The City of York

The City of York

The City of York stands at a crossing-place of important routeways, and it was probably for this reason that the Romans chose it as a garrison town for their forces in northern England. The tidal river Ouse was navigable as far as York, and even beyond, as also was its tributary, the Foss, which joins the Ouse a few hundred yards to the south of the Roman city walls. The Ouse provides a water route to the Humber estuary and the North Sea and thus it was possible for York to become a major European inland port, from Roman times until the changes in European commerce which occurred at the time of the Age of Discovery in the late 15th century. The Vale of York, in the centre of which the city lies, is subjected to flooding from time to time, but the fortunate positioning of a line of glacial moraines provides a dry route from east to west across the Vale, connecting the Yorkshire Wolds with the Pennines. The east-west route crosses the Ouse valley at a point where the river is fordable—and also bridgeable.

Roman York

The first wooden fortress of Roman Eboracum was built in A.D. 71, under the orders of Petillius Cerialis, governor of Britain and son-in-law of the Emperor Vespasian. This wooden structure, protected by an earthen rampart, was replaced by stone buildings at the beginning of the second century and was strengthened and enlarged throughout the next 150 years. During a rebellion in A.D. 197 considerable damage was done to the walls, but this was soon repaired. Apart from this disturbance Eboracum had a relatively peaceful time until the barbarian invasion of the fourth century and the outpouring of Picts across Hadrian’s Wall. During this time it became a great commercial centre as well as a garrison town. It was, however, the major forward outpost from which the defence of northern England against the Celtic tribes of Scotland was conducted. Early in the third century the status of a Roman colonia was conferred on the civil settlement which had grown up around the garrison. The Emperor Severus, who used York as his base for campaigns against invaders from Scotland between A.D. 208 and 211, raised Eboracum to the position of administrative capital of the province of Britannia Inferior. He died in the city in A.D. 211.

Relations between the Romans and the Celtic Parisii of the neighbouring areas of East Yorkshire were, however, good and York became the market centre for agricultural produce from the surrounding countryside. The last great reconstruction of the fortifications was carried out under the personal direction of the Emperor Constantius Chlorus, at the beginning of the fourth century. The ruins of one of the towers built by Constantius—the 10-sided, Multangular or West Angular Tower—and a short length of wall can be seen in the Museum gardens, adjoining the present city library. Constantius died in Eboracum in A.D. 306 and his son, Constantine the Great, was proclaimed Emperor there. During the fourth century the city became a centre of Romano-British Christianity.

There are many Roman remains in the museums in York which testify to the existence of a thriving city with administrative, military and commercial functions, which at its peak of prosperity was the home of some 15,000 people. These include Roman baths, underground temples to the god Mithras, Samian ware pottery, tiles stamped with the numbers of the IX and VI Legions, and craftsmen’s tools. A statue of a Roman legionary in the museum in the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey is considered to be one of the best examples of Romano-British art to be found in Britain.

The City of York: from Roman times to the present day
The City of York: from Roman times to the present day

Anglian York

The departure of the Romans from Britain at the beginning of the fifth century followed by a period of confusion and disorder. When the Angles came to k they found a ruined city, which they occupied and made the capital of their dom of Deira, which later merged into Northumbria. King Edwin of North­)ria (A.D. 616-632) made York his capital, and also built the first wooden rch on the site where the Minster now stands.

