St William’s College was built in 1465 for York Minster’s Chantry Priests, a community of around 24, known as fellows, who received advance payments for praying for the souls of their deceased benefactors. The fellows’ behaviour, which often included drunkenness, had previously brought embarrassment for the Archbishop of York and he deemed they should have their own residence.
The Grade I listed building is named after William Fitzherbert, Archbishop of York (1143 – 1147), who was canonised in 1226. He was the nephew of King Stephen and great-grandson of William the Conqueror.
Henry VI granted a licence for the proposed college in 1457. Due to delays brought about by the Wars of the Roses the building was postponed but was eventually established after Edward IV granted a renewed licence in 1461 with work commencing in 1465.
The timber-framed building is situated in College Street, to which it gave its name, adjacent to the Minster and was in use by the Chantry Priests until the 16th century. From thereon and into the 17th century St William’s was divided up into apartments rented to some of York’s more affluent residents.
Over the centuries the building changed ownership and usage many times; it became home to the Royal Printing Press during the Civil War, a private house – having several changes and rebuilds, windows were added to the street frontage in the 1800s and finally the beautiful medieval building contained nothing more than slum dwellings resulting in its disrepair. In the late 19th century Francis Green, owner of the nearby Treasurer’s House, rescued St William’s from ruin, buying it and subsequently selling it back to the City Council at no personal profit thereby allowing the council to restore it to its former glory around 1902. It then came under the care of the Dean and Chapter of York Minster.
One of York’s most atmospheric buildings, St William’s is said to be haunted. One ghost reportedly roams the college for his brother after being wrongly implicated by him in a murder of which his brother was guilty and a 17th-century murderer haunts the corridors.
The building’s main door has a mouse carving by Robert Thompson, the famous ‘Mouse Man of Kilburn’. The inner courtyard’s roof has twelve carved oak figures representing the labours of the months.
The building was sympathetically restored in the 1980s; the medieval halls are still available for public use and can be visited. The largest of these is Maclagan Hall, a magnificent timbered space which is thought to have been the medieval Great Hall of the Chantry priests. Equally splendid is the ‘House of Laymen’, a striking chamber under the timber roof. This would have been used by laymen as a meeting room when the Bishops were in assembly.
The ground floor has a thriving restaurant, and the four chambers which are rented out for functions. Today St William’s is a venue for conferences, exhibitions, musical events, banquets and wedding receptions. Its modern-day role is yet another stage in its illustrious history.