York’s Glorious Medieval Past & Its Secrets

York's Medieval Legacy: A Journey Through Time

York, England

York, England

York, a city with a rich history and vibrant culture, has been a hub of activity for over two millennia. Its past is steeped in stories of battles, invasions, religion, and trade. In this article, we will take a journey through time and explore the medieval history of York, including its role in the Wars of the Roses, Viking invasions, religious history, life and times of Richard III, and medieval trade and commerce.

Early History of York

York’s history as a city dates back to the first millennium AD, but archaeological evidence indicates that people have lived in the region since around 8000-7000 BC. In Roman times, York was a town, and its Celtic name, Eboracum or Eburacum, was recorded in Roman sources. After the Angles took over the area, they adapted the name to Old English Eoforwīc or Eoforīc, meaning “wild-boar town” or “rich in wild-boar.” The Vikings later took over and adapted the name to Norse Jórvík, meaning “wild-boar bay.”

Anglian and Viking York

Following the Anglian settlement of the North of England, York became an important royal center for the Northumbrian kings. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, York was damaged but eventually became an important urban center as the administrative center of the county of Yorkshire. The Vikings also left their mark on the city, with many place names and Viking remains still visible today.

York in the Medieval Era

York prospered during much of the later medieval era, with the 14th and early 15th centuries being particularly prosperous. The city was an important center of trade and commerce, with many guilds and markets. York’s religious history also played a significant role, with the city being an important center of Christianity.

York During the English Civil War

During the English Civil War, York was regarded as a Royalist stronghold and was besieged and eventually captured by Parliamentary forces under Lord Fairfax in 1644. The city suffered significant damage during the conflict.

Modern-Day York

Today, York is a popular tourist destination, with thousands of visitors coming to see the surviving medieval buildings, Roman and Viking remains, and Georgian architecture. The city is home to many conservation areas, listed buildings, and scheduled ancient monuments, and is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful and historic cities in England. Despite its long and varied history, York retains much of its medieval character, making it a unique and fascinating place to visit.

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The History of York: From Earliest Times to the Year 2000 by Patrick Nuttgens
The History of York: From Earliest Times to the Year 2000 by Patrick Nuttgens

Early Middle Ages

The Roman Fortifications showing wall and Multangular Tower in Museum Gardens York

The Roman Fortifications showing wall and Multangular Tower in Museum Gardens York

Post-Roman Ebrauc: The Mysterious Years

Little written evidence remains about York following the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410. Archaeological evidence for continued settlement near the Ouse exists, but there is no certainty about York’s regional significance in the centuries that followed. Nonetheless, several manuscripts of the Historia Brittonum, written c. 830, describe a list of 28 or 33 “civitates” or “fortified cities” under Roman rule, among them Cair Ebrauc. Scholars suggest that this may have been a successor to old Roman Eburacum.

The City of Legions: A Controversial Link to York

Gildas’ 6th-century De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae mentions the City of Legions (urbs legionum), which some scholars believe refers to York rather than Caerleon, providing some contemporary information about Ebrauc. However, the evidence for Eboracum continuing to function as a significant post-Roman regional centre is questioned by historian and archaeologist Nick Higham.

Peredur Son of Efrawg: A Hint of Royal Association

A 12th- or 13th-century Welsh romance features Peredur Son of Efrawg, which suggests that the city had royal associations in later tradition. However, the ambiguity surrounding York’s historical significance in the post-Roman era continues to puzzle historians.

The Brigantes and the Anglo-Saxon Conquest

What later became parts of the North Riding and City of York were conquered by a Bithynic to early Angle version of Deira, based around the Derwent. Christopher Allen Snyder suggests that Ebrauc may have functioned as a military outpost or the seat of a minor kingdom based on some old territory of the Brigantes. Nonetheless, the settlement had declined so much by the end of the Roman period that it was unlikely to have played a significant post-Roman role.

York's Anglian Past: Settlement, Baptism, and Learning

York Minster

York Minster

Angles Settle in York: Early 5th Century

In the early 5th century, the Angles settled in the York area, as evidenced by identifiable Anglian cemeteries from this period. Excavations close to York on The Mount and at Heworth have revealed cremation cemeteries from the 6th century.

