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King's Manor

The King's Manor site has housed the Abbot of St Mary’s Abbey, the President of the 'Council in the North', a Royal Mint, several schools and York University.

A brief history

This site has a varied and fascinating history. It lies just outside the city walls, but within the walled precincts of the former Benedictine Abbey of St Mary in the city of York, England (UK).

It is possible that abbey-related buildings existed on this site as early as the 11th century. However, the first recorded building was a stone-walled house, constructed circa 1270 as the residence of Simon de Warwick (the 11th Abbot of St Mary's Abbey - hence the building's alternative names: 'The Abbot's House' and 'The Abbot's Residence'). A few fragments of this structure still exist, but they are not visible from publicly accessible vantage points.

The brick-walled structure visible from Exhibition Square (Image A1 and left of Image A2) dates from a major rebuild carried-out between 1483 and 1502. However, it has been subjected to numerous alterations since that time (most notably the infilling, alteration and insertion of windows and doorways). Some of these alterations are clearly visible in Images A2 and A3.

The most significant change to the east range [*] was the addition of a large stone-walled extension in the late 16th century (Image A3).

There have been also been numerous extensions and alterations to the rear of the 15th century buildings. These are not visible from Exhibition Square, but they can be viewed from within the Manor's two inner courtyards, from St Leonard's Place and from the grounds of St Mary's Abbey.

The 16th century changes followed the acquisition of the Abbey site by the Crown. Shortly after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, the Abbot's House was assigned to "the King's Council in the North" and the name of the building was officially changed to emphasise the King's power, to reflect its new function and to formally mark the transfer of ownership. The Council had jurisdiction across the whole of northern England (specifically the counties of Northumberland, Cumberland, Durham and Yorkshire) and it was responsible for religious observance, as well as civil and criminal justice. King Henry VIII's initial objectives for this Council are recorded as being twofold:

"the quietness and good governance of the people there"

and the

"speedy and indifferent administration of justice to be had between party and party".

With this wide remit, the Council wielded an enormous amount of power and the King's Manor was its operational base for almost a century. The building became the official residence of the Lord President of the North in 1561. However, by this time, the building was in a serious state of disrepair. November 1568 saw the start of an eighteen month programme of rebuilding work at a cost of £600. This work almost certainly included the construction of the east wing extension, which features limestone recovered from the Abbey site.

King James I stayed at the manor in 1603 as a guest of Thomas Cecil (Lord Burghley), who held the post of the Lord President of the North at the time.

James' father, King Charles I, stayed at the manor in 1633 and again in 1639.

After the abolition of the Council of the North in 1641, the King's Manor become an underused, but much fought-over asset. The building sustained damage during the Civil War, then suffered neglect during the period of the Commonwealth. The local historian Francis Drake (writing in 1736) provides us with a brief glimpse into this period of the building's history:

In the unfortunate reign of King James II, a large room in the Manor was fitted up and made use of as a popish chapel; where one bishop Smith, as he was called, celebrated mass openly. But it was not long before the enraged populace pulled it to pieces, and this consecrated room has since had the fate, in our days, to be converted into an assembly room for the meeting together of the nobility, gentry and ladies at the races. As also to be the common entertaining room for the high sheriffs of the county at the different assizes.

Source: Drake, Francis "Eboracum: or the History and Antiquities of the City of York”, printed by William Bowyer (London, 1736).

In 1692, the Treasury granted a 31-year lease for the site to Alderman Robert Waller, who promptly sub-let various areas of the building. Some parts where sub-let to 'respectable tenants' as residential apartments. Others parts were sub-let for warehousing and light manufacturing. An example of the latter was the installation in 1696 of a mint for the manufacture of silver coins of the realm. Francis Drake [op cit] provides the following description of this literal "money-making scheme":

Anno 1696, and 97, the old hammered money, with the clipt and counterfeit, being every where called in, in this kingdom, a mint for coinage was erected in the manor at York; where the sum of three hundred and twelve thousand five hundred and twenty pounds and six pence was coined. This money, for distinction sake, bears a Y under the king's head on the coin.