Danish York

In A.D. 866 a Danish force, led by Ivar and Halfdan, sons of the Viking chief Ragnar Lothbrok (Leather Breeches), sailed up the Humber and the Ouse and sacked York. They placed a puppet king, Egbert, on the throne and left for further conquests in the Midlands. Egbert and the Danes successfully resisted attempts by the Northumbrians to recapture the city, in 867 and 872, and York, known as Jorvik, soon became the capital of the Danish kingdom. The discovery in 1916 of the remains of the Viking settlement, during building operations in Coppergate, has led to the development of the Jorvik Viking Centre, where an imaginative reconstruction of the way of life of the Vikings over 1,000 years ago has been created. It was a town of many traders and craftsmen. Their wooden homes, arranged in streets, were built amid the remains of the Roman and Anglian settlements. They kept domestic animals; grew corn and vegetables; worked metal, leather and wood for tools and ornaments; and wove cloth and cured animal skins for their clothing. In the mid-10th century Eric Bloodaxe, a famous sea-rover, invaded Northumbria and took York, but in A.D. 954 he was expelled and later killed and the Viking kingdom of York came to an end. The kingdom of York was re-absorbed into Northumbria.

Norman York

Over a century later, at the time of the Norman Conquest, York had a population of over 8,000 inhabitants living within the protection of the city walls. Although there was a setback to its development because of the devastation of Yorkshire at the time of the Harrying of the North, there was a steady growth during the 12th century. The Normans enclosed a wide area of ground within a high earthen rampart, partly placed over the Roman walls, and in the 12th and 13th centuries a wall and gates were built to reinforce the defences. Within this protective barrier the medieval city grew and flourished. The stonework of Bootham and Micklegate Bars shows some of its earliest defences.

The Minster

When the Normans came to York there had already been at least two, perhaps three, churches on the site of the Minster. The first Norman Archbishop, Thomas of Bayeux, built anew on the foundations of the last Saxon church, but, 50 years after his death, his successor built yet again, as Thomas’s church was thought to be too small. Hardly a generation had passed before plans were being put into effect to build yet one more church, larger and more majestic than any others had been. It is this church, the fifth or sixth on the site, which is seen today. Arch­bishop Walter de Gray began the work by demolishing the remaining transept of Thomas of Bayeux’s church, and replacing it with the present magnificent south transept in 1241. By the time of his death in 1255, the north transept and probably the Five Sisters window were already finished. The next great period of building activity was at the end of the 13th and in the first half of the 14th century, when the Norman nave was replaced, and a chapter house added. In the late 14th century the Norman choir was replaced, and the finishing of this work, about 1400, completed the interior structure.

Medieval York

During the Middle Ages the city grew, and by 1377 it had a population of over 13,000. As there was less danger of civil war and invasion, there was less need to live behind the protection of defensive walls. So in York, as in other walled towns, gradually the houses began to spread to the districts outside the walls. Throughout much of the Middle Ages, however, the citizens of York felt safe only when they were huddled together within the security of the ramparts. This ex­plains the narrowness of the streets like Stonegate and the Shambles, which were within the walls. The overcrowding gave rise to problems of health and sanitation. There was no main sewer, and household refuse was thrown into open drains, which carried it into the Ouse and the Foss.

The incidence of plague was as common in York as in other cities, and it continued into the 16th and 17th centuries. There were outbreaks in 1538, 1551 and 1631. The last of these raged in the suburbs, but the inner city was spared its worst effects by the vigilance of the gatekeepers, who denied entry to any they suspected might have been in contact with the infection. However, medieval York was not only a city of smells and squalor; it contained many beautiful buildings. Amongst the best of those now standing is the King’s Manor (now part of the University of York). This was originally the house of the Abbot of St Mary’s. After the Reformation it was used as the official home of the Lord President of the Council of the North. Much of it was rebuilt by the great Earl of Strafford. One may still see over a doorway the griffin supporters of his coat of arms. The fact that he had placed his private coat of arms on the King’s property was remembered against him, with other serious charges, when he was accused of treason, condemned and executed in 1641.

The moats which defended the medieval city have long since disappeared, al­though there is an interesting portion of them remaining in Lord Mayor’s Walk. The ancient ramparts and the city walls which stand on them are there to this day, with their five great gatehouses, or bars, and one remaining postern gate, that of Fishergate.

It is possible to walk on top of the walls a great part of the way round the city.

