The Guildhall

Pages 76-81

An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 5, Central. Originally published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1981.

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The Guildhall

(36) Guildhall (Plates 68, 69; Figs. 46–48) stands on the E. bank of the River Ouse behind the Mansion House. The main hall, begun in 1449, was reduced to a shell in an air raid in April 1942, but was faithfully restored to its original form and was reopened in June 1960.

A guildhall in York is mentioned in 1256 in a charter of Henry III. The court of the mayor and bailiffs was held there in 1330 and 1368. There was an inner chamber called in 1416 the 'council chamber within the Common Hall' (SS, CXXV (1915), 52). A lane under the 'Common Hall' was in existence in the 14th century (SS, CXX (1914), 30–1). It survives under the N. aisle of the present Guildhall but appears to have been substantially reconstructed in the 15th century with the rebuilding of the Guildhall above. Civic administration was divided between the Guildhall and the Council Chamber on the N. side of Ouse Bridge near St. William's Chapel (York III, 48–50). This council chamber, first mentioned in 1376, accommodated the main civic officers and the records.

The decision to rebuild the Guildhall may have been taken as early as 1433/4 when the Dean and Chapter sold the mayor 24 'doleis' of ashlar blocks. Mayoral elections in 1445 and 1448 at the Franciscan Friary (YCA, C2: 2; C1A cited by Raine, 206) suggest that the Guildhall was not then usable, and in his will dated 1444 Thomas Carr left five marks towards the fabric of the new hall. More funds became available when it was agreed to share the costs of building with the Guild of St. Christopher, to which the Guild of St. George was subsequently united. The Mayor and Commonalty of York and the Guild of St. Christopher agreed in November 1445 to build a new guildhall in 'Conyngstrete' with a chamber at the W. end, a cellar under the E. end, and other buildings including a pantry and buttery. The hall was to be at least 42 royal ells (157 ft. 6 in.) long and to be built on land belonging to the Corporation. The Guild should have the right to use the hall, buttery and pantry on the feast day of St. James, when the feast of St. Christopher was also celebrated in York, and five days before and after, to keep wine in the cellar, and share the rents of the cellar if it were let. The Guild also received a grant from the Corporation of land E. of the Guildhall on which its chapel and a maison dieu were later built; this site is now occupied by the Mansion House.

The Corporation reserved the right of access to the Guildhall and work began in 1446 with the building of an arched gateway to Coney Street with a small room over it, for which stone was brought from Tadcaster and Cawood. This building, known as the Common Hall Gates, was demolished in 1726. The Guildhall itself was started in 1449. Extensive accounts survive for that year, with further incomplete accounts to 1454 (YCA, C1A, ff. 4–10). Robert Couper, mason, was in charge, assisted by John Barton, master mason of York Minster. In February 1449 3d. was spent on food and drink for workmen driving in piles for the foundations and 1d. for cords for marking out the dimensions. Worked stone from the old Guildhall for re-use cost 66s. 8d. Twenty trusses of straw were needed to thatch the mason's lodge. Large quantities of stone arrived from Newton quarry near Tadcaster, some by road and some by water. The Chamberlains' Rolls suggest that the masons' work was completed in 1453/4 when building material was being removed from the Guildhall site for repairs at King's Staith and Layerthorpe Bridge, and Couper was by then working near Walmgate Bar (YCA, C1A, f. 135v). Work must have continued for some years, since Richard Wartere left £20 in 1458 for the making and upkeep of the hall if building work was not completed before his death; a further 20s. was left by Thomas Barton in 1461 (Wills, IV, ff. 115v–117; ii, f. 451v). The building was sufficiently complete by May 1459 for use for a public meeting (SS, cxxv (1915), 203).

Few Chamberlains' Rolls survive from the second half of the 15th century and the work of carpenters and joiners at the Guildhall is undocumented. John Harvey ('Some Notes from the York Guildhall' in The Builder, clxix (1945), 165–6) suggests that the roof was designed by John Foulford, who was working for the Corporation in 1448. He may also have been known as John Wright, freeman in 1444/5, died 1466. His assistants may have been two Flemings, James Dam, freeman 1456/7, and David Dam, alias Carver, who appears in the Minster Fabric Rolls. Of the shields on roof bosses which survived until 1942, two which have been tentatively identified suggest that the roof was completed in 1458. One shield may have borne the arms of Richard Wartere, whose will of 1458 was mentioned above; the second bore a merchant's mark and initials WH, perhaps for William Holbeck, mayor for the second time in 1458.

