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Micklegate Bar

Micklegate Bar is the grand cermonial entrance to the city of York. It has protected and controlled the city's southwestern approaches since the 12th century.

For centuries, Micklegate Bar has enabled York's rulers to control (and tax) people travelling overland into the city from the southwest.

The oldest part of the structure is the outer gateway arch and parts of its passageway. These were constructed during the early or mid 12th century from recycled Roman gritstone blocks. The gateway controlled access through an earth bank that surrounded the city. (Patches of slightly rougher stonework on the bar's side walls indicates the approximate size and shape of this earth bank.)

Although the structure contains re-used Roman masonry, it does not lie on the route of the Roman road into the city from the southwest. Excavations have shown that the Roman road - and the associated gateway into the walled colonia or civilian settlement - lay approximately forty metres further west - i.e. slightly closer to the current railway station.

Twelfth century records refer to Micklegate Bar as 'Micklelith' ('Mickle' = great or large amount, 'lith' = stone).

Records from 1196 suggest that a second storey (in the form of a house) may have been added to the structure towards the end of the 12th century. The structure was definitely altered in the second half of the 14th century, when the height was increased to accommodate a portcullis and a barbican was added to the outward-facing (southwest) elevation. Both extensions were constructed using magnesian limestone and the barbican included two sally-ports, one in each of the side walls.

The barbican suffered a partial collapse in 1810 and it was demolished in 1826.

A number of interesting details can be seen on the front elevation of Micklegate Bar and these are all visible in Image A1. (Tip: Click or tap on the image to view a larger version.)

  • At ground level: two short, low, steeply-sloping stone protrusions on either side of the gateway are all that remains of the barbican. These indicate the thickness and alignment of the barbican's side-walls.
  • Between the ground and first floors: the coat of arms of Sir John Lister Kaye is prominently displayed above the keystone of the gateway arch (see also Image B1). Sir John Lister Kaye was the Lord Mayor of York in 1737, when some restoration work was carried-out on the Bar. There is a red-painted carved stone panel immediately below the shield, incorporating the words 'RENOVATA AD MDCCXXVII' picked-out in gold leaf. This translates as 'renovated in 1727'. The ten-year discrepancy in dates suggests either a prolonged period of repair, or repairs in two or more phases.
  • At first floor level: two doorways (each fitted with a studded wooden door) indicate the original height of the barbican. These doors provided access to a walkway that ran around the top of the barbican's walls. A tall thin glazed and barred window in the centre of the wall admitted light and air into the first floor room. It also provided the occupants of that room with a view down into the barbican. As this window was originally unglazed, it could have been used as an arrow slit if necessary.
  • At second floor level: a pair of elongated cruciform arrow slits with round oillets set either side of a central tall thin glazed and barred window.
  • Emerging from the corners of the second floor and rising past the third floor: a pair of projecting castellated circular turrets known as 'bartizans'.
  • At third floor level: a pair of tall thin glazed and barred windows plus, in each bartizan, an elongated cruciform arrow slit with round oillets.
  • Between the second and third floor windows: three colourful carved stone coats of arms are depicted as if they are hanging from a peg or nail located beneath a 'cusped canopy' (see also Image B2):
    • The Royal Arms of England has pride of place in the centre of the facade. This coat of arms is the version used during the second half of the 14th century, when Micklegate Bar was strengthened. It features three golden lions passant guardant on a red field (i.e. the arms of King Richard I, aka 'Richard the Lionheart') quartered with golden fleurs-de-lis on a blue field (i.e. the ancient arms of France). A carved stone lion covered in gold leaf sits alertly above the Royal Arms, as if watching the approaches to the city.
    • On either side of the Royal Arms (and at a slightly lower level) are two depictions of the coat of arms of the City of York. Each of these features a white shield overlain with the red cross of St George, the latter being embossed with the five gold passant guardant lions of England.
  • The front wall and bartizans are topped with a castellated parapet. The castellations contain three more elongated cruciform arrow slit with round oillets. Immediately below the central arrow slit, there is a carved stone gargoyle shaped like a lion's head.
  • Mounted on top of the castellations, there are three carved stone figures (statues depicting knights), one on each turret and one in the centre of the front wall. These figures were installed in 1950 to replace similar (but severely weather-worn) versions that are known to have been in situ since before 1603. The figure on the left is holding a short sword and a small shield. The figure in the centre is holding a pan or bowl, tilted as if boiling oil or some other painful material has just been tipped onto the heads of an approaching enemy. The figure on the right is wearing a long sword and has his left arm raised as if he was once holding a spear. His mouth is open, perhaps shouting a warning: "friend or foe?" According to Historic England's 'Pastscape' website (see 'External Links' below), these three figures were carved by Walter Rylatt, although they had previously been attributed to R Ridley.

The stone-built rear wall of Micklegate Bar (see Image A2) dates from alterations carried-out in 1827, when a 16th century timber-framed structure (similar to the one at Walmgate Bar) was demolished. The join in the stonework is still clearly visible today (see Images A3 and A4).

The arches on either side of the tower were inserted into the city wall during 1827 and 1863 to ease congestion and improve access to the city.

For centuries, Micklegate Bar has been the traditional route into the city for visiting monarchs, including Richard III in 1483, Henry VII in 1486, Charles I in 1639 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1972 and 2012. In addition to welcoming Heads of State,  for at least four centuries this prominent location was used to display the disembodied to heads of traitors and criminals. In theory, this gruesome tradition ended in 1754, but modern-day visitors to the city are advised to be on their best behaviour, just in case . . . !

Practical Information

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Location Information (Where is . . . ?)

Micklegate Bar
North Yorkshire

Latitude: 53.955851000000
Longitude: -1.090841000000

View this location on an interactive map.

Other practical information

Access steps between road level and the wall walk are provided on either side of Micklegate. However, the wall-top walkway passes through a passageway at the rear of the Bar building, so it is not necessary to descend to road level in order to complete this section of the wall walk (see Image A4).

The upper floors of the building are occupied by "The Henry VII Experience" - a museum dedicated to England's first Tudor monarch (fee payable - see 'External Links' below).