Barley Hall

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Friends of Barley Hall

Society Members Form Group to Aid York’s Hidden Ricardian Treasure

BARLEY HALL seen from the courtyard. Until recently, this monastic-hospice-turned-goldsmith’s-residence in a York back alley was bricked up and used for offices and workshops. Now, the Ricardian Friends of Barley Hall are helping to provide for its continued survival. Photo by Simon Ian Hill FRPS, © York Archaeological Trust. Used with permission.

Many travelers to the medieval city of York, even Ricardians, overlook a site tucked away in one of its back alleys–Barley Hall, a fifteenth-century townhouse in Coffee Yard.

This is a shame, because Barley Hall offers us something that no other site in York can match — a look at medieval life as it was lived by the emerging middle class that gave such strong allegiance to the Yorkists, in a house occupied by one of Richard III’s urban supporters. The Barley Hall team has restored the building to its fifteenth-century appearance, and is recreating its furnishings and other objects to give us a look at medieval life as medieval people would have seen it.

Barley Hall was constructed as a townhouse for a Wakefield-based priory. Later it became the townhouse of a goldsmith who was one of the members of York City Council to learn of Richard III’s death on August 23, 1485. It is architecturally significant, historically significant, and connected to Ricardian history. And it needs Ricardian help.

Barley Hall’s story is, in its own quiet way, a cliffhanger, and the last chapter isn’t written yet by any means. To help assure its continued existence, members of our parent society have formed the Ricardian Friends of Barley Hall, dedicated to increasing awareness of and support for this important piece of our Yorkist heritage. With the travel season rapidly approaching, American Ricardians may want to add this site to their York itineraries, especially if they can visit during the Richard III Society days (from June 26, the date of Richard’s accession, through July 4).

A Narrow Escape from the Wrecker’s Ball

Barley Hall’s medieval origins had been long forgotten by 1980, when it appeared to be a jumble of brick structures. Ironically, millions of tourists had literally walked right through what was originally an internal corridor of the L-shaped house as they used the Coffee Yard snickelway (an alley-like passageway from one street to another) to travel from busy Stonegate to Swinegate and Grape Lane. When its medieval origins were documented in 1980, it was also classed as a “dangerous structure,” a prime candidate for demolition.

Four years later, a developer bought the site, planning to convert the crumbling buildings into offices and apartments. When an archeological survey revealed the building’s true nature, the York Archaeological Trust stepped in and purchased the building, intending to make it an example of a medieval citizen’s residence, something missing from York’s stellar array of medieval buildings open to the public. The building was re-named Barley Hall in honor of Professor Maurice Barley (d. 1990), founder and chairman of the Trust and an expert on “vernacular” buildings.

Finding Barley Hall

Tucked away in a snickelway as it is, Barley Hall is a true hidden treasure, which is one of the pleasures and the frustrations of getting to it. It wasn’t listed on any of the tourist maps Roy and I picked up, at our hotel and elsewhere, when we visited York last summer. So plan before you go.

The Devil.

Coffee Yard is a snickelway that runs between Stonegate — a very fashionable address in the later middle ages –and Grape Lane. From the South door of York Minster, walk down Stonegate, cross High/Low Petergate, and watch for an elaborate wrought-iron sign saying “Olde Starre Inn” that stretches all the way across Stonegate, preceded by a few meters by a small cast-iron Red Devil somewhat above eye-level on your left. The Devil is famous — you can buy postcards with his picture on them all over York — and he’s a marker for the snickelway. Turn in, and the building you see arching over the next passageway when you emerge from the first tunnel is Barley Hall.

If you buy a copy of Mark Jones’ popular “snickelways” guidebook while in York (or have one in your library), you may find references to the “hospice to Nostell priory” in the section on Coffee Yard. When these books were written, there was talk of restoring the building to its condition when it was the priory hospice, and that is how the building we know as Barley Hall is identified in older editions.

THE GREAT HALL. The glass windows at the left of the photo face the Hall’s original screens passage, now a public thoroughfare. Thousands of tourists pass through this passageway daily during the tourist season. The oak beams on the wall above the window are part of the original fifteenth-century construction. The two shields overpainted on the wall hangings represent the initials of William Snawsell and the family arms of his wife, Joan Thweng. The birds are parrots. (Photo by Lynda Pidgeon.)

Although I had a map and was planning to search out Barley Hall the next day when I was in York last summer, I happened upon it quite by accident on my way to dinner in Grape Lane. Since Coffee Yard goes right through the building, the Trust has cleverly put a large glass wall at the end of the Great Hall facing the passageway (and they leave the lights on). The vast expanse of glass may not be authentic, but it certainly is effective. The view of the Great Hall lights up the gloomy passage, and I suddenly found myself staring right through the glass and into a welcoming fifteenth century hall, all ready for a festive dinner.

