Barley Hall in York is a stunning medieval mansion house situated in the heart of one of Yorks busiest tourist areas. Literally just a stones throw away from York Minster, this incredible historic house, come museum, has been beautifully restored to its former glory as the home of York Alderman, William Snawsell.
In search of Barley Hall
I walk cautiously down Stonegate, my daughters tiny hand buried deep within mine. Its particularly busy for a weekday, tourists with cameras whiz past us, and workmen in high visibility clothing stand around assessing the huge hole they have dug in the middle of the road. “Where is it?”, I say out loud to my excitable two year old. I keep telling myself I don’t need directions, I grew up in York and i’ve walked past this place so many times before.
This is the real thing – a genuine late medieval property, secreted behind the shops and businesses of stonegate.
We finally emerge on the other side of the roadworks, I know now we are so close to our destination. Then I see it. Coffee Yard Alley opens up to my right, an escape route from this busy street. I glance down, and instantly recognise the distinctive mock medieval/Tudor facade of the incredible town house. Only, this isn’t mock Tudor at all. This is Barley Hall. This is the real thing – a genuine late medieval property, secreted behind the shops and businesses of Stonegate.
The story of Barley Hall: A short History
York Minster and the importance of Stonegate
Today, Stonegate in York is one of the most popular tourist streets in the City. Lined with jewellers, luxury clothing shops, and other upmarket stores, Stonegate is as popular today as it was in the Fourteenth Century. When Barley Hall was built, the land it, and many other properties occupied, was owned by York Minster. It was essential that anyone who had dealings with the Minster had property in Stonegate, so having to lease land was pretty much a given.
Prior Dereford and the Nostell Priory Mansion
The Nostell Priory Mansion House was one such property built in this sought after area. Probably commissioned by Thomas de Dereford, the original town house would have served as a hostel house for when the priors of Nostell were conducting affairs in the city. Dereford had served as Prior between 1337 and 1372, and is atttributed with making Nostell one of the richest and most important priories in England. The mansion he commissioned would have been very grand, and would have had a secondary purpose of demonstrating the orders status.
The end of an era
Following the death of Prior Dereford, the priors of Nostell struggled with the upkeep of the mansion, and its was leased out. It seems the new leaseholder significantly remodelled the house, vastly increasing the size of the great hall, and making it one of the most expensive lease properties in York.
The Aldermans House
William Snawsell was a wealthy trader and guild member who having amassed a great wealth, and a tidy portfolio of properties, had become one of the cities leading citizens. With high ranking clients and family connections within the Neville family, he rose up through society to be made Sherif of York in 1464. By 1466 he was living in the Nostell Priory House with his family, and in 1468 was appointed Mayor of York.
A house in Decline
Following the occupancy of the Snawsells, the mansion was again leased out. During the dissolution of the monasteries it was confiscated by the crown, and in the following centuries, extended in brick and subdivided into smaller and smaller properties. By the twentieth century the original timer house was all but lost within the shell of the later brick structure, and the story that follows is quite remarkable.
The founding of Barley Hall
I’m conscious I don’t want to merely repeat what’s already said in the guidebook, but the story of Barley Hall is quite remarkable and absolutely needs telling.
Saving part of York’s history from demolition
Barley Hall as we know it today, is a complete reconstruction of the Nostell Priory Mansion, as lived in by Alderman Snawsell in the late fifteenth Century. It could have never happened. I was fascinated to learn that in 1980 the remaining dangerous structure was nearly demolished, and in 1984 it was nearly turned into flats! Remarkably, York Archaeological Trust found parts of the original fourteenth century timber house entombed within the crumbling structure, and ended up purchasing it in 1987.
Reconstructing the Alderman’s House
During the early 90’s York Archelogical Trust set about the painstaking task of excavating the site, and piecing together how the Alderman’s house would have looked. The structure was then completely rebuilt, with the interior furnishings all being based on actual fourteenth century designs.
The trust are keen to point out that nothing else like this exists in York, and I would hazard a guess that this is one of the finest recreated medieval houses of its kind in the country.
The amount of time, effort, and passion that has gone into recreating Barley Hall (named after the trust’s first director) and making it as authentic as possible, is absolutely incredible. The trust are keen to point out that nothing else like this exists in York, and I would hazard a guess that this is one of the finest recreated medieval houses of its kind in the country.
Exploring Barley Hall
As you emerge from Stonegate into the courtyard which houses Barley Hall, you will immediately be taken aback by this wonderful medieval house. Unless you know it’s there, it hits you as a bit of a surprise. The L shaped timber house is absolutely striking, and you might just feel like you have passed through a time portal.
