The history of St Mary's Tower

St Mary's Tower from Museum Gardens

St Mary's Tower from within the precinct, now part of York Museum Gardens

Building of St Mary's Tower, 1324

St Mary's Tower, also known as Marygate Tower, is a Grade I Listed building that formed part of the precinct wall of St Mary's Abbey (the now ruined Benedictine abbey situated in York Museum Gardens). The wall extends from the north bank of the river Ouse, along the whole length of Marygate to the junction of Bootham. The wall turns right and runs parallel to Bootham, stopping at Bootham Tower and Queen Margaret's Arch. St Mary's Tower is situated at the junction of Marygate and Bootham.

The earliest mention of the building of a wall around the abbey was during the abbacy of Simon de Warwick in 1260, and construction began in 1266. Originally this was merely a perimeter wall, but upgrades were made to its defence capabilities, and the two towers at either end of Marygate were added in 1324 whilst Stephen de Austewyk was sacrist of the abbey.

St Mary's Tower was built as a circular tower, about 34 ft in diameter with a height of over 30 ft. It had thick walls and an octagonal two-storey interior.

Artist's impression of Bootham Bar

Artist's impression of St Mary's Tower and Bootham Bar, c.1850s

Siege of York, 1644

After the dissolution of the abbey in 1539, the walls remained unaltered for some time. From 1540 until the siege in 1644, St Mary's Tower was used to hold a large collection of records of Yorkshire monasteries made by officers of the Court of Augmentations and with an official keeper, appointed by the Crown. 

On the morning of 16 June 1644, this side of the city was attacked by the forces of the Earl of Manchester who 'raised a battery against the mannor wall that lyed to the orchard'. At noon of the same day, the forces exploded a mine under St Mary's Tower with considerable effect; many civilians were injured and most of the records destroyed. Part of the tower fell outwards, and the attacking forces broke through into the abbey grounds, only to be cut off by defending Royalists who captured or killed 300 Parliamentarians.

The tower was later rebuilt using some original materials, preserving the octagonal interior, but with thinner exterior walls, with the result that the reconstructed portion follows an irregular curve. Externally, this irregularity where the clumsily rebuilt section and original structure meet, is most striking when viewing the tower from Bootham. 

Marygate Tower as it stands today.

St Mary's Tower as it stands today

The tower today

Many of the tower's quirky features are still visible today. On the ground floor, a variety of brickwork can be observed, noticeably near the doorway, where the walls were rebuilt with whatever materials were available. Both floors have three original stone walls and three 17th-century brickwork walls with the other two a mixture of both. The cast iron spiral staircase was added in the 19th-century.

The upper floor, offering a greater internal area than that of the ground floor, has a doorway that would have led onto the precinct walls themselves. Part of a stone staircase is visible in what is now the toilet area, which led up to the parapet walk of the tower. An arrow slit can be seen, from where an archer could launch arrows (now covered with a temporary window).

St Mary's Tower provides the perfect studio location for York Singing Academy. Michael De Costa moved the Academy into the tower in 1995, having previously occupied premises at the top of The Shambles. The tower is self contained giving a large space to sing in, and the acoustical properties of the octagonal stone building are beneficial for the pupil and teacher to hear and refine the sounds being produced.

It also leads to the Academy's most frequently asked question, "How did you get the grand piano in?" (Book a lesson to find out!)

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