Merchant Adventurers' Hall

Pages 81-88

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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Merchant Adventurers' Hall

Fig. 48. (36) Guildhall and Common Hall Lane.

(37) Merchant Adventurers' Hall (Plates 70–73; Figs. 49, 50) occupies a site between Fossgate and Piccadilly. It is a large building, mainly 14th-century, consisting of an Undercroft with walls of brick and stone, divided internally by timber posts into two aisles eight bays long, and a Hall on the first floor, likewise divided into two aisles, entirely of timber-framed construction. The roofs are tiled. Projecting S.E. from the undercroft is an early 15th-century Chapel. On the N.E. side is an early 17th-century addition, of two storeys and attics. A separate gatehouse of 17th-century origin fronting Fossgate has been mostly rebuilt in modern times.

The historical account which follows is largely based on The York Mercers and Merchant Adventurers 1356– 1917, by Maud Sellers (SS, cxxix (1917)) and on the archives of the company. The origin of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of York can be traced back to the Guild of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was licensed on 20 March 1357. Land for building had already been acquired the previous year by the founders. A hospital was founded by the guild in 1372, a licence being granted to John de Roecliffe on 12 February of that year; Raine (p. 75) considered this to be 'a formal approval of something already in existence'. The mercers of York, who had been prominent in the guild from the beginning, by the early 15th century became dominant, and in 1430 obtained a new charter thus changing what had previously been a religious guild, in name at least, more specifically into a merchants' company.

The earliest accounts show that substantial building operations were proceeding in 1357–61. Work started in June 1357, but the largest amounts of materials were bought in 1358, including 60 trees from Bolton Percy for 27s. 6d., 100 oaks from Thorpe Underwood for £21, 14 tons of stone from Tadcaster and 20,000 bricks (walteghill) bought for £6 from the Carmelite Friars of York. This material represents the main structure of the building as it still stands. The number of bricks contained in the walls of the undercroft appears to approximate to those bought in 1358, and single-light windows in the S.W. wall, with shouldered rear-arches, are consistent with the date. The timber-framed hall has some features, such as the use of kerb-principals in the roof trusses, which are not otherwise found in York until a later period, but it is nevertheless most likely to date from the first period of building. There is a reference to a great hall in 1368 and there is no later record of work on this scale. The accounts from 1432 onwards often refer to repairs to Trinity Hall (as it was then commonly known), which could imply that the building was old enough to need continual maintenance. A chapel existed from the beginning, and among the accounts for 1361 is 12d. for carriage of a great stone for the altar. In 1400 money was left to the fabric of a new chapel and a licence to celebrate in it was granted in 1411. The old chapel was said to be dilapidated and if it was on the same site as its successor, at the end of the building nearest to the River Foss, it is possible that it had suffered from flooding or inadequate foundations. The hospital occupied the undercroft and was connected to the chapel by a wide opening of 1411, through which a good view of the altar could be obtained even though the chapel is only a little wider than the S.W. aisle, a view facilitated, perhaps fortuitously, by the slightly different alignment of the chapel. In 1432 a 'rerdose' was made in the kitchen which was then probably in a separate building, but expenditure in the 15th and early 16th centuries was generally confined to repairs, most frequently on the roof, and the replacement or making of glass windows in the chapel and great hall. Stone mullioned windows of two or three lights with cinque-foiled heads in the S.E. and N.E. walls of the undercroft are alterations of the 15th or early 16th century and may possibly be identified with work recorded in 1515. The N.W. wall of the undercroft and an adjoining length of the N.E. wall were originally timber-framed but were rebuilt in brick in the 16th century, incorporating a range of small square-headed windows.

More extensive improvements began in the late 16th century. In 1571 and again two years later money was spent on 'seallyng of the hall'; this probably refers to panelling on the walls, and may coincide with the beginning of subdivision of the hall into smaller rooms and the insertion of plaster ceilings into the open roofs. A large internal chimney-stack that serves four fireplaces in the undercroft and two on the first floor may be a new chimney referred to in 1575. In 1585 there is a reference to 'rough casting' the ends of the hall.

