The Liberty of St Peter

Detail from York in the 15th century by E Ridsdale Tate - York Art Gallery

Not every part of medieval York came within the Mayor’s authority.  Large institutions like the Abbey and the Minster retained control of all that went on within their walls.  And like the Abbey (St Mary's) the Minster (St Peter's) had its own walled boundary.  The area inside was known as the 'Liberty of St Peter'.

The walls around the Liberty were 12 feet high.  Entrance was via four guarded gates and a grassed and cobbled precinct lay inside.  Dotted around were various residences and official buildings, all dwarfed by the cathedral.

The Liberty contained the Archbishop’s Palace, the Dean’s house and other houses for the Canons, the Treasurer and the Precentor, who together made up 'The Chapter'.  There is still a 'Treasurer's House' on the site today.  St William’s College was also within the Liberty and was the home of the chantry priests, who said prayers for the wealthy dead.

North west of the Minster lay the sprawling Palace of the Archbishop himself, with its cloisters, hall and chapel. The chapel, dating from around 1230, is all that remains.  Today it is the Minster Library, home to the cathedral archives. 

This city within a city had it own laws and so it needed its own court, prison and even its own gallows for executions.  Peter Prison, York Minster’s jail and gallows, stood outside the West Front, and was used until 1837.  York Minster still has its own police force, one of only two cathedrals in the world to do so.

Nearby is 'Bedern', the former home of the thirty-six Vicars Choral, professional singers in the Minster choir.  The Vicars had a bit of a reputation for causing trouble in the city when drunk, then heading back within the walls of the Liberty of St Peter to escape prosecution.

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