Nestled right in the heart of York’s city centre, on Coffee Yard, one of the many back alleys from the city’s medieval past, Barley Hall is historical marvel. Until the 1980s the majority of the building was hidden beneath a modern façade. It was only when the building was scheduled for demolition that the stunning medieval structures were uncovered, and Barley Hall’s history began to be explored in earnest.
The origins of Barley Hall date from the mid-14th century, when it was first constructed as a townhouse for the monks of Nostell Priory, a monastery near Wakefield, who wanted a permanent base when they visited York. Despite the priory falling on hard times by the 1430s, extension works were carried out to add a new wing, although it began to be rented out to help raise revenue.
The Hall became the home of a leading York citizen, William Snawsell, Goldsmith, Alderman and Lord Mayor of York in the 1460s, when it was rented to him for over 53 shillings, a significantly high amount for the time. Like his monastic landlords, Snawsell himself fell on hard times, and had to resign from York’s City Council in 1492 due to impoverishment.
Little was recorded of Barley Hall’s story after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s, but by the 1980s the building had become structurally unsound and was planned for clearance to make way for offices and apartments. As part of the clearing process, the medieval architecture and features were uncovered, and so a different future needed to be considered.
The house was subsequently bought by York Archaeological Trust in January 1987 and a full archaeological investigation was carried out on the interior, revealing the remains of the floor of the Great Hall. Further studies in the early 1990s looked at the courtyard and discovered the remnants of the exterior stairway to the Great Chamber on the first floor.
Work to restore the Hall to its former glory began in 1990 proved to be controversial. The original wooden timbers had received significant damage over the years, not ageing well, and so the majority of Barley Hall was rebuilt to resemble how it had looked in the 15th century, using replica furniture and fittings based on an inventory of 1478. Barley Hall re-opened to the public in 1993.
The medieval building was restored to its original appearance, making the stunning high ceilings, exposed timber frames, and Great Hall a striking addition to the centre of modern-day York. It was decorated to replicate what it is thought it would have looked like for the Snawsell family, who would have welcomed many local dignitaries to banquets in the Great Hall.
Visitors to Barley Hall can immerse themselves in medieval England and see the Magic & Mystery exhibition, exploring the close relationship between science, religion and magic in medieval society. As they are replicas, rather than original artefacts, Barley Hall is considered to be more of a ‘living history’ attraction, so people can sit on the chairs, handle the objects and experience what it would have been like to live in Medieval England.