The addition on the N.E. side which covers the original entrance cannot be identified in the accounts, but is of early 17th-century date. It consists of three short ranges side by side, each gabled to the N.E.; the ground-floor walls are of brick and the upper parts timber-framed. The first-floor rooms were always ceiled, with lofts above. The chapel was altered and re-roofed in 1667, and new seating, which still survives, was installed (Drake, 301). In the late 17th century it was used by French protestants in York. In 1698–9 it was resolved to put up a chimney and firestead 'in the passage that leads to the chapel... to make the hall more commodious for feasting'. It is not clear precisely where this was but it is probably one of the fireplaces in the large stack erected in 1575. The windows in the hall were altered in the 18th century. Drake wrote in 1736 (p. 301) that the building had been 'lately sashed', and the accounts for the same year record that money was spent on window shutters.

A survey of the hall was made in February 1814 by the York architects Atkinson and Phillips. The plans (Brierley, Leckenby, Keighley and Groom; Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies, University of York) show the hall divided by a wall on the line of the central posts, and a number of smaller rooms at the N.W. end consisting of a kitchen, soup room and Court of Assistants Room. In the hospital in the undercroft there was a public room and separate men's and women's apartments, some heated by fireplaces in the stack of 1575. In the N.E. addition there was a housekeeper's apartment, a 'boot house', and several tenements. In 1818 it was recorded that there were ten poor people in the hospital, five men and five women (Hargrove, 286), and the hospital was still in use in 1887. The process of restoration of the hall began in the late 19th century. In 1893 the later plaster covering was stripped from the S.W. wall of the hall to reveal the timber framing, and subsequently this was done to the other walls. Some of the inserted ceilings in the hall had been removed by 1910, and the rest during the 1920s; the room at the N.W. end of the S.W. aisle, formerly a kitchen, was allowed to remain as a committee room, but all the partitions in the undercroft were removed in 1925 and the four fireplaces subsequently uncovered and restored. The work revealed that the undercroft floor had originally been lower than the existing one. Renovation of the structure, including much renewal of timber, continued throughout the 1930s and again after the Second World War, when a new addition was also built on the N.E. side.

Architectural Description. The Undercroft (Plate 73), at ground level, is of slightly irregular plan with a maximum length of 87 ft. and varying between 37 ft. and 42 ft. in width. The walls are entirely load-bearing, of brick and magnesian limestone. The 14th-century bricks in the N.E. and S.W. walls are 10 in. by 4½ in. by 1¾ in. The N.E. wall is of stone up to a height about 7 ft. above the present floor level, with 14th-century brick above, except that 11½ ft. at the N.W. end, originally timber-framed, is of 16th-century brick. In the third bay from the N.W. is an original doorway (Plate 71), now entered from the later addition on that side. It has a two-centred arch and chamfer externally, is rebated internally for a door and has a segmental rear-arch with small chamfer. Two bays further to the S.E. is a doorway blocked with modern brickwork. It was of similar form, but set lower down. It has a chamfer externally, but inside only the right-hand jamb of the reveal survives. Immediately to the N.W. of this doorway the wall is of modern brick. To the S.E. is an external recess with a very depressed pointed arch with inscription both on the face and the chamfer; it is in poor condition and only partly legible. The two bays at the S.E. end have much restored, late mediaeval square-headed windows of two arched and cinque-foiled lights. Other windows are modern.

The greater part of the S.E. wall has the chapel built against it. Access to the latter is gained through an early 15th-century opening, 16 ft. wide, with a four-centred arch of two chamfered orders. The part of the wall N.E. of the chapel has a moulded and chamfered plinth which is mostly below the present ground level, though an area has been excavated to expose it. The plinth returns about 1 ft. away from the existing N.E. wall of the chapel and is then immediately cut off. This feature, and a joint in the masonry of the wall above, suggest that either the chapel wall was rebuilt in 1411 in a slightly different position from the original, or the first chapel was much narrower and the return in the plinth was for a buttress. At the E. corner is a broad buttress with one weathered offset, above which it has been rebuilt in brick. The plinth returns along the S.W. and S.E. sides of the buttress; the N.E. side is not now visible at this level, but architects' working drawings made for restoration in 1925 show no indication of a plinth on that side. The wall has one much restored three-light window, similar in style and probably contemporary with the two-light windows in the N.E. wall; the masonry around it is irregular, indicating a later insertion.

