Walmgate Bar is one of the four great gateways into York and the only one that still retains its barbican. Although Walmgate is a very ancient street, this part of the city was not enclosed by stone walls until the fourteenth century. By the sixteenth century, the city walls served a more symbolic than military function, but they also enabled the civic authorities to keep a close control on who was coming into the city.
Like the other bars, Walmgate Bar was supposed to be locked and night and opened again in the morning, although there was a wicket gate that allowed citizens to come and go at other times. At the first hint of trouble, an closer watch was kept on the bars. Fears of a French invasion in 1564 prompted the Corporation to order a watch at the four bars, with four men apiece, while the Rising in the North five years later led to an even greater degree of surveillance. Each bar was to be watched by ten watchmen between 8.00pm and 6.00 am, and by six during the day.
The city acted quickly on any reports of plague, too, closing the gates to any strangers and goods coming in from infected areas. A watch was set on Walmgate and Micklegate Bar in 1563 to ensure that no goods from London or any other places where the sickness was known to have taken hold were allowed to enter the city.
Walmgate Bar had stocks and fetters for the punishment of minor offenders. Thomas Dore stole some linen in 1581 and was sentenced to be ‘set in the comon stocke at Walmegait bar with the said lyne about his neck for the example of others’.* Vagrants, adulterers, the promiscuous, the immoral and the disorderly were brutally punished in the sixteenth century. Often stripped to the shift, they were tied to the back of a cart (‘at the cart’s arse’) and whipped through the city before being expelled from one of the bars.
This charming picture shows Walmgate Bar in more peaceful times. It was painted by an unknown artist around 1820 and shows the barbican before its restoration, when a family called Brown were living in the bar. I love the detail of the washing hanging on the top of the bar! The painting is owned by the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York, which has kindly given me permission to reproduce it. It is on display in the Third Ante Room at the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall in Fossgate, along with many other fascinating paintings and etchings of York.
* YCA B28, fol.15.