Interesting Places, Yorkshire

York: An Introduction

Christmas Shopping near Little Stonegate in York
Christmas Shopping near Little Stonegate in York

This post was intended to be a one-off, but I seem to have gotten carried away again. It isn’t entirely my fault really, attempting to discuss the history of a city such as York, even just a general overview, is a big undertaking. This first post then will be an introduction; where, when and what. In the next post I hope to go into a bit more detail, to look at the archaeological and historical evidence of the city’s layout and some of the activities and industries that were carried out before Ivarr and his Vikings attacked.

York is one of the great cities of England. Situated in the fork of two rivers, the Ouse and the Foss, the city is located in the middle of Yorkshire (Which is in turn split up into North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, and East Yorkshire. York is in North Yorkshire). Even today you can walk around the later medieval walls, part of which have been built on top of the original Roman defences. The city centre has all the best names in modern shopping (including Karen Millen, Swarovski, Mulberry, Pandora, and French Connection), but they are situated along streets and often buildings that have been around since the city was rebuilt in the post-conquest era. Then of course there is the iconic York Minster, or if you want to be technical, the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York, which was also constructed in the post-conquest era (1080) and has had many facelifts and additions since.


There are many other things to see and do in York, but how did it begin?

So far there hasn’t been much to indicate any long-term occupation at York before the Romans arrive, however we do know from archaeological excavations outside of the city and from Roman and contemporary sources that groups were living in the area for thousands of years. At the time of the Roman occupation in the 1st century AD, the place that would one day become the city of York was within the territory of a tribe known as the Brigantes.

Artists impression of Roman York looking east (c) English Heritage

The Ninth Legion eventually conquered the lands of this native tribe and in AD71 they built a fortress as part of their attempts to quell the native Britons and push the Roman empire ever north towards Scotland. First built-in wood, then later in stone, York was home to over 6, 000 Roman soldiers and the headquarters of the Roman official. In addition to this, a colonia was built on the west bank of the River Ouse where their families lived. It was an important Roman site in its own right and was even visited by Roman Emperors. In fact, it was at York that Constantine was made Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 306AD.

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the last entry concerning York during the Roman period was in 314AD when a bishop of York is mentioned as travelling to the council of Arles. A black spot in the city’s history then prevails for over 300 years until the 22 June 601 when Pope Gregory the Great wrote to Augustine, a missionary in Kent with a plan to make York a metropolitan see in the newly christianised kingdom of Northumbria. It was hoped that York would join London in this status. At first glance, it would seem that York had survived the collapse of Roman control and even the ravages of the invading Anglo-Saxons, enough at any rate to be remembered by the Pope in Rome. However, R. A. Hall (Aspects of Anglo-Scandinavian York), mentions that this does not necessarily mean that there was continuity at York in the intervening years. There is the real possibility that this idea of Pope Gregory’s may stem from the memory of York being a strategic point in the north during the Roman period and that its location and illustrious past may be all that recommended it. During this period, Christianity was only just being reintroduced to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms and the idea of there being a beacon of Christianity amongst the pagans of the north, regardless of whether anyone of note still lived at York or not, was more of a tempting notion than a practical move.

The next date concerning York in written sources is a little more helpful. Several years later in 627, King Edwin is the first Northumbrian King to be officially baptised in the new faith, and to mark the occasion a brand new church of wood was built-in the ruins of the Roman fortress. This Church is the ancient ancestor of York Minster. It was hastily constructed in wood so that it would be completed in time for Edwin’s baptism, but even though the refurbishment in stone was started by this king, he died before he could see the task finished. The next few kings (his cousin and nephew) then took Northumbria back to its pagan ways and it was not until his other nephew King Oswald won the throne and converted the country back to Christianity, that the church of stone was finished.