The reception area and shop
Making our way through the large solid oak doors, we found ourselves in a little shop and reception area. A staff member at the reception desk greeted us warmly and we purchased our tickets. I hadn’t done any research into Barley Hall, so it was interesting talking about the history of the house, and the peculiar alley way which passes right through it.
Entry was just £6.50 for me and as Oaklie was under 5, her admission was free. There are actually different types of admission available if you want to visit other Archaeological Trust properties in York. For example, for just £20 you can purchase a ‘Pastport’ which gets you in to all 5 properties. What is great is that whatever ticket you buy, you can come back again any time throughout the year.
After making our way through the shop and admiring some of the original oak beams, we passed through the Steward’s room and turned right, into the main area of the house. You emerge into a decent sized vestibule area, with visitor toilets to your left, some wooden steps to the first floor to the front, and the magnificent Great Hall to your right.
The magnificent Great Hall
The Great Hall is absolutely superb, and a real testament to the dedicated men and women who so meticulously reconstructed it. As mentioned earlier, this is larger than the earlier Hall constructed by the priors, and was probably constructed before Alderman Snawsell and his family moved it. As part of the Great Hall enlargement, the builders cut through into the adjacent range of the building to create the arched canopy above the high table. The Great Hall was where the family and household ate together, with the family being situated at the high table, slightly higher than the rest of the hall.
An unusual view
One side of the Great Hall consists of a huge window which looks out onto the alley way. This is such an unusual but brilliant feature, with people passing by being able to look inside. I enquired about this alley when we came in, but apparently nobody is quite sure when or why it was built. On the other side of the alleyway is the ground floor part of the house that contains the Pantry, Buttery and Tudor School Room. You need to go over the top to get to this part of the house.
When I finally managed to drag myself away from the Great Hall, we made our way up to the first floor, and into the gallery area. This is actually a sixteenth century addition and offers fantastic views down over the Great Hall. The Parlour next door is another impressively vast area, which would have served as the Alderman’s Office. This is where he would have conducted the majority of his work and would have had dealings with his customers.
The Tudor School Room
Beneath the parlour then is situated the Pantry, Buttery and Tudor School Room. My daughter Oaklie is only two years old, so I was glad to find the school room included some building blocks, and wooden games for her to play with. There are also some costumes if you want dress your child up like a small medieval person.
Master Snawsell’s Bedchambers
After trying to flick a wooden ball into a small wooden cup (what kids did before Netflix), we made our way back up the wooden staircase and into the gallery. Passing through this, I attempted to read some of the information boards and view the exhibitions, but Oaklie was keen to press on, and I was keen to not let her run into a wall! We finally emerged in the first of the bedchambers.
The Lesser chamber – which served as a sitting room – is the first chamber you enter, and this is followed by the Great Chamber. The guide book describes this as a combination of the ‘bedroom, study, private dining room and inner sanctum for the master of the house’. This chamber would have been magnificently decorated, and lavishly furnished. This is a vast two story room and would have made quite an impression on anyone given the honour of entering the masters chamber.
Having spent time with my daughter exploring Barley Hall, I left feeling a little giddy. The house is much larger than you expect it to be, and it has been so cleverly and meticulously recreated, that you actually feel like you could have gone back in time. I just wasn’t expecting any of it, and I just hadn’t appreciated the scale of what had been involved in bringing Barley Hall back to life.
This article only just scratches the surface of what is on offer at Barley Hall, and you could spend an age intimately examining every room, exhibition and plaque in this wonderfully restored and one of a kind medieval townhouse.
We owe it to the architects, historians and daydreamers who made this unbelievable project a reality, to visit the fantastic Barley Hall and sing about it from the rooftops!
If you have an interest in the medieval and Tudor Periods, and want to experience what it might have been like living in a lavish city centre townhouse, then Barley Hall is absolutely for you. For families looking for interesting things to do in York, then there are plenty of activities for kids get their teeth into, and plenty of interactive objects and exhibitions to keep even the most excitable kids interested.
If you haven’t been to Barley Hall before, then just go! This is one of the most underrated, fascinating and utterly unique historic houses anywhere. We owe it to the architects, historians and daydreamers who made this unbelievable project a reality, to visit the fantastic Barley Hall and sing about it from the rooftops!
The research I have conducted for Barley Hall is largely based on my conversations with the staff, the plaques and information boards around the house, and the guide book. For more on Barley Hall, and latest news and events, please check out their website here.