The history of York: a northern powerhouse of many names
Eboracum to the Romans, Eoforwic to the Anglo-Saxons, and the Vikings’ Jórvik – the great city of York has been treasured by successive occupiers over nearly two millennia. Pragya Vohra explores the long history of this fascinating city
The area now known as the Vale of York in northern England has a long history of human settlement and activity around the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss. Evidence of human presence, particularly on higher ridges, goes back to the Mesolithic period, though settlement in the area began in the Neolithic, about 4000–2000 BC.
Bronze Age implements and beakers have been recovered from settlements in and around the Vale of York. An excavation at the University of York in Heslington, a suburb of York, is particularly interesting because it yielded – among other things – the oldest preserved human brain, dating from about 2,600 years ago. We also find evidence of burials from the Iron Age, plus extensive areas of prehistoric farming, fields, trackways and buildings.
Eboracum: the evolution of Roman York
The Roman invasion of Britain, launched in AD 43, didn’t really touch this part of northern Britain until AD 71, when they established a military base they called Eboracum – today’s York.
At that time, the region was inhabited by a Celtic tribal confederation called the Brigantes. In response to perceived problems with these tribes, the Roman governor of Britain – a man named Quintus Petillius Cerialis – led his troops north from Lincoln to deal with the Brigantes. One story has it that this move was to intervene in a domestic quarrel between the estranged queen and king of the confederation.
In any case, when they reached the Vale of York, the Romans found an ideal site for a fort in a potentially neutral zone between the Brigantes and another tribe, the Parisii, from where the Romans could keep an eye on, and control, the lands around them.
The Romans built an earth-and-timber fort on the north-east side of the Ouse, which formed the basis for York’s city centre today. As this fortress grew in importance, a civilian settlement developed on the opposite bank of the river – and again, you can still make out the footprint of that settlement.
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Five decades later, around the year AD 120, the Ninth Legion was replaced there by the Sixth, and both the fort and the civilian settlement were rebuilt in stone. Also around that time, Emperor Hadrian visited the settlement during his journey to build his famous border wall in AD 122.
Around AD 208, Emperor Septimius Severus, who was leading campaigns against the Caledonians to the north, arrived in York with a huge retinue of civil servants and soldiers, including the Praetorian Guard. He also brought his wife, Julia Domna, and their sons Caracalla and Geta. Severus died in York in February AD 211 and, after a bloody succession squabble in Rome, Caracalla became emperor.
At this time, Eboracum was designated the capital of Britannia Inferior, the province of northern Britain, and gained the highest status that a city could have in the Roman empire, becoming a colonia.
The settlement’s history of significant imperial deaths didn’t end there: in AD 306, Constantius became the second emperor to die in York. He was accompanied at the time by his son, Constantine, who eventually succeeded him. The heir would have a profound impact on the city – and, indeed, the wider empire.
Constantine supported Christianity, and in AD 313 issued an edict of religious tolerance. The following year, Eboracum had its first bishop. Today, you’ll find reminders of Constantine all over York, in streets and buildings named after him.
Under the Romans, York evolved from being a military settlement, to an administrative centre, to a city that hosted emperors, to a key ecclesiastical centre with strong stone defences. Visitors can see remnants today – notably the Multangular Tower near the museum.
You can also find elements of the Roman Basilica in the undercroft of York Minster, and the remains of a bathhouse in the cellar of the Roman Bath pub.
Eoforwic: York under the Anglo-Saxons
After the collapse of the western Roman empire at the turn of the fifth century, and the departure of its military from Britain, York’s fortunes shifted.
Though we know little about what happened in York during the post-Roman period, we know that the population shrank, trade declined, and buildings were abandoned.
Cemeteries dating from this period show that Anglo-Saxons settled in the area as early as the fifth century.
From about AD 600, York started to become important again, becoming the capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Deira. When that realm united with the neighbouring kingdom of Bernicia, forming the much-larger and more powerful kingdom of Northumbria, York remained a key city. Its Anglo-Saxon name – Eoforwic – suggests that it was an important commercial centre; all ‘-wic’ towns in the period being important trading emporia. By the early seventh century, it was also a royal base for the Northumbrian kings.