Over the next 200 or so years of occupation until the Viking’s attacked in 866, the sources paint Anglo-Saxon York as being a city of primarily ecclesiastic function. Most entries relate to the Minster. When Wilfred of Ripon was made Bishop of York in 669 he complained that the church had been neglected, that the roof was leaking and the birds were nesting in the rafters, causing severe damage inside. He even mentioned that the walls were entirely covered in filth and bird droppings. Obviously neither church nor state felt responsible (or possibly able) to provide for its upkeep. Under Wilfred’s guidance and that of Bosa, his successor, the Church and associated monastery was improved and subsequently rose in eminence. In 685 St Cuthbert was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne… not at that ancient seat of Christianity and learning, but at York, and King Ecgfrith gave part of the fortress area to him and his church for their own use. In 735 York was upgraded in status once more, this time by the Pope. Now it became the domain of its own Archbishop (At Cuthbert’s consecration for example, Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury had to travel to York to officiate). Pope Gregory’s plan was finally coming true after 134 years.

So why is there no mention of the kings of Northumbria? Even when they are mentioned in connection with York, the subject still has an ecclesiastical flavour. The only instances of royalty being buried at York (pre-Viking) are a man called Aelfwini, described as being a sub-king of King Ecgfrith’s, and two of King Edwin’s children. King Edwin, the first christian king of Northumbria and the man who built York Minster in order to be baptised, was not buried at York but at Whitby. King Oswine was buried at Tynemouth, King Aethelwald at Lastingham, King Oswald was made a saint and his body made into relics which were kept separately at Bardney, Bamburgh and Lindisfarne. King Oswy was also buried at Whitby and King Ecgfrith was buried on Iona.

There is however, evidence that the king and his Witan, or advisors, may have on occasion met at York. At Easter in 774 King Alhred was expelled from York by his Witan. In 796 King Eardwulf was consecrated King at York Minster.

Despite this, it would seem that York was not necessarily the prerequisite or even a preference for Northumbrian royal births, deaths or marriages. So far all evidence points to York as being a centre of Christianity and not the permanent domain of Kings.

The interesting thing I found from researching this city, was that I had let my knowledge of medieval and modern York cloud my judgement of Anglian York. I had always assumed it was an important location since the Roman era and that if not the ‘capital of the North’ than at least an important seat of power for ancient kings. It would seem however, that although it was still linked with the kings in the Dark Ages, it had more to do with the Church and Christianity. A seat of power certainly, but for Bishops and later Archbishops. This could go some way towards explaining not just why the Vikings attacked (think of the monastery and Archbishop with hundreds of pounds in silver) and why it was so easy for them to overrun the city (at this point there was no standing army in England, and the Church wouldn’t necessarily have had their own army or fyrd to call upon anyway).

So the question I think we should be asking ourselves is this, was it in fact the Danes who made York a royal centre and not the Anglo-Saxons as commonly thought?

*Thanks to those who managed to read to the bottom of the post, I know it was long but I hope you enjoyed it too! As a bonus, you are the first to know that at the end of this week The Northumbrian Saga is going to be given away for free! For two whole days! Why? Because I can, because i’m a nice person, but most importantly of all, because November the 1st will be the 1147th anniversary of the Vikings attacking York! Stay tuned from Thursday to not only receive your free copy but more posts relating to this milestone!

4 thoughts on “York: An Introduction”

  1. That was an excellent read. The only thing I would like to mention is the inclusion of that horrible place ‘Humberside’! It no longer exists and in the minds of us who live in the region it never did; it was always East Yorkshire and always will be. Other than that this was very interesting, especially as I was in York, including walking down Little Stonegate, only a couple of weeks ago!

    1. Thanks for the correction Peter. I can’t remember where I read of Humberside being another ‘region’ but it was obviously dated. And I am very jealous of you being able to visit York regularly. I have very fond memories of the city.

      1. I just wanted to save you from some of the anger that the term ‘Humberside’ generates still in this part of the country, it was forced upon us by politicians in London. Keep writing and I’ll keep reading!

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