The S.W. wall (Plate 70) is substantially of 14th-century brick with some patches of later restoration, but there are several courses of stonework low down, not visible from the outside where the ground level is higher. There are four original single-light windows with stone dressings (Plate 183). They have plain chamfered jambs and trefoiled heads with sunk spandrels but are very decayed except where restored. The jambs are chamfered internally but there are also, in some cases, hinges for shutters fixed to the reveals. The shouldered rear-arches have small chamfers. A fifth window has been reset in an original narrow doorway with tall pointed head. The wider two-light window in the bay at the S.E. end is a late mediaeval alteration. It has a wood frame with double hollow chamfers; the central mullion was reversed in 1925 and the moulded base, originally on the inside, is now turned to the exterior. The doorway towards the N.W. end was formed in 1923.

The N.W. wall, originally timber-framed, is of 16th-century brick. It has eight narrow rectangular windows, hollow-chamfered externally and formed entirely of brick; the five to the S.W. have, internally, wider splays and lower sills than the other three.

The timber-framed structure inside, which is considerably restored, supports the upper floor; it has a row of seven posts on a roughly central alignment dividing the undercroft into two aisles. The unequal sizes of the bays are determined by the function of the hall above. The posts stand on modern stone bases and are about 15–16 in. square, with large chamfers generally of about 4 in. They enlarge a little at the head to clasp an axial-beam and support transverse beams, all of which are also connected by curved braces. The transverse beams are supported at the outer ends by posts placed against the walls. On the N.E. wall these posts stand on quarter-round stone corbels, about 4¾ ft. above floor level; they have enlarged heads, shaped feet, and are tenoned, pegged and braced to the transverse beams. On the S.W. wall, only the post towards the S.E. end stands on a corbel; the others extend down to floor level though in each the lowest part is modern. The third, fourth and fifth wall-posts do not stand on the floor itself but on stone bases which extend down to a little over 3 ft. below floor level and have been revealed by excavation. The bases are actually reused octagonal piers with concave sides resting on upturned moulded capitals of 15th-century date. They were probably inserted in the late 16th century, and brought from one of the redundant city churches then being demolished. The joists of the hall floor span between the transverse beams to which they are pegged where the original members survive, though many are restored, and the hall floor has been levelled with packing pieces. At the N.W. end the framing differs a little. The axial-beam ends at the second post from that end and the final central post supports only a transverse beam, of which the N.E. end rests on a post extending down to floor level and now is embedded in the 16th-century brick wall; the wall-post at the S.W. end has been removed for the modern door. The joists in the end bay continue through the N.W. wall to form the jettied upper floor. Externally, every third joist has a mortice in the soffit for a brace or bracket connected to the original framing of the undercroft wall; inside there are similar mortices only in the central joist and the one against the S.W. wall.

In the S.W. aisle of the third bay from the N.W. is a group of four fireplaces, possibly inserted in 1575. They are entirely of brick, and the openings have four-centred arches with small chamfers; they were much restored in 1927. The fireplaces are separated from each other by narrow vaulted passages above which the flues are merged into a single stack. The floor around the fireplaces is 1¼ ft. below the modern level.

The Chapel (Plate 72) projects to the S.E. of the S.W. aisle of the undercroft, but is wider than the aisle and overlaps the central row of posts. It is aligned slightly more to the S. The walls are of stone up to a height of 9½ ft. to 10 ft. and probably date from 1411 though the S.W. wall may be partly of the 14th century; above the stone is about 4 ft. of brickwork, probably of 1667. The N.E. wall has a chamfered plinth which does not relate to the adjoining plinth of the undercroft. Near the N.W. end is a narrow doorway with a splayed surround and square head, blocked with brickwork, and towards the S.E. end is the position of a former window where a length of about 9½ ft. of the brick upper wall drops to a lower level. The S.E. wall has a moulded plinth at a higher level than the plinth on the N.E. wall. The single large window is of five lights under a flat head. The lights have cinque-foiled arches, but the masonry of the window, except for some jamb-stones, has been renewed and the earlier masonry taken out has been re-erected nearby to the E. The stone wall to each side of the window is rather irregular and has brick patching. In the brick gable over the window is an arched recess. The S.W. wall is continuous with that of the undercroft but on a slightly different alignment; there is no distinct break between the brickwork of the undercroft and the masonry wall of the chapel. At 5½ ft. from the S. angle is a straight joint which may mark the limit of the 14th-century chapel. There is one square-headed window of three cinque-foiled lights which, like the window in the S.E. wall, rises up into the 17th-century brickwork. There was possibly a second window further to the N.W., now blocked up. The walls are all plastered internally and the roof is modern.

