One of the oldest and most photographed streets in York, Stonegate has been one of the city’s key thoroughfares since Roman times, when York was known as Eboracum. As the Via Praetoria, Stonegate led from the legionary headquarters, the remains of which can still be seen under the Minster, and down to the bridge which connected the fortress with the civilian settlement on the other side of the Ouse.
Today, Stonegate stops at St Helen’s Square, but originally it extended as far as Coney Street, where a great stone gateway built by the Romans survived until York was destroyed by fire in 1069 – one of the theories as to how Stonegate got its name.
In later times, the proximity of Stonegate to the Minster meant that many of the trades that provided vital services to the church clustered there: glass painters for the stained glass windows, goldsmiths making fine church ornaments and the printers who made theological and other books.
The much-photographed carved red devil that can still be seen at the entrance to Coffee Yard is supposed to represent a printer’s apprentice. The medieval city was full of signs like these that indicated what goods or services could be purchased in the houses and workshops that lined the street.
Many of the properties in Stonegate were owned by the church, and as such were not part of civic jurisdiction. This is why the street is rarely mentioned in the wardmote court records, although we do know that the infamous Scottish tailor, John Harper, had a house here. Harper appears in both Time’s Echo and The Memory of Midnight, and plays an even bigger role in The Edge of Dark (March 2105). In September 1578 the real John Harper was in trouble for building a brick stall – presumably as a workshop – too far out into Stonegate.
The stall latly buylded by John Harper, taylar, dwelling in Stonegate with brick before his tenement there shalbe forthwith taken downe by the said Harpar, and to sett the same more neare his hows, and inner than the same is by the length of a fote; and like wise that the said stall shalbe made lower than it is nowe by half a fote and it to be made like in breadth and height as other neighburs there be, and not otherwise. (YCA, B27, fol.111v)
And of course Stonegate is the setting for The Memory of Midnight. Here is Tess, in the flat which was once part of the Maskewe house in Stonegate.
She wandered over to the window instead and looked down into the street where at least there were ordinary people, out enjoying the soft summer evening. Even at this time of night, Stonegate had its share of tourists admiring the old houses and the view of the illuminated Minster at the end of the street.
But as she looked, the world wavered and she was looking into narrower, more cluttered street. It was early evening, and her neighbours were taking in goods from their stalls, closing up their shutters, and sweeping the debris of the day from their doors into their gutters. John Bean’s apprentice was labouring in and out with scuttles full of refuse which he was piling up ready for the scavengers the next morning.
‘You’re too early!’ Goodwife Carter shook her broom at him. ‘Not till seven of the clock! Your master knows that well enough!’
She leant further out of the window. There was Elizabeth, maid to the Bowes, setting down the heavy pails she was carrying and flexing her fingers before stooping to pick them up once more and trudge on up the mid causey towards the Minster. There was John Harper, leaning against his door. She saw him exchange a lascivious look with Margery Dixon, and she raised her brows. Margery’s husband must be away again.
With a wistful sigh, she turned away from the window, only to be brought up short at the sight of strange, softly cushioned chairs and a uncannily gleaming black box where the great bed should be standing.
© Pamela Hartshorne, The Memory of Midnight (2013), pp.226-7.