12 October 2023

The King’s Manor
is a collection of
mediaeval buildings
in the heart of York

The King’s Manor in the centre of York is part of the University of York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The King’s Manor is an attractive and unusual group of mediaeval buildings in the centre of York, beside the York Art Gallery at Exhibition Square and near Bootham Bar.

Today, the King’s Manor is at the heart of York’s strong academic reputation for teaching and research in archaeology, mediaeval studies and 18th century studies at the University of York. But in the past, the site has been the house of the abbots of Saint Mary’s Abbey, the seat of government in Tudor and Stuart York, a private residence in the 18th century and a school in the 19th century.

Saint Mary’s Abbey was founded by the Benedictines in 1088 and rebuilt in 1271 just outside York's city walls. The King’s Manor was originally built to house the abbots of the abbey, and stands east and south-east of the abbey church. Although the earliest parts of the buildings date from the 15th century, the first house on the site was probably built ca 1270 for Simon de Warwick, Abbot of Saint Mary’s (1258-1296).

Archaeological evidence suggests the house was U-shaped and of the same extent as the later mediaeval rebuilding. The outer West Range stands in part on the site of the chapter house of Saint Mary's Abbey, and a fragment of rough walling near the north end of the end front may represent the east wall of the chapter house.

The King’s Manor stands on the site of the house of the abbots of Saint Mary’s Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The house as it now stands is mostly a rebuilding of the late 15th century. The work, usually assigned to Abbot William Sever (1485-1502), was begun by his predecessor Abbot Thomas Boothe in 1483. The building work was continued by Abbot Sever until he became Bishop of Durham in 1502.

At the dissolution of the monastic houses during the Tudor Reformation, the Abbey of Saint Mary’s, York, was formally surrendered on 29 November 1539. The house became Saint Mary’s Manor or the King’s Manor and by 17 December 1539 it was the seat of the Council of the North.

Henry VIII visited York with Queen Katherine Howard in 1541, and lived there for 12 days. In anticipation of the royal visit, the city repaired and improved the house. The royal party stayed there for 12 days, and it was this visit that gives the building its popular name, King’s Manor.

A survey shortly before Henry VIII died in 1547 shows that many of the abbey buildings still remained, but the church and most of the former monastic buildings were roofless. One of the few buildings to be listed ‘in good state’ was the gatehouse by Saint Olave’s Church.

The south doorway has an elaborate stone surround with the initials of James I and Charles I and a large heraldic panel with the arms of Charles I (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

In the past, it was thought that Henry VIII had a palace built between the abbot’s house and the river and that it was ruined a few years later. But architectural evidence suggests 1600-1620 as the correct date.

A plaster frieze around the walls of the Huntingdon Room, the former Council Chamber, contains three motifs: a pomegranate between two wyverns, the crest of Hastings; a bull's head erased gorged with a ducal coronet between two Hs all within a garter under an earl’s coronet, for Henry Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon, President of the Council of the North 1572-1595; and a bear and ragged staff for his wife Lady Catherine Dudley, daughter of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. A magnificent fireplace has a segmental head formed of carved stone voussoirs and ornamented pilaster jambs.

Thomas Cecil, Lord Burghley, was President of the Council of the North when Elizabeth I died in 1603. He wrote to Sir Robert Cecil that he had moved out of the house, so that the new king, James I, could stay there on his journey from Scotland south to London. The house was empty of furnishings and ‘quite out of order.’ Lord Burghley stocked the wine cellars and larders.

King James came to the ‘Manor of Saint Mary’s’ in 1603 and stayed in York for three days. On that first visit to York, James I ordered the house to be embellished. Lord Sheffield, President of the North (1603-1619), repaired the King’s Manor in 1609.

The last great building period at the King’s Manor was when Thomas Wentworth (1593-1641), Earl of Strafford, was President of the North (1628-1641). He added the external staircase and the doorway with the arms of Charles I over it in 1633, put new windows in the hall, and added a gallery and a chapel.

Wentworth’s south doorway has an elaborate stone surround bearing the initials IR for James I and, above, a large heraldic panel with the initials CR for Charles I. The niche above the arms probably contained a bust. The north doorway dates from 1480 but has a stone surround dating from 1610 brought from the W. elevation and reset.

Charles I stayed at the King’s Manor when he visited York in 1633 and 1639, when Wentworth expressed the hope that Saint Mary’s Abbey would once again become a church.

Charles I stayed at the King’s Manor when he visited York in 1633 and 1639 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Strafford was executed in 1641, the Council of the North was abolished, and no major additions were made to the manor after that until the 19th century.

The place was caught up in the siege of York and at least one range, the outer one to the west, was half demolished. In 1644, the Parliamentarians exploded a mine that blew up the corner tower of the abbey precinct wall on Bootham, attacked the manor house and captured 100 people, before retreating with the loss of 300 men. By 1653, it was reported that the King’s Manor which had been spoiled and wasted.

But the King’s Manor was repaired and kept habitable. Humphrey Harwood was still living in the manor in 1662. Henry Darcy, who became keeper in 1665, repaired the house and its rooms and chambers.

The Manor became the official residence of Lord Freschville, Governor of the City of York, in 1667, and he lived there with a family or household of 30 people. From 1667 to 1688, the manor was the residence of the Governor of York

The manor was leased to Father Francis Lawson, one of the King’s chaplains in 1687. He converted the manor into a ‘Popish School’ and used the hall or Councill Chamber as a chapel. During the Williamite rebellion in 1688, the Governor, Sir John Reresby, remained loyal to King James II. But an armed party led by Thomas Osborne, Earl of Danby, captured the Manor and the City of York, and held them for William of Orange. Lawson fled as a Jacobite exile.

After 1688, the building was hired out to private tenants, including Ralph Rymer, Robert Waller, and Sir Tancred Robinson. In the early 18th century, parts of the King’s Manor were occupied by the artist Francis Place, and a Mr Lumley who ran a boarding school.

The Banqueting Hall, which had been Lawson’s chapel in the late 17th century, was converted into an Assembly Room and was also used by the High Sheriffs to entertain their friends during the assizes and races.

An ornately carved Jacobean doorway in the King’s Manor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The York Diocesan Society and National School leased part of the manor in 1812 from Lord de Grey, and the Manor National School opened in January 1813.

The Yorkshire School for the Blind was founded in 1833 and moved into the King’s Manor, although the Manor National School also remained on the site until 1922. While the Blind School was there, a new headmaster’s house was built in 1899. It was designed in a Jacobean style by Walter Brierley. For a long time, a statue of the abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833), founder of the school, stood in the entrance.

The Blind School remained there until 1956. The City of York acquired the King’s Manor in 1958. It was restored, modernised and extended in 1963-1964 for the University of York by William Birch and Sons of York under the direction of the architects Feilden and Mawson of Norwich in association with Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall & Partners.

The main university later moved to the Heslington Campus. The Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies (IoAAS) was the main academic department to use the Manor from 1966. There were several other departments in the King’s Manor, including the Centre for Mediaeval Studies, a Language Teaching centre and the Design Unit, an architectural practice. The building also housed six university staff flats.

Since 1997, the main occupants have been the Department of Archaeology, the Archaeology Data Service, the Centre for Mediaeval Studies and the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies.

The City of York acquired the King’s Manor in 1958 and it was restored, modernised and extended for the University of York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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