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Shambles

The Shambles is York's iconic medieval street. It gains much of its charm and character from the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of its historic buildings.

The form and alignment of this narrow and often crowded street date from the 13th or 14th century, when York's open meat market area was replaced by a more formalised street lined with buildings on fixed plots. The buildings visible today were constructed during the 14th century or later and the palette of building materials is limited to timber, lime render, brick and tile. Stone has been used, but only for post-pads, detailing and covering the ground. Jettied buildings overhang the street to make full use of the available space (see Image 1) and the roof heights and wall-lines vary from building to building (see Image 2).

The street had several names during the medieval period, including:

  • Haymongergate: this name was first recorded in 1240 and it means the street of hay sellers. This name is probably linked to the meat trade as the animals would have needed hay to eat, both after their journey to market ‘on the hoof’ and while awaiting slaughter, so there would have been plenty of business in the area for hay sellers.
  • Nedlergate: this name was first recorded in 1394 and it means the street of needle makers. There is also a probable link to the meat trade here as needles used to be manufactured from animal bones.
  • The Great Flesh Shambles: this name was recorded in 1426, but it was later abbreviated to Shambles. The word Shambles is derived from both:
  • the Old English word 'sceamol' (meaning a table or counter upon which items for sale are placed) and
  • the Middle English word 'shamel' (meaning a place where meat is butchered and sold).

One of the earliest written references to York’s meat market can be found in the Domesday Book of circa 1086 (see extract below). The phrase underlined in red tells us that the Count of Mortain had fourteen 'messuages' (properties) in York plus two stalls in the ‘macello’ (meat market).

Domesday-Book-Extract_York_Count-of-Mortain.jpg

Source and acknowledgement: This extract was taken from an online facsimile of the Domesday Book. The full page can be viewed on the “Open Domesday” website at http://opendomesday.org/book/yorkshire/01/. The extract is used here under the Creative Commons BY-SA licence (see http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ for details). Credit for the original upload is given to Professor J.J.N. Palmer and George Slater. The red underlining has been added by the owner of the York Illustrated website to draw attention to the relevant section of the original abbreviated Latin text.

York historians have traditionally linked the ‘meat market’ reference in the Domesday Book to the area we now know as the Shambles. While this association is not proven, the street has certainly been associated with the slaughter of animals and the sale of meat for at least six centuries and the link with the meat trade is still evident today. For example:

  • Hanging rails and / or rows of hooks can be seen above some of the shop-fronts. These allowed whole carcasses and large cuts of meat to be 'hung' for both ageing and display (see Images 1 and 4).
  • Some of the shops also retain the wooden counters that were used to prepare and display smaller cuts of meat (see Images 1, 3 and 4). Although all of the shop-fronts now have glazed windows at street level, historic photographs show that many were open to the elements as recently as 1932. (To view some of these old images, use the links provided in the 'External Links' section below.) At the end of each working day, the traders would ‘shut up shop’ by fitting or closing wooden shutters.
  • The floors of some of the shops still slope downwards towards the street. This allowed blood and other butchers' waste to drain (or be easily swept) out of the shop and into the gutters of the street outside. This waste then joined the effluent discarded by the bucket-load from upper-storey windows, plus the 'rear-end waste' from the horses, cats, dogs and rats that were regular visitors to this busy, noisy (and very smelly) street.

In recent decades, the businesses in the Shambles have evolved to cater primarily for the tourist trade. The small ground-floor rooms are now filled with a wide range of independent shops, including non-chain cafes and gift shops. Visitors will be delighted to note that the area now smells a lot sweeter too.

Practical Information

Where is The Shambles?

Shambles

York

North Yorkshire

YO1 7LZ

England

United Kingdom


Coordinates (latitude, longitude): 53.959427, -1.080115

View location on Google mapping.

Cost Category (Categories)

Additional practical information

The Shambles is very popular with visitors and it is often very crowded, especially during the peak tourist season. If you want to avoid the crowds, visit early in the morning (e.g. before 10am) or during the quietest months of the off-peak season (November, January and February).

The most characterful part of the street is the north end, where Little Shambles meets the Shambles.