St Mary's Abbey precinct walls


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Location Description:
Precinct walls and associated towers extending along Marygate and Bootham, York.


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
Precinct walls and associated towers extending along Marygate and Bootham, York.
York (Unitary Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
SE 59994 52330


Medieval defences defining the precinct boundary to the north and west sides of St Mary's Abbey, York. See separate, abutting scheduling for St Mary's Abbey (NHLE 100419) which also includes other parts of the precinct boundary.

Reasons for Designation

The medieval defences defining the precinct boundary to the north and west sides of St Mary's Abbey, York, are scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Architectural: the precinct walls represent a very significant survival of medieval monastic architecture;

* Historical: from its foundation in the eleventh century St Mary's Abbey remained one of the most prominent and wealthy monasteries in England until its Dissolution in 1539;

* Archaeological potential: the wall, towers and ground beneath them retain material which has the potential to increase our knowledge and understanding of the abbey, its precinct, and of other sites of this type.


St Mary's Abbey was founded in circa 1086 when Count Alan Rufus granted St Olave's Church (on the line of the defences, Grade I listed, but not included in the scheduling) to a community of Benedictine monks which had been trying to re-establish the monastery at Lastingham on the North York Moors. In 1088 William II visited York and made a further grant of land adjacent to St Olave's, personally laying the foundation stone for a new abbey church. This royal grant established the extent of the monastic precinct which is thought to fossilise the extent of a defended annex to the Roman legionary fortress lying immediately outside the western defences of the city. It is suggested that this was the pre-Conquest Earlsburh: the seat of the English earls who governed York from 954.

It is presumed that the abbey had some form of boundary marking the extent of the precinct soon after its establishment, but it is not known what form this took. The earliest sections of the surviving precinct walls are thought to date to 1266, being built following the murder of some of the abbey's tenants by people from the city in 1262. This took the form of a wall built of magnesian limestone ashlar rising to over 3m, providing a measure of security, but falling short of being fully defensive. This wall is thought to have only enclosed the north-eastern part of the precinct, extending northwards from St Olave's along Marygate and then eastwards along Bootham.

In 1318 (during a period of Scottish incursions following the English defeat at Bannockburn in 1314) the abbey was granted a licence to crenellate, resulting in extension and fortification of the walls to form a defensive circuit immediately outside the defences of the city. The earlier wall was heightened by a further 2m and crenellated, with half-round interval towers also being constructed. The circuit was also extended with a new wall linking the main gatehouse by St Olave's to the river. As part of this work, two large round towers were built in circa 1324, St Mary's Tower (at the corner of Bootham and Marygate) and the Water Tower at the southern end of the Marygate wall, on the Ouse riverbank. A wall was also constructed along the eastern side of the precinct, facing the higher city wall across an intramural ditch. A surviving section of this wall (Grade I listed, but not included in the scheduling) extends north-eastwards of the Kings Manor, on the eastern side of a driveway. Buried remains of the rest of the circuit are also not included, although parts are included within the scheduling of St Mary's Abbey.

In 1497 a postern gate defended by a rectangular tower was constructed in the north-eastern corner of the precinct to allow more direct access into the city via Bootham Bar. The pretext for its construction was a proposed visit to the abbey by Henry VII, but it is named Queen Margaret's Arch after his eldest daughter who visited York en route north to become the bride of James IV of Scotland.

St Mary’s Abbey was one of the last monasteries to be dissolved, being surrendered to the Crown on 26 November 1539. It was retained by Henry VIII, becoming the Kings Manor, used as the headquarters of the “King's Council of the Northern Parts” governing northern England. The Kings Manor remained a seat of government and occasional royal residence up until the English Civil War when the precinct walls were re-used as part of the city's defences. These withstood a 12-week siege by Parliamentarian forces in 1644, the precinct being breached, but unsuccessfully assaulted on the 16 June. This assault resulted in the partial destruction of St Mary's Tower which was subsequently repaired.

From 1827, much of the abbey precinct was purchased by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society and turned into a museum and pleasure grounds. The society undertook restoration work of the standing walls, including the demolition of a number of properties that had been built up along the outside face of the precinct walls. Pedestrian arches were also inserted (circa 1836) besides Queen Margaret's Arch and the Water Tower.

