Whilst the history of York as a settlement dates back to the first century AD, there is evidence that people have lived in the surrounding nearby for thousands of years. Polished axes from the neolithic period (4000-2500 BC), flint tools from the Bronze Age (2500-800 BC) and Iron Age burials all point to centuries of human habitation – although perhaps not permanent settlement.
The first major settlement in York was established by invading Roman forces in 71 AD. They built a fortress on flat ground north of the River Ouse and gave it the name Eboracum, which is thought to mean ‘place of the yews’. It provided a secure base from which the Romans could consolidate their rule in the north and subdue local tribes in the area – most notably the Brigantes and Parisii.
Its location had certain advantages. The Ouse was a navigable route which could be used to bring supplies and men inland via the Humber estuary and the two rivers – the Ouse and Foss – also provided a natural defence for the settlement on the south-east and south-west sides. For the next 330 years or so Eboracum remained a great military base and provincial capital.
Built to accommodate an entire Roman legion – which consisted of around 5000 men – it was quite a considerable military garrison. Beginning in the 2nd century AD, a major reconstruction was begun with substantial parts of the original timber fortress being rebuilt in stone.
Archaeological excavations have also revealed a forum, bath houses, temples, a sewer system and lead pipes to carry water. A few structures such as the Multangular Tower in the Museum Gardens can still be seen today, but most of Roman York is buried many feet below the modern city.
Alongside the establishment of a fortress, there was also a growth of civilian settlements – some on the fortress side of the Ouse and others beyond it. These non-military settlers would’ve probably consisted of the usual camp followers, soldiers’ families and local people who traded with the army.
Archaeological evidence including animal remains, crab and Whitby jet suggest that York was part of complex trading networks that extended all the way to continental Europe.
Although Roman Britain appears to have been relatively peaceful and prosperous for much of the 4th century – despite considerable turmoil elsewhere – by the second decade of the 5th it had ceased to be part of the Empire. With York’s official links with Rome severed, it no longer had a important function as a military and administrative centre.
Historians believe that the city became increasingly deserted – although its difficult to tell if it was entirely uninhabited – as the economic infrastructure and industry that surrounded the fortress simply disappeared.
Find out more about Constantine The Great, who was proclaimed emperor at York, went on to reunite the Roman Empire and converted to Christianity.
Although activity continued in Roman York until just after 400 AD, the next three centuries are difficult to identify archaelogically. The 5th and 6th centuries saw the arrival of immigrants from north-west Europe, the most significant being the group we know today as the Anglo-Saxons.
At least two cemetries have been found around York which date from this period, however of the early Anglo-Saxon period very little is known. After another influx of Anglian settlers, by the 7th century York had become an important royal centre for Northumbrian kings. By this time the Roman name had been adapted slightly to Eoforwic, which apparently means ‘wild boar town’ in Old English.
(Picture above: Anglo-Saxon helmet, part of the Yorkshire Museum collection)
In November of 866, the ‘Great Heathen Army’ – a fighting force of Danish Vikings – seized the city. After wintering on the Tyne, they had to attack and recapture the city in 867. After a series of largely successful campaigns against other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, part of the great Viking army returned to Northumbria in 876.
According to the ‘History of St Cuthbert’, they ‘rebuilt the city of York, cultivated the land around it and remained there’. They didn’t live happily ever after however, Viking kings in Northumbria had very short reigns and in an age of power politics, competing territorial claims were more often than not settled on the battlefield.
Sihtric, king of the Dublin Vikings, who had inherited the right to rule York at the beginning of the 10th century, sought to stave off advances from his southern neighbour by diplomatically marrying one of the English king’s daughters. However, upon Sihtric’s death, this linking of family lines provided King Aethelstan with an excuse to incorporate York and Northumbria into his expanding English state.
Although there were some longer periods of peace, this was a turbulent period in the history of England. Northumbria was ruled by a number of different Scandanavian and Anglo-Saxon kings in a complex patchwork of military and political comings and goings. After King Eadred regained control of Northumbria in 954, York would from this point on always remain part of a united Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
Find out more about one of York’s short lived Viking kings Eric Bloodaxe.
