Queen Margaret’s Arch plaque
Queen Margaret’s Arch, historical labels and bronze tablets:
a short-lived YPS initiative
Bob Hale, Hon Archivist
In August 2018, through the kind offices of York Civic Trust, a bronze plaque in Exhibition Square was carefully conserved, perhaps for the first time in almost 120 years. It is positioned just to the right of ‘Queen Margaret’s Arch’ in what was once the wall of St Mary’s Abbey. Every day, thousands of pedestrians, both residents of York and visiting tourists, walk under this arch, but very few pause to look at the plaque. Even fewer will notice the words along the bottom: “This tablet” (the word ‘plaque’ is not recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary in this sense until 1922) “was erected by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, 1899”. It was put up at the suggestion of two senior vice-presidents, Dr Tempest Anderson, joint Honorary Secretary, and Mr J F Walker, distinguished Honorary Curator of Geology, who lived nearby at 45 Bootham.1
The inscription reads: This Gateway was broken through the Abbey Wall July 1503 in honour of the Princess Margaret, daughter of Henry VII, who was the guest of the Lord Abbot of S Mary’s for two days on her journey to the North as the Bride of James IV of Scotland.
Sadly, the inscription is historically inaccurate. It is true that Margaret Tudor, eldest daughter of Henry VII, spent two days in York in July 1503. She had been married by proxy at the palace of Richmond, Surrey, in January 1502, to King James IV of Scotland, and eighteen months later broke her journey here when, aged thirteen, she first travelled north to join her husband as his Queen. She was not, however, “the guest of the Lord Abbot of St Mary’s”; she stayed at the archbishop’s palace by the Minster. And the gateway, far from being “broken through … in [her] honour”, had been constructed six years earlier for a previous royal visitor.
Forty years after the plaque was put up, the Rev. Angelo Raine, York clergyman, historian and YPS member, was editing extracts from the York Corporation house books. He transcribed a letter of 1500 from the Lord Abbot of St Mary’s to the Lord Mayor of the City, concerning a fresh argument over which of them owned the strip of land outside the abbey wall between Marygate Tower and Bootham Bar. On 30 April the abbot wrote to point out that the same matter had been settled to the then Mayor’s satisfaction “when we brake our walle thre yeres past to make our postrone”.2 A postern is a back or side door or gateway, often, as in this case, with a tower to defend it. The abbey’s main entrance was in Marygate. A reply from the mayor on 16 May said his predecessor had only conceded the point on being told ‘that the kyngs good grace then in his noble viage toward Scotland wold rest within your monastery and for his pleasour & passage to the mynster ye wald make ye said posterne’.3 This confirms that the gateway was not provided for Margaret’s use in 1503, but for her father in 1497. (The smaller square-headed opening by the tower dates only from 1836.)
Raine did not include the second of these letters, but added a footnote to the first: “This postern gateway and tower near Bootham Bar is still in existence and the mistaken popular tradition that the gateway was made in 1503 to allow the Princess Margaret easy access to the Minster is unfortunately given credence by a tablet affixed to it.”
He omitted to mention that it was Robert Davies (1793-1875), a solicitor and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, who a hundred years earlier first told how and for whom the postern was made. Davies, born in York and educated at St Peter’s School, went back to an original source to tell the story of Queen Margaret’s visit: the journal of Master John Young, Somerset Herald, one of the many officials in her grand retinue. Full details of her itinerary and reception in York are given there, and she did not visit St Mary’s Abbey on this occasion, although she did stay there in 1516 and 1517.4 Davies also served as Town Clerk from 1828 to 1848 (he resigned over the George Hudson scandal). He therefore had access to the civic records, and quoted from them in his Walks through the City of York. These were talks he gave, some to the YPS in the Yorkshire Museum, and so favourably received that after his death, like his account of Queen Margaret, they were published for wider circulation.5 The first, ‘From Burton Lane to Jewbury’, told the true story of the abbey postern. He did not mention the ‘popular tradition’, but did say he wanted to correct some fanciful embellishments in other accounts. Given that Davies had been a prominent member and officer of the YPS for half a century, and that his well-known Walks had been published less than twenty years before, it is disappointing, to put it mildly, that the wording on the Society’s plaque should be so misleading.