After the Roman church sent its mission to re-establish Christianity in Britain, Bishop Paulinus established his church in the city – the precursor of today’s York Minster – where, in AD 627, King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised.
As the seat of a bishop, and later an archbishop, Eoforwic was on the up once more, claiming a similar high status to London. But less than two centuries later, another threat emerged.
Jorvik: York under the Vikings
The earliest recorded Viking raid in Britain was the attack on Lindisfarne in AD 793. At the time these Scandinavian raiders operated a hit-and-run system: they picked largely undefended, wealthy targets such as this island monastery.
The Vikings quickly learned that ecclesiastical centres were good targets. And so they headed for York which, by the late eighth century, was a thriving centre of trade and commerce, with a very rich, well-established church.
By the mid-ninth century, Vikings started to consider settling in Britain – and York was clearly desirable and defensible. The Viking Great Army first landed in East Anglia on the east coast of England in AD 865, but soon turned northwards. They attacked York on 1 November 866 – All Saints Day – an important religious festival when the city would have been in a celebratory mood, possibly even with its gates open to let in people from the surrounding countryside.
By the end of the ninth century – after some more tussles with Northumbrian kings – the Norsemen had made themselves at home in York. And so Eoforwic became Jórvik.
Later sources tell us how the Vikings rebuilt the city, and evidence for this has also been found in the ground, particularly at the big excavations at Coppergate – now the Jórvik Viking Centre.
The city was well connected through river traffic along the Ouse, which linked via the North Sea to the Viking trade networks that spanned much of the known world at that time. Artefacts from as far away as Afghanistan have been found in York.
There’s also evidence from the Coppergate site of industrial production: woodworking, crafting with copper, iron, silver, gold, even glassmaking – and the raw materials came from far afield. Some were brought across the Pennines; there was tin from Cornwall, and bones and antlers for combs and pins from Greenland and Iceland.
Jórvik was a truly cosmopolitan space. If you had been able to visit it then, you might have met merchants and been able to buy goods from all over the world. But the Vikings continued to face challenges, both from internal instability and from Anglo-Saxon rulers such as Alfred the Great, who aimed to create a unified kingdom of England.
By AD 926, the Scandinavian kingdom of York was brought under the overlordship of King Æthelstan. But for the next few decades, it was fought over between the Anglo-Saxon kings and the Viking kings of the Irish Uí Ímair dynasty.
In AD 954, Eric Bloodaxe, the last Viking king of York, fell victim to the complex web of Northumbrian politics. He was chased out of the city by enemies among the local elite and killed. After that, York was absorbed into the English kingdom – but it retained its Anglo-Scandinavian culture and character. There are records of landholders with hybrid names, and inscriptions around Yorkshire that are partly in Latin and partly in Old Norse.
York and the Norman Conquest
The tumult of 1066 that ended in the Norman Conquest might seem far away from York – Hastings is on England’s south-east coast after all. But the two battles before it, those at Fulford and Stamford Bridge, were fought nearby. They were responsible for depleting Harold Godwinson’s forces and perhaps giving William the Conqueror the upper hand at the battle of Hastings; who knows how that pivotal clash might have played out if Harold’s army had been at full strength.
William turned his attention to York in 1068. The Norman king aimed to stamp his mark on northern England, which was far from his seat of power in the south. He commissioned two motte-and-bailey castles to be built on either side of the Ouse; Clifford’s Tower stands on the site of the one that occupied the north-east bank.
In 1069, local people attacked the two castles without success but, in August the same year, Sweyn II Estridsson – the English-born king of Denmark – arrived with a large fleet. Acting in concert with the local Anglo-Saxon nobles, he took the city and burned both castles.
The Norman defenders’ response was to set fires that destroyed swathes of York, including the Minster. William bribed the Danes to leave, then stamped out local rebellion with an iron-fist in a campaign known as the Harrying of the North.
The Normans rapidly rebuilt the city, including the two castles and the first Norman cathedral, sections of which can be seen in the undercroft of York Minster. Religious communities were established, including the hugely wealthy Benedictine monastery St Mary’s Abbey, the ruins of which are in Museum Gardens.
