Let’s get back to York! When I left last time, I had touched on the first part of my walk through York’s history, beginning at Micklegate, and, to be honest, not much further. As I mentioned at the end of the post, my next stop was St. Mary’s Abbey in the Museum Gardens so that’s where we’ll pick up. I had been to the abbey ruins previously on a school trip, but I was more interested in being out of the classroom than the story at the time! Returning to it now I can appreciate it more, and despite essentially being a ruin in a park, what the remains represent is fascinating.
Henry VIII and York
If I was to say ‘Henry VIII’ I can almost guarantee that the first thing that popped into your mind was that all-to-familiar saying: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. He’s one of Britain’s most famous monarchs and fundamentally changed the country’s identity over the course of his reign. He broke with the Catholic Church and styled himself as ‘Supreme Head’ of the newly-formed Church of England. If we move past the Edward/Mary Protestant/Catholic flip-flopping of the next few years, every monarch since, including our current Queen has held the title ‘Supreme Governor of the Church of England’.
Another of Henry’s power moves was the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In 1535, the various religious houses collectively owned a hell of a lot of land, so much so that there was a Medieval saying that posited that should the Abbot of Glastonbury marry the Abbess of Shaftesbury, their heir would own more land than the King himself! Henry needed the money (don’t we all!) and set his eye on the wealth of the Church. Before the Dissolution, York was home to a number of different religious houses, including St. Mary’s Abbey. Towards the end of 1538, some of these houses, such as St. Andrew’s Priory and the Priory of the Holy Trinity had ‘voluntarily’ surrendered to Henry.
St. Mary’s Abbey had been founded by the Normans. It is said that William I himself gave Stephen, a monk, to create the new monastery and, with the support of the nobles, it grew and grew. Eventually, the monastery was wealthy enough to build its new church on a scale as grand as York Minster. By the time Henry got his hands on it, they were one of the richest religious houses in the city. The 50 monks who lived there were dispossessed of their livelihoods with some being provided with ‘pensions’ or other compensation. In total, about 150 monks, canons, nuns, and friars were expropriated. Many of them moved to other occupations within the city, so perhaps the knock-on effect for them wasn’t felt as much as it was by the people of York.
Monasteries and other religious houses were a part of the wider community of the city. St. Mary’s, for example, provided a boarding house for 50 scholars at the Minster school who were less well-to-do. This saw its end in 1540 putting those it housed in a bit of a quandary, I imagine. Other organisations held fantastic libraries that came under suspicion of holding pro-Catholic books and encouraging papal supremacy. John Leland, writing in 1534, stated that York Minster had already disposed of many of their books.
The buildings of the religious houses were then left to their own devices, falling into ruin and being used as a quarry to repair other buildings in York. One of the books I used to research more about St. Mary’s (and other topics in these posts) was ‘The History of York’* raises an interesting point regarding the attitude to preservation at the time. Cross suggests that the people of York were more closely bonded to their parish churches rather than the larger monasteries. As such, they weren’t overly bothered about pinching the leftover materials or saving the ecclesiastical heritage of these grand churches for future generations. So all we are left with is the ruin.
Bootham Bar & Beyond
The next portion of my walk took me up the road/walls to Bootham Bar. The tower here at Bootham is empty, save for the portcullis. It is, however, an excellent place to stop for some photos. Walk out to the centre of Exhibition Square for a shot of the Bar with the towers of the Minster peeking out above the terracotta rooftops.
Another great composition can be found through the alleyway beside the ‘Hole in the Wall’ pub just inside the city walls at Bootham Bar. York has a lot of these ‘snickelways’, as they call them, dotted around the city. This particular alley takes you through to Precentor’s Court. Once out of the snickelway, turn right and potter down a few metres and you’ll see the Minster towers once again above some of the city’s rooftops. Returning to the walls, I carried on with my exploration. In my first post, I mentioned that the ‘sister’ exhibition to that in Micklegate Bar was the one in Monk Bar, and that was my next stop. Monk Bar’s exhibition focuses on the loser of the Battle of Bosworth, Richard III, as well as the ‘bloodiest battle in English history’, the Battle of Towton. Good news for budget travellers, the ticket for the Henry VII Experience at Micklegate gets you free entry to the Richard III Experience, and vice versa!
Richard III: The Last Plantagenet King
In my previous post, I discussed Margaret Beaufort, describing her as a figure who divides opinion but Richard III is hands-down one of history’s even more controversial figures. He may be better known nowadays as the ‘King in the Car Park’ but before being discovered beneath the wheels of Leicester Social Services’ staff cars, Richard was already immortalised on stage and screen as a child murderer, hunchback, and generally creepy guy.
The flip side of this is the classic ‘misunderstood man’ storyline as proffered by the likes of the Richard III Society (yep, it’s a real thing!). They claim that history’s take on this King is based upon lies and exaggerations, so they want to get to the truth of the matter, thus I suppose, proving that he wasn’t the greedy and grasping man we learn about at school.
It’s hard to look back at hard evidence when these events happened over 500 years ago. Well… it was until they found his remains in the car park. Anyone who watched the Channel 4 documentary or read the news at the time will be familiar with its findings, but the long and short of it was, he was a hunchback after all! Maybe that’s a step too far though. He did have a quite severe scoliosis but as shown in a later Channel 4 documentary, it may not have been as noticeable under his clothes. This rather throws Laurence Olivier’s hobbling rendition of Richard out of the window along with his ‘withered arm’ and exposes the Tudor propaganda as a bit of a fib. By now we know that alterations were made to Richard’s portrait after Henry VII came to power. His discrepancy in shoulder height was exaggerated, his eyes narrowed, and fingers made pointy. Not a good look.
This is not to say I fall into the pro-Richard camp. I’m still pretty sure that he had something to do with the death/disappearance of his nephews. I mean, how could he not know!? Despite declaring the two boys illegitimate, Richard’s hold on the throne was very fragile, and keeping them alive, prisoners or not, was a threat. When rumours circulated that they were dead after not being seen in public for a while, Richard made little attempt to prove the rumours wrong much to the detriment of his reputation. He claimed his innocence but didn’t move to open an investigation into the matter. Highly suspect if you ask me. There’s plenty of literature out there which throw a variety of theories into the air so take a read if you want to take the debate further, but I’ll leave it here for today.
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