Georgian York

Some of the most interesting and attractive buildings in York today are those which were built during the 18th century, when the city was a centre of fashion and style, almost as famous as Bath. The ‘trend setters’ of the time took refuge from the London season in York and, later, Harrogate. The racecourse on the Knavesmire and the Assembly Rooms, built in 1736, were the focal points round which the social life of Georgian York revolved. The Mansion House, opened in 1726, was unique amongst the civic buildings of the kingdom, as it served as the residence of the Lord Mayor and his wife during their term of office. The title of Lord Mayor dates from 1389, only London having established the office earlier. There is one odd respect in which York claims a privilege which London does not have. The Lord Mayor is entitled to be addressed as ‘My Lord’ only for his term of office, but his wife can insist on being called ‘My Lady’ for her life.

My Lord is ‘My Lord’ for a year and a day, But his wife is ‘My Lady’ for ever and ay.

The Guildhall, which stands adjacent to the Mansion House, was originally built in the 15th century, but it was badly damaged during an air raid in 1942. The present structure is a reconstruction, incorporating surviving remnants of the old building, which was opened by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 1960. Amongst its treasures is a stained glass window with five lights, which depict aspects of the history of York, from Norman times to the bombing raid of 1942.

From 1396 until 1974 York had an unusual position in local government. Lying at the meeting point of the three Ridings, it was not within any of them and was a county with its own Sheriff. From the time of Henry VI until the 19th century it had some jurisdiction over the Ainsty. York is now a district within the county of North Yorkshire.

The Industrial Revolution

The impact of the Industrial Revolution was felt in York mainly through the efforts of George Hudson, ‘The Railway King’, who told George Stephenson, the railway engineer, that it was his ambition to ‘mak all t’railways cum to York’. He made York into a major railway centre, with locomotive works, repair shops and associated crafts. Being situated away from the coalfields, York’s industries—painting, glass­ware, furniture making and above all chocolates, with which the names of Rowntree and Terry are associated—were not of a kind which caused pollution.

Religious life in York

York is, of course, of great importance in being the centre of government of the Northern Province of the Church of England. Its Archbishop ranks next to the Archbishop of Canterbury in religious matters, and is only two steps below him in precedence in secular affairs. York is also of great importance in the life of religious bodies other than the Church of England. The Roman Catholics have always been strong there, and in Bar Convent they have the oldest Roman Catholic school in England continuously existing on the same site. Its treasures include relics of Catholics who suffered martyrdom for their faith, as for example the mummified hands of St Margaret Clitherow, the butcher’s wife who was crushed to death in 1686 and who was canonised in 1970. There are also mementoes of Thomas Thwing, the last of the English martyr priests, who was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1680. For centuries the religious, civil and industrial life of York has been enriched by the presence of a very active and influential group of members of the Society of Friends (the Quakers). To them York owes not only great industries but also very valuable educational and philanthropic institutions, schools and hospitals.

Modern York

The rich architectural heritage which has been preserved in York has given the city a high place in the list of tourist attractions for visitors to Britain, and York has been quick to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the country’s fastest growing industry. An increasing proportion of its citizens are now engaged in catering and in commercial, educational and entertainment activities directed to the needs of visitors.

In October 1963 the first group of 216 students was enrolled at the new University, established on a site at Heslington Hall, on the outskirts of the city. It is surprising that York did not have a university before this time, as it has always been a seat of learning, with the centuries old Minster Library; a grammar school tradition stretching back to the seventh century; St John’s College; the Art and Technical Colleges founded in the first half of the 19th century; and a rich variety of religious schools, from the Bar Convent, established in 1686, to the Quaker foundations of Bootham (1822) and the Mount School (1831). The Quakers also founded the York Settlement in 1909, which has been the mainstay of the vigorous adult education life of York. A petition to found a university was launched in 1652, but it failed to raise any interest in Parliament and sank without trace. Today, with a flourishing university, the educational and cultural life of the city is as rich and full of vitality as it has ever been throughout its long history.