York’s Fate After 400 AD

The fate of York’s fortress after 400 AD is unclear, but it is unlikely to have been a base of Romano-British power in opposition to the Anglians. Flooded area reclamation would not be initiated until the 7th century under Edwin of Northumbria. After the Angles settled in Northern England, York became the Anglo-capital of Deira and one of the capitals when the kingdom united with Bernicia, later known as Northumbria.

York’s Importance Under Northumbrian Rule

By the early 7th century, York was an important royal centre for the Northumbrian kings, for it was here that Paulinus of York (later St Paulinus) came to set up his wooden church, the precursor of York Minster. It was also here that King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised in 627. The first Minster is believed to have been built in 627, although the location of the early Minster is a matter of dispute.

York as a Centre of Learning

Throughout the succeeding centuries, York remained an important royal and ecclesiastical centre, the seat of a bishop, and later, from 735, of an archbishop. York became a centre of learning under Northumbrian rule, with the establishment of the library and of the Minster school. Alcuin, later adviser to Charlemagne, was its most distinguished pupil and then master.

Archaeological Evidence of York’s Past

Of this great royal and ecclesiastical centre, little is yet known archaeologically. Excavations on the Roman fortress walls have shown that they may have survived more or less intact for much of their circuit, and the Anglian Tower, a small square tower built to fill a gap in the Roman way, may be a repair of the Anglian period. The survival of the walls and gates shows that the Roman street pattern survived, at least in part, inside the fortress. Certainly, excavations beneath York Minster have shown that the great hall of the Roman headquarters building still stood and was used until the 9th century.

York’s Commercial Growth

By the 8th century, York was an active commercial centre with established trading links to other areas of England, northern France, the Low Countries, and the Rhineland. Excavations near the junction of the River Foss and River Ouse in Fishergate found buildings dating from the 7th and 9th century. These were located away from the Roman centre of the city and may form a trading settlement that served the royal and ecclesiastical century. This and other discoveries indicate an occupation pattern during the 7th to 9th century that followed the line of the rivers, creating a long linear settlement along the River Ouse and extending along some of the River Foss.

The Viking Invasions of York

An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England

An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England

In November 866 AD, a large army of Danish Vikings, known as the “Great Heathen Army,” captured York without opposition due to internal conflict in the Kingdom of Northumbria. The Vikings were experienced warriors, and their success in capturing York allowed them to establish a significant foothold in the north of England.

The Kingdom of Jorvik

The following year, the Northumbrians attempted to retake York, but the Viking army successfully defended the city. The Vikings left the same year, placing a local puppet king in charge of York and the surrounding area they controlled. In 875, the army returned, and its leader, Halfdan, took control of York.

From York, Viking kings ruled over an area known as “The Kingdom of Jorvik.” The Vikings established a significant presence in York, with many Danes migrating and settling in the city and the surrounding region.

Heading: York’s Viking Legacy

Today, evidence of York’s Viking past can still be seen throughout the city. The Old Norse placename Konungsgurtha, or Kings Court, recorded in the late 14th century, possibly indicates the site of a Viking royal palace based on the remains of the east gate of the Roman fortress. This area is now known as King’s Square.

The End of the Viking Era

In 954, the last Viking king, Eric Bloodaxe, was expelled from York, and his kingdom was incorporated into the newly consolidated Anglo-Saxon state. Despite their defeat, the Vikings left an enduring legacy in York, with many churches built during the Viking Age, including St Olave’s, dedicated to St. Olaf King of Norway, and St Mary Bishophill Junior, with a 10th-century tower whose height was increased in the early 11th century.

York’s Viking Scholars

During this era, York was also home to renowned scholars, including Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York. The city’s intellectual and cultural achievements during the Viking Age demonstrate the enduring legacy of this important period in York’s history.