Despite the truth about the postern’s construction, the misnomer Queen Margaret’s Arch has stuck. Far worse,
perhaps, is that the tradition that she passed through it in 1503 has itself been ludicrously misinterpreted on the internet. For example, Wikipedia’s version of her progress to Scotland confidently states: “At York a plaque commemorates the exact spot where the Queen of Scots entered its gates” (our italics – she arrived from Tadcaster via Dringhouses, and therefore, as we would expect, came through Micklegate Bar). The website tudortimes.co.uk distorts this further: “By the time she reached York, her retinue had grown to such a size that the Mayor was obliged to have an extra entrance way cut into the city walls to allow them to enter” (no such occurrence at Micklegate Bar, where extra side arches were only cut through in the 18th and 19th centuries).6
What prompted the YPS in 1899 to put up this bronze tablet? From its foundation in 1822 the Society took a keen interest in York’s Roman and medieval ‘antiquities’. Any which its members possessed or which were excavated it gladly received for its museum. Those which were fixed, such as the abbey and city walls and bars, it sought to protect. And by 1877 it had actually become the owner of entire stretches of abbey walls along Marygate and Bootham, when it acquired further portions of the precinct for its gardens.7 They were lined on the outer faces with houses and shops. Towards the end of the century there was a movement to open up short sections to reveal the interval towers, whenever leases on the buildings fell in. As part of this enterprise, the YPS entered into an agreement with the Corporation in 1895 whereby the Society conveyed its whole interest in the abbey walls to the city, in return for a contribution of £200 to its subscription fund for opening them up to public view. The Corporation took upon itself the responsibility of keeping them in good repair, and agreed not to take down any part except for the purposes of restoration and re-erection.8
Having completed the transfer of ownership in 1896, the Society was determined to maintain a watching brief. The Rev. Canon James Raine, YPS Honorary Curator of Antiquities (and father of Angelo Raine above), was “constantly on the spot” as the Corporation cleared a house and shop on Bootham abutting on Marygate Tower to reveal how it had been crudely rebuilt after being blown up by the besieging Parliamentarians in 1644. Raine died a few weeks later in May 1896, but not before compiling a short history of the tower: how it was erected with the abbey walls in 1262-66, how it was used for storing the muniments of the abbey and indeed those of other northern abbeys after the Dissolution, how the explosion resulted in the wholesale destruction of these records, and how the tower was then rebuilt. This was printed in the 1896 annual report under the names of Dean Purey Cust, Sir Christopher A Milward and Richard Thompson. In May 1897, Council suggested to the Corporation that a copy or extract of Raine’s account should be “printed, framed and hung upon the Tower for the information of Visitors”, and it seems that this was done.
In April 1898 a YPS committee of Milward and Thompson was appointed to “prepare and have affixed a short Notice on the open space in Bootham acquired through the exertions of the Philosophical Society in front of the round Tower”, and it recommended in May “an inscribed Plate of brass or some durable metal”. In December, Council resolved that its “thanks … be given to Mr Brierley for his kind and effectual assistance without cost to this Society in connection with the bronze inscription recently fixed on the Abbey Walls”. York architect Walter Brierley was another prominent YPS member. In the 1898 accounts the entry “Bronze tablet for Abbey Walls £7. 0. 0.” appears (the price excluding, presumably, Brierley’s own services supplied free).
Meanwhile in October 1898 it had been resolved to form a second committee, this time without Milward, “to consider … the question of attaching a printed Board to the ‘Queen Margaret’s’ Archway similar to that put up on the Marygate Tower”. A month later, this committee for affixing “an explanatory label” on the archway was further asked to confer with the Corporation on the subject. This time it seems the Corporation did not act.
