Plaque is at 70 Low Petergate
Hornpot Lane is interesting as a remaining example of a typical route between buildings. Towards the south-east end of Petergate, the lane is a gated alley leading to Holy Trinity Church. It was described, but not named, in 1257. First recorded in 1295, the name derives from pits in which hornworkers soaked horn or from pots (moulds) used for the casting of metal. There was much metalworking in Petergate and horn was an associated trade. Horn contributed components to complex products such as harnesses and various types of armour and weapons. Property backing on to Holy Trinity churchyard, next to Hornpot Lane, seems to have been laid out as a single tenement, two perches (33ft) wide, as early as the 11th century. This property was later abandoned and the burgage was only subdivided into two-perch-wide units, with buildings extending along both street frontages, in the mid-13th century.
In 1957-8, Peter Wenham, Head of History at St John’s College, now York St John University, discovered hornworkers’ pits during excavations which took place on the site of the recently demolished Fox Inn at No.68 Petergate, prior to the construction of new buildings for York College for Girls which bordered Hornpot Lane. Following the closure of the college in 1997, more extensive excavations took place at the rear of Nos.64-68 Petergate in 2004 on the site of school buildings which were demolished to make way for a residential development.
In the days before the York Archaeological Trust was established (1972), Wenham led a team of archaeologists, assisted by students from York St John and pupils from York College for Girls. One of the most important finds was the remains of a complex of medieval timber-framed buildings (c.1300-50). To form the foundations, wooden piles had been driven into earlier deposits; there were four layers of Roman building, one in timber thought to date back to the first century, and three in stone. Wenham believed that this was a hornworker’s workshop due to the quantity of horn cores discovered on the site, together with part of a lined retting pit for soaking horn. Before animal horn can be worked, the soft core has to be removed. The traditional method for the preparation of large quantities is to soak the horn in water for several months.
The excavation works also uncovered a second later medieval building (c.14th/15th century) where there were the remains of two hearths used for bronze working. Evidence of metalworking was found in later excavations. Trial trenches were dug by York Archaeological Trust in 2003 to prepare for the more extensive investigations which took place the following year. Large quantities of slag and fragments of clay moulds for metal items were found in addition to leather offcuts, indicating that there was some leather working on the site associated with harness making.
Origin of hornpot
There has been some debate about the origin of the name hornpot. Originally it was thought to refer to a drinking horn or cup. In 1964 Peter Wenham put forward the theory, in an article for the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, that the word “pot” had a specific meaning in the North of England under the influence of Scandinavian languages: ‘a deep hole or pit dug in the ground, a tan pit’. Later, in researching the metalworking trade in York, Sarah Rees Jones found that, in the medieval period, some metalworkers were known as “potters”, a name probably derived from the manufacture of clay moulds made for casting or, possibly, from the production of domestic cooking pots.
The report of the York Archaeological Trust following the 2004 excavations paints a ‘picture of four medieval properties occupied by skilled artisans working in a range of crafts and industries. These included making and repairing shoes and other leather goods; and preparing and working with animal horn, antler and bone to produce, amongst other things, buttons and handles for knifes.’ It was thought that the blades for knives could have been made by ironworkers living next door and that leather straps and belts would have been fitted with copper-alloy strap guides and buckles made by neighbouring craftsmen. In fact, a wide range of products could have been produced along Hornpot Lane including brooches and buckles, cooking pots and other domestic utensils.
A clerical affray
Soaking horn in large retting pits creates a bad odour and metalworking produced noxious and potentially dangerous fumes. In addition, furnaces and hearths at the heart of a complex of timber buildings formed a serious fire risk. Hornpot Lane was perhaps, therefore, a dangerous quarter of the city, even though situated near the Minster. This would explain why it was sometimes a route to be avoided, graphically illustrated by a lengthy court case in 1541 between two clerics, concerning an incident which occurred in autumn 1540:
A son was born to the wife of Miles Cooke, a York merchant, in September 1540 and on the day of the baby’s birth the midwife Elisabeth Ashby and a company of women set out from the family house in Petergate for his christening in their parish church of Holy Trinity, Goodramgate (income £4 7s 6d pa). Instead of taking the most direct way through Hornpot Lane, the procession chose to go the length of Petergate to King’s Square and to turn up Goodramgate to use the slightly wider passage next to Lady Row. Their route took them into the adjoining parish of Holy Trinity King’s Court (income £5 11s 3d pa). As soon as they crossed the parish boundary at Robert Hall’s shop, a chantry priest from Holy Trinity King’s Court, Roger Threpland, stopped the party, asserting that if they went through the parish they must bring the child to his church for baptism (with the usual fee). The aggrieved father hurried off to alert John Holme, the rector of Holy Trinity Goodramgate, who was robed in his surplice and stole ready for the ceremony. Holme left his church to challenge Threpland and there was a confrontation. Both clerics seem to have been jostled and thrown off balance. A joiner Richard Graves was accused of laying hands on John Holme. Assault on a priest was sacrilege, and a legal case was brought to the Archbishop’s court. Merchant and shopkeeper Robert Hall was ready to give evidence. In January 1541 the judge attempted to reconcile the parties by appointing the rectors of St Saviour’s and St Denys as arbitrators but with no success.
Claire Cross, ‘A Clerical Affray in Petergate in 1540’, The Church in Medieval York, Records in Honour of Prof Barrie Dobson, (York, 1999) pp141-156
[Pages of Latin and English evidence are retained in document CP.G. 273 in the Borthwick Institute.]
D.M. Palliser, ‘The Medieval Street Names of York’, York Historian 2 (York, 1978) pp2-16
L.P. Wenham, ‘Hornpot Lane and the Horners of York’, Annual Report of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, 1964 (York, 1965) pp25-6
L.P. Wenham, ‘Excavations in Low Petergate, York, 1957-8’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal (York, 1972) p44, pp65-113
Ben Reeves (principal author), York Archaeological Trust, 62-62 Low Petergate, York, Web Publication, Report Number AYW7 (York, 2006)
© Margaret Scott
Photos by Rachel Semlyen for York Civic Trust