Although its Viking Age was actually a relatively short period in the history of York, it does seem to have initiated some dramatic changes in the fortunes of the city. The Coppergate excavations (now part of the Jorvik Museum) revealed that York was for the time quite densely populated.
The range of industries – much of it very sophisticated – suggests that there was a considerable local market for these mass produced goods. Jorvik was also part of vast Scandanvian trade networks that brought amber from the Baltic as well as silk from Istanbul to the city.
York also grew in size, and the areas around Walmgate and Fossgate were both developed. Many of the parish churches that are scattered across the townscape date from this period, there is convincing evidence that at least 15 pre-dated the Norman occupation.
For some two hundred years York had been a Viking city. Visits by the kings of England were rare and the city was to a large degree left to its own devices. The arrival of William The Conqueror following the Norman invasion of 1066 shattered this arrangement – he was determined to bring York and its people under his control.
After capturing the city in 1068, William ordered the building of a castle and a second followed in 1069. Built from timber, they were constructed in the motte and bailey form then popular with military engineers (a tower on a hill protecting a fortified camp below). Located on either side of the Ouse, one on the site of Clifford’s Tower (pictured), the other upon Baile Hill, the castles were positioned to control access to the city via the river.
According to a contemporary chronicler ‘York was seething with discontent’, and the people soon made their feelings clear. Joining forces with powerful Anglo-Saxon noblemen and King Swein of Denmark, the local population rose in rebellion, attacking the symbols of William’s authority in the city.
The two castles were set alight and the garrison massacred. William responded by marching northward and devastating the Yorkshire countryside – an act known as ‘The Harrying of the North’. The rebellion was defeated and the local population brought to heel.
In the centuries following the Norman invasion York continued to prosper and grow. At the end of the 13th century, and despite its distance from the sea, York was an important shipbuilding centre with 69 recorded shipwrights – more than anywhere else in the country (London had 50).
Guilds and associations had began to form, first of glovers, saddlers and hosiers, and later of butchers, drapers and vinters. York had also become an significant regional trading centre with weekly markets and an annual fair. It had also, more ominously, become more important militarily after Edward I decided to use it as a base from which to attack the Scots.
Whilst the preceding periods – Roman, Anglian, Viking and Norman – certainly shaped the city, it was the 213 years between 1272 and 1485 – the so-called late-medieval age – that contributed most to the York that we see today.
The complete rebuilding of the Minster, the construction of the halls of the Merchants Taylor and Adventurer, the building of the Guildhall and the extension and development of the city walls and their four main gates all took place within these years. These were the centuries in which York received a charter from King Richard II giving it county status in its own right, a privilege previously only enjoyed by London.
As a successive line of English monarchs sought to extend their rule north of the border into Scotland, York also found itself the geographic centre of national politics. At least fifteen parliaments were convened in the city in just under 40 years.
However, when Edward III turned his attentions to the conquest of France the locus of power shifted southward. Although York continued to receive sporadic royal visits, no parliament was ever assembled here after 1335.
Decline and Decay
By the late 15th century York appeared to be undergoing a period of decline and decay. Rental values of property within the walls were falling and tenants were increasingly difficult to find. Rival manufacturing centres like Huddersfield and Halifax, as well as aggressive competition from the Hanseatic League, eroded the city’s economic clout.
Local complaints about the continuing decline of the city continue to be heard in the council chamber across the centuries that followed. This economic stagnation, however, preserved much of medieval York from complete redevelopment and ironically the city’s decline after the mid-15th century paved the way for the tourist boom and economic rejuvenation of the late 20th century.
The overthrow of Richard III, a king with close ties to the region, to be replaced by Henry VII, a man with no links to the north of England, was not widely welcomed. A large section of York’s populace considered themselves loyal to the deposed monarch and the city corporation also found itself on the wrong side of history having backed the losing side.
Needing to establish their good faith toward the new regime, when the new king visited the city in 1486 the corporation laid on an ostentatious ceremonial welcome to greet him. While Henry appeared to have gained the allegiance of the council, the townspeople on occassion continued to defy central government.
Many sided with North Riding rebels who in 1489 had murdered the Earl of Northumberland near Thirsk as he attempted to impose the new royal taxes – an act of disloyalty that forced the corporation to seek the king’s pardon.
