St Helen’s Square, York YO1 9QN
This imposing Georgian house in St Helen’s Square has been the home for successive Lord Mayors of York since the 1730s. It is the UK’s earliest purpose-built house for a lord mayor still in existence, with London’s Mansion House not completed until 24 years later. The building has remained substantially unaltered through three centuries and today, after a three-year £2.7 million restoration, it is open to the public.
The ancient office
Although some sort of city governance existed before this date, the first Royal Charter of 1212 was granted by King John who, in return for £200 and three riding horses, gave York citizens the right to conduct their own affairs including the raising of taxes and holding courts. Within a year they had elected their first mayor who, during the Middle Ages, was sometimes addressed as ‘my lord, the mayor’. Following a stay in the city, Richard II granted the mayor and the aldermen full powers as justices of the peace and, in 1396, created a new charter making York and its surrounding countryside to the west – the “ainsty” – a county in its own right with two annually-elected sheriffs. With his ceremonial regalia symbolic of his delegated power, the mayor had now become the king’s direct lieutenant.
In the 20th century, in 1974, at the time of local government reorganisation, Queen Elizabeth II granted York the privilege of retaining a lord mayor and sheriff. Each lord mayor could now be addressed as “The Right Honourable, The Lord Mayor”. This is still their title today, along with the lord mayors of London, Belfast and Cardiff, whereas mayors of other cities are addressed as “The Right Worshipful”. The Lord Mayor of York is second only to that of London in precedence and York’s sheriff holds the oldest office of city sheriff in England and Wales. The “civic party” consists of the lord mayor and his or her consort and the sheriff and his or her consort.
The first lord mayors were landowners and came from close-knit and often inter-related families. Around 1213-7, Hugh de Selby became the first to hold the office and went on to serve at least three times. Nicholas de Selby and John de Selby followed him later in the century and Roger de Selby 100 years after that. In the 14th century, Nicholas de Langton was appointed 16 times; John de Langton 12 times.
From 1399, as befitting the city’s increasing mercantile prosperity, the majority of lord mayors were merchants from the guilds; landowners no longer provided a continuous ruling dynasty. The wealthy merchants and the enriched corporation itself now had sufficient means to entertain their fellow aldermen and visiting nobility, and lavish levels of entertainment became an important statement of the city’s wealth, importance and loyalty to the monarch.
With the exception of Edward VI, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I, all the rulers of England from Richard II to Charles I visited York at least once. Richard II came to York no fewer than nine times. They were entertained with welcoming processions, cheering citizens, bedecked houses, feasts, and entertainment such as the annual performance of the Mystery Plays ‘brought forth’ by the craft guilds. Paid and liveried by the corporation, the city’s own band of professional musicians, the York Waits, greeted distinguished visitors, played in street processions and performed in the minstrels’ gallery overlooking the State Room.
A house fit for a lord mayor
By the 18th century, the medieval prosperity of York had diminished; merchant lord mayors were becoming increasingly reluctant to open their houses for the entertainment of the citizens. As each mayor was elected, the corporation’s records, books, archives, plate and regalia had to be transported in a somewhat insecure and undignified fashion to his home on handcarts. Then, after his year of office, the procession moved on to the next mayor with the civic silver scrupulously checked and any missing items accounted for each time. Matters came to head when Lord Mayor Thomas Agar, in 1724, was noticeably reluctant to host visiting dignitaries as expected. Town Clerk Darcy Preston noted that a suitable building should be found to provide a ‘proper repository for the records, books, and papers [and also a place for] every Lord Mayor to make his entertainment and his public business’.
A building committee of aldermen under a clerk of works was set up in December 1724. They first considered the acquisition of an existing house such as the ‘Red House’ in Duncombe Place, but it was not available. Work to construct the present building required the demolition of tenements and also of the gatehouse to the adjacent 15th-century guildhall where the civic business was carried out. Preston estimated that £1,000 would be a sufficient budget. This was to prove a woeful underestimate and the house finally cost at least three times the original estimate. Many workmen were offered the freedom of the city in place of payment.
Although the design of the Mansion House has sometimes been attributed to Lord Burlington, who was responsible for the Assembly Rooms (1730), or possibly William Etty, no record exists of there being an architect. This is not unusual for the time as there was, as yet, no established architectural profession. Apart from very high-status projects, most buildings were designed and constructed by master craftsmen who relied on pattern books for inspiration. One of the most likely sources for the design is Vitruvius Britannicus by Colen Campbell – a protégé of Lord Burlington – which was published in three volumes between 1715 and 1725. The volumes contain plans and elevations of English buildings in the Palladian style and the front façade of the Mansion House resembles that of the Queen’s Gallery at Somerset House, illustrated in the first volume. It is recorded that the corporation purchased James Gibbs’ Book of Architecture in 1727 for the interior design, gilded woodcarvings, fireplaces and doorcases.