Canvas used in the Creed Play performed before Richard III in 1483 was stained and painted at the expense of Thomas Gray, Master of St. Christopher's Guild, and used as wall hangings in the hall. Between 1496 and 1503 gifts of wainscot for 'selyng' the walls of the hall are recorded (YCA, B8, ff. 5–5v, 32v–33; YCR 2, 190). Cooper in 1909 (Guildhall, 14) stated that wainscotting to a height of 5 or 6 ft. had been removed in recent years.

The hall followed the usual mediaeval pattern in having a screens passage across the E. end and a dais at the W. end with an open fireplace in the middle. Nycholes Norres, joiner, was paid 5s. in 1554 for 'the trellys aboute the louer' (YCR 5, 109), and a new louvre was made at a cost of £4. 3s. 4d. in 1594/5 (YCA, C8, f. 61v) in the course of general repairs to the lead roof. The louvre was surmounted by a cupola which was removed in 1772 (Davies, 52), when the louvre itself was also presumably removed. Over the screens passage was a gallery which was removed c. 1724. The dais was enclosed by a wooden screen with doors which needed mending in 1554 (YCR 5, 109) and in 1605 the King's arms were put up over the Lord Mayor's seat. Sir Robert Watter, who died in 1612, spent £200 on repairs to the hall and in 1724 a committee was appointed for repairing and beautifying the hall; window mullions were to be repaired, the floor repaved and pillars, heads, knotts and coats-of-arms and the 'sealing' round the hall painted (YCA, B42, ff. 52–7).

The hall was used for a variety of purposes. Plays may have been performed here before the visits of travelling players in 1581 and 1592 but were forbidden following disturbances in the latter year, when much damage was caused. During the Assizes the Crown Court sat at the W. end of the hall and the Court of Nisi Prius at the E. end. Jury boxes made by Miles Close were paid for in January 1765 (YCA, C45, f. 17V).

The windows of the hall were partly glazed and partly shuttered. On 14 August 1566 it was agreed that the glass windows be mended and Richard Aynly, Keeper of the Common Hall, was charged with keeping the wooden shutters closed to keep birds out (YCR 5, 148). Henry Gyles painted an armorial W. window in 1682. William Peckitt contributed a stained glass 'Emblem of this Corporation . . .' for which he was made a freeman in January 1754. A decision to complete the glazing of all the windows was taken in 1760 (YCA, M17). Glass illustrating the city's history, by various 19th-century designers, has not survived. The W. window now contains glass of 1960 by H. W. Harvey. Repairs and improvements in the 19th century included the installation of gas lighting in 1840 and major repairs to the roof and stonework after a survey by G. T. Andrews in 1846.

Grouped round the E. end of the Guildhall were service buildings including a kitchen, buttery and pantry. They were put to a variety of uses other than their primary purposes, being let as stores and used for the custody of prisoners at the assizes and for keeping ammunition. All have now been removed. Underneath the hall were cellars with access from the Common Hall Lane and by a staircase in the thickness of the E. wall of the hall; the cellars were filled with earth in 1649.

At the W. end of the hall is the Inner Chamber, with further rooms to the N. and on the first floor above, but some rooms N. of the hall have been demolished. The Inner Chamber itself was damaged during the Civil War when stores and arms were kept there, and in September 1644 it was not possible to enter the Inner Chamber 'by reason it was broken down' (YCA, B36, f. 105V). Repairs were ordered in December and completed the following month (YCA, B36, ff. 105V, 163V). The overmantel has an inscription recording the decoration of the room in 1679 at the charge of Sir John Hewley. In February 1730 the floor of the Inner Chamber was to be raised and the cellar below underdrawn. In 1762 Christopher Perett carved an oak frieze for the chimney board.

There seems to have been a separate room for each of the wards of the city, which were reduced in number from six to four in 1530. In 1738 it was decided to move the city records from Ouse Bridge to a room over the Micklegate ward room. In 1808 plans were prepared for the construction of a new council chamber to replace that at Ouse Bridge which was to be pulled down when the bridge was rebuilt (YCA, B47, 253). This chamber was probably completed before the old Council Chamber was demolished in 1810, and was incorporated in a new two-storey block erected S. of the old Inner Chamber. Peter Atkinson the younger, the City Steward, was the architect and was paid fifty guineas in January 1811 for designing it and superintending its erection. A new and larger council chamber with municipal offices, designed by E. G. Mawbey, City Surveyor, were built N. of the Guildhall in 1889–91 (VCH, York, 543).

