Interesting Places, Yorkshire

York: The evidence (Part 2)

When people think of York images are conjured up of a number of things: a Roman fort, a medieval walled city, even King Richard the III and the Wars of the roses. Over the past several decades however, thanks to archaeological excavations at sites such as Coppergate, Tanner row and The pavement, York is more often than not associated with the Vikings.

Previously we have looked at the city’s primary function as an ecclesiastical centre of Northumbria and occasional royal centre in the Anglo-Saxon period prior to the Vikings. In this post, I want to look at some of the archaeological sites for this same period and what they can tell us about what York may have looked like for the people living here.

The fortress walls

Roman wall, York (c) A H Gray
Roman wall, York (c) A H Gray

It is generally thought that much of the Roman walls of the fortress and colonia would have still been visible during the Anglo-saxon period, yet just how much is uncertain. There isn’t much evidence archaeologically that the walls were regularly maintained by the Northumbrians, and it is suggested by many that this is because they lacked the required knowledge or expertise in stonework. It could also be argued that there was no immediate need for the walls to be maintained… that is until the Vikings came of course.

Despite King Edwin being noted as possibly repairing the walls of the fortress during his reign (610-632), it has been debated over the years whether this is a literal reference or merely a figure of speech by the author. That the passage in question is not necessarily evidence of building works, but a reference to Edwin’s work in raising York to more prominence; as the first Anglian king recorded to have used the site, building the first Minster, giving land within york to be used by the church, and other acts of patronage not recorded. There are sections of the wall, most notably the Anglian tower, which would attest to the Northumbrians wall building capability, however even this structure might have a date of prominence much closer to the Roman era. For my part, even if the Anglo-saxons did not repair the walls for whatever reason, I believe they were more than capable of doing so (though perhaps not to the standard of the Romans or later Normans).

Medieval walls of York (c) A H Gray
Medieval walls of York (c) A H Gray

By the time of the Vikings, the Roman walls surrounding York seem to have been in a state of decay. Writing at the end of the 9th century, Alfred the Great’s biographer, Asser, states that “the city did not possess strong and well-built walls” when describing York’s capture by the Danes in 867, and that it was due to one particular breach in the wall that the Northumbrians were separated into two halves and eventually defeated by the Danish forces. On the other side of the colonia, the Roman wall could be seen as late as the 12th century.

York Minster
Even though the Anglo-saxon church would have been nowhere near as large or as ornate as the current building, York Minster no doubt would have dominated the old Roman fortress. The Minster had been rebuilt several times since its wooden inception, and in 801 Alcuin describes the church as being supported by strong columns, that the belfry was made from a hundred pounds of tin and with four lattices, that the walls were whitewashed, that it had glazed windows (an obvious luxury for that time), and leading in the roof. There is also mention of a porticus where men of note, such as the bishops, archbishops and conceivably royalty (when they deigned to make such use of it) were buried.

St Lawrence Anglo-Saxon Church, Bradford-on-Avon (c) Christopher Phillips

The Anglo-saxon Minster would have been built near to where the present Minster is located, and it has even been speculated that one possible location was in the courtyard of the Roman principia, the headquarters of the Roman legion stationed at the fort. The principia is a building which would have stood at the very centre of the fortress, which today would be directly beneath York Minster. Excavations have revealed that the cross hall of the principia would have been standing and even in use around 800AD and conceivably later. Archaeologists believe that the remains of this building were so substantial that they would have been visible throughout the Anglo-saxon period.

As the home of bishops, archbishops and monks, there was also a monastery and a library attached to the church which was the particular pride of Archbishop Aethelberht. The library was famous for loaning out scriptures to men of importance such as the famous Charlemagne and his scholars on the continent. Wilfred of York may have reinvigorated York Minster after finding it neglected, but it was his successor, Bosa, who organised the clergy into a community by establishing a monastery. Such a place would have had most, if not all, of the following: a dormitory, cloister, refectory, library and scriptorium, balneary, infirmary, hospice and a school. Monasteries were also very self sufficient so it is likely that an orchard or gardens for herbs and vegetables were present also (although of course much of what they would have needed would also have come from their associated monastic lands and farms, or conceivably also from the townspeople of York and it’s merchants around the trading settlement or wic at Fishergate).

