One of the first things you learn when you come to York is that streets are called gates, and gates are called bars. Monk Bar is one of the four great gates into the walled city of York. It still has a working portcullis, and originally it would have had a barbican, like the one that survives at Walmgate Bar, through which attackers would have had to pass to get into the city. Stone figures on top of the bar hold stones to deter invaders, as they have done since at least the 16th century and probably earlier.
In spite of all this defensive imagery, Monk Bar has rarely been called upon to ward off an actual enemy since 1321 when the invading Scots ‘come evene to York walles’. In the 16th century, the bars were used primarily by the civic authorities to control who came into the city.
Those not fortunate enough to be freemen were required to pay a toll before they could bring goods into the city to sell in the markets, and the limited access through the barbican made it ideal for surveillance purposes. Whenever the city felt itself under threat, men were posted at the bars to make sure the gates were firmly closed between 9 o’clock at night and 5 o’clock in the morning, and to take any ‘suspicious persone’ trying to come in or go out during that time straight to the sheriff.
Like the other bars, Monk Bar also played an important role in defending the city against more symbolic attacks. At times of sickness, the bars were closed to anyone coming from an infected area, while disorder – represented by vagabonds, beggars, prostitutes and other ‘unruly’ individuals – was expelled out of the bar. In 1501 each bar had stocks and fetters ‘for imprisonment & punishment of begars, vacabunds and other mysdoers’ and for a time Monk Bar itself was used as a prison. Robert Walls was sent to Monk Bar in 1588 ‘for drawing blood in a fray’.
The city’s efforts to keep undesirables outside the walls meant that the areas round the bars were often associated with disorder. Stalls sprang up to cater for those waiting to enter the city, or those too poor to pay the tolls. Barker Hill (now St Maurice’s Road) outside Monk Bar was known as a haunt of beggars and ruffians, and we can imagine the poor clustering around the barbican, where the logjam of carts, countrymen, market traders, and travellers funnelling through the bar must have provided fine pickings from the unwary.