5 College Street, York YO1 7JF

Built on the site of two of York Minster’s prebendary houses, St William’s College is a remarkable survival of a college of chantry priests built on a courtyard plan. After the Dissolution, the college passed into secular ownership. Over the years it was divided and adapted, serving as a school, shops and the town residence of some of the leading county families. In the 20th century, it was acquired by Frank Green who restored the building and sold it back to York Minster.

St William’s College and College Green at the East End of the Minster

Founded to provide accommodation for priests serving chantries in the Minster, St William’s College was begun in c.1465. There had been previous attempts, as early as 1414, to found a college. In 1455, Henry VI granted a licence to William Booth, Archbishop of York, and Henry, Earl of Northumberland for the establishment of a college dedicated to St William and, in January 1457, the prebendal house of Thomas Ferrer or Farrow, Prior of Hexham and prebendary of Salton, was leased to the college for 40s. a year. Four years later, in May 1461, Edward IV granted a new licence for the college to George Neville, Bishop of Exeter, and his brother Richard, 16th Earl of Warwick. The members of the college were to comprise a provost and 23 fellows. In the same month John Welles, the new prebendary of Salton, confirmed the lease of his house to the ‘newly founded’ college.

The new licence made better financial provision for the college as the intention was always that it would be housed in a dedicated building and not in rented accommodation. By 1465, construction of a new college was in progress as Edward IV made a grant of stone ‘lying within the quarry of Hodlestone by the bank of the River Ouse for the better building of the College’. St William’s College was built on the site of two prebendal houses; in addition to the Salton house, in November 1465 Fulk Bermyngham, prebendary of Husthwaite, had also granted the college the use of his prebendal house which was next door to Salton for an annual rent of 6s. 8d. It is not clear how much of the fabric of the two original houses remains in the current building, though the west wall incorporates reused stone of varying dates.

Sir Michael Stanhope (d.1552)

The college was affected by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-41); a 1536 survey shows that it still had 24 fellows. In 1549, the building was granted to Sir Michael Stanhope who was, at the time, Edward VI’s Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Prior to this he had been the king’s Groom of the Stool, the most influential courtier in the royal entourage, as well as the lieutenant of the garrison at Kingston upon Hull and, later, the governor of Hull. However, this was to be the peak of Stanhope’s career; he soon fell out of favour and, in October 1549, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Although, in early 1551, he was released and reappointed to the governorship of Kingston upon Hull, in October of the same year he was implicated in a plot to assassinate John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, and returned to the Tower. He was found guilty and beheaded on Tower Hill on 26 February 1552.

There were a number of owners of the property over the next few years until, in the 1570s, the college was acquired by John Jenkins who had come to York as Receiver General of the Crown land revenues. His son, Sir Henry Jenkins, was elected MP for Boroughbridge in 1604 and was sheriff of Yorkshire, 1623-4. Although three of his sons were royalists in the Civil War, Henry remained neutral. He died in 1646. His son Tobias failed to secure a parliamentary seat at York in 1685, but his grandson, also called Tobias, represented the city as a Whig five times between 1695 and 1722. Tobias Jnr was made a Freeman of the City of York in 1695, became an alderman in 1698 and was Lord Mayor of York twice, 1701-2 and 1720-1. He died in 1730, his fortunes ruined by the expense of contesting so many York elections.

The property remained in the ownership of the Jenkins’ family and their descendants until the 20th century and was adapted over the years, undergoing internal alterations to suit a variety of new uses and different occupants. In the 18th century, shops were created on the street front and the elegant bow windows of these remain. A school was accommodated in part of the building in the 19th century. Sections of the divided building were let to a series of prominent county families; it was one of the most desirable addresses in the city. During the early building campaign at Castle Howard (1701-21), Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle, had a residence here.

