Archaeological and Historical Background
 
The site lies some 30m east of the medieval Church of St Denys on Walmgate, an important street within the present day city which runs for 600m from Foss Bridge to Walmgate Bar, one of the gates through York's medieval defences. Walmgate, which may have Roman origins, appears to run along a natural glacial ridge on a roughly east-west alignment. Little evidence has been found close to the excavation area for Roman occupation. A Roman altar dedicated to the native god Arciaco was found at St Denys' Church and two Roman burials, one in a stone and one in a lead coffin, were found nearby (RCHMY 1962, 69–70, 118). To the south of the site on George Street (1997.151) several Roman ditches were located during evaluation work (Macnab unpublished a).

The origins of the present street are unknown but the name suggests an Anglo-Scandinavian origin. The first documentary reference dates to the late 11th century when it was known as Walbegate (Palliser 1978). The first element of this may be a personal name and the second derives from the Old Norse gata meaning street.

More substantive evidence comes from archaeological excavations in the area. Evidence for Anglo-Scandinavian occupation has been recovered further south-east at Nos.118–126 Walmgate (1978.8) where there was a large wattle-lined pit or well of 9th–10th century date (Finlayson 1997). In excavations of limited scale at 76–82 Walmgate (1987.33), at 104–112 Walmgate near St Margaret's Church (1991.21) (Finlayson 1997), and at the former St George's School on the corner of Margaret Street and Walmgate (ARCUS 1995) artefactual and stratigraphic evidence for Anglo-Scandinavian and later occupation has been found (Macnab unpublished c).

Although not mentioned in documentary sources before 1154, St Denys' Church may be pre-Conquest in origin as two Anglo-Scandinavian tomb slabs have been found there (RCHMY 1981, 15).

In Anglo-Scandinavian times Walmgate would have been an important route into York. The street was probably lined with properties laid out by landowners who settled their tenants along the frontage with a view to taking advantage of commercial opportunities in a town which developed rapidly from the late 9th century onwards. Although it has been subject to alteration over the centuries, the present day pattern of property boundaries on Walmgate, as in other parts of York, may have had its origins in the Anglo-Scandinavian period. The archaeological evaluation at 41-49 Walmgate (1990.26) revealed 10th century stake and wattle buildings at right-angles to the present street (Lilley unpublished).

During the medieval period the population of the area is believed to have grown, the large number of churches near Walmgate (six within the walls and another seven without, along the continuation of Walmgate) being cited as evidence (Ottaway 1999). This may not be the case as the large number of parish churches may simply suggest a multiplicity of lordships in the area substantial enough to establish them. The disappearance of St Stephen's after 1405, and the merger of St Mary's and St Margaret's in c.1308, may indicate that this was an area of declining population even before the Black Death, or that the population from immediately after the Norman Conquest was not large enough to support the number of churches in the area (Lilley unpublished).

Excavations at Nos.118–126 Walmgate (1978.8) revealed a long complex sequence of medieval and post-medieval buildings on the street frontage (Finlayson 1997). Behind these, various crafts including metalworking, pottery production, sheep skin-processing and tanning were carried out. The evaluation of 41-49 Walmgate (1990.26) predicted that a similar complex sequence would be revealed by the excavations under consideration here.

In the later medieval period several important landowners, including the Percy and Neville families, are known to have had properties in Walmgate and the Haberdashers' Company guild hall was also situated on the street. The 1381 poll tax returns suggest that an important occupation of the residents of medieval Walmgate was fishmongering. This is not surprising as the sea fish market was on Foss Bridge. Other trades included dyeing, tailoring and potting.

It is unclear whether St Denys' Road existed in the medieval period. A reference to property in Saynt Dyonys lane may refer to it, or alternatively to St Denis Street to the west of the church. This property consisted in 1415–16 of six cottages with small gardens and an adjoining orchard (Raine 1955, 99). Speed's map of 1611 appears to show a line of buildings along the northern end of St Denys' Road. This might represent a row of chantry buildings on the edge of St Denys' churchyard. The extent of that churchyard in the medieval period is uncertain; it may have extended as far as the site.

The buildings that formerly occupied the site were demolished in 1966. These had medieval origins and were recorded by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (RCHMY 1981, 240). Nos.43–45 existed as a 14th century open hall parallel to the street; it may have had a cross-wing at its eastern end. In the late 16th century the open hall was divided into two storeys, a chimney stack was inserted and a rear extension added. The building was subsequently divided into two tenements. No.41 existed as a 15th–16th century two-storeyed timber-framed building of three or more bays with its gable end facing the street. All three properties were faced with brick in the late 18th century and the interiors and frontages were further altered in the 19th century.

In the mid 19th century Walmgate became notorious as a slum area populated largely by Irish immigrants, many of whom had worked on bringing the railway to York. Conditions in the tightly packed tenements and narrow unhealthy courts were exposed in 1901 by the pioneering sociological study Poverty: a Study of Town Life by B.S. Rowntree. Since the Second World War the last remains of the slums have been cleared away, leaving Walmgate as one of the city's secondary trading areas.


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St Denys' Church by F. Bedford, c.1843

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Site Location

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RCHM plan of the buildings on the site at the time of demolition in 1966
© Copyright York Archaeological Trust 2003