Sovereign 2023: The King's Manor - a short history

Kate Giles (author details)
Louise Hampson (author details)

In July 2023, the King’s Manor provided the stage for a community performance of C.J. Sansom's Sovereign, by York Theatre Royal. Set against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s visit to York in the Autumn of 1541, Sovereign is a Tudor detective story which explores themes of Royal power, religious rebellion and divided loyalties - both political and personal. The King’s Manor is a key site in the novel.

This piece is one of a series of four examining various aspects of Sovereign 2023. See also:


The Abbot’s House

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An old room with whitewashed walls and a wood-beamed ceiling.
Rooms thought to be the chambers of the Abbot are now a lecture theatre in King's Manor.

The King’s Manor is a building at the heart of York’s - and England’s - religious and political heritage. The earliest parts of the building date to the late 15th century, when it was a house belonging to the Abbot of St Mary’s: one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in the north of England, whose ruins form the focus of the Museum Gardens today.

The Abbey was enormously rich and full of beautiful sculpture, stained glass and manuscripts. The Abbot’s house would have rivalled many lordly manor houses of the day, using decorative brickwork and terracotta windows to create a lodging for important guests. It was arranged around the surviving courtyard in which Sovereign is being staged. In the central section was a hall, apartments and a chapel at first-floor level, accessed via an external timber gallery and staircases. Originally the building would have been surrounded by kitchens, stables and other service buildings, bounded by the Abbey’s precinct wall.

Dissolution

On 29 September 1539 St Mary’s Abbey was ‘surrendered’ as part of the dissolution of the monasteries. Its fate briefly hung in the balance, as Henry VIII considered whether to convert it into a collegiate church, but this came to nothing. Instead the building became the headquarters of the Council of the North, which dispensed justice on behalf of the King, dealt with civil matters such as debt, and (very relevant to the Catholic-leaning north of England) ensured conformity with the new religious order imposed by the Reformation.

Henry VIII had good cause to be concerned about the loyalty of his northern subjects. In October 1536 a huge revolt known as the Pilgrimage of Grace swept through the northern counties. Part protest against Henry’s break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries, part grievance against the policies of chief minister Thomas Cromwell, it was the largest and most serious rebellion of the reign. York opened its gates to the rebels; an act it would come to regret, as the leaders and many followers of the revolt were rounded up, imprisoned and executed.

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An etching showing priests and a huge crowd walking as part of the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536.
Private Collection / bridgemanimages.com
An etching depicting the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536.

The memory of the Pilgrimage was uncomfortably fresh in everyone’s minds when the King visited the north in 1541. Henry announced his intention to stay at ‘his’ manor in York for twelve days during his progress, accompanied by Queen Catherine Howard. Accounts show that a staggering £400 (equivalent to c.£250k today) was spent on ‘repairing and beautifying’ the King’s Manor, with hundreds of workmen labouring night and day to make the site ready. But where exactly did Henry and Catherine stay? The Abbot’s house was far too small to accommodate the enormous retinue which followed the King on progress. A survey of 1545 reveals that the royal party stayed in the west range of the cloister, the King in one set of apartments and the Queen in another. Excavations in Museum Gardens in 1829 recovered the footprint of these buildings.

After Henry

The King’s Manor continued to be used by the Council of the North until the Civil War, a century later. Modifications - creating the ‘Huntingdon Room’, extending the north range and enclosing the courtyard - were paid for by various presidents of the Council, to reinforce their own authority as well as that of the crown.

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The corner of a courtyard shows two-storey stone buildings with tree branches in the foreground.
These buildings are part of those constructed to enclose the first courtyard at King's Manor during its period as headquarters of the Council of the North.

By the 18th century the King’s Manor was subdivided into apartments, some of which were occupied by artists and antiquarians. It was also home to a ladies’ boarding school, whose most famous pupil was Anne Lister. In 1833 the Yorkshire School for the Blind was founded in honour of Yorkshire MP and anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. In 1958 York City Council acquired the building and in 1963 it was leased to the University of York.

About the author(s)

Portrait photograph of Kate Giles

Kate Giles

Theme lead: legacy
University of York

Kate is a building historian and archaeologist with a particular interest in the study of late medieval and early modern communal and public buildings. She specialises in the study of guildhalls and has led major projects on examples in York, Boston and Stratford upon Avon. She has a particular passion for churches and has recently published a major study of the wall paintings of Pickering Church (North Yorkshire).

As Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity & Culture, Kate works with national, regional and local organisations to find creative ways of sustaining and sharing their heritage with others.

Portrait photograph of Louise Hampson

Louise Hampson

Researcher
University of York