Shambles

About the Author

York resident and regular contributor. Fascinated by this historic city and always keen to promote local, independent businesses. The man taking the photographs and tweeting from @Jorvik

York Pass

If one street could exemplify everything that York has to offer; the character, beauty and incredibly rich history, then it is the Shambles.

Situated between Pavement and King’s Square, the Shambles has stood the test of time, from being cited in William the Conqueror’s Domesday book of 1086 up until more recently being awarded ‘Most Picturesque Street in Britain’ in the Google Streetview Awards of 2010.

Step back in time

Setting foot on the ancient cobbles today, you will find a bustling hubbub of locals and tourists, shopping and eating, many admiring the quaint timber-framed buildings, which lean into each other over the narrow cobbled road, without having any idea of its more industrious, hard-working past. Nor aware of the fact that it was once infected by the Great Plague in the 17th Century.

Shambles Street Sign

Not really a Shambles

Shambles is an unusual name, nowadays used to describe something messy, a jumble, but looking down the impeccably clean, award-winningly picturesque street nothing could be further from the truth. The word Shambles, in this instance, is a reflection of the medieval word ‘shammel’ meaning wide wooden bench, such as workbench or worktop. The low windows of the street were originally open-fronted workshops with low down counter tops, many of them used for killing, hanging, butchering and displaying different meats and animals. At times referred to as ‘fleshshammels’ meaning meat stalls or butchers, the today pretty-looking cobbled road would have, in medieval times, been used to drain blood away from the many butcher’s shops, reportedly 26 lining the street in 1872. The overhanging design of the building was not constructed to look decorative, but to solve the purpose of protecting the hanging meat from the rays of sun or downpours of rain in addition to protecting the ‘wattle and daub’ construction from unnecessary weathering.

Plaque at the end of Shambles

The Shrine of Margaret of York

Margaret Middleton, who at 15 married a local butcher and became Margaret Clitherow, was famously crushed to death in 1586 for refusing to plead in response to a charge of harbouring Roman Catholic Priests. During her life she had converted from being a Protestant to a Catholic and had held small masses with a local priest in her home at numbers 10 and 11. The attic space was linked together along the row of houses so that the priest could escape should there have been a raid. She was arrested, refused to plead and therefore sentenced to a fate of being crushed to death. This involved laying her on the ground with a fist-sized rock placed under her back. She would then have had a plank of wood placed on top of her which was loaded with heavy rocks. The purpose of the torture was to get the accused to plead but more often than not resulted in a stony silence followed by the accused being slowly crushed to death under the weight of the rocks.

Today a commemorative shrine to Margaret is located at number 35 which was once thought, incorrectly, to be her home.

Modern Day Shambles

Today the shops are more varied, no longer responsible for outbreaks of plague in the area and are a pleasure to look around. Imaging how life on this little cobbled street has changed so dramatically over the years in one of Europe’s oldest and best-preserved medieval locations is part of it’s appeal. The butchers stalls are long gone, the stone channels to the roadside carry away little more than rainwater from the usual British downpour. Today, you will find exquisite jewellery and fine antiques, along with independent children’s clothing shops as well as bookshops and Past Images, where you can be photographed in costume, to reflect the York of centuries prior.

Shops on the most picturesque street in York

Most photographed street in York

Not only is the Shambles one of York’s most photographed streets, it’s one of the most photographed in the word. The 600 year old buildings, in pristine condition and still in everyday use by York shopkeepers, keep amateur and professional photographers alike snapping away, capturing a picture of past Britain which has survived to the modern day.

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