A great way to see the sights, take in some history and spend a couple of hours, York city walls remain an ever popular attraction – with an estimated two and a half million visitors walking along them each year.
Ever since the Romans established their first fortress on the northern side of the River Ouse, York has been defended by walls of one form or another. Originally timber but later rebuilt in stone, parts of the walls that protected Eboracum can still be seen today along with remains of a substantial Roman tower (below).
York’s present city walls, however, date back to The Middle Ages and were built to protect the city and its residents – mainly against marauding Scots. Remarkably well preserved, weighing in at roughly a hundred thousand tonnes and measuring just over three kilometres in length, they are the longest medieval town walls to be found anywhere in England.
900 Years of History
The majority of the present walls were constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries. Although they protected most of the city, there is a large gap in the defences on the east side of York. The Normans had, a few centuries earlier, dammed the River Foss creating the King’s Fishpool – a swampy area incredibly difficult if not impossible to cross on foot. This was thought to be adequate enough security against invading armies and the walls were never extended through this area.
By the time of the Civil War in the 1640s cannon had made defensive walls less militarily useful, despite this however they were strengthened again during this period. Although the city was attacked in the conflict, a conditional surrender prevented too much damage to the walls, and the victors – The Parliamentarians – ordered their repair.
From Defence to Decoration
After the Jacobite rebellion was put down in 1746 the threat of civil war gradually receded. By the time Romanticism swept its way across Georgian Britain in the early nineteenth century, the walls were already regarded as ruins – a monument from a now distant past. The owners of the large houses by the Minster began to see their ‘bits’ of wall as attractive garden features.
When repairs were begun to restore the walls in the late-Victorian period, these property owners raised considerable objections. Not only were they unhappy about the restoration of their tumbledown garden features they also objected to the walls being opened as a footpath to the general public and their prying eyes. By 1887, however, a deal had been done; the walls returned to the city, the repairs were completed and a walkway was established.
During the 19th century, urban improvers argued that the walls should be demolished so the city could be opened up to fresh air and ever increasing traffic. To the Corporation of York, the walls – which were increasingly unsafe – were expensive to maintain and made it difficult for carriages and carts to enter the city.
They petitioned parliament for the right to demolish them, but fortunately for the tourist industry today their efforts were unsuccessful. There was some compromise however. Some small sections were demolished and new arches were built to improve access. These changes are probably most obvious in the stretch of wall that runs past York’s train station down to the River Ouse.
Starting with Bootham Bar and the proceeding in a clockwise direction, our guide to York city walls tells the history of these fascinating fortifications. (You can see all these locations on the map at the end of the article)
In the 14th century England was at war with its northern neighbour. During this period York was quite significant northern city, with regular royal visits and meetings of parliament. Whilst the Scottish king was being besieged on the border, a breakaway Scottish army headed south to capture the English queen at York.
Reaching Bootham Bar they burned the adjacent houses but turned back when they realised the queen had already fled south. A force consisting largely of local townspeople chased after the retreating army, unwisely it would prove when they were heavily defeated by the Scots at Myton on Swale. In the wake of this attack, the walls were strengthened – wooden parts were replaced with stone and barbicans added to the bars.
The section between Bootham Bar and Monkbar was significantly remodelled by Victorian conservationists. Although the initial earthworks here are Roman in origin and the substance of the walls medieval, the walkway itself and its supporting arches as well as Robin Hood Tower in the north corner are nineteenth century ‘recreations’. The slit windows in the tower, although intended to look authentic, in reality have only a decorative function – they are far to narrow to aim any form of weapon through successfully.
The next gate you will encounter is Monkbar, York’s north-eastern entrance. From beneath it’s arch you can see the spikes of the portcullis which would’ve been ready to drop at a moment’s notice, sealing the city’s defences. Next to this are the “murder holes” through which things could be dropped onto enemy soldiers attacking the portcullis. Stepping outside the city walls you will also notice cannon and arrow slits as well as two strange looking doors way above ground level.
Until the early 19th century, all the major bars also had barbicans – a gated enclosure that jutted out beyond the walls – however, all but one were removed to make the passage into the city easier. When the first gate had been breached, attackers were funnelled into “the killing ground” surrounded by walls manned by defenders where they could be picked off. You can see York’s last remaining example of this structure at Walmgate Bar.
As you leave Monkbar notice the bridged gaps in the wall. These musket loops – thought to date from the English Civil War – provided a small gap through which the enemy could be targeted without exposing the musketeer to return fire. You will also see the brick dome of an ice house dating back to the early 1800s cut into the ramparts. Filled in winter, the ice stored within would stay cold and could be used through the rest of the year.
Despite the terrible events a hundred years before, there was still a sizeable Jewish community in 13th century York. As you leave Monkbar and head clockwise along the walls you will pass through an area called Jewbury – the