarian forces bombarded and breached the wall and exploded a mine under St Mary’s Tower causing a large section of it to collapse. Stored in the tower was a large collection of records of Yorkshire monasteries; these were mostly destroyed and a large number of men were killed. Although, this time, the Royalists defending the abbey repulsed the attackers, the city would eventually fall to the Parliamentarians. The tower was later rebuilt using reclaimed materials and topped off with a conical roof.
By the late 17th century, the whole of the wall along Bootham was built up with houses facing on to the street and, by the end of the 18th century, the same applied to the wall along Marygate. There were proposals to build a Georgian square close to the river together with a riverside promenade but concerns were expressed about the destruction of the ancient remains of the abbey. However, large sections of the old gatehouse in Marygate were demolished in the early 19th century, leaving only what is now St Mary’s Lodge. This was comprehensively renovated in 1839 in the Tudor style to form the residence of John Phillips, keeper of the Yorkshire Museum. In the 1830s, the north-east corner of the abbey walls was removed to ease traffic congestion and to improve the area. St Leonard’s Place was built in 1834, immediately becoming a desirable address, and Bootham Bar barbican was removed in 1835. Beginning in the early 19th century, the Yorkshire Philosophical Society gradually acquired the site of the abbey and its precinct, laying out the grounds as ornamental gardens open to the public.
In the late 19th century, houses were cleared from the Marygate section of the wall and now only No.29 remains. The exposed wall was found to be in poor condition and was heavily restored. Some of the houses fronting on to Bootham were also cleared but the majority remain. In 1896, responsibility for the preservation and maintenance of the whole of the abbey wall passed to the City Council and the wall was scheduled as an ancient monument in 1922.
‘St. Mary’s Abbey Wall’, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 2, the Defences (London, 1972), pp160-173. British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/york/vol2/pp160-173 [accessed 8 October 2018]
Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave, The Buildings of England, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding (London, 1995)
© Richard Wilcock
Photos: Rachel Semlyen