The Early Years: York after the Norman Conquest

Pencil drawing with wash highlights of First Water Lane, Drawing on paper by Cave, H. (Artist)

Pencil drawing with wash highlights of First Water Lane, Drawing on paper by Cave, H. (Artist)

Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, York was a key target for William the Conqueror’s punitive harrying of the north in response to regional revolt. The city suffered substantial damage, but two castles were erected in response. Despite the destruction, York rose to prominence as the administrative centre of the county of Yorkshire, the seat of an archbishop, and, at times, an alternative seat of royal government. It also became an important trading centre, with several religious houses founded after the Conquest, including St Mary’s Abbey and Holy Trinity Priory.

The Jewish Community in York and the Massacre of 1190

In 1190, a mob of townsfolk forced the Jewish community in York to flee into the castle keep (later replaced by Clifford’s Tower) under the protection of the sheriff. The castle was set on fire, and the Jews were massacred. This came during a time of widespread attacks against Jews in Britain, and it is likely that local magnates who were indebted to the Jews instigated or failed to prevent the massacre. Despite the tragedy, the Jewish community in York recovered and remained in the city until the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290.

York and the Scottish Raids

As a northern city, York was vulnerable to attacks and raids from Scotland after England’s loss in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. In 1319, a citizen army of 3000 men, made up of an odd mixture, including monks, marched out of the city to protect the Vale of York but were totally annihilated by the much stronger Scottish forces. York’s mayor, Nicholas Flemyng, who led the army, was among those killed, the only city mayor ever killed in action. In 1322, the suburbs of the city were heavily raided during The Great Raid, but a truce was eventually agreed with Robert the Bruce at a great council held at Bishopthorpe in 1323.

York’s Medieval Prosperity and Architecture

Despite these challenges, York prospered during much of the later medieval era. The city was home to twenty-one medieval parish churches, of which eight are still used for worship. Many medieval timber-framed buildings also survive, such as the famous Shambles street, originally occupied by butchers and now a popular tourist attraction. The city walls, with their entrance gates, known as bars, encompassed virtually the entire city and still stand today. York also enjoyed particular prosperity in the 14th and early 15th centuries, a period in which the York Mystery Plays, a cycle of religious pageants performed by the various craft guilds, grew up. The construction of the city’s new Guildhall around the middle of the 15th century can be seen as an attempt to project civic confidence in the face of growing uncertainty.

Visit York and Discover its Rich Medieval History

Clementine's Town House Hotel BW Premier Collection
Clementine's Town House Hotel BW Premier Collection, York, England
Middlethorpe Hall & Spa, York
Middlethorpe Hall & Spa, York, England
The Grand, York
The Grand, York, England

Featured Image

Intersection of Shambles and Little Shambles streets, York

Intersection of Shambles and Little Shambles streets, York

The Shambles is one of the most iconic streets in York, known for its rich history and stunning medieval architecture. Originally occupied by butchers in the 14th century, the street still bears the marks of its past with its timber-framed buildings and overhanging upper floors. The name “Shambles” comes from the Saxon word “shamel,” which means a street with a row of stalls or benches.

Today, The Shambles is a popular tourist attraction, drawing visitors from all over the world to marvel at its unique charm. The street is lined with souvenir shops, boutiques, and cafes, but it still retains its historic character, with many shops maintaining their original outdoor shelves and hooks on which meat was displayed. In fact, some of the buildings on The Shambles are so old that they lean inwards and touch each other at the top, creating a magical atmosphere.

Walking through The Shambles is like stepping back in time, as the narrow street twists and turns, revealing hidden corners and unexpected views. It’s easy to imagine what life was like in medieval York as you stroll past the old shop fronts and the distinctive herringbone pattern of the cobblestones. The street is particularly enchanting at night, when the old-fashioned street lamps cast a warm glow over the buildings, creating a magical atmosphere that’s perfect for a romantic evening stroll.

All in all, The Shambles is a true gem of medieval architecture and an essential stop for anyone visiting York.

Sources

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, February 1). History of York. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_York

  • McNeil, R., & Nevell, R. (2010). Medieval York: government, economy and society. Continuum.
  • Ormrod, W. M. (2011). York in the age of Edward III. Boydell Press
  • Prestwich, M. (2003). Plantagenet England, 1225-1360. Oxford University Press
  • Rogers, C. J. (2017). The early history of the church of York, 627-1154. Borthwick Publications

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