Robert Benson (1st Lord Bingley) 1675-1731

The next owner of St William’s College was Robert Benson, 1st Lord Bingley, who was born at Wrenthorpe, near Wakefield, in 1675. He inherited St William’s College from his mother, Dorothy, daughter of Tobias Jenkins. Robert’s father, also called Robert, had pursued the career of a lawyer through turbulent political times, succeeding in prospering under Charles I, the Commonwealth and the restored Charles II. He held the position of clerk of the peace for the West Riding, 1637-46. Following the Restoration, he became clerk of the York Assizes, a post he held for 11 years until 1672 when he became a Treasury official. Having built up a large fortune, when he died in 1676, he left the infant Robert ‘£3,000 per annum in land and £120,000 in money’.

Following in the footsteps of other rich young men of the time, Robert completed his education with a Grand Tour of Europe in 1697. In Rome he met Heneage Finch, created 1st Earl of Aylesford in 1714, whose daughter, Elizabeth, he was later to marry. Visiting formal French gardens and studying Italian architecture would influence the design of his future country seat, Bramham Park, near Wetherby, which is still owned by his descendants. Several architects have been suggested as the designer of the Palladian house, including William Talman who, at the time, was designing Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. William Thornton, who was working at Wentworth Castle, near Barnsley, and Ledston Hall, near Leeds, was certainly involved in some aspects of the project. However, it is likely that Robert was the driving force behind the creation of one of Yorkshire’s greatest houses. On his return from the Grand Tour, Robert became known for his architectural expertise, advising Lord Raby on the construction of Wentworth Castle and providing a scheme for remodelling Ledston Hall for Lady Betty Hastings.

Bramham Park’s extensive formal gardens and landscaped park are ‘the least altered and remarkable survivals in England of planning on a grand scale of a park in the French manner of Le Nôtre’, according to Pevsner, and it is thought that Versaille’s landscape architect, André le Nôtre himself, may have been responsible for the design. Work on the house began around 1705 and the interior was not yet complete in 1728.

In addition to supervising the construction of Bramham Park, Robert Benson had a successful career in both politics and business. He was MP for York from 1705 until 1713, joining the Government in 1710, first as Commissioner of the Treasury and then Lord Treasurer to Queen Anne. He was Lord Mayor of York, 1707-8, and in 1713 he became Ambassador to Spain and was created Lord Bingley. His last appointment was as Treasurer to the Household of George II. He died on 9 April 1731 and is buried in St Paul’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

George Fox Lane, 2nd Lord Bingley (1697-1773)

As Robert Benson had no male heirs, his daughter, Harriet, inherited Bramham Park and St William’s College together with a fortune of £100,000 and £7,000 in estate rents. She also inherited her father’s interest in landscape design and began to adorn Bramham’s formal landscape with temples in both the Gothic and Classical styles. She married George Fox on 12 July 1731, only three months after her father’s death. George added Lane to his surname in 1751 when he inherited the Irish estates of his uncle James Lane, 2nd Viscount Lanesborough. He was Lord Mayor of York in 1757 and was MP for York from 1742 until 1761 when he stood down in favour of his son. His deceased father-in-law’s title was re-created in 1762 and George became the 2nd Lord Bingley. George’s son, Robert, was MP for York from 1761 until 12 March 1768 when his father declined the nomination due to ill health. He died in May 1768 at the early age of 35.

James Fox Lane (1756 -1821)

On the death of George Fox Lane in 1773, as his son had predeceased him, Bramham Park was left to his illegitimate daughter, Mary Burgoyne, for her lifetime. Mary married Sir John Goodricke of Ribston Hall, near Wetherby. Relations with George’s widow, Harriet, were strained and it is said that the Goodrickes ‘despoiled Bramham, carrying off household silver, furniture, stone garden ornaments and cutting down a fine oak wood’. By Mary’s death in 1792, the value of the estate had been much reduced. Bramham Park was inherited by George’s nephew, James Fox Lane who restored the estate’s fortunes. Before inheriting, James had married Marcia Pitt, youngest daughter of George, 1st Baron Rivers, in 1789 and was elected MP for Horsham in 1804. William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister 1783-1801 and 1804-6, offered to revive the Bingley title but James refused, explaining that he was from one of ‘the few old English families – a commoner (not a trader), of high birth and position’. He was a traditional squire and his main passion was fox-hunting, establishing the Bramham Moor Hunt, which is, perhaps, why he reversed the family name to Lane Fox. The Prince Regent was a close friend and would visit Bramham to join the hunt.