Fittings—Bell: not now hung, plain, with moulded bands, possibly 17th-century. Communion Rails: with turned balusters and moulded rail, central gate between standards with ballfinials and braced to sills with shaped brackets, late 17th-century. Mace Rest: on S.W. wall, upright panel with carved arabesques and painted dates 1707 and 1801. Panelling: on S.E. wall, below window, early 17th-century. Plate: The Connoisseur (December 1967) lists several pre-1850 pieces including a cup and two tankards of the 17th century. Pulpit: eight-sided, with shaped panels on each exposed face, probably 1667. Royal Arms: on N.E. wall, painted panel with arched head and ball-finials, bearing arms of Charles II (Plate 32), dated 1669. Screen: of wood, in large archway in N.W. wall, framed partition with six trefoil-headed lights to each side of wide central opening, basically 15th-century but heavily restored and said to have been brought from elsewhere; modern tympanum of thirteen lights. Seating: complete set of 1667, benches and desks in two tiers on each side of chapel, desks have panelled fronts and ends with scrolled tops and feet, back benches attached to panelling on walls; at S.E. end, flanking sanctuary, enclosed pews, the S.W. one incorporating Governor's Seat with arms and turned legs. Tables: on N.E. wall, (1) of Lord's Prayer, Creed and Decalogue, pair of tall panels with arched heads, 17th-century; on S.W. wall, (2) with arms of the Company of Merchant Adventurers, dated 1765 (Plate 32); on both side walls, (3–5) three, one of double width, recording repairs to chapel in 1765, 1801, 1820 and 1846.

Fig. 49. (37) Merchant Adventurers' Hall.

The Great Hall (Plate 73) on the first floor is a timber-framed structure except for some later rebuilding in brick in the S.W. wall. It is eight bays long and roofed in two spans, with twin gables at each end. The bays are of approximately equal size, about 11 ft., with the exception of the S.E. bay, which is 16 ft. long and contains a slightly raised dais, and the screens bay, the second from the N.W., which is 8 ft. long. The bay at the N.W. end was originally divided off by a partition. The posts which form the main framing are about 14 ft. high and have small chamfers and enlarged heads; those in the side walls stand on and are housed into sills resting on the undercroft walls, but apart from two bays in the N.E. wall the sills are modern restorations. The posts of the central row are separate members from the posts in the undercroft, though they stand above them. They are housed into rather larger than average joists, which are parallel to and a little above the axial-beam connecting the undercroft posts. The framing in the N.E. and S.W. walls has been partly altered; the original arrangement is best preserved in the fifth and sixth bays from the S.E. in the N.E. wall, where, because of the early 17th-century addition behind, it was not disturbed in the 18th century by the insertion of sash windows. The posts have curved downward braces to the sill and are connected within each bay by a horizontal rail a little above mid-level. Below the rail is a stud placed centrally and, above, extending up to the wall-plate, a four-light window divided into two parts by a stud-like mullion, the lights otherwise separated by diamond mullions. The windows were uncovered in 1938 and are still blocked on the outer side. Adjoining one window, a panel of the infilling has a stencilled decoration of rosettes on the plaster surface, probably of the 16th century. Similar arrangements existed in the other bays of standard width in this wall; the existence of original windows can be confirmed by pegging in the wall-plate, though they were destroyed for the 18th-century windows. The fourth bay from the S.E. has one additional brace upward to the wall-plate. The wider bay at the S.E. end is different, with curved upward braces from both posts to the wall-plate, but no downward bracing below. This being the dais end of the hall there may also have been windows below the mid-rail, but the arrangement cannot now be deduced, and this bay is faced with brick externally. The seventh bay has a smaller window of only two lights. The framing of the S.W. wall is similar but less well preserved and little is visible internally. As seen from the exterior the pattern of bracing is the same but there are more studs, most of which are later insertions. The posts have been strengthened internally by modern reinforcements. The two bays at the N.W. end were rebuilt in brick, probably in the 18th century, and have a modern facing of imitation framing.

