The church of St Martin le Grand is a tranquil place in the midst of the busy city centre, and it has been for around 1000 years, if not more. It is the oldest building on Coney Street, dating back to the 11th century and the Early Middle Ages. What do we know about Coney Street during this period?
After the departure of the Roman Empire in the early 5th century, York was effectively abandoned as an urban settlement. The area that became Coney Street underwent little change for hundreds of years. However, once settled again by the Anglians in the 7th century, the place returned to being lively and busy. This was the period when Coney Street would receive its name, its characteristic bowed shape, its housing plots and its two parish churches.
While there is little 7th and 8th century evidence, there is a fair amount of 9th, 10th and 11th century material, and from this we can create a picture of what Coney Street was like. Respecting the previous streetscape but paying more attention to the river, the inhabitants of York established housing plots, creating the present shape of the street. They named the street Kunegestrate, a blend of the Old Norse Konungr (‘king’), and the Old English straet (‘street’), reflecting the mixed Anglian and Scandinavian population that lived there. They built wooden, brick and stone buildings within these plots, perhaps reusing some of the Roman material found in abundance within the city.
These buildings seem to have been home to many types of people, predominately craftspeople and traders who worked at the water’s edge. Excavations have uncovered antler working and bone offcuts in 13-17 and 39-41 Coney Street (now City Screen cinema and WH Smiths respectively), metalworking under the Roman corner tower on the north side of the street, and leatherworking at 7-15 Spurriergate (currently Zara), as well as signs of occupation. This crafting and trading probably made many of the inhabitants quite wealthy - two coin hoards have been found on Coney Street and dated to this period (865); not only were these hoards extensive, but they contained high-status coins such as Carolingian coins and Anglian 'stycas'.
This picture of a fairly crowded riverside settlement bustling with craft and trade is accurate for the 10th and 11th centuries as well. There would be a few changes however. In 980, a new bridge was created to the south of Coney Street, replacing the Roman bridge near where the Guildhall is today. We don’t have many details of this first bridge, but it was probably wooden. This change shifted one of the focal points of the city away from Lendal and towards Ousegate.
Further, the Street’s two parish churches seem to have been built during this time - both St Martin le Grand and St Michael Spurriergate have evidence for a pre-Norman origin. We have some understanding of what St Martin looked like. It would have been a single-celled church made of a combination of Magnesian limestone, brick and gritstone, all likely sourced from Roman remains in the city.
It was not a big structure at all, being probably a sixth of the size of the present church. It is unclear if it had a tower - its small size makes this unlikely, but if it did it may have been similar to the surviving 11th century tower at St Mary Bishophill Junior on the other side of the Ouse. It is probable that St Michael would’ve looked the same, although we know that within 100 years it had become a larger church with aisles.
Also, at some point, the Earl of Northumbria (who operated as the representative of the English King in the city) built a palace to the northwest of Coney Street - this site, Earlsborough, was frequently occupied by the Earl and his family, and one Earl, Siward, was buried in the associated church of St Olave at Galmanho, now St Mary’s. Coney Street resultantly gained an even greater precedence as a thoroughfare linking Earlsborough to Ouse Bridge.
On the eve of the Norman Conquest, Coney Street had therefore developed from a semi-abandoned informal street outside the old Roman walls to a thriving, busy street at the heart of trade and industry connecting the Earl with the Ouse bridge. The initial years of Norman rule would temporarily cease this growth, but in many respects, this would be true for Coney Street well into the Modern era.