But York Minster was not the only church in York. There is also mentioned by Archbishop Aethelberht, another church by the name of Alma Sophia, or the Church of the Holy Wisdom. This building has yet to be found, but it is described as being a ‘…lofty building supported by strong columns, themselves bolstering curving arches, gleams inside with fine inlaid ceilings and windows… surrounded by many a chapel with its many galleries in its various quarters, and 30 altars decorated with different finery.’ I guess he should know as Aethelberht was the man who built this fairytale church.

By the end of the 8th century York Minster, Alma Sophia, St Stephen’s cell and a church or chapel to St Mary are the only historically recorded churches. Many religious stone carvings and sculptures have been found in the vicinity of Holy Trinity Priory, St Mary Bishophill Jnr and Snr, and other ‘modern’ churches in York, however, dating to the 7th and 8th centuries. This may suggest that perhaps some of these churches may have had pre-viking origins.

There is also evidence of there being a mint at York since the 7th century, making coins with the likenesses of not only the kings but archbishops. Also, despite the lack of evidence of substantial buildings in the archaeology of the fortress, it is not hard to believe that a palace (which would have been a large wooden hall to modern eyes) in which the kings would have stayed on their visits to the city would have been present somewhere nearby. The same could also be said for an Archbishop’s palace.

Unfortunately the sources are quiet on this front too, yet as both figures are known to have stayed here, albeit infrequently in the case of kings, there must have been somewhere other than the monastery for them to stay. Favourite locations so far have been the area around King’s square, or Earlsburgh.

The Fishergate excavations were located at a number of points in and around Fishergate (a street) on the south side of the Foss River near where it branches off of the River Ouse. During the 7th century until the viking attack, it was a small trading community to the south of the ecclesiastic and royal centre within the old Roman fortress.

St Liudger was a 7th century Frisian who had come to York to study at the library and school there. While in York, tensions arose between the Northumbrians and the Frisian traders which are described as being settled where Fishergate is today. During the troubles a Northumbrian noble is apparently killed and the Frisians flee, scared for their lives. Liudger is sent away with his countrymen for his own safety as well and It seems that for a while at least this area is abandoned.

This is where the archaeological record comes in to help us. The earliest evidence of occupation for this site is from the early 7th c. Three decently sized hall-style structures have been dated to c.700-850. Several small pits, probably used for rubbish and waste, as well as a boundary ditch were also found. There is evidence for small scale industries such as iron working, copper alloy, bone, antler, fur, skin and leather processing, textiles and glass working. We can also tell that the site received international and national trade items such as quern-stones and coins from the Rhineland, pottery from Ipswich, France and the low countries, sandstone products from the Pennines and north east Yorkshire, flint and chalk from the Wolds, hematite from the Lake district, and jet from the Yorkshire coast, esp Whitby.

Despite such far reaching trading ties and evidence of craftsmanship, the scale of production and industry is nothing like the scale reached by the Vikings in the latter 9th and 10th centuries. However, it is not at all surprising that such evidence was found. Leaving aside the obvious fact that York was the home and periodical residence of the clergy and royal family who would make great use of such exotic goods, even since before the Romans York was in a great position geographically. It sits at the southern entrance to the Vale of York and all who live there. It is at the confluence of the Foss and the Ouse, a large and far-reaching river that turns into the River Ure and travels as far inland as Wensleydale and the Pennines; and meets up with the Humber River in the south east (and hence access to the sea). The Romans built roads heading in the four cardinal directions of the compass from York which were still usable in the Anglo-saxon and viking periods providing access to hundreds of other market towns and destinations. In fact there is evidence that the Fishergate community may have been constructed on an alignment with the Roman road that exited the fortress and crossed over the Foss bridge on its way further east.

Reconstructed York trade stall from BBC primary history, Vikings

But what of the Frisian Community? Well unfortunately there is nothing archaeologically that shows evidence for such a demographic. All we can tell is that there were traders and craftsmen living and working here who had contact through trade with the Frisians, Franks, and other countries. Not concrete evidence, but pretty darn close.

As far as the expulsion of the Frisians is concerned, there is evidence that the site came to an abrupt end with structures being dismantled about this time. This abandonment level is covered by a distinct charcoal layer (c. 7th century), suggesting that the settlement possibly burnt down or was at least backfilled before reoccupation started later on. It seems that resettlement didn’t occur until just before c.840 (although notably on a much smaller scale) and continued until c.850 (which is generally accepted as pertaining to the invasion in 866). If there was a community that survived the viking invasion, it is unlikely they would have stayed very long at this spot. All evidence seems to suggest that this area was very soon after abandoned and reoccupation did not occur until 1000AD (150 years later).