Within a few decades, as many as 40 parish churches stood within York, giving an indication of its large population. York once more became an important, bustling commercial city. It also, under the protection of its sheriff, had a substantial Jewish community – one that was subjected to a horrific attack in 1190, resulting in the deaths of about 150 Jews on the site of what’s now Clifford’s Tower.
In 1212, York’s affluent business community pressured King John into issuing a charter for the city, which meant that the city was no longer controlled by a sheriff, but headed by a mayor elected by the citizens. The wooden castles were rebuilt in stone, as were the city walls, and construction of a larger, Gothic York Minster got underway.
We can catch glimpses of the later medieval city even today, perhaps most famously in the Shambles. This was originally a street for butchers, and you can still see outdoor shelves and hooks on which meat was hung. The astonishing timber-framed Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, built in the mid-14th century, is another fascinating remnant of that era.
York’s economy began to decline towards the later Middle Ages. Even so, during the 15th century the city fathers attempted to maintain its image, building a new guildhall and St Williams College (as accommodation for the Minster’s Chantry priests), both of which still stand today. York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps, was finally completed in 1472.
Yet the cloth industry, the mainstay of the city’s economy, had gradually moved to other parts of Yorkshire – Halifax, Wakefield, Leeds – where trade was less strictly controlled and regulated.
The population fell, houses were abandoned – and then, of course, York was on the wrong side of the Wars of the Roses. By the time Henry Tudor took the throne as Henry VII, York was at its lowest ebb for a very long time.
York’s Tudor renaissance
Perhaps surprisingly, Henry VIII was partly responsible for an upturn in York’s fortunes.
True, his Dissolution of the Monasteries funnelled large parts of York’s ecclesiastical wealth out of the city and into his coffers. But he also reestablished the King’s Council in the North, turning York into a major administrative and judicial centre.
Under the rule of Henry’s second daughter, Elizabeth I, the High Commission Court for the Northern Province of York was established in 1561. The Council and Court together brought government institutions to the city – and, as a consequence, attracted large numbers of people who needed to be fed, housed and provided with the basics of daily living. This brought renewed trade into the city – along with a gentry who demanded luxury goods.
Yorkshire cloth was once more in demand, along with sheepskin – in part because the Council and Court were churning out documents, and needed parchment on which to write. By the end of the 16th century, York was bustling once again, with more than 60 inns housing and feeding visitors and merchants.
During the Civil War, the city was again on the wrong side of history. In 1642, Charles I fled London and set up court in York for several months, making it effectively the national capital.
Even after his departure, it remained a royalist stronghold, and was besieged and eventually captured by the parliamentarians.
The story of recovery was repeated again after the Civil War, and by about 1660 York was the third-largest city in England, after London and Norwich.
York from industrial revolution to modern day
In many ways, York was rather left behind by the age of industry – at first, anyway. At a time when northern cities such as Manchester and Newcastle were rapidly expanding industrial centres, York remained predominantly a commercial city focused on luxury goods.
It was a genteel social centre, with trades such as bookbinding and bookselling, pipe-making and cabinet-making. It was also a playground for the wealthy, with assembly rooms for dancing, a mansion house, a racecourse, and a number of beautiful Georgian buildings that still stand.
The arrival of the railways in the mid-19th century marked a sea change. George Hudson, the man dubbed York’s ‘railway king’, convinced civil engineer George Stephenson that his railway line between Newcastle and London should call at York.
By the 1850s, there were 13 trains a day between York and London; at the end of the century, there were nearly 300. Tourism boomed, commerce burgeoned and finance became a big part of the city’s economy, with banks and insurance companies established.
Heavy industry developed, including the manufacture of engines and carriages, wagons and carriage works for the railways. By the 1900s, some 5,500 railway employees lived and worked in York.
Confectionery production also flourished, thanks to three entrepreneurs: Joseph Terry, Joseph Rowntree and Mary Craven, all making chocolate in the city. Unlike the railways, this industry provided employment opportunities for women. Some of this history is told in an attraction called York’s Chocolate Story.
There was a blossoming cultural scene, with learned societies, organisations for the arts and sciences, and educational establishments. At the same time, the suburbs expanded to house the growing population of factory workers. York was booming.