The S.E. wall is jettied out over the undercroft, part of it being within the chapel. The framing of the wall and gables has been completely renewed, but architects' drawings made in 1894 and 1935 show the condition before restoration (Brierley, Leckenby, Keighley and Groom). The N.E. half of the wall reproduces fairly accurately the previous arrangement. Below the tie-beam there are two bays, both with upward bracing, middle rails and close studding. The gable has a crown-post with cross-bracing to each side and a collar. On the inside, the lower part of this wall is lined with early 17th-century panelling. The S.W. half was restored at an earlier date and less faithfully. The joists supporting the jetty are false and not extensions of the true joists visible in the undercroft. There are two downward braces to the bressummer in addition to the upward bracing, and originally there were two intermediate rails, between which was a window of three lights with diamond mullions. The framing recorded in the gable, with close studding and two ogee-shaped struts above the collar, was not characteristic of the 14th century and was probably the result of a late 16th-century restoration. The N.W. wall (Plate 70) is fairly well preserved. A rendering which had been added in the 16th century was removed in modern restorations. There are curved braces both upward and downward from both corner-posts and the central post. Substantial horizontal rails at the same level as those in the side walls span between the posts and broad studs which extend the full height from bressummer to tie-beam on the central axis of each gable. Below these rails the wall is divided into two tiers of rectangular panels by lesser rails and studs. Above the higher rail is a further tier of panels and, under each gable, one window of four lights with diamond mullions. Under the N.E. gable there also appears to have been formerly another window of three lights only. The two gables have slightly cambered tie-beams, crown-posts with enlarged heads rising to collars and with cross-bracing to each side. The ends of the purlins and wall-plates project a few inches.

The roof trusses inside the hall are of two types. The first (Plate 133; Fig. 50) has a slightly cambered tie-beam with curved braces below down to the posts on which they are supported; the posts and braces are also connected by short struts across the spandrels. On the tie-beam stands a tall crown-post with downward bracing which meets the crownpost just below the enlarged head. The crown-post supports a braced collar-purlin and a collar. To each side is a kerbprincipal with a curved foot, rising up to the collar and supporting a side-purlin, with wind-braces above and below. On the back of it is a common rafter rising to the apex. The second type is similar but without the crown-post and associated braces. There is a second, deeper collar below the first into which the kerb-principals are tenoned and which directly supports the collar-purlin. In these trusses the wind-braces occur only below the side-purlins, and there are no struts linking the posts and braces below the tie-beams. The first, third, sixth and seventh internal trusses from the S.E. end are of the first type (the last two in the S.W. aisle cannot be seen); the others are of the second type. In the first trusses in both aisles, which marked the raised dais, the kerb-principals have a definite though not pronounced cusped effect; this is also discernible, though less marked, in some other trusses.

The N.W. end of the S.W. aisle is partitioned off to form a Committee Room, this being the only survival of partitions which once divided the hall and undercroft. The doorway to the room and one of a cupboard within it are of the early 19th century and have fluted architraves and roundels in the angles; the doors are of six panels with raised bead moulding. In the room is a large brick-arched fireplace, rebuilt in 1914. Backing on to this fireplace is one facing into the S.W. aisle of the hall (Plate 174). The opening has a stone lintel in the form of a three-centred arch with key-block, and contains an early 19th-century iron grate. A timber surround of the early 18th century consists of a moulded and eared architrave with an elongated painted panel above recording that the Hall was repaired in 1849. To each side is a plain Doric pilaster with pronounced entasis and a block about one-third up, and there is a moulded cornice over the whole chimney-piece. It is flanked by cupboard doors and fielded panelling of the same height. At the opposite end of the aisle are the Sheriff's Seats, a three-bay composition of the mid 18th century raised on two steps. The three seats are set in round-headed alcoves divided by fluted Ionic columns supporting a full entablature with pulvinated frieze. Over the centre is a pediment, and the cornice breaks forward above the two outer columns. The desk before the seats has a panelled front.

