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York is a fantastic historic city in England. It was home to Romans, Vikings, the House of York during the War of the Roses, and much more. But, it’s also the home of some rather curious street names. The most famous of those is the Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate!
Even saying it out loud is quite entertaining and many say that this is the shortest street in the city. Its length is just long enough to place a street sign on the wall to mark it.
A lot of the history surrounding this teeny street is shrouded in mystery and, over the years, these unrecorded accounts have meant that many stories have been told about it.
For example, the supposed unceremonious correctional wife beatings that use to take place here!
Here’s a complete guide to the Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate in York with the horrible history and how to find it.
First off, why are streets in York called gate?
The word gate derives from a time in Anglo-Saxon England when the Vikings took over the city of Eoforwic (Saxon York) in 866 AD!
Last Kingdom Fans will need no introduction to this as it was featured in the Saxon Stories and the first series of the TV Show. Also, you can see a bit of Viking York on the show ‘Vikings’ too.
As more and more Viking raiders began to settle in Eoforwic, they began to call it the “Kingdom of Jorvik”.
You can learn more about Vikings in York at the Jorvik Viking Centre. I’d highly recommend it.
This has animatronic scenes of what York would have looked like during this chapter. It’s fully immersive, even down to the smells, which were not pleasant!
Fun fact: The Viking term ‘Jorvik’ is where modern-day York gets its name!
The word “Gata” in the Danish Viking language meant ‘street’ and so you’ll find many street names in York have the word gate in them. For example, Walmgate, Goodramgate, Coppergate etc.
These basically did what it said on the tin. So, you’d visit Goodramgate to see the Viking leader Goodram/Guthram as it was his street long ago.
Confusingly enough, gates shouldn’t be confused with the gateways that allowed access to the city through its surrounding fortification walls. These are called ‘bars’.
That’s why there is a famous joke about York – “the streets are called gates, the gates are called bars, and the bars are called pubs”.
Why is it called Whip Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate & what does that mean?
The reason behind this curious street name has been wildly debated over time, for many centuries in fact!
It’s shrouded in an air of mystery and there are many theories as to why this place would have a name like Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma!
Many people think that the street was the site of a medieval ‘whipping post’ from the ‘whip’ part of the name. This was a post where criminals would be tied to and flogged for their crimes.
Some have a theory that this name came from the whipping of dogs who would steal meat from the butchers on The Shambles.
The name Shambles derives from the ancient word for “Shammels” meaning Shelves. Years ago, it was known as “Fleshammels” or “Flesh-Shelves” because of its butcher meat trade.
But, unfortunately, the name of this street originates from a far less gory tale. In fact, it has its origins in the medieval Saxon language!
This small street was first mentioned in the records of York around the year 1505. Back then, it had the name ‘Whitnourwhatnourgate’.
According to the plaque hanging above the street, these words were thought to be Saxon for ‘What a Street!’.
However, modern research into the Saxon language has revealed that these words stringed together actually translate into ‘Neither One Thing Nor The Other’. Charming!
Although there are no hard facts to support that this area had a whipping post that flogged vagrants and vagabonds. It is thought that the name developed from ‘Whit-nour-what-nour-gate’ to ‘Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate’ from that very post.
It’s believed that it stood right here near Colliergate and Foosgate near The Shambles.
However, the street area is much wider today than it was back then. So, there wouldn’t have been much space to carry out the punishment. Let alone draw in a crowd.
Indeed, some houses were removed from the grounds of St Crux Church in 1750. By 1887, the larger church was also demolished and you can see the evidence of its North Wall by Number 23, The Shambles.
All that’s left of this once great temple today is the St Crux Parish Room that sits just behind the street sign.
Against the wall, you’ll find a plaque that commemorates the pavement being laid with York Stone in 1984.
Did this street really hold correctional wife beatings?!
A rather gruesome theory surrounding Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate is that this site was created solely to correct a nagging wife’s behaviour!
However horrible it is to admit, it’s not untrue that wife beatings in medieval England were lawful.
According to a real medieval law, if a woman was being unruly, unfaithful, or couldn’t hold her tongue, a husband had the right to beat her.
But, the instrument could be no longer than a yard long and no fatter than his thumb!
Some wild theories suggest that this process was a crowd-pleaser in the city of York, where people would gather in the square to see the punishment.
The wife in question would get a head start and could run, the husband would follow and beat her with a stick. The crowd laughed on as the wife was bruised and shamed.
But, is there any scrap of evidence to suggest this disgusting practice ever happened right here at Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate?! No, and a good job too!
How to visit Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate in York
This street can be found just at the end of The Shambles in York so it’s a great addition to any visit. It’s at the intersection of where Colliergate and Fossgate meet.
There is a Google Map pin to find it but if you need a steer, you can find it next door to Number 1-4 News Ltd and opposite OG Games.
You’ll most likely see a group of tourists here grabbing a photo of the sign!
What can you see while you’re here?
Not a lot really, being honest. It’s a tiny piece of raised pavement! You can see some marks where bars would have marked the boundary of the street years ago.
Today, Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate it’s just a novel street name in York. As I say, most people just visit for a funny photo opportunity and to take a selfie with the sign.
There’s also a small plaque that’s on the Old St Crux Church Parish Room to read.
It’s not a tourist attraction as such so there’s no entry fee and it’s accessible to see 24 hours a day with no restrictions!
Here are a handful of weird street names in York to find
If you thought that this street name was odd, just wait until you read this list of other crazy names dotted around the city.
Some we have Saxons to thank for, others from the Vikings, and some just mere happenstance!
The Shambles – Not because of its appearance but it’s the old ancient word for “Shammels” meaning “Shelves”. At one point it was called “Fleshammels” for butchers!
Pavement – Did you know that York was the first street to be paved? Well, you do now!
Goodramgate – Named after the Viking leader Guthram. Yes, just like the one in The Last Kingdom.
Skeldergate – Another name for a Viking leader. This street used to trade in shields.
Ogleforth – This loosely translates in Norse to “A ford haunted by an owl”. Thanks for that Vikings… I think?
Mad Alice Lane – This is now called Lund’s Court. But, years ago, Alice was a little fed up with her husband beating her all the time. So, she murdered him. But, the court (ran by men of course) deemed her insane and she was hanged. They renamed that street after her.
Micklegate – This translates to “Great Street” due to its appearance, not its amazingness.
Swinegate – where pigs were kept!
Gillygate – Named after the nearby St Giles Church.