Minster Gates

THESE days you can walk right up to York Minster and, should the mood take you, rest your hand upon its ancient stone. Back in medieval times, however, this would have been impossible for all but members of the great cathedral's inner circle.

That is because the Minster stood at the centre of its own walled precinct, the 'Liberty of St Peter' - effectively a city within a city.

The medieval precinct basically sat on top of the northern half of what had once between the Roman legionary fortress of Eboracum: in fact, a bit of the old Roman headquarters building is exposed in the Minster's crypt, and the remains of a waterlogged barrack block was also recorded beneath the cathedral, according to the city council's Minster Precinct character area statement.

We don't know exactly where the first stone church, built by St Paulinus, the first Bishop of York, would have been - but it was somewhere within the area of the Minster precinct. The Minster was completely rebuilt by Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux after the Norman conquest - and then rebuilt again as the Gothic cathedral we know today in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Originally, the cathedral was surrounded by a ditch that covered much of the area of the Roman fortress. In 1283, however, this ditch was replaced by a 12 foot high wall and gates, to protect clergy and church property.

There seems to have been some need for protection: in 1300, the Dean of York claimed that murderers and arsonists were gathering in the narrow lane that led off Petergate beneath his kitchens.

According to the historian Francis Drake, whose book Eboracum was published in 1736, there were four gates into the Minster precinct. One of these was at the end of Lop Lane, later Duncombe Place; one opposite Bedern, where College Green meets Goodramgate (and the timber-framed building on the corner still looks like a gatehouse); and one in Ogleforth where it joins Chapter House Street (the old Roman Via Decumana, or East-West road).

The main gate, however, was at Minster Gates. It was for foot traffic only: posts blocking access for vehicles are mentioned as early as 1370 (ironically, we have them again today). But it was still a hugely important entrance - and the approach leading up to it was one of the busiest areas of York. Both it, and streets around such as Low Petergate, were crowded with small shops and stalls.

By about 1470, the approach to Minster Gates had become known as Bookland Lane, later Bookbinders Alley. That's because the clergy of the Minster and the other central parishes were the main commissioners and users of books. In 1662, in fact, King Charles II passed an Act allowing only London, Oxford, Cambridge and York to publish and license books.

Apart from the name of the little alleyway linking Petergate to Minster Yard, no trace of the gateway Minster precinct gateway survives these days. The gate did apparently still exist in 1736, when Drake published his book, but it seem to have been destroyed in about 1800, with no plan or illustration surviving.

The carved figure of Minerva, the Roman goddess of learning and wisdom, on the corner of the building at 1 Minster Gates is a reference to the area's bookish past. The goddess is seen reclining and resting her arm on a pile of books.

Stephen Lewis

For the stories behind more York Civic Trust plaques, visit yorkcivictrust.co.uk