Fig. 50. (37) Merchant Adventurers' Hall.

The N.E. Addition (Plate 71), built probably in the early 17th century, consists of three parallel ranges, gabled to the N.E. As in the hall, the ground floor has load-bearing walls, supporting timber framing above. Before the modern restoration, the framing was rendered and the entrance doorway had an 18th-century semicircular fanlight; inside there were narrow staircases beside each of the large chimneys built against the wall of the hall. The ground-floor walls are of brickwork; most of this is modern restoration, except on the N.W. wall, where it is in irregular bond. In the N.E. wall, approximately centrally and immediately beside the steps leading up to the first-floor entrance, is a doorway giving direct access to the ground floor. The early 17th-century door-case (Plate 71), heavily restored in 1935, has plain pilasters with exaggerated diminution and Ionic capitals supporting an entablature with a frieze carved with arabesques and lions' masks above the pilasters. The panelled doors are modern. The windows are modern restorations but in the same positions as those marked on a plan published by Benson (ii, fig. 24). Inside, the ground floor has two rooms separated by a framed partition with close studding. The smaller room, to the N.W., has been divided by a later partition which butts against a blocked fireplace. The larger room to the S.E. has a fireplace 9 ft. wide with a three-centred arch of brick, mostly modern restoration. A large modern staircase in Jacobean style leads from this room to the first floor. The timber-framed upper part, heavily restored c. 1937, is jettied out on the N.W. side only and each of the three ranges is two bays long. The middle range is distinctly wider than the others and contains an entrance passage leading straight through to the hall; it may have been built slightly earlier than the two flanking ranges. The framing of both external and internal walls is of narrow studs, fairly closely spaced. On the N.W. and S.E. walls the posts have downward bracing to the sills which also occurs on the N.E. wall, at the two corner-posts; there is no bracing on the central range. The door in the N.E. wall is set at an intermediate level between the floors and approached by a flight of external steps; the door, frame, and window above are all modern. Most of the windows are modern but in old positions and the framing of the N.W. wall indicates another window position blocked up. In the gables are two-light windows with ovolo-moulded frames and mullions; one of these appears to be unrestored. Barge-boards on the gables, carved with vine trails, are heavily restored; they terminate with shaped drops of which one is original. Inside the first floor are chimney-breasts in each room, with small fireplaces with timber lintels. In the centre range are ceiling beams pegged together, confirming that the attic floor is original. The roof trusses consist of principals supporting butt-purlins.

The hall contains the following miscellanea: Chests: (1) iron-bound, with shaped front feet decorated with nail-head ornament, 13th-century (Plate 35), probably the 'kyste bunden with iren' bought for 6s. 8d. in 1436–7; (2) bound with iron bands forming a grid pattern, 16th-century. Chimneypiece: reset in modern wing attached to N.E. addition, large overmantel with steep pediment enclosing arms of the Company, spandrels flanking pediment and panels below enriched with birds and monsters inhabiting scrolled foliage, late 16th-century but partly restored, formerly in a house in Pavement and given to the Company in 1925. Mace: of wood, late 18th-century. Sculpture: in undercroft, headless standing figure in magnesian limestone, 14th-century.

The Gatehouse, of two storeys and attics, has brick walls and pantile-covered roofs. It was built in the middle of the 17th century and has a frontage to Fossgate with a central passage leading to, and aligned on, the entrance to the hall. It has been mostly rebuilt in recent times and little of the original remains except the brick structure of some internal walls. The front elevation is a reasonably accurate copy of the original and has a shaped gable with quadrant and ogee profiles. The windows, with wood mullions and transoms, are less faithful copies; formerly, on the first floor, they had ovolo mouldings. The centrally-placed stone doorway with moulded four-centred arch is probably of the same date as the Company arms carved in stone above it, recorded to have been renewed in 1854. The back elevation was completely rebuilt to a new design in 1962, and the interior has been extensively modernised.