The heart of York: Later Medieval Coney Street

Coney Street after the Norman Conquest was a street of luxury, power and prosperity. Adjacent to the river Ouse and centrally located between the St Mary’s Abbey, the Minster and the Castle, the street became the home of the nobles, merchants and traders and clergymen. They lived in a variety of houses old and new, some made of re-used Roman brick, some in homes of wood and clay, some in grand townhouses made from cream-white Magnesian Limestone.

The fortunes of the street waxed and waned over the centuries. It was a trading centre and river port, with merchants and traders using the myriad lanes and staithes to transfer goods from ships and boats to Coney Street. Wool, wine and grain were the principal goods York dealt in until the 15th century, when towns in the West Riding took over wool production and Hull took over the majority of international North Sea trade. York pivoted to domestic trade after this, becoming the middle market for Northern traders and merchants out of Hull.

It was also a centre for handicrafts and artisanal work. Several goldsmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters and weavers lived in the area, plying their trade and building strong connections with the local establishment and elite. A good example of this was Wormbold van Haarlem, a goldsmith from the Netherlands who married Laurencia Selby, the daughter of William Selby, mayor of York.

Coney Street was a cosmopolitan place, with locals and foreigners, rich and poor working and living side by side. For some 150 years a large Jewish community also lived on the street, primarily between the churches of St Martin and St Michael, surviving the massacre of 1190 and weathering an abundance of royal exploitation. They built a schola, which may have been a synagogue or a Hebrew school, at 15 Coney Street (Next and Monsoon today, formerly Leak and Thorpe). Several members of this community were influential nationally and internationally, including Rabbi Yomtov de Joigny (an influential Hebrew scholar), Aaron of York (who was Chief Rabbi of England), and Benedict of York (who attended the coronation of Richard the Lionheart). Find out more about the medieval Jewish community on Coney Street.

Many important York families also lived or owned properties here, several of which yielded mayors, sheriffs and councillors. The Flur family, descendants of Adam Flur, Mayor of York, probably lived across from New Street in the 13th century. The Selby family had tenements of the street, some of which passed to the aforementioned William in the late 14th century. The Talkans, which included the MP John de Talkan and his father, the Mayor and wine merchant Robert de Talkan, lived at Talkan Hall near to St Martin le Grand; they would give their name to the Talkan Tower (now known as Fishergate Postern Tower). These families were often joined by rich and influential foreigners (known as aliens in the Middle Ages), many of whom became citizens of York. Amongst them was Galfridius (or Godfrey) van Upstall and his son Peter (both vintners from Brabant, where ‘Opstal’ is still a common name) and Frederic Freez (a Dutchman and York’s first printer).

Finally, Coney Street was a great centre for the medieval Church. Four different churches were present along Coney Street during this period; the parish churches of St Michael Spurriergate and St Martin le Grand, the Guild Chapel of St George and St Christopher (after 1450), and the Augustinian Friary (Austin Friars).

An illustrative impression by Ridsdale Tate showing early 16th century York. The four churches on Coney Street are: 1) the Austin Friars; 2) the Guild Chapel of St George and St Christopher; 3) St Martin le Grand; 4) St Michael Spurriergate.

St Michael and St Martin were both old churches, dating perhaps to the 11th century, while the Guild Chapel dated to the 15th century and the Austin Friars to the 13th century. The clergy of St Martin’s and the Austin Friars lived on the street; a vicarage and tenements were provided for St Martin’s, while the Friary’s occupants lived in dormitories.

Little remains of this vivid picture today. Only two medieval timber-framed houses survive, the two parish churches, the Guildhall and some fragments of the Austin Friars buried below later housing. Still, from these buildings and the wealth of documentation associated with Coney Street, we can catch a glimpse of a busy, prosperous and cosmopolitan street at the heart of York’s economy, community, cultural and ecclesiastical life and civic administration.