York’s Decline Continues
Economically York’s downward spiral continued. In the 1530s the council failed to balance its budget and the national government was forced to reduce the city’s annual contributions. The near total loss of its textile industry meant that York was more reliant than ever on its role as supplier of labour and goods to local institutions.
York had until then greatly benefited from the presence of the church in its midst. The Minster with its residential canons, vicars and chantry priests, monastries from across the north of England who maintained houses within York as well as the city’s almost forty parish churches all relied heavily upon local goods and services.
Henry VIII’s religious revolution appeared to have little impact on the city initially. The smaller religious houses were dissolved first and forced to turn their land over to the crown. A few years later, after a period of open rebellion across the north, larger monastries also had their lands confiscated and York’s surviving religious houses were forced to submit to the crown.
Although many monks and friars remained within the city – some finding roles in the new church – the large religious buildings they had previously occupied no longer had an official purpose. Many simply became redundant and fell into ruin (you can see the remains of the abbey church of St Mary’s in the Museum Gardens today). Lead was stripped from roofs and stone taken to repair or build buildings elsewhere.
In the reign of Elizabeth I, believers who held to the old ways and the Catholic faith found themselves increasingly persecuted. In 1581 an act of parliament made the celebrating of mass a captial offence and just four years later all Jesuits and seminary priests were expelled from the country on pain of death.
Between then and the end of the century some thirty priests were tried and executed in the north, most on the Knavesmire just outside of York. It was also a capital offence to shelter priests although judges rarely enforced this penalty. York did witness one famous case of religious non-observance however, namely the martyrdom of Margaret Clitherow.
Recovery and Renewal
Despite periodic bouts of plague, York’s fortunes recovered somewhat by the end of Elizabeth’s reign. The Council in the North had been established at King’s Manor, making York the administrative and judicial centre of northern England. This is turn helped to boost the local economy with bakers, butchers, brewers, tailers, drapers and shoemakers all benefiting from increasing custom.
Renamed as a company by royal charter in 1581, the Merchant Adventurers were also importing large quantities of iron, pitch, flax and hemp from northern Europe. As York flourished again as a centre of trade, so capital accrued in local pockets and money lending became a major source of income in the late-Elizabethan period.
The Civil War
As the Stuart state collapsed into Civil War, in the summers of 1642 and 1644 York found itself in the eye of the storm. Fleeing the London mob and a hostile Parliament, Charles I arrived in York in early 1642 not as commander in chief but as a refugee from the capital. Although the royal appearance was not universally welcome, the city was for the next six months the unofficial centre of the kingdom.
Minster Yard, in the shadow of the great cathedral, became the royalist headquarters and St William’s College served as the centre of the King’s propaganda machine – diseminating pamphlets to London and the country at large. However, as the country drifted towards war, the city council – although still hoping for a negotiated settlement – ordered that defences be improved and the walls repaired. The King left York in August and just days later raised his standard at Nottingham and war began.
The Conflict Reaches York
York occupied an important strategic location between Royalist countryside to the north and Parliamentarian forces in the West Ridings, however despite local skirmishes the city remained untouched in early exchanges. Things were to take a turn for the worse in the April of 1644. York’s Royalist garrison marched south to attack Parliamentary forces under the command of Lord Fairfax and suffered a heavy defeat.
The balance of power in the north had shifted dramatically. The Earl of Newcastle, who had been facing the Scots army outside Durham, immediately withdrew his forces and headed south to shore up the depleted garrison at York. The Scots set off in pursuit and, meeting with Fairfax’s troops advancing from the south, laid siege to the city.
For the first month, despite the occasional skirmish, there was no serious attempt to breach York’s defences. However, following the arrival of the Earl of Manchester and the army of Eastern Association hostilities commenced in earnest.
Walmgate Bar and the east of the city were bombarded by heavy canon fire whilst the Scots army seized two gun emplacements on the west bank of the Ouse. In a single decisive week, most of the suburbs were burnt to the ground and bridges at Monkgate and Layerthorpe destroyed.