The Priory Hospice

As part of its investigative work, the York Archaeological Trust sent twenty-two timber samples from two ranges, or wings, of Barley Hall to the Nottingham University Tree Ring Dating Laboratory. They found that the older part of the building, described in this section, was built from oak from one small area of woodland, felled in 1359-60. Builders didn’t wait for beams to cure in those days, so the Trust could be pretty confident that this part of the building went up in 1360 or 1361.

Barley Hall was originally built as a monastic “hostel” or townhouse for the Augustinian Priory of St. Oswald at Nostell, near Wakefield in West Yorkshire. The priors of Nostell had been members of York Minster’s governing body since 1130, and were expected to be present for important ceremonies and services. Additionally, York was an important regional center with a diverse population of noblemen, craftsmen, and merchants, and both ecclesiastical and civil courts. Nostell Priory thus had a number of pragmatic reasons to maintain a presence in the city, and so they built their hostel on a strip of land leased from the Minster.

The prior who commissioned the present building, Thomas de Dereford, is remembered as an unbending disciplinarian who was rarely seen to laugh; but his careful management greatly increased the wealth and status of the priory. The building included a section that still stands as the North or “Chamber” range. It consists of ground floor rooms, possibly used for storage, and at least five chambers on the first and second storeys. A central “Great Chamber” extended through both storeys to the roof, with pairs of single-storey rooms, one above the other on either side. The chambers served both as sleeping and living rooms, and the Great Chamber had a stairway entrance from the courtyard.

In addition to this Chamber range, the 1360-era building also had a Great Hall range, in the same location as the current Great Hall range, and another range, set parallel to the Chamber range to form a U-shaped building. After the stone-faced Prior Dereford died, the Priory fell on hard times, and by 1438 the canons were complaining of extreme poverty. Their records indicate that they were buying supplies closer to home, and thus had less need for a luxurious York townhouse. The obvious solution: make money by renting it out.

William Snawsell, Lord Mayor and Alderman

THE GREAT HALL. The square hearth in the center of the floor, the raised dais, and the patterned tile floor are reconstructed based on evidence found during the archaeological excavations. The designs on the red-and-green striped painted wall hangings (left) are based on a fifteenth-century Book of Hours. The furnishings in this room were made possible by a grant from the London Clothworkers’ Foundation. (Photo by Lynda Pidgeon, used with permission)

The second group of tree-ring samples, from the Great Hall range, indicates that this part of Barley Hall was rebuilt in the 1430s. Some of the construction techniques smack of work done on the cheap, leading the Barley Hall construction team to theorize that it was built by a tenant who was not necessarily concerned about the long-term effects of his actions. It took some creative work with hidden steel beams to save this part of the structure during the restoration.

We don’t know who was responsible for the rebuilding. We do know, however, that the first record of rental for the property is from 1466, when it was leased — for the then-astronomical sum of fifty-three shillings and fourpence – to one of York’s leading citizens, William Snawsell.

Snawsell’s family originally came from Gloucestershire, but had settled in York by the middle of the fourteenth century. “Our” Snawsell inherited his grandfather’s property in the city, and took on his father’s trade of goldsmithing, becoming a goldsmith to the Minster canons. He owned considerable property both in York and in surrounding villages. He was married to Joan Thweng of Sheriff Hutton, whose cousin Agnes was married to Thomas Wytham, one of the councillors of Richard Duke of Gloucester.

Snawsell became increasingly prominent in York civic affairs, first as a member of the Corpus Christi and Holy Trinity Guilds, then becoming Chamberlain (finance officer) in 1459, Sheriff in 1464-65, and finally, Lord Mayor in 1468 and alderman for two decades thereafter.

THE PARLOR. In this room William Snawsell, an Alderman in the City of York during Richard’s time as duke of Gloucester and King, would have received business associates, and its furnishings were calculated to impress the visitor. Shown here are some of Barley Hall’s meticulous reproductions: chair, table, stool, writing desk, pottery, and hornbooks. Many of the items shown here were made possible by gifts from local residents and merchants. The Ricardian Friends of Barley Hall hope to raise funds for the construction of additional furnishings. (Photo by Lynda Pidgeon, used with permission.)