Since 1712, the site has been partially, then fully occupied by a succession of academic institutions. Between 1712 and 1835, part of the site was occupied by 'Mr Lumley's Boarding School for Young Ladies'. In 1833, the 'Yorkshire School for the Blind' began to use part of the site. This school was incredibly successful and, in the 1870s, it began a phase of renovation, followed by an extensive period of rebuilding. The rear cloister dates from this period (see Images A7 and A8).

The attractive 18th century railings and gates that separate the King's Manor grounds from Exhibition Square are listed in their own right (Grade II, List Entry Number 1257857). They were originally sited around the Mansion House, but were moved to their present location circa 1900, when the adjacent Headmaster's House was built.

In 1958, the school for the blind moved to purpose-built premises on Tadcaster Road and York City Council subsequently acquired the King's Manor site. Its buildings have been used by the University of York since 1963.

An attractive bronze statue of a Friesian bull-calf is located in the east courtyard.

The former Council Chamber now houses a refectory, which is open to the public (see 'External Links' below).

The King's Manor building is Grade I listed (List Entry Number 1257855). This category is reserved for buildings deemed to be of exceptional interest and, according to Historic England, just 2.5% of England's listed buildings warrant a Grade I classification.

Architectural details worthy of note

The stone surrounds to the pair of doorways facing Exhibition Square are highly decorated and both will reward close inspection.

  • The initials "IR" appear at the base of both doorway surrounds (see Images B3 and B4). This is the monogram of King James I, who reigned between 1603 and 1625. The letters are an abbreviation of "James Rex" (Rex is the latin word for king). However, the first initial has been carved as an 'I' rather than a 'J'. This is not a mistake. The letter 'J' did not exist in the English alphabet when these stones were carved. Other letters - including the letter 'I' - were used instead. The letter 'J' was first used in English text in 1633.
  • The large coat of arms above the main entrance doorway (see Images B1 and B2). This is the heraldic achievement of King Charles I, who reigned between 1625 and 1649. This features a lion (the supporter of England) and a Unicorn (the supporter of Scotland). The supporters are both holding gold lances surmounted by the flags of their respective country (the red-on-white cross of St George for England and the white on blue diagonal cross of St Andrew for Scotland). "DIEU ET MON DROIT" is French for "God at my right". Note that the letter 'N' has been carved in reverse. This type of letter reversal is commonly found in most countries that use the Latin alphabet and it is especially common on headstones and other memorials. The gold areas (including the lion) are literally that: they were gilded with 23¾ carat gold during the restoration work in 2012-13.

Further Reading

For additional information about either St Mary's Abbey or the King's Manor, the following publication is highly recommended:

  • Wilson, Barbara and Mee, Francis: "St Mary's Abbey and the King's Manor, York - The Pictorial Evidence", published by York Archaeological Trust (2009).


[*] The King's Manor buildings are aligned at an angle of approximately 45 degrees to the cardinal points. This makes describing relative positions extremely confusing. As an example, the range facing Exhibition Square lies to the northeast of the centre of the King's Manor complex and it is aligned along a northwest-southeast axis. To simplify things (and to follow the labelling used in the official list entry), the facade of the range facing Exhibition Square is herein referred to as the front of the east wing. The other wings are labelled relative to this, viz north, south, central and west - the latter being closest to the River Ouse. Wilson & Mee (see 'Further Reading' above) adopted the same standard.

Practical Information

Cost Category (Categories)

Location Information (Where is . . . ?)

King's Manor (York)
Exhibition Square

Latitude: 53.962350000000
Longitude: -1.086351000000

View this location on an interactive map.

The site and its buildings are currently occupied by (and form the city centre campus of) the University of York. Public access to the grounds is normally permitted during the daytime and the refectory (cafe) in old Council Chamber can normally be used by members of the public. For additional information about this site and its public accessibility, please use the links provided in the 'External Links' section below.