George Lane Fox (1793-1848)

George’s ostentatious lifestyle was encouraged by his marriage to the flamboyant Georgiana Buckley, known for her beauty and brilliant conversation. At the Lane Fox’s London townhouse, Georgiana maintained a celebrated salon frequented by the nobility, politicians, literary figures and other leading members of society. The politician, diarist and gossip Thomas Creevey referred to her as ‘the notorious Mrs Lane Fox’. However, the couple’s two strong personalities resulted in the breakdown of their marriage and formal separation, following a costly settlement.

While George was away attending the funeral of the 2nd Baron Rivers in July 1828, a fire destroyed the interior of Bramham Park. He abandoned Bramham and, in 1840, purchased the neighbouring Bowcliffe estate. On his death in 1848, his estates were inherited by his son, also called George, together with debts of £175,000. George Jnr was, therefore, unable to rebuild Bramham and spent much of his life attempting to settle his father’s debts.

During the nineteenth century, St William’s College remained in the ownership of the Lane Fox family. However, on the death of James Lane Fox, George Lane Fox Snr’s grandson, in 1906, the college was acquired by Frank Green. Bramham Park was inherited by George Richard Lane Fox, great grandson of George Lane Fox Snr, who had married Agnes, the daughter of the 2nd Viscount Halifax in 1903. The sale of property surplus to requirements and his advantageous marriage, provided George Richard with the necessary funds to restore Bramham Park. This was carried out sympathetically, and in some style, from 1908 onwards by one of the leading architectural firms of the day, Billerey & Blow, creating a luxurious Edwardian country house in the years immediately before the First World War.

Frank Green’s restoration

The Green family’s fortune was established by Frank’s grandfather, Edward, who invented and patented a fuel economiser in 1843, advancing technology in the great age of steam. Greens Power is still based in Wakefield today, specialising in developing systems for renewable energy applications particularly in the waste-to-energy and biomass sectors. Frank worked for the family firm, becoming its head on the death of his father in 1923. The family had moved to York in 1888 and lived at Nunthorpe Hall overlooking York Racecourse. During the First World War, the hall was lent to the Red Cross as an auxiliary hospital. Although, in 1916, the hall was bombed, it continued in operation until 1919 when it was reoccupied by the Lycett-Greens. The building was demolished in 1977.

In 1897-8, Frank Green bought Treasurer’s House, next door to the college, and commissioned architect Temple Lushington Moore to carry out an extensive restoration, 1898-1900. By the 1900s, St William’s College had fallen into disrepair and Frank Green decided to rescue the building, purchasing it in 1906 and once more commissioning Moore to carry out alterations and renovations, 1906-11. Temple Moore’s approach to the restoration of historic buildings was radical, re-creating missing features, forming new window openings, inserting new staircases and carving out new rooms from divided interiors. At St William’s College, internal partitions were removed to form a more impressive entrance hall and two large halls were created on the upper floor of the north and west ranges. The Maclagan Memorial Hall in the north range was opened in 1911. In 1912, Green sold the college to the church authorities as a meeting place for the Convocation of the Province of York.

More than a century later, the college is once more the subject of a major overhaul as part of a new masterplan for the Minster precinct. The Minster offices and meeting rooms are to be housed on the first floor and a new café and restaurant is planned for the ground floor.


‘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 18 September 2018]

‘Benson, Robert (1676-1731), of Red Hall, nr. Wakefield; Bramham Hall, Yorks.; and Queen Street, Westminster’, The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley (ed.), (Martlesham, Suffolk, 2002)

‘Jenkins, Sir Henry (1569/70-1646), of Great Busby, Yorks. and St. William’s College, York’, The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris (ed.), (Cambridge, 2010)

‘Jenkins, Tobias (1660-1730), of Grimston, Yorks.’, The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley (ed.), (Martlesham, Suffolk, 2002)

Peter Leach and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Yorkshire West Riding, Leeds, Bradford and the North (London, 2009)

© Richard Wilcock