His career intersected with that of Richard III in several ways. He was kissing cousin to one of Richard’s councillors, as noted above. As an alderman (a post he held for 23 years, stepping down in 1492, when in his late seventies), he often turned out in his scarlet gown to greet the Duke of Gloucester, and as a fellow member of the Corpus Christi guild, he would have walked in procession with the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester on this feast day. After Richard III’s accession, Snawsell joined the civic party taking gifts to Richard’s son, Edward of Middleham. Snawsell was prominent in the ceremonies surrounding Richard III’s September 1483 visit to York, and two years later he was present at the emergency meeting of the City Council that dispatched troops to Richard III’s aid in the fight against Henry Tudor. His name is first among the councillors who were present to hear John Sponor’s August 23 report that “King Richard late mercifully reigning upon us was thrugh grete treason…piteously slane and murdred to the grete hevyness of this citie.” Later, making the best of a bad bargain, he swore allegiance to Henry VII. He died two or three years after resigning as alderman. His will has not survived, so we know neither the date of his death nor the place of his burial, although we do know that he had left Barley Hall by 1489.

Decline of Barley Hall

The later history of Barley Hall awaits further research, but we know that the building was marred by poor quality brick repairs and was divided into smaller and smaller units. By Victorian times it had become a hodgepodge of offices and workshops. In the 1930s and 1940s, its tenants included an undertaker, a radio repairer, and a tire vulcanizer. Its last tenant was Mr. Auton, a plumber, who filled the Great Hall with plumbing fixtures and the tools of his trade as recently as 1978.

Barley Hall Today

After years of painstaking archeological and historical research, the York Archaeological Trust has decided to furnish and equip the interior as it would have appeared in 1483. This makes Barley Hall unique among York’s medieval sites – visitors can actually experience a late-medieval townhouse as the inhabitants themselves would have known it, not as a museum filled with objects half a millennium old.

THE PANTRY. This room includes a broad range of reproduction pieces — furniture, baskets, metal trenchers, pottery, and more. (Photo by Lynda Pidgeon, used with permission)

Fortunately, the York area is rich in archival resources, and has many surviving objects which can serve as patterns for the furnishings, crockery, and other items in Barley Hall. Because of later medieval York’s strong connection to the Low Countries, many houses contained objects of ‘Flanders make,’ and these are also represented in the material furnishings of Barley Hall.

A visit to Barley Hall today means a step back in time, as authentically-recreated as archaeology and historical research can make it. On special days, guides in costume appropriate to the period explain their master’s connection to our Good King Richard. They lead visitors on a tour that includes detailed explanations of both the function of the objects found in Great Hall, Parlor, Kitchen, Pantry, Buttery, and Chamber and of the processes of restoration and rebuilding. Visitors are encouraged to handle pottery, sit on chairs and peer into chests. At other times or if they simply prefer it, visitors can tour Barley Hall at their own pace, listening to a pre-recorded tour narrated by Robert Hardy CBE and Dame Judi Dench. Visitors wishing to contribute to the general fifteenth-century ambience (or keep warm in spring or fall months!) may borrow medieval garb.

Barley Hall is open seven days from 10:00 a.m., with last admission at 4:00 p.m., July through October this year. Admission is £3.50, concessions £2.50, under 6 and disabled free. Group bookings and winter openings are by appointment; call the Barley Hall Office on (01904) 610275, or write Barley Hall, 2 Coffee Yard, off Stonegate, York Y01 8AR.

Ricardian Friends of Barley Hall

THE BUTTERY. This room was sponsored by T. & R. Theakston Ltd. of Masham, makers of the fabled Old Peculier ale. Coopers from the brewery also made the buttery’s barrels. Pictured here, a range of wooden and pottery bowls, jugs, and other vessels, together with pewter trencher bases. All the pottery pieces are replicas of examples from medieval York and its environs. Many of the originals can be seen in the Yorkshire Museum. (Photo by Lynda Pidgeon, used with permission)

The York Archaeological Trust has committed considerable funding to the restoration of Barley Hall and to its day-to-day operation, but always with the expectation that it would become self-sustaining at some point. While restoration work on the building itself is largely complete, Barley Hall still is a long way from being properly furnished and fitted out. Despite its hidden location, Barley Hall is able to attract enough paying visitors to meet its ongoing expenses. However, it is encumbered by a loan from the York Archaeological Trust, which must be repaid if the building is to remain open; and it will need additional revenue to complete its furnishing.


In April 1998, a group of Barley Hall’s supporters formed the Barley Hall Trust. Three Society members were asked to be Trustees and were given permission to form a group of Friends within the Richard III Society to support this imaginative and exciting project. The Friends’ mission is to promote Barley Hall as an educational and historical attraction, and to raise funds to assist in the completion of the restoration and furnishing of Barley Hall. Ricardians are encouraged to make Barley Hall their York “tourist information center.” Friends members have prepared guides to Ricardian York and Ricardian Yorkshire, with other guides to sites with particular connections to our period, and these are available at the Hall. As a contribution to this project, the American Branch is donating server space and web design for the Friends web site, and is also sponsoring July 4 as an American Branch Day at Barley Hall.