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There are so many things to see and do in York; I’d never felt a burning desire to visit the Treasurers’ House. Big mistake – put it on your list immediately. For one thing, it is an outstanding house; for another, it is the location for one of Britain’s most intriguing ghost stories. Plus it has a small, but very pleasant, garden.
The Treasurers’ House was the historic home of the treasurers of York Minster until 1547. There has probably been a house on the site since Norman times – the first Treasurer was appointed in 1091 – and medieval masonry, possibly from the Bishops’ Palace that once stood to the north of the Minster, has been incorporated into the much altered building and gardens that you now see. One of the external walls is largely 12th century – thought to be part of the original structure. In fact, the site is even older than that; a colonnaded building stood there in Roman times and the house sits over one of the main Roman roads, the Via Decumana, which also runs underneath the neighbouring Minster.
The house was remodelled in the early 17th century, which resulted in the symmetry and shape of today’s building. It subsequently passed through various hands, was extended, altered, split into different houses and by the end of the 19th century it was in a bit of a mess. Then, in 1897, along came Frank Green. What! – you’ve never heard of him? Well, I hadn’t either.
Frank Green (1861-1954), educated at Eton and Oxford, was the son of a wealthy industrialist and an avid collector. He purchased the three properties that together formed the Treasurers’ House (though part of the original building is now a hotel) and ‘restored’ them to what he felt was a more fitting state. And the result is a real peach – 13 wonderful period rooms (and servants’ quarters in the attic). This also provided a home for Frank’s large and eclectic collection of furniture, artwork, clocks – and so on and so forth.
By all accounts, Frank was a bit of a chap; an impeccably dressed dandy and socialite, he entertained the ‘A list’ celebs of the day – including the future King Edward VII – at his Treasurers’ House. Some feel in retrospect that he was a little eccentric, mentioning as examples his insistence that workmen wear slippers in the house and his habit of sending his laundry to London each week – although that all seems very reasonable, don’t you think? In 1930, Frank retired to Somerset (as you do) and donated the entire house and its contents to the National Trust. Yes, the boy had money. There was a condition, though, and it was that everything should be left exactly as it was. You can still see the studs in the floor that mark the precise spots where particular items of furniture should be located. And Frank, who was 93 when he died, threatened to come back and haunt the place if his condition was not met.
Ah, so you’re thinking that Frank is the ghost? Well, apparently, spirits of the departed would bump into each other at the Treasurers’ House, if only they could – especially on the stairs, where bloodstains mysteriously appear and visitors often smell a ghostly cigar. But the story you’re about to read pre-dates the arrival of tobacco in Britain, and even the Treasurers’ House itself. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
In 1953 a young apprentice plumber, Harry Martindale, was working in the cellar of the Treasurers’ House trying to make a hole in the brick ceiling for a pipe. He placed his ladder, unwittingly, on a section of Roman road that had recently been excavated 18” (46cm) below the floor. At around about lunchtime, he heard some kind of blaring musical note – a horn, or trumpet, maybe. It seemed to be coming from the wall, and got louder and louder. Then, looking down from his ladder, Harry saw a figure of a man wearing a plumed helmet come through the wall. Understandably, Harry fell off his ladder and landed on his backside. Huddled in the corner of the cellar, he then clearly saw a Roman soldier on horseback follow the first man, and after that 20 or so more soldiers marching two abreast. They didn’t look in Harry’s direction, but seemed to pass through the opposite wall. When they had all gone, Harry dashed out of the room and met the curator of the house, whose first words were, “By the look of you, you’ve seen the Roman soldiers?” One of the extraordinary things about this incident is the detailed descriptions Harry was able to provide of the men, which included things that were not known at the time. The soldiers wore green tunics, short red skirts and carried large round shields, spears and wore short swords. Incredibly, Harry described them as being unshaven and looking very weary – even dejected. They were dark and short – appearing to walk on their knees; clearly, they were following the level of the original road that they had marched on sometime during the 4th century – which is the period Harry’s soldiers have been dated to.