The gateways through the walls in York are called ‘bars’. The name ‘bar’ has its origins in the bars – barriers or simple gates – that were used to block the gateways to keep people out. Originally the bars were relatively simple structures. Over the years they became increasingly elaborate and complex.
The bars also acted as control points and toll booths. People who were not freemen of the city had to pay tolls on items brought into York for sale in the markets. The gates were normally locked at 9pm and the keys were kept by the mayor. The gates were not unlocked until 4am.The bars were also a symbol of the city’s importance. York was England’s second city through most of the Middle Ages.
The bars became a backdrop for elaborate civic ceremonies. In 1448, for Henry VI’s visit to York, a representation of heaven was constructed at Micklegate Bar. From this a crown descended – on red and white roses – to a world full of trees and flowers that bowed to the roses. The walls themselves defined both economic and legal privileges.
Bootham Bar stands on the site of one of the four gateways into the Roman legionary fortress. There has been a gateway on this site for the last 1900 years.Bootham Bar contains some of the earliest medieval stonework on the walls. The earliest parts of the present gatehouse date from the late 11th century. In 1319 a Scottish army lead by the Earl of Moray reached the gates of York with the intention of taking Queen Isabella hostage. The Queen, however, had already left for Nottingham, so the army burned the suburb of Bootham and withdrew. Most of the building that you can see today dates from the 14th and 19th centuries. It consists of a passageway with arches at each end of a rectangular gatehouse, with two storeys above.
Micklegate Bar was the most important of York’s gateways. The main road to and from the south passed through the bar. It was the focus for civic events, such as greeting a monarch on a royal visit, and was used to display the severed heads of traitors. There has been a gateway hereabouts since the Roman period, and Roman stonework and even Roman coffins from a nearby cemetery were re-used by the medieval builders.Micklegate Bar is a rectangular gatehouse. On the ground floor there is a passageway with arches at each end. There are three storeys above. The earliest surviving piece of the present gateway was built in the early 12th century, and consisted of a simple stone gatehouse through which ran a passageway with a gate at each end.There were people living over the bar as early as 1196. An annual rent of 6d was paid from 1196 to 1212 when a Benedict, son of Ingleram, a clerk, lived there. In 1350 the gatehouse was heightened to include a portcullis and the barbican; an outer passageway defending the main gate was also added at this time. You can still see the doors that originally led out from the gatehouse on to the barbican’s wall-walk, although now they open into fresh air!When the King or Queen visits York the monarch has to stop at Micklegate Bar and ask permission from the Lord Mayor to enter the city.
Heads you win…
‘Off with his head and set it on York gates; So York may overlook the town of York.’ So said Queen Margaret about Richard, Duke of York, in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VI’. Richard’s head was so displayed in 1461- but only for three months. In 1461 his son, King Edward IV, replaced his father’s head with those of the Lancastrian leaders captured at the battle of Towton, including the Earl of Devon. Duke Richard was not the first to have his head chopped off and displayed on Micklegate Bar. Nor was he the last…
- 1403 Sir Henry Percy (Hotspur)
- 1405 Sir William Plumpton
- 1415 Lord Scrope
- 1461 Earl of Devon
- 1572 Earl of Northumberland
- 1746 The Jacobites – William Conolly and James Mayne
Once decapitated, an individual’s head was skewered on a pikestaff and displayed from the roof of the bar. There the heads were pecked by crows and magpies – a suitable indignity for those seen as traitors.
The heads were left there for long periods of time. We know that James Mayne’s head was ‘illegally removed’ in 1754 – nine years after it had been placed there.
Monk Bar, which dates from the early 14th century with a late 15th-century top floor, consists of a four-storey gatehouse. It is the most elaborate and ornate of the surviving gates. The passageway and two lower storeys have vaulted roofs. Its design meant that it could function as a self-contained fortress, with each floor capable of being defended. There is no evidence for a pre-14th-century gate on this site.Monk Bar still has its portcullis and winding mechanism. In fact, the portcullis was lowered for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Monk Bar now hosts the Richard III Museum.
Walmgate Bar consists of a passageway with arches at each end capped by a rectangular gatehouse of two storeys. At the back of the gatehouse is a timber-framed projection supported on two stone columns. This was probably added in 1584-6. Walmgate Bar is the only bar still to have its barbican as well as its portcullis and wooden inner doors.
The first gatehouse was built in the mid-12th century, and the projecting barbican was added in the 14th century. Walmgate Bar was leased out as a house: in 1376 an annual rent of 10 shillings was paid. People were certainly living here before 1376 and they continued to live here until 1957! Heads were also displayed on this bar: in 1469 the head of Robert Hillyard, who took part in the Yorkshire rebellions of 1469, was displayed.The defences around the Walmgate area still had a timber palisade in 1315, and further work was done in the area in 1345, when an option was granted to a mason, Master Thomas Staunton, to carry out the work of replacing the palisade with a stone wall.At the end of the Walmgate stretch of the wall heading towards Monk Bar, the Red Tower can be seen. It is thought that this brick structure was added in the years following 1490; its construction was the cause of fighting between the stonemasons and the tilers (brickies) who were threatening the masons’ livelihood with their new-fangled building materials.
Fishergate Postern Tower
This tower was built between 1504 and 1507, replacing an earlier tower called Talkan Tower. Next to the tower are the remains of a small postern gate – the posternam iuxta Skarletpit, meaning the postern next to the Scarlet Pit, presumably a pool in the River Foss. The tower has not changed since it was built 500 years ago apart from its roof. Originally it had a flat roof, but by 1676 it had been replaced by a tiled roof like that which exists today. The remains of at least three horses were recovered during an archaeological excavation of one of the towers in 1995. They had been dumped there in the 17th century by a local fellmonger (a horse butcher).