Designation History: The precinct walls and towers along Marygate and Bootham were included along with about two-thirds of St Mary's Abbey precinct as a single scheduled monument in 1915. The scheduling of the precinct walls was confirmed in 1922 following a query from the Corporation of York which had by this time taken over responsibility for the walls. This confirmation led to the precinct walls being treated as a separate, but related, scheduled monument. These scheduled walls were listed Grade I in 1954.


The monument is divided into two scheduled areas: extending along the precinct boundary from Queen Margaret's Arch, via St Mary's Tower, as far as the north side of 29 Marygate; and secondly from St Mary's Lodge to the Water Tower. Both these scheduled areas abut the larger scheduled area for St Mary's Abbey, this latter scheduling including the gatehouse adjacent to St Olave's on Marygate.

Most of the walls and towers within the scheduling are thought to survive to about their full height, with C19 and later restoration and areas of rebuilding. The post-1318 heightening of the earlier wall is marked by a clear horizontal break internally because the later work is slightly thinner, with the off-set for the thicker, lower wall thought to have formed part of the support for a timber wall-walk. There is also a slight change in stonework, with the later walling generally employing larger blocks of a slightly lighter colour. Unrestored crenellations retain L-shaped slots in the reveals to the embrasures, indicating that these were originally closed by timber shutters. Arrow slits within towers and through some of the merlons of the battlements are generally cruciform, with widely splayed internal reveals.

The Postern Tower, built 1497, is rectangular, extending beyond the outer face of the wall. This is brick built, faced in ashlar, originally of two storeys but with the upper floor divided to provide a third storey probably in the C17. The hipped roof is also thought to be C17. Extending to its south east is a section of wall just over 9m long which stands to full height which is pierced by Queen Margaret's Arch and a much smaller C19 pedestrian entrance. The broken eastern end of this wall is just short of where it is thought to have turned south-west (to be continued by the unscheduled but Grade I-listed length of wall north-east of Kings Manor). Between the Postern Tower and St Mary's Tower about 130m to the north-west, the wall also stands complete, topped by battlements and retaining two interval towers (Towers D and E). However, for much of this length, the wall forms the rear of three terraces of C18 and C19 buildings. These buildings extend beyond the area of scheduling, but include two Grade II Listings (8 and 10 Bootham and 40 Bootham). The interval towers are of similar design and size, being half-round externally, semi-hexagonal internally, with an open back which projects beyond the inner face of the flanking wall.

St Mary's Tower is circular externally, hexagonal internally, of two storeys with a C19 conical roof. Much of the northern half of the building is a C17 rebuild following the partial demolition of the tower in the siege of 1644: the ragged boundary between the two builds being particularly clear on the side facing Bootham. The wall continues just over 140m between St Mary's Tower and 29 Marygate. About halfway along this length there is an open backed, rectangular interval tower (Tower C) which retains a possible door-jamb of a blocked postern doorway. Adjacent to this tower there is a C20 vehicle entrance that is cut through the wall. The southern end of this section of precinct wall (and the southern end of the first area of scheduling) forms part of 29 Marygate: an C18 house that is listed Grade II* and extends beyond the boundary of the monument, also incorporating further medieval remains.

The principal medieval entrance to St Mary's Abbey, the gatehouse immediately to the south-west of St Olave's Church, is not included in this scheduling but is included in the separately scheduled area for the rest of the Abbey. The adjacent Grade I-listed St Mary's Lodge is also not included. This monument's second area of scheduling includes the precinct wall which extends from St Mary's Lodge, south-west to end at the Water Tower on the Ouse riverbank. This section of wall was originally built after 1318, but various sections are C19 rebuilds or alterations. The wall includes two, small, semi-circular interval towers, the northern (Tower B) being a C19 rebuild of the original demolished in circa 1700, the wall to the north standing to full height, that to the south being lower with no crenellations. Just south of the southern interval tower (Tower A) there is a blocked postern doorway. The wall terminates to the south at the Water Tower. This is circular externally, hexagonal internally, now appearing to be single storied because of the embankment of the river. The parapet is much reduced, but was formally battlemented. There is evidence that the tower was connected to a wall running eastwards along the river, possibly forming part of a quay. The medieval style archway through the wall north of the tower is C19, created as part of a riverside walk.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
YO 12 A
Legacy System:


Books and journals
An Inventory of the City of York II Defences, (1972), 160-173


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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