(Picture above: Walmgate Bar which was bombarded by heavy fire in 1644)
The Fall of Royalist York
Newcastle attempted to draw out a negotiated surrender whilst the defenders awaited the hoped for arrival of Prince Rupert. When negotiations failed, Parliamentarian forces attacked the city from the north-west but were repelled and suffered heavy losses. Rupert’s army arrived soon after and the beseiging forces rushed to intercept him. In a clever tactical manouvre, Rupert swept northward managing to avoid the Parliamentarians and enter the relieved city.
After this temporary reprieve, disaster swiftly followed. Later the following morning Prince Rupert set out from York in pursuit of the enemy and his Royalist army were heavily defeated at Marston Moor in one of the most decisive battles of the war. The city surrendered and from then on became a Parliamentary stronghold.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, York no longer enjoyed the prominence it had up until the outbreak of the Civil War. With the abolition of The King’s Council in the North in 1641, York lost its position as the political capital of the North of England and occasional residence of the monarchy.
Despite this, it remained the county town of Yorkshire and the northern aristocracy continued to assemble here for both business and pleasure. To a local contemporary historian Francis Drake (not to be confused with his more illustrious namesake) this appeared to be the main source of York’s ongoing prosperity – the city’s position as the social capital of the North.
The Assembly Rooms, designed by Richard Boyle the 3rd Earl of Burlington, were commissioned by Yorkshire aristocracy and gentry as a place where they could gather socially in the city. The result was a grand columned Egyptian-style hall that would become the model for formal reception rooms across the country.
Other notable buildings that date from this period include The Mansion House, built to entertain guests of the Lord Mayor – a function it still has to this day – and Fairfax House on Castlegate, originally a merchant’s house but later remodelled by the architect John Carr to be more fitting as the city residence of a local aristocrat.
(Picture above: Fairfax House)
The Castle area also underwent considerable reconstruction during the eighteenth century. The new Assize Courthouse and the Female Prison opposite (now the Castle Museum) were constructed and were separated by a large circular lawn that became known as the ‘Eye of The Ridings’. It was from here in Castle Yard that the MP for Hull William Wilberforce often addressed electors on the evils of slavery and the need for its abolition.
The County Jail was rebuilt between 1701 and 1705 and came to be known as the Debtor’s Prison. Despite the name, it was used to hold rebel prisoners during both Jacobite rebellions and the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin spent his last days here before his execution in 1739.
The Jacobite Rebellions
The two Jacobite risings in 1715 and 1745, whilst creating much turmoil elsewhere, seem to have had little impact upon the city. The threat of invasion by the Young Pretender and his army in 1745 did galvanize the city council to repair the ancient walls. However, despite volunteer forces being raised the whole crisis fortuitously passed York by.
The city walls were put to some use, the heads of two captured rebels were spiked and placed atop of Micklegate Bar – a warning message to any who hoped to overthrow the Hanoverian monarchy. They remained there for nearly ten years until they were surreptiously removed on a January night in 1754.
Described in a parliamentary act of 1763 as the ‘Capital City of the Northern Parts of England, and a place of great Resort, and much frequented by Persons of Distinction and Fortune,’ by the end of the eighteenth century it no longer enjoyed its reputation as the centre of fashionable society.
This declining social status was matched by its declining economic importance within the wider region. Although the city’s many small enterprises continued to provide much local employment, with no large industry of note the economy was stagnating. By the beginning of the nineteenth century York was only the 16th largest city in England.
Whilst many towns experience rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, nineteenth century York appeared to be something of a backwater. However, although it grew slower than the great industrial towns and ports, it expanded faster than similar cities like Norwich, Bath and Exeter.
It would become a manufacturing and communications hub yet still remained a market town – with livestock being driven through the streets to be sold just outside the city walls. Its grand architectural heritage from centuries past towered above an increasing sea of urban poverty with conditions equal to any large town in the north.
The Railway Revolution
Around 1820 some thirty daily coaches were bringing visitors to York from all parts of the country, others travelled from Selby and Hull via the river. However, the railway would bring more visitors still. A temporary station was opened in 1839 just outside the walls whilst construction of the station proper was completed. Two large arches were cut through the walls to allow trains to enter the heart of the city.
