Walking through the narrow lanes of York’s Shambles, I followed my map down a pathway – covered at first – that led into the garden surrounding this architectural and historical gem, more completely (and charmingly) titled “The Ancient Guild Hall of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York”. Surrounded by a beautiful, green garden, the hall was built between 1357 and 1361, before most of the other craft or trade guild halls in Britain, making it one of the oldest and largest buildings of its kind.
“Merchant Adventurers” sounds a bit like a group of pirates – but they were in truth a little less swashbuckling and more like “medieval venture capitalists”, who risked capital to trade abroad. The guild was originally established as a religious fraternity, believe it or not, for the members to worship in and provide charity. As the guild grew in strength, it assumed more responsibility – and control – for businesses in York. All traders who imported goods were required to join. The guild also trained apprentices, and provided loans and grants to new ventures. Weights and measures were checked, and all disputes between traders were adjudicated by the guild, as well.
A short but fascinating tour through medieval capitalism
During the 16th-century religious troubles, the guild de-emphasized the religious aspect to retain royal charter. Henry VI renamed the guild “The Ministry of Mercers” (a mercer is a dealer in cloth). The guild received its final name from Queen Elizabeth I in 1581 and remained extremely powerful in all aspects of York business and social life until the 19th century when much of its power devolved to the City of York Council. Despite this, the guild is still quite busy, offering an annual “Award for Enterprise” in the true spirit of the original Merchant Adventurers, and continues other charities as well.
The museum has detailed information about the architecture, building techniques used, and personalities who worked on the construction (the guild kept meticulous records), so wandering slowly through the undercroft, the anterooms, governor’s parlour, and great hall really gives a sense of how things worked — you really feel a part of the history. The museum has a small gift shop with a varied and interesting selection of non-touristy items, as well as a pocket cafe if you find yourself peckish after your wander through. Tours are self-guided, and took me about an hour, even using the audio guide extensively. A look-see can be easily combined with other local sites (Jorvik Viking Center, and other Pastport locations) for a full day of historic York.
The Skinny: The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, Fossgate, York, YO1 9XD Ph: 01904 616 150. Open S-F 10am-4.30pm, Saturday 10am-1.30pm (Closed Christmas, New Year, occasionally for special functions) Adult, £6.50; Over 65/Students, £5.50; 16 and under, free. Check the website first, as the hall closes for functions and flooding.
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