The plan of the Mansion House follows that of a conventional Georgian town house. A central entrance door in the five-bay façade opens into a hallway which leads to the main staircase at the rear. On the left-hand side are the drawing room to the front and dining room at the rear; on the right are service rooms and the back staircase. The State Room runs the whole length of the façade on the first floor. Kitchen and store rooms are on the lower ground floor and bedrooms were provided on the first and second floors for the lord mayor. Servant rooms were in the attic storey which is now the private apartment of the lord mayor. Although the building was ready for the first lord mayor to reside there in 1730 and meetings had been held in the Mansion House a few years earlier, the State Room was not fitted out until 1732-3. For this the building committee commissioned the finest craftsmen in York. Supervised by Francis Bickerton, work was carried out by John Terry, carpenter, and Richard Nelthorpe, plasterer.
When completed, the Mansion House overlooked St Helen’s churchyard which was not cleared until 1745 to provide the open space which is now St Helen’s Square, a more suitable setting for the magnificent façade. The earliest image of the Mansion House is from Francis Drake’s 800-page Eboracum of 1736, the first comprehensive history of the city. Here Drake described the Mansion House as a ‘neat and convenient building and grand enough’.
Built primarily for civic hospitality and to show the city’s wealth and importance, the Mansion House has entertained royalty and heads of state from all over the world. The Prince Regent visited in 1789 when an extravagant banquet was held in his honour in the State Room. There were 70 guests including three dukes and three earls, with food prepared by the best chefs in the country. Prince Albert, Consort of Queen Victoria, stayed in the Mansion House in October 1850 following another sumptuous banquet, this time in the Guildhall. Queen Victoria visited the city officially only once when she and her family spent half an hour at the Station Hotel on their way to Scotland in 1854. Future kings, queens, princes and princesses have shown more appreciation and have frequently called upon the lord mayor and the civic party in the Mansion House.
Notable lord mayors
Notable, and wealthy, York citizens who served as lord mayors include architect John Carr (twice), George Hudson “The Railway King” (three times), Joseph Terry the confectioner (four times) and John Bowes Morrell (twice).
The first woman lord mayor was Edna Annie Crichton who held office 1941- 2 during the Second World War when York suffered a Baedeker raid and the adjacent medieval Guildhall was almost completely destroyed. With firewatchers on the roof and the civic plate and paintings removed to safer locations, the Mansion House itself survived without damage. There have been many female lord mayors since and in 2017-8, the civic party was comprised solely of women.
Although the Mansion House provided premises for entertainment, accommodation and a limited number of staff, lord mayors had to be independently wealthy to afford to spend a year in civic service. They sometimes received a fee supplemented by money from tolls and freemanships, but it was not until 1923, when the first Labour Party lord mayor William Dobbie was elected, that a salary was paid and expenses could be claimed. Dobbie, elected councillor in 1911 and wounded in the First World War, was a railwayman, President of the National Union of Railwaymen and later MP for Rotherham. He was elected lord mayor again in 1947.
From 1836, the mayoral year ran from November to November. In 1947 it changed to start in May and end the following May. The mayor-making ceremony has probably always been held in the Guildhall, but in 2018 this was being refurbished so the Merchant Adventurers Hall was the venue. At ceremonies in the past, it was customary to provide gallons of “burnt wine” – brandy – with which to drink the lord mayor’s health. Special porcelain cups inscribed with the city’s four ward names – Bootham, Mickelgate, Monk and Walmgate, each quarter named after the Bar – are on display in the Mansion House. Thought to have been made in Liverpool in the 1790s, 55 cups survive at the Mansion House and there is another set in the City Art Gallery.
Carved by Daniel Harvey in 1732, the city’s coat of arms at one end of the State Room over the fireplace – opposite the full royal arms of the United Kingdom on the other side of the room – features a sword and mace and a ceremonial cap, the symbols of power and royal delegation. York was given its first ceremonial cap, known as the Cap of Maintenance, by Richard II, designating the mayor as the king’s representative and chief magistrate. The cap was carried before the mayor to symbolise the power of the king. Although the original no longer exists, its replacement, a Tudor cap of 1580 survives. This was worn by the sword-bearer on civic occasions. It remained in use until 1915 when King George V presented one made from his coronation robes. The most recent cap was given by Queen Elizabeth II in 2012 to mark 800 years since the first Royal Charter. All three caps are now on display in the Mansion House dining room.
