History of Grays Court York

Grays Court York is possibly the oldest continuously occupied house in the United Kingdom. Dating back in part to 1080 and commissioned by the first Norman Archbishop of York to provide the official residence for the Treasurers of York Minster, the house has an unrivalled history.

Fascinating facts about Grays Court:

• James I dined at Grays Court with Edmund, Lord Sheffield, the Lord President of the North, and he knighted eight noblemen in the Long Gallery in one evening.

• James Duke of York and Maria Beatrix of Modena, his wife, afterwards King and Queen, lodged in Grays Court November 6th 1679.

• Grays Court was surrendered to the Crown on 26 May 1547 and the last of the mediaeval Treasurers, William Clyff, resigned.

• The first post-Reformation owner was Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. He was given the house in 1547 by King Edward VI, the son of King Henry VIII.

• Sir Thomas Fairfax owned Grays Court between 1649 and 1663. Sir Thomas preceded Oliver Cromwell as Commander-in-Chief of the Parliamentary armies in the Civil War, won the battle of Naseby in 1645 and, a year earlier, played a prominent part in the siege of York and in the battle of Marston Moor, fought on 2nd July some seven miles west of the city. In 1663 Fairfax sold the house to George Aislabie.

• A Duel took place at Grays Court on January 12th 1674 for the honour of a lady, Miss Mallorie, daughter of Sir John Mallorie of Studley Royal. The combatants went out to fight, the first stroke of the Minster bell for matins being the signal for the duel to begin. Jennings pierced Aislabie in the arm, probably severing an artery. Aislabie was carried home and died in the Long Gallery. Jonathan Jennings was tried for manslaughter but was pardoned by Charles II. George Aislabie was buried in York Minster.

• John Aislabie succeeded his father George in 1674 and lived at Grays Court until 1698. John Aislabie M.P. for Ripon was perhaps the most notorious Chancellor of the Exchequer ever to hold office (1718 – 1721). In 1720 the South Sea Bubble burst. As one who had approved the South Sea Company’s taking over the National Debt he must take a large part of the responsibility for three months of the wildest speculation ever known in English history. For a time he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

• The Sterne Room was built above the original Medieval Magnesian Limestone wall (which can still be seen) by Jaques Sterne, Precentor and Canon Residentiary of the Minster and uncle of Laurence Sterne, author of First Tristram Shandy, when he owned the house. The marble plaque on the fireplace is of Augusta, wife of Frederick Prince of Wales, and mother of George III.

• July 23rd 1746, William, Duke of Cumberland was received by the Archbishop in the Long Gallery; they went on to dine in the Sterne Room. After the meal, the Lord Mayor presented His Royal Highness with the freedom of the city.

• William Wilberforce, leader of the anti-slavery movement was a close friend of William Gray and a frequent visitor to Grays Court.

• The 300m stretch of City Walls which bounds Grays Court was donated to the City in 1878 by Edwin Gray the Lord Mayor of York. This is why Grays Court retains the only private access to York’s City walls.

• Grays Court stands on the site of a Roman legionary fortress. The Via Decumana, one of the principle streets in the fortress runs from the north east boundary of the garden wall. Beneath the Medieval city wall lies an earlier Roman wall dating to the end of the second century. Mr. William Gray carried out an excavation in 1860 and found part of a store building in which he found five ballista balls, a stamped tile of Ligio V1, pottery, glass and two fourth century coins. In the Yorkshire Museum is a Roman sculptured stone described as having been found "in the City Wall near Mr. E. Gray’s garden”. It shows a male figure, naked except for a short cloak, leading a horse by a bridle. It has been suggested that it might be one of the Dioscure, who are associated with the popular Greek cult of Castor and Pollux.

• In 1900 the Architect Temple Moore was commissioned to carry out a campaign of work at Grays Court, the Treasurer’s House and St William’s College. The Entrance Hall was transformed at the same time to its present state, having until then been treated as a vault.

• Grays Court lies in “The City within a City”, so called because there was for centuries another wall within the medieval city wall which enclosed another city; the Liberty of Saint Peter which had its own laws, courts and prison.

• The medieval wall of the original Treasurers House can be seen behind the oak paneling of the Long Gallery.

• The columns of the Lower Gallery are believed to have been reused from elsewhere, possibly Roman, before being installed at Grays Court to form a cloister in the 11th century.

• The Jacobean Long Gallery was built above the lower gallery by the son of Archbishop Young between 1588-1620 when he lived at Grays Court.

• The iron railings fronting the lectern in the nave of York Minster were once on the garden steps of Gray’s Court and were presented to the Minster by Colonel and Mrs. Gardner in 1942.

• The bulk of the painted glass in Grays Court is the work of Henry Gyles in Micklegate. At the end of the 17th c. He was the last and only glass painter left in York, for all the members of the company or Gild (of Glaziers) had died off long before. The sundial in the window seat of the Long Gallery is one of only a handful in the country.

• Elizabeth Robinson was born at Grays Court on 2nd October 1718, and in 1742 she married Edward Montagu, a grandson of the first Earl of Sandwich. Two years later, after the death of her only child, she founded the celebrated Blue-stocking Club “where literary topics were to be discussed, but politics, gossip and card-playing were barred”.

• Unsurprisingly there have been numerous reported sitings of ghosts at Grays Court.