York Minster stands apart for many reasons. One quirky detail that has gained our attention is the presence of the Policemen that guard our cathedral. It is one of only two Cathedrals in the world that employ such a force and we take a look at how this came about.
The York Minster Police comprise of around ten men (and women as from 2001) who take care of the second most important cathedral in England, the seat of the Archbishop of York. (Cathedral comes from the Latin Cathedra meaning seat of the Archbishop).
The Minster Policeman is derived from the Constable of the Liberty, something similar to a Parish Constable.
In 1285 the Minster Close was enclosed by a 12 foot high wall, within this wall the Dean and Chapter were ‘the law’. Until 1839 they had their own Liberty; the Liberty of St. Peter and Peter Prison. The Liberty had its own Chief Constable, constables, coroners, magistrates, bailiffs, stewards and under stewards.
Offences which occurred within the Liberty were tried every Saturday in the Liberty Courthouse, known as the Hall of Pleas. At a Court of Records civil cases would be examined on a three week basis. Felonies, poisonings and magic etc. would be tried quarterly. Twice a year a Leet Court was held for the whole Liberty.
Whether an office or constable of the cathedral or constables of the Minster Yard; Minster constables have existed in some form for at least five hundred years before the great fire of 1829.
Jonathan Martin was prosecuted for starting the fire in York Minster in 1829, this act was the catalyst for change in looking after the building. At a Chapter meeting on March 6th 1829 the Dean and Chapter decreed …”Henceforth a watchman/constable shall be employed to keep watch every night in and about the Cathedral”… It is likely the new watchman was Thomas Marshall, though records naming him do not appear until 1839. He was employed on a wage of 41 pounds and 12 shillings per annum until 1854.
The Minster Police name is first mentioned when William Gladin was employed after Marshall’s retirement on the same rates of pay in 1855. When Gladin’s name replaced Marshall’s on record this suggests that the latter’s post of Constable of the Liberty was now identified as Gladin’s title of Minster Policeman.
With this documentation it is possible to claim that the Minster Police Officer actually precedes the establishment of the modern-day Police Constabulary under Sir Robert Peel. It is said that Peel examined two bodies of men before forming the British police force; one was the water-police on the river Thames, the other was the Minster police of York. It is likely he would have visited York whilst Home Secretary as his sister was married to the Dean of the Cathedral, William Cockburn (1773-1858).
To find out more about today’s Minster Police, John Key has written a book on some of his often funny and sometimes scary experiences as a Minster Policeman. Close Encounters – Reminiscences of a York Minster Policeman.