Fig. 46. (36) Guildhall. E. elevation.

Architectural Description. The Guildhall itself takes the form of an aisled hall of six bays with walls of magnesian limestone and timber columns supporting the roof. The elevation of the E. end is shown in Fig. 46 where the renewed upper part of the stonework is approximately indicated. The moulded plinth steps up near the N. end over the arched entrance to Common Hall Lane, of which only the top is now visible. The central arched doorway has moulded jambs (Fig. 47b), moulded label with head-stops and, at the apex, a demi-angel holding a shield (Plate 158). To the S. is a small two-light window and between it and the doorway a blocked opening marks the position of the head of the cellar stairs. The main window has five lights with vertical tracery.

The N. and S. elevations are both divided by buttresses into six bays with moulded string-courses below the windows and at the base of the parapet. On the N. side the E. bay contains a blocked doorway with four-centred head which originally gave access to the screens passage. On the S. side the E. bay retains only slight traces of the blocking of a corresponding doorway. In each bay on each side is a three-light window with vertical tracery. A view of the hall in 1807, by Halfpenny, shows that the W. window on the S. side formerly came down to a lower level, giving extra light to the dais end. The W. end of the hall rises above the adjacent rooms with a five-light window under the gable (Plate 68).

Internally the E. wall has been heavily restored. The apex of the arched entrance to the Common Hall Lane is visible above floor level, cut into the lower ashlar courses which are deeper than elsewhere. An offset in the masonry, at the level of the sill of the main window for most of its length but higher to the N., marks the position of a gallery. To S. of the entrance doorway, the wall is thickened to contain a staircase from the former cellar. The head of the stairs is lit by a two-light arched opening with cinquefoil cusping. The top of the thickening is marked by a splayed offset.

A moulded string-course runs the length of both N. and S. walls, at sill level. In the W. bay of the N. wall is a doorway of c. 1890, and in the adjacent bay a narrower doorway leading to the 19th-century additions is much damaged but appears to be mediaeval. In the S. wall a doorway was formed in the W. bay in c. 1810 to give access to the new building. In the W. wall the doorways at the N. and S. ends are generally similar to each other, with four-centred arched heads and labels, but the S. doorway (Plate 162; Fig. 47a) has flatter mouldings and incorporates a 17th-century cartouche containing grotesque masks (Plate 182). The N. doorway is now blocked. One coneshaped stone bracket in the N.W. corner, and a worn fragment to left of the W. window, survived the fire of 1942. Brackets flanking the W. window, and one window on each long side, appear in Halfpenny's view of 1807.

The roof is supported by new octagonal oak columns standing on moulded stone bases. The columns have moulded capitals from which spring arched spandrel braces to the arcade plates, cambered tie-beams and aisle ties. Opposite the ends of the lines of columns are grotesque carved stone corbels carrying the end braces, replacing corbels carved with the symbols of the Evangelists. Against the aisle walls are posts standing on stone corbels; at the foot of each post is a half-figure bearing a shield.

The main timbers of the new roof are moulded, and the wall-plates are embattled. The tie-beams, arcade plates, purlins and ridge-purlins, together with heavy rafters in the middle of each bay, divide the roof into a series of rectangular compartments, with carved bosses at the intersections of the main members. The bosses include grotesque heads, angels, most of which carry shields, half-figures playing musical instruments, half-figures of gymnasts, foliage and woodwozes. These modern bosses are based on drawings of those destroyed made by E. Ridsdale Tate during restoration in 1937 (Guildhall, 17; see also Morrell, Woodwork, 93, Fig. 93).

John Harvey (op. cit.) recorded all the shields which bore arms or merchants' marks in 1942. The present replicas appear in slightly different positions from those shown on his plan. The modern royal arms replace a shield supported by two angels, with England and France quarterly, but reversed, sinister for dexter throughout. Apart from the arms of the City of York, only one other heraldic shield represents an original: argent a chevron engrailed azure impaling azure a bend argent, possibly for Richard Wartere and the Guild of St. Christopher. The original colours are uncertain. Five shields with merchants' marks, one bearing the initials W H, were recorded in the hall. Two were similar to a merchant's mark which occurs twice in Committee Room 1.

Three glass panels, formerly believed to come from the W. window of the Guildhall, are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. They include the Stuart royal arms (Plate 187) and are by Henry Gyles, with one restored pane inscribed 'Repaired April 1825 by J. Barnett, College St., York' (York Educational Settlement, York History No. 3 (n.d.), 109–117).