Emphasising their status, and shared only with the cities of London and Bristol, the mayors of York could ‘cause their sword which the king has given to them, or another sword, to be carried before them with the point erect’. This is a great honour for a city and only in the presence of the monarch is the sword carried with the point down. Today, when the Queen is on an official visit to the city, she is greeted at Micklegate Bar by the sword-bearer who, partially unsheathing the sword, presents it to her; she touches the blade and is allowed to enter. This was also the practice in medieval London at Temple Bar when the Lord Mayor offered his sword in acknowledgement of the city’s ancient privileges and the sovereign’s dependency on its wealth.
York’s state sword was reputably made for the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Bohemia in 1416 on becoming a Knight of the Garter, the chivalric order whose members are chosen by the monarch. During his lifetime, it hung over his stall in the choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor. After Sigismund’s death, the sword was given to Henry Hanslap, a canon of Windsor and of Howden, who presented it to the city in 1439. In 1549 another impressive sword was presented to the city by Sir Martin Bowes, Lord Mayor of London, 1545-6. The Bowes family lived at a house, now the Black Swan, in Peasholme Green. Sir Martin’s great grandfather was mayor of York in 1417 and his grandfather mayor in 1443.
In 1396 York was granted the right to have a mace, another symbol of authority and, originally, a practical weapon carried by the sergeant-at-arms to protect the monarch. The current silver-gilt Great Mace dates from 1647 and is carried into the council chamber when the lord mayor attends full council. The mace-bearer and the sword-bearer precede the civic party on ceremonial occasions.
Restoration and conservation
York Civic Trust was founded in 1946 at a meeting in the Mansion House and this is commemorated on a plaque in the entrance hall. Since then the trust has supported several Mansion House restoration campaigns over the decades and contributed to the latest £2.7 million restoration (2015-8), the first major work on the building since the 18th century. This recent three-year restoration was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund with the main aim to make the property more accessible to the public. Works included strengthening the foundations, updating the heating and lighting systems, restoring the ornate plaster ceiling of the State Room, and creating a secure and interpretative display for the collection of civic plate and regalia..
Visitors can now see the restored dining room where the ancient civic regalia is on show and the dining table has been set for a lavish banquet of several courses. Food historian Annie Gray advised on suitable dishes from the Georgian period. Dr Gray, along with fellow food historian Peter Brears, played a major part in the re-creation of the original kitchen in the basement with its open fire, ovens and roasting spit, and the adjoining pantries, butler’s room and porcelain stores. Here the open fire is now once more used to cook typical 18th-century food and the public can enjoy preparing two “virtual reality” recipes. However, to support food preparation for this century’s civic occasions, there is a concealed, up-to-date catering kitchen.
The display of civic plate is witness to the banquets that used to take place and to the gifts bestowed on the city by well-wishers, prominent citizens and former lord mayors keen to make their mark on posterity and to enrich the city’s prosperity. Among the silver spoons, tankards, candlesticks, ladles and punchbowls are Marmaduke Best’s solid gold cup of 1672, complete with its original wood, velvet and leather carrying case, and an impressive silver chamber pot. Both are engraved with the arms of Marmaduke Rawdon, a merchant and alderman of the 17th century.
The ancient city seals date from the late 1190s and some were in use to approve official documents until the late 20th century. An interesting seal to look out for dates from the 16th century and was used to stamp passports for citizens wanting to travel outside York. Homeless vagrants were not welcome in other parishes and some form of identity was needed. To be a citizen of York was indeed a matter of pride and privilege.
New plaque, March 2019
On 13 March 2019, a new YCT blue plaque was unveiled for the Mansion House. It replaces an older, brass plaque and now celebrates the building as the ‘first purpose-built mayoral residence in the country’. This corrects a previous error over the building’s construction date. It also omits the brass plaque’s gender-specific phrasing of ‘The residence of the Lord Mayor during his year of office’. The unveiling, which was attended by York’s civic party. YCT’s Chair, Andrew Scott and members of the Trust’s Historians Group, also celebrated recent conservation work that has been carried out to the building.
Charles Kightly and Rachel Semlyen, Lords of the City, The Lord Mayors and their Mansion House (York, 1980)
Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave, The Buildings of England, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding (London, 1995)
‘Other Public Buildings’, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 5, Central (London, 1981), pp96-105. British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/york/vol5/pp96-105 [accessed 20 July 2018]
‘The later middle ages: The city’s franchise and officers’, A History of the County of York: the City of York, ed. P.M. Tillott (London, 1961), pp. 69-75. British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp69-75 [accessed 27 July 2018]
For opening times and further information about the Mansion House, including a full list of lord mayors, visit www.mansionhouseyork.com
The performance programme for the York Waits can be found at www.theyorkwaits.org.uk
With thanks to Richard Pollitt and staff at the Mansion House for additional research and information.
© Rachel Semlyen
Photos: Rachel Semlyen