Minster Police History
York Minster is one of six cathedrals in the world, which maintain their own force. The other five being, Liverpool Cathedral; Canterbury Cathedral; Chester Cathedral; the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano, more commonly known as St. Peter's Basilica in Rome (the Swiss Guard, a small force maintained by the Holy See, is responsible for the safety of the Pope, including the security of the Apostolic Palace); and Washington's National Cathedral (USA). Although not as well known as the Swiss Guard, the Minster Police have served York Minster with loyal and distinguished service for many hundreds of years.
Between 1285 and 1839 York Minster had its own Liberty. The Liberty, known as the ‘Liberty of Saint Peter and Peter Prison,’ was the walled area which enclosed the Minster Close. Within the Liberty, the Dean and Chapter of York Minster held jurisdiction, and were able to appoint constables.
These officers, similar to parish constables, maintained law and order. Over time, the Liberty, which covered an area equating to a third of the medieval City of York, had its own coroners, justices of the peace, bailiffs and even a prison.
Constables will have policed the Liberty for much of this time. Court records from 1740 indicate that the job of the constables of Liberty was as equally, if not more challenging, than it is today. They record:
‘Whereas grievous disturbances and disorders do frequently happen in the Cathedral church and within its Liberty, also the constables of the said Minster Yard and officers belonging to the said Cathedral are often abused in executing their office and endeavouring to suppress these several disorders aforesaid.’
This certainly gives the impression that the Minster was not held in reverence by all of the inhabitants living within the walled Liberty; policing it was a difficult and sometimes dangerous job.
The Liberty constable will have carried out some of the punishments handed out by the court. Officers certainly equipped themselves with an array of weapons, some possibly used to mete out summary justice. The Minster Police have in their possession a flail, said to have belonged to a Mr J Strutt, the Liberty Constable in 1713.
Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern day policing, is said to have visited two bodies of men prior to the formation of the Metropolitan Police Service (1829); the Thames River Police and Liberty of St Peter and Peter Prison constables, with the latter, becoming the Minster Police. It could, therefore be reasonably argued that the Minster Police pre-dates the Metropolitan Police Service, making it the oldest continuing police service in the country, and possibly the world.
Following the fire of 1829, the Dean and Chapter employed a constable to guard York Minster itself. The control of the Liberty passed to the Corporation of York in 1839. The Minster force maintained close links with York City Police, the body who now oversaw the policing of the Liberty. This force served the city for over 130 years between 1836 and 1968, when it amalgamated with the East Riding of Yorkshire Constabulary and North Riding of Yorkshire Constabulary, to form the York and North East Yorkshire Police.
The Dean and Chapter continued to employ its own constables to protect the Minster. One officer is believed to have been Thomas Marshall, who served for around 25 years. The person appointed to replace Marshall, a gentleman named William Gladwin, became the first officer to be associated with the term ‘Minster Police.’
An officer whose dedication is unquestionable, is that of Sergeant George Morley. He served for over 40 years, retiring as the Minster's Chief Officer, when he was well into his seventies.
Minster Police officers continued to be sworn in as constables up until sometime between the world wars, when they ceased to be attested. The exact time of this change is unclear. One explanation offered by a former officer, is that the Dean and Chapter had concerns that Minster officers could be drafted by York City Police in times of crisis, leaving the Minster without sufficient protection.
This would prove to be prophetic. For on the night of 9 July 1984, lightning struck the roof of the south transept, starting a fire, which was to cause millions of pounds of damage. However, the quick action of a Minster Police officer in raising the alarm, helped limit the damage.
Fire was to strike the Minster again, this time on 31 December 2009. Fortunately, a Minster Police officer discovered the fire, which had started in the Cathedral's stone yard. At the time, the Minster's 'Great East Window' was being stored in the yard. Minster Police officers, together with other members of staff and fire fighters, managed to move the window's panels to safety; thereby saving one of the most important examples of medieval stained glass, in the world.