Coppergate helmet

Modern York. Fishergate and the trading settlement would be in the area around and below Clifford’s tower (Norman) (c) York Archaeological Trust

Coppergate has to be one of the most famous of the excavations at York, and so I thought it would be amiss to not mention it. The sad truth however, is that Coppergate is more of a Viking period site and not so much is found prior to this period. From the 5th century to the 9th century the area seems to have been abandoned by the Anglo-saxons in favour of Fishergate. From c.850 until the early 900s there are only a few instances of buildings being found, and several rubbish pits.

BUT, that isn’t to say that there was nothing of importance from this period found. The Coppergate helmet is a stunning example of craftsmanship dated to the later 8th century. It was found within a wood lined shaft which is thought to have been a mid/late Anglo-saxon well, possibly servicing a small settlement or community of York around Nessgate/Castlegate or an early ecclesiastical foundation in the vicinity of modern St Mary’s in Castlegate. Just looking at the intricate craftsmanship makes it obvious that this had been made for a very rich person. There is also an inscription on the nose piece, IN NOMINE : DNI : NOSTRI : IHV : SCS : SPS : DI : ET : OMNIBVS : DECEMVS : AMEN: OSHERE : XPI. This inscription has been interpreted as either “In the name of our Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God; and to all we say Amen / Oshere / Christ” or “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Spirit of God, let us offer up Oshere to All Saints. Amen.”

But what is it doing down a well? could it have been lost? I guess it could be the equivalent of losing a diamond ring or an Iphone down the sink/toilet, but it isn’t exactly small. Plus I’d probably do all I could to try and get it back. It is more likely to have been some kind of offering as there are hundreds of instances all over the ancient world of rich offerings being sacrificed to wells, rivers, bogs etc. Plus the workmanship is too expensive and ornate to have been used in combat. Not if it was a genuine offering to a mighty god/dess in return for a good harvest or victory in battle. Even with the inscription to Jesus, this could be an instance of the old well known pagan rites and the newer christian practices fusing together.

detail of the Coppergate helmet


Anglo-Saxon cremation urn from the 5th-6th century, York (c) YAT

So what happened when the people of York died? We already know that York Minster buried some of those from higher society in the porch, and excavations have since brought up a few bodies that have been buried within the yard. The same would be true of other churches as well that were around at the time, but there are also a number of other cemeteries just outside of Anglo-saxon York.
Before Northumbria converted to Christianity, many burials would in fact be cremations. The body would be placed on a pyre to burn like the Vikings often did to their own dead, and the ashes collected up into urns; either to be buried in the ground or else spread across land or sea. Excavations at the Mount (8 Urns and many associated artefacts) and Heworth (80-90 urns) show evidence for cremations dating to around the 5th and 6th centuries (beginning of the migration period in England).

As far as burials go, the best evidence for such a cemetery seems to be at Lamel Hill. Although not much material has survived, the cemetery has been dated to around the 7th and 8th centuries. The first excavation was conducted in the late 1840s and turned up 20-30 skeletons aligned east-west. The area was again excavated in 1983 whereby 38 bodies were found. It is unclear if any of these skeletons were those found in the mid 19th century, however the proximity and the alignment of all except two graves followed the same Christian alignment and suggests that at least there is evidence for a decent Ango-saxon cemetery present here.

Further sites at Severus junction, Acomb, Castle Yard/Clifford st, Exhibition square and Parliament street all show evidence of burials as well. However, it is as yet certain whether these are designated cemeteries as the evidence is through possible associated grave goods such as the presence of urns and bowls, or through insufficient recording from previous excavations in the 19th century; not because any bodies have been found.

And finally, two more sites that show evidence of pre-viking occupation and industry are…

All Saint’s pavement
6-8 pavement in York showed overwhelming evidence for a leather working shop from around the 8th and 9th centuries. Amber and jet was also found in the vicinity, as well as spinning and weaving, attesting to the areas use in quality craftwork and possibly trade.

Loyds bank and pavement
Further along from All Saint’s pavement, Timber buildings have been recorded associated with leatherworking and tanning artefacts. Despite the fact that most of the evidence points to this site being of post viking date, there is still some evidence that such activities may have began just before the invasion, c 850. Like Coppergate later on in the viking period, the workshops seem to be aligned with the present day road. The buildings are shown to have been set back a little from the street with the shopfront itself accessed directly off the street.

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