The Committee Rooms, to W. of the hall, form three distinct groups (Plate 68). At the N. end is a two-storey block of 15th-century date, built above the entrance to the Common Hall Lane and a compartment opening off it. The central portion, of similar date, contains the Inner Chamber, now Committee Room 1, built above a basement, now filled in. At the S. end is a two-storey block above a basement, of c. 1810 but largely rebuilt. The main river frontage, the W. elevation, is of magnesian limestone ashlar apart from the basement of the S. block, which is of brown gritstone. There is a plinth to either side of the Common Hall Lane archway which is of two chamfered orders. A rectangular opening with chamfered reveals, splayed internally, lights the compartment to N. of the lane entrance. All the ground-floor windows, and the first window around the corner on the S. elevation, have four-centred arched heads, moulded reveals and hood moulds. First-floor windows are square-headed, of two lights, with moulded reveals and hood moulds. In the N. block the lights have trefoiled heads, in the S. block cinque-foiled heads with vertical tracery. All three blocks have slightly oversailing embattled parapets carried on moulded string-courses. A worn spout, to the left and below the northernmost ground-floor window, does not correspond to any surviving internal feature. In the angle between the main hall and the S. block is an octagonal stair-turret with a conical roof, containing a newel staircase. The S. block is of brick except for the stone parapet and stone W. end. The E. elevation is modern.

Inside, on the ground floor the only original features are found in Committee Room 1, in the central block, the old Inner Chamber. The subdivision of the room to the N., in the N. block, may date from 1789. No original features survive in the room above, except for the head of the mural staircase from the Inner Chamber, and the S. block has been largely rebuilt and refitted internally. Committee Room 1 is approximately rectangular, with projections in the N.E. corner for a straight staircase and in the S.E. corner for a spiral staircase. The staircase doorways have chamfered reveals marked with masons' marks. The 15th-century masonry is visible above the panelling, which is in two heights, divided by a dado rail (Fig. 10a) and surmounted by a cornice incorporating a band of foliage. The door from the hall, under a four-centred arched head, is of six fielded panels (Plate 162). The fireplace in the E. wall has an early 19th-century white marble surround. Above the surround is a rococo foliage spray enclosing the arms of York below a moulded and enriched cornice, probably by Christopher Perett 1762, and above again is a panel with a moulded and enriched surround, within which scrolls and grotesque faces frame an inscription 'Cameratum et ornatum Fuit conclave hoc sumptibus Johannis Hewley Militis 1679 Ricardo Shaw Maiore' (Plate 197). Above the cornice is a cartouche with Hewley's shield-of-arms. The glass panel of Justice in a Triumphal Car by William Peckitt, formerly in Committee Room 1 and now in the City Art Gallery (York IV, 46a and Plate facing p. xlix), is probably not the original of 1754 but a replacement by Peckitt of 1765 (J. T. Brighton, 'York's Car of Justice Pursued', J.Br.Soc.M.G-P., XV (1974–5), No. 3, 17–22). At the N. end of the room is a panel with the Stuart royal arms (Plate 182). Two window openings in the S. wall have been blocked. The low-pitched roof of moulded longitudinal and transverse members (Fig. 47c) has carved bosses at the intersections (Plate 199). These include foliage, animal and human heads, royal arms, arms of the City of York, merchant's mark, Virgin and Child, and Cross of St. George.

The Common Hall Lane (Fig. 48) opens to the staith at the W. end of the Guildhall, runs under the N. aisle of the hall, and continues underground E. of the Guildhall to steps up to the yard behind the Mansion House.

The lane is enclosed by walls of magnesian limestone on the N. and S. Two-centred arches carry the E. and W. end walls of the hall and the W. wall of the two-storey 15th-century block (Plates 68, 69). A two-centred arch in the N. wall gives access to a compartment beneath the N. portion of this block. In the S. wall opposite is the blocked entrance to a former cellar under the Inner Chamber, with an inserted unglazed window in the blocking. E. of the arch, beneath the W. wall of the hall, the N. wall of the passage has at the W. end three blocked arches which gave access to cellars under buildings abutting the Guildhall and, towards the E. end, three narrow rectangular window openings, also blocked. In the S. wall a chamfered two-centred arch at the E. end, now blocked, led to the cellar under the Guildhall. The lane is ceiled with stone flags carried on timber joists.

Fig. 47. (36) Guildhall. Mouldings.

a. S. doorway in W. wall (stone).

b. Main doorway (stone).

c. Committee Room 1. Roof rib (timber).