Halfway along York’s bustling Fossgate, an orange-pink ornate gateway takes any passing onlooker by surprise. Crowned by an elaborate Dutch gable, emblazoned is ‘MERCHANTS HALL’ alongside a painted carving, heralding a gem beyond. With the roar of the bus-addled Piccadilly in the background, and the murky waters of the River Foss to the south-east, the gatehouse’s central passage welcomes you to the very embodiment of ‘Merrie Olde England’.
Pale yellow walls interlaced with black timbers and colossal red-brick chimney stacks convey the quintessential charm of the largest timber-framed building in York. This proud example of fourteenth-century vernacular architecture is the guildhall of the great buyers and exporters of woollen cloth—whose riches much of medieval England was built on—known as the Merchant Adventurers.
Image credit: Steve Perriotte
Founded in 1357, ground was broken on the construction of a new hall to house the fraternity of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary soon after. Brick from the Carmelite Friars and oak-timbered beams from Thorpe Underwood were shaped into the impressive double-aisled great hall on the first floor where, for over 650 years, dialogues on trade, economics, politics, worship and charity were pored over. And hidden within the carpentry, a set of implicit ‘rules’ enforced one’s place and how to act.
Their good deeds recognised, by the early fifteenth century, this company of men was granted a charter by Henry VI, formally incorporating them as a guild, or ‘mystery’, alongside the religious fraternity. But their prosperity was short-lived. As mercantile technology flourished, and ships grew ever larger, York’s narrow watery lifelines soon became their demise. London’s Thames monopolised the foreign competition in English cloth manufacture—and York’s tailed off, ending an era in the North. Today, the Company is no longer a trading association but holds the Hall in trust.