What became of Brierley’s bronze tablet is unknown. It obviously met with approval, however, because he was soon preparing another one. In March 1899 it was “Resolved on the proposal of Dr Anderson seconded by Mr Walker that a bronze tablet be affixed to the Queen Margaret Archway at a cost not exceeding £10”. This was the bronze plaque – which ended up costing £15 – that we show above, newly cleaned. The Yorkshire Herald welcomed its arrival six months later, its report concluding: “Mr Brierley, of Lendal, designed the tablet, and Messrs Longden & Co., of London, executed it. It would add very much to the interest of the city if similar tablets could be fixed on many of the other historic buildings with which York abounds.”9
Two events then occurred in March 1900. First, a lecture entitled ‘Antient Monuments’ [sic] was given to YPS members by Hugh Blakiston, Secretary of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty (founded in 1895, now simply the National Trust), who suggested that a Local Committee be elected to act in concert with the Trust and to prepare schedules of historic buildings in and around the city. The YPS council appointed itself en bloc to be that committee. Secondly, the Society approached the Corporation on the matter with a proposal to affix “permanent descriptive Tablets” to the bars and historic buildings, “similar to the one fixed by the Society on Queen Margaret’s Archway, Bootham”. The YPS would assist in “drawing up the Record” [drafting the text] if the Corporation would “undertake the expense of making and fixing the Tablets”.
If the Society hoped a full programme of tablet-fixing would begin, it was to be disappointed. Prolonged debate ensued in the council chamber in April over materials and costs. The same Sir Christopher Milward who two years before had preferred “brass or some durable metal”, who served on the city council as well as the YPS council, and who moved the adoption of this Report without any apparent conflict of interest, declared that the board hung on Marygate Tower “was very nice and elaborate, but he was afraid it would not last very long … [it] was now hardly readable, and they must know it was there or they would never see it.” But tablets of bronze at £15, or, as also suggested, “cast iron tablets with raised letters painted” caused others to jib at “an expenditure of over £200” when multiplied by a dozen or more, whereas wooden tablets with painted inscriptions “could be repainted every few years at a cost of a few shillings”. To which another, preferring cast iron with gilded letters, hoped the council would not “act in any parsimonious spirit”. In the end, they merely approved the principle without committing to any immediate spending.10
Nevertheless, Dean Purey Cust proceeded to draft inscriptions for the Bars as promised, historically more reliable, we hope, than that on Queen Margaret’s Arch. Although these were adopted by the city council, by December 1901 only that of Bootham Bar had been affixed, evidently of wood, for in January 1902 the Rev W Haworth for the Society was asked “to confer personally with the Lord Mayor” (also a member!) and “ask that tablets better suited to the purpose” might be placed on the other three. We do not know the outcome. In the YPS minutes and in the indexes to city council minutes from then until war broke out in 1914 there is reference only to one further “historical notice”: in 1905, “that a Board be fixed to the Wall of the Mansion House under the Archway leading to the Guildhall, giving a short historical notice of the Guildhall, for the information of Visitors”, for which the Society was invited to supply the wording. This, it seems, was also of wood, painted black with gold lettering.
So ended the collaboration of Society and City in this matter. It would be left to York Civic Trust, founded in 1946, to take up the baton and do what the Herald reporter had hoped in 1899. Numerous plaques have resulted, sometimes in wood but from the early 1950s also in more durable bronze. Its plaques programme has continued in the last few years with renewed energy and vigour.
1 YPS Council minutes, 13 March 1899 (held at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York).
2 Raine, Angelo (ed) York Civic Records, vol 2 (Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series vol 103, 1941), 149; Explore York Libraries and Archives, York Corporation House Book 1496-1503, Y/COU/1/1/6, f.77v.
3 Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England), An inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of York, vol 2, The Defences (1972), 162; House Book, Y/COU/1/1/6, f.84v.
4 Davies, Robert ‘Margaret Tudor at York’ in Yorkshire Archaeological and Topographical Journal, vol 7 (1881-2), 305-329. Young’s account was printed in John Leland, Joannis Lelandi antiquarii de rebus Britannicis collectanea (1770), 258–300.
5 Davies, Robert Walks through the City of York (ed. Elizabeth Davies, 1880), 11-12.
6 RCHME, Defences, 95-6. Both websites visited 27 Nov 2018.
7 Hogarth, Peter J, and Anderson, Ewan W. ‘The most fortunate situation’, the story of York’s Museum Gardens (2018), 51-2, 68-71; P M Tillott (ed.), A History of Yorkshire, the City of York (1961), 358.
8 This and subsequent paragraphs take as their source the YPS Council minutes and printed Annual reports (held at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York) and York City Council printed and indexed minutes (Explore York Libraries and Archives).
9 Yorkshire Herald, 21 October 1899.
10 Undated cutting from Yorkshire Herald reporting the City Council meeting of 2 April 1900, pasted into YPS Council minutes of 9 April.