The Vicars Choral of York Minster: The College at Bedern


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J. D. Richards
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The Archaeology of York [Series]
The Medieval Walled City North-East of the Ouse [Volume]
Council for British Archaeology for York Archaeological Trust
Date Copyrighted
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Digitally available on 17 November 2023
The College of the Vicars Choral in York was established in 1252 in an area south-east of Goodramgate, later known as Bedern, where the common hall, chapel and gatehouse still stand. The office of vicar choral derived from the obligation upon absentee canons to appoint personal deputies to take their place in the choir of York Minster. Throughout the 14th century the college housed 36 vicars, but it began to decline from the end of the 15th century. In 1574 the vicars ceased to dine in common, although the college was not formally dissolved until 1936.

Excavations between 1973 and 1980 revealed an extensive complex of college buildings. In total, an area of c.2,500m2 was investigated, representing about 30% of the estimated college precinct at its maximum extent. During the first half of the 13th century Bedern was subject to agricultural usage, with a series of drainage gullies and ditches representing property boundaries running back from Goodramgate, and some structures of which the remains were slight (Period 1). In the mid 13th century this land was acquired by the college, which erected its first buildings on either side of an open courtyard, running back from Goodramgate, which was to become Bedern Close. On the north-east side of the close a large building- the great hall- was constructed; on the south-west side a stone building (on the site of the later chapel) and a smaller timber-framed structure were built (Period 2). As the college expanded the vicars required more accommodation. An aisled hall was constructed along the south-west side of the close although this appears to have been short lived, and a smaller structure was built behind it (Period 3). By the late 13th century (Period 4) buildings were constructed in the south-west part of the site. In the early 14th century the chapel was constructed and there were major changes to the buildings on the south-west side of the close (Period 5). In the middle of the 14th century the college reached the peak of its prosperity. An early timber-framed common hall was constructed, the great hall was rebuilt, apparently to provide separate houses, and new individual residences were also built on the south-west side of the close (Period 6). There was major building activity throughout the precinct from the mid 14th century to the early 15th century (Period 7), creating a second courtyard to the south-west. The great hall was now rebuilt in stone, and a new stone-built common hall was constructed south-west of the close, with adjacent service accommodation, kitchen block, archive room and college gardens. The chapel was enlarged and a number of new houses were built. Many of these developments coincided with attempts to revive the corporate life of the college through a new set of statutes issued in c.1390-1430. A stone wall now marked a division in the precinct between the courtyard south-west of the hall and a garden to the south-east, whilst any further expansion of the college to the south-west was constrained by the presence of a medieval foundry. From the mid 15th century to the early 17th century (Period 8) there was less new building work, although existing structures continued to be modified as the vicars increasingly lived away and sublet their houses to lay tenants.

The post-medieval period (Period 9) saw further changes. The excavations provided archaeological evidence for some of this later development; most deposits, however, had been disturbed by modem features and so documentary records have provided invaluable supplementary evidence. North-east of the close post-medieval cellars may represent all that remains of the vicarial mansion houses that replaced the medieval hall. Many of these houses were sublet, and by 1700 there were only five vicars resident in Bedern. On the south-west side of the street the college chapel and hall survive as standing buildings. The chapel was used sporadically for religious services until the 20th century, and excavation within the building revealed evidence for several phases of refitting. From 1640 the hall was leased to laymen and was subdivided into three tenements. The former service wing of the hall and the college kitchens were converted into residential accommodation. In the areas adjacent to the hall, excavation revealed a number of buildings around an open yard named Bartle Garth, or Back Bedern, which formed a second courtyard within the college precinct. These included a substantial mansion erected at the end of the 17th century.

During the first half of the 19th century Bedern became a notorious slum; it was home to a large number of Irish immigrants and subsequently a high proportion of York's prostitutes operated from rooms in Bedern. From the middle of the century attempts were made to improve Bedern. The street was opened up to St Andrewgate in 1852; the Bedern National School was built in 1872-3; the Ebor and Hawarden Buildings provided model lodging houses from 1883. Thereafter Bedern was taken over for light industrial premises, the hall becoming a mineral water factory in the 19th century and later part of a meat-pie works, until the area was returned to residential housing in the 1980s.

To the south-west the medieval foundry was replaced by a bakery in the mid 16th century. Excavations here revealed a series of bread ovens, in use until the mid 17th century. It is suggested that the bakery may still have had a connection with York Minster, possibly baking communion bread for use in the Minster services. This bakery will be published in a future fascicule in AY 13.

The development of the college buildings mirrors the growth and decline of the college, and the trend away from communal life to individual houses. The excavation has provided a valuable insight into life in a medieval urban religious house. This is complemented by reports on the finds, pottery, animal bones and plant remains. The fascicule also presents the documentary evidence for the development of the college, and gives details of the architectural history of the chapel and hall, as well as reporting on the techniques and materials used to construct and embellish the college buildings.
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York Archaeological Trust
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