The land the hall stands on was bought by three local merchants, from Sir William Percy, in 1356 and construction took place between 1357 and 1368. The Merchant’s Guild, who commissioned the build, later called Mystery of Mercers and then in 1581 the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York, had thirteen founding members who were heavily involved in local trade, these included a hosier, potter, tanner, draper, dyer and a spicer. The hall was not only built as a centre for business and commerce, hoping to capture and develop the entrepreneurial spirit of the City, but also for religious and charitable purposes, the undercroft of the building being appointed for the care of up to thirteen needy and sick people, this number increasing as funds allowed. The building operated as a hospice for over 500 years in total.
The building’s timber frame is made with wood from the nearby Forest of Galtres. This was a local forest just outside of the city walls between Bootham Bar and Monkgate but spanning over 100,000 acres of what is now Yorkshire and was home to over 60 villages and hamlets.
York business district
The location of the site on which to build the hall was thought ideal as the meeting place for local merchants; little did the purchasers know it was prone to regular flooding. Close to Pavement and Fossgate, the hall was situated in the epicentre of activity at the time and home to most of the wealthy merchants before they eventually moved out of the centre in favour of the suburbs. It is also in very close proximity to the river Ouse, the lifegiver of trade in medieval York.
A tale of two rivers
The rivers Ouse and Foss are the reason the Romans originally settled in York. Their natural V-shape providing a ready defence against invasion from the south, the north then protected by the city walls. The Ouse is also responsible for much of the wealth of the City, especially for merchant adventurers and the woollen trade. The river Ouse has changed over the years, becoming more constricted and making the water-level rise, part of the reason for the regular flooding nowadays. The banks used to be much further apart and the water level several metres lower than where it is today. The extra width meant seafaring ships could sail down the Ouse and dock in York , essentially allowing York to trade directly with Europe and import goods from as far away as India and Africa.
Merchant adventurers is exactly what they were, buying and selling around the world, or rather their crew would on their behalf. Merchants from around the country would travel to York, negotiate trades with the local merchants and sell their stock, mainly woollen cloth, grain and lead for export to Europe. The goods would be stored locally before being loaded onto a seafaring ship, sailed down the Ouse towards Kingston upon Hull and setting sail on the high seas. The boats would sail to Europe, selling their wares or exchanging them for new ones to bring back and sell. According to York archives, Andrew Grissop, who was one of the local merchants, died in 1446. In his will his shop was said to be stocked with leather, hats, purses and furs as well as paper, glasses, sugar and spices. Other goods known to have brought back are wine, fish, iron, wood, dyes and salt. These goods would have been brought back and sold in York as well as distributed across the whole land.
It wasn’t all plain sailing
Exporting goods abroad, although highly lucrative over the long term, could also be an expensive and risky business. Boats packed full of goods would be worth a fortune, a prize too tempting for some. According to the Hall records, in 1468, the Valentyne of Newcastle, a ship filled with goods and crewmembers from York, was sailing to what is now Poland and anchored offshore in order to pay customs. On seeing some of the crew disembark the Hanseatic League, a group of guilds that controlled trade in the area, took control of the ship, it’s cargo and imprisoned the crew underground for months. This unfortunate but not unheard of event was one of the many challenges of the merchant adventurers, who looked for good fortune wherever they could. The motto on the coat of arms reads “Dieu Nous Donne Bonne Adventure” which today means “May God Prosper Our Affairs”.
Operating closer to home
As well as investing their money overseas the guild was founded, with approval and licensing from King Edward III to manage trade in the city. This meant the guild could appoint apprentices and grant licences to trade, making sure traders were fully experienced in their chosen profession. They also regulated traders in the city, testing them with calibrated tools to make sure their customers were getting what they paid for when buying some of the imported goods, brought back from Africa and India, such as ginger and cinnamon, cloves and garlic.
What the Ouse gives, it also takes away
The river Ouse, so vital in building York as a City and making it the wealthiest guild in the country, in the 17th century, was also the downfall for local importers and exporters. As the ships grew bigger it was no longer possible to sail along the river to dock at York. The closest port was now Hull. Increased competition with London, who were still utilising the Thames meant that the import and export trade from York tailed off, ending an era of medieval prosperity in the North of England.
The hall today
Today the hall is still in regular use. Set in beautiful gardens and boasting two large function rooms, the great hall and the undercroft, the venue is very popular with weddings and other occasions as well as talks, meeting and presentations in the two smaller rooms. There is also a museum detailing the industrious history of the Merchant Adventurers and their hall with a recently published book on sale.
The whole building is finely appointed with furniture dating from the thirteenth century, framed portraits adorned the panelled walls and rare silverware and Elizabethan antiques are on display.
In amongst the more modern buildings towering over it, it is hard to imagine that when the hall was built, over 650 years ago, that apart from cathedrals such as the Minster it was one of the largest buildings in Northern England and played a major part in the development of York and indeed England as a whole.