STEPHEN LEWIS takes a close look at the restoration of Micklegate Bar

RICHARD III must have hated Micklegate Bar. It was, after all, where his father's head was displayed, stuck on a spike and reportedly wearing a paper crown, after the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460.

Richard Duke of York had been perhaps the most powerful man in the kingdom until he literally lost his head. It would probably have been little comfort to him, as his rotting head gazed sightlessly out from the ramparts of the Bar, that two of his sons - Edward IV and Richard III - would go on to be kings of England. Especially as the head of another of his sons - Edmund, Earl of Rutland - was right up there on another spike, keeping him company - along with the head of his ally, Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury.

Micklegate Bar was, in a very real sense, York's own 'traitors' gate'.

John Oxley, York's city archaeologist, believes the heads of Richard and his two companions would probably have been displayed on pikes placed on the turrets right at the top of the bar. "It's the one place where you could really fit a pike," he says, with a certain amount of relish.

York Press:

John Oxley on the roof of Micklegate Bar with, behind, the turrets where the head of Richard III's father once stood on a spike

Today, this Bar with the grim history is hidden from view beneath plastic shrouds.

For several weeks now, Micklegate has been closed to outbound traffic while the Bar's leaking roof is repaired.

It has been a fairly major undertaking, admits John. The last major reconstruction of the roof was done in the mid 1820s - and for several years now, water has been leaking through to the Henry VII museum inside.

It was next on the council's list of priorities after Walmgate Bar as part of an ongoing £1.5 million scheme to preserve and protect York's medieval city walls.

Workmen stripped away all the slate tiles from the roof, repaired or replaced damaged timbers, added a stainless steel frame to strengthen the structure, and have since been painstakingly replacing the 200-year-old slates.

They've also repainted the ornate heraldry that gazes out from the Blossom Street side of the Bar; washed down the ancient stone of the Bar itself, to remove centuries of grime; and installed a series of monitors that will beam back live data about how the Bar is affected by traffic vibrations.

It is all vital work that will help ensure the survival of this ancient gateway into York form a few more decades or centuries to come.

For those who love history, it has also offered a wonderful chance to take a close look at the Bar's past.

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Repainted heraldry: the Royal coat of arms in the centre, flanked by the coat of arms of York

You can learn a lot about this gateway just by looking at the stonework - and the heraldry that adorns it, John says.

First that heraldry. For centuries, Micklegate Bar has been the gateway into York used on official Royal visits. Many York people today will have witnessed the Queen coming into York through the Bar on one of her several visits. And there's also a wonderful account of a Royal visit from much longer ago: Henry VII's first visit to York in 1486, shortly after he became King by defeating Richard III at Bosworth.

York had been Richard's city and the citizens were understandably eager to make a good impression on the new Lancastrian king.

Henry was met by York’s sheriffs and two aldermen with 60 horses at the city's outskirts, then accompanied to Micklegate Bar by the Mayor and the rest of the city aldermen, who were all dressed in scarlet gowns. The entourage also included the town clerk and council dressed in violet, the chamberlains in mulberry and many citizens in red on horseback.

At Micklegate Bar the entourage was greeted by a host of children, all calling out ‘King Henry’ in 'joyful' voices, and by a red and white rose which symbolised the union of the houses of York and Lancaster (Henry had married Elizabeth of York, Richard III's niece).

Quite why Micklegate was chosen as the 'royal entrance' we're not sure. But the presence of a ceremonial entrance may have dated from 1212, when York was granted its Royal charter by King John., John Oxley believes.

Whatever the reason for this gate being given Royl significance, the heraldry on the Bar's face reflects its status. It is much more ornate than that on the city's other Bars.

Up near the top of the Bar is the Royal coat of arms, flanked on either side by the city coat of arms. Above it is a strange, three-level carving, depicting a knight's helmet, with the cap of maintenance of York above it, and on top of both a lion's head.

York Press:

Heraldic symbols: knight's helmet, topped by the cap of maintenance, topped by a golden lion

Other stories are told in the stonework. When the original Norman city walls were built in the 1100s, Micklegate and the other city bars would have been just two stories high, John says.

In the mid 1300s, all the city's bars were reconstructed, to make them much bigger and grander. Micklegate Bar was increased in height from two to four storeys.

Look carefully, and you can see that the lower half is squat and square, with sharp corners. Higher up, there are rounded towers at each outward-facing corner. They're the later additions.

They coincide with the time when King Edward III was fighting the Scots, John says. He made York his base for his northern wars, and effectively brought the court here with him. "He established York as the capital of the north," John says.

For a capital, however, York didn't have many grand public buildings, apart from the Minster. Extending the gated entrances to the city to make them grander and more imposing may have been the city fathers' way of responding to York's new status, John suspects.

York Press:

The Bar in more normal times: a squared-off lower half, with rounded towers above from the later extension

There's another story told in the stone of Micklegate Bar, however. If you walk through the central arch - something you can't normally do because of the traffic - you'll see that the stone on the Blossom Street side of the inside of the arch is rough and irregular, while the stone on the Micklegate side is much smoother and more regular.

That's because the stone on the outer side is probably the remains of the original Norman Bar, while the inner stone was later, John says.

That earlier stone on the Blossom Street side of the arch is of a very distinctive kind - millstone grit.

That's a material which was used for building in York in only two periods of history, John says: during Roman times, then again in Victorian times.

Clearly, this can't be Victorian stone. So the Norman builders must have recycled stone originally used by the Romans.

John's theory is that it may have been cannibalised from the remains of a Roman gate that must once have stood here or hereabouts - possibly 30 metres or so further north, or possibly right here where the Bar stands now.

That's not so farfetched. The civilian city of Roman times would have ended about here, John says. It would have needed a gate - and we know that a Roman road lined with cemeteries led out of the city along roughly what is now Tadcaster Road.

So Micklegate Bar - or a version of it - could actually be much older than we think. Not a mere thousand years old, but almost two thousand.

Quite a story...

  • The work on the roof of Micklegate Bar is expected to be completed this week. After that, the scaffolding will gradually be taken down, with the aim of re-opening the Bar (and so allowing outbound traffic to pass through once more) by the end of October.