The arrival of the railway transformed this previously remote corner of York into a centre of commercial activity that would later prompt the construction of Lendal Bridge connecting the station with more fashionable parts of the city. The railway also brought with it much employment. Guards, porters, footplate men, labourers in workshops, as well as staff in local hotels, all had jobs reliant on this new means of mass transport. York’s main industry became its wagon and carriage works in Holgate, which by the end of the 1910s covered an area of nearly 45 hectares.
The Chocolate Boom
Perhaps the most remarkable development was York’s cocoa processing and confectionary industry. Although initially a small-scale operation, emplying maybe a dozen men to grind cocoa beans, by the late 1870s the Rowntree firm was growing rapidly with over a hundred employees. By 1894 that number was 893 and ten years late had swelled to around 3,000.
Rowntree’s ‘Elect’ Cocoa was their main product (the Quaker family saw it as a temperance drink, a rival to beer and all the evils it brought upon the working man) but they also produced a range of gums and pastilles. Joseph Terry and Company, originally a confectioner, also began chocolate production on their Clementhorpe site in 1886. Along with the railways, these two factories were a major source of employment in late nineteenth century York.
Despite all the fine buildings constructed during the previous century, Victorian York was blighted by the same problems afflicting urban centres across the country. The Health of Towns Commission report of 1845 declared that the ‘aspect of York, as seen in the principal streets, is tidy and pleasing, and the streets, though narrow, are well kept; not so, however, the more retired and densely crowded parts, which have the same damp and filthy character as all the other towns’.
‘Night Soil’ was left in the courts and alleyways inhabited by the poorer classes until it had formed a large enough pile to be barrowed away. It would then be taken to vast dung hills – by the Foss and just behind Walmgate – where it mixed with manure from livestock stabled in the city. Very often water from these mounds of dung would seep back into houses.
The local water supply, whether from wells or drawn directly from the river, were badly contaminated – only adding to the unsanitary living conditions. The dam at the confluence of the Foss and Ouse kept the level of the former artificially high. Waste from the city drained into this area of marshland meaning houses on Walmgate and Hungate effectively had a near stagnant open sewer in their backyards.
With the population swelled by Irish and other immigrants in the late 1840s, the situation was only bound to worsen. From 1850, the process of serious improvement began. The area around Foss Islands was drained and considerable money was spent on improving York’s drainage and sewerage.
Poverty in York
The housing situation appeared little better. Although local authorities could order the demolition of old dwellings they had no powers to replace them. When the Water Lanes slums were cleared, the poor simply found equally bad housing elsewhere in the city.
Despite the many charitable institutions providing relief from poverty and sickness, it was clear by the 1880s that this wasn’t enough – yet little appeared to be done. Just before the century’s end, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree – of the Rowntree dynasty – undertook a major survey of the city’s lower orders. The low wages, poor diets and appalling housing conditions he recorded appeared to show that not much had changed for the city’s poorest over the preceding fifty years.
However, quotations taken today from Rowntree’s report can often be a little selective. Alongside the city slums he also revealed the world of ‘respectable’ working class York housed in ever increasing streets of suburban terraces which had spread around the new areas of industry in the north and south.
One of the greatest improvements in the city centre was the clearing of ‘a dense mass of old buildings’ to create the wide open space of Parliament Street. Space was also opened up around the Minster and Duncombe Place created. Following these developments, a gentleman could stroll across Lendal Bridge and enjoy unobstructed views of the Minster’s 15th century facade.
The construction of Clifford Street and the buildings along it typified late-Victorian urban improvement. The notorious slums of Water Lane were swept away and replaced with the new magistrates court, the York Institute of Art, Science and Literature (now a nightclub), the Liberal Club and a new home for the Society of Friends (otherwise known as Quakers).
Other notable buildings from this period include the De Grey rooms, opened in 1842 as a soial venue for balls, concerts and the like, and the City Art Gallery, originally built as an exhibition hall in 1879 but purchased by the Corporation in 1891 – the name of the square infront still betrays its original purpose.
The Yorkshire Philosophical Society founded in 1822 established its classically fronted museum and observatory in the botanic gardens next to the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. This area on the north side of the city was the hub of elite life in the nineteenth century.