Today, many of these businesses continue to thrive in the city: finance, education, chocolate. In some ways, York is a wonderful time capsule, with visible evidence of 2,000 years of human habitation – but it’s far from stuck in the past.
Pragya Vohra was talking to Paul Bloomfield, travel journalist and host of our podcast series History's Greatest Cities
What to see: York in five places
York is an ancient city with roots stretching right back to the Roman occupation of Britain. PRAGYA VOHRA selects five sites that showcase its storied history
1. York Minster
York Minster is unmissable. The current structure, completed and consecrated in 1472, reflects the city’s prosperity in the Middle Ages: the soaring nave; the 13th-century carvings in the Gothic Chapter House; the magnificent stained-glass Great East Window.
But there are even older layers of history to discover beneath the medieval minster in the undercroft. There you can see parts of the Roman barracks, encompassing an early Christian basilica that stood on the site in the early centuries AD. You can also glimpse the remains of the old Norman minster constructed from the 11th century after an older church was razed during William the Conqueror’s 1069 attack on York. There’s also a wonderful museum inside the undercroft, displaying relics from 2,000 years of the city’s history.
If your lungs are up to it, climb the 72-metre-high tower for fabulous views across the city, giving a sense of earlier iterations: you can make out the bounds of the Roman fortress and of the medieval city.
2. Clifford’s Tower
Another monument affording spectacular views across the city is the recently renovated and reopened Clifford’s Tower, perched on its distinctive conical mound. This raised earthwork was the strategically significant site where Norman forces under William the Conqueror built a wooden keep, as part of efforts to subdue rebellion in the region in 1068. The original motte-and-bailey structure burned down at the end of the 12th century and the current tower was erected around 1245 as part of a large-scale rebuilding of the castle and city fortifications.
The most poignant story attached to the tower relates to that fire of 1190. In the preceding years, antisemitic sentiment swelled in York, as it did across England around the time of the Third Crusade. Some 150 members of the city’s Jewish community took shelter from a vicious mob in the castle – but on 16 March, most chose to take their own lives rather than face the violence awaiting them outside. The few that did leave were murdered by the mob, and the tower burned down.
3. Jórvik Viking Centre
In 1972, excavations below a site earmarked for a Lloyds Bank building near Coppergate uncovered a number of Viking relics. The large-scale, five-year dig that followed from 1978 revealed an incredible wealth of material from the Norse settlement of Jórvik, established after the so-called Great Heathen Army seized the city in 867. The Jorvik Viking Centre was then created on the site of that dig in 1984.
Among Jorvik’s wonders are the foundations of Viking-age buildings visible beneath a glass floor. Modern visitors can also take in an amazing reconstruction of everyday life in the late ninth and 10th centuries, and encounter characters including the so-called Coppergate Woman, whose remains were found during the excavation.
4. Yorkshire Museum
This museum is a wonder simply for the breadth of its displays, which feature objects spanning millions of years – from a sauropod dinosaur fossil and a ceramic Roman pot (possibly modelled on the head of emperor Septimius Severus’s wife, Julia Domna), through to a rare Anglo-Saxon helmet and medieval jewellery. So it’s a fascinating place to lose yourself in the past.
But the location itself is also special, butting up against the remains of St Mary’s Abbey. Founded in 1088, this was one of the wealthiest and most powerful Benedictine monastic communities in England. Converted into royal accommodation after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, the buildings later fell into ruin. Today, only the skeleton of the monumental abbey church remains visible in the museum gardens.
5. City walls
After the Romans established their fort of Eboracum here, they built the first defensive walls around AD 71. Of this earliest barrier, the ruined Multangular Tower still stands at the eastern edge of the Museum Gardens. In the ninth century, having taken the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Eoforwic, the Vikings restored the walls around the city they named Jórvik.
Today, you can walk along the extensive remains of the walls built around the medieval city in the 13th and 14th centuries – a fortification stretching over two miles, one of the longest and most intact city walls in England. These barricades, sometimes known as the Bar Walls, are a really important part of York’s history, and give a palpable sense of what the early city might have looked like.
Pragya Vohra is lecturer in medieval history at the University of York, specialising in the social and cultural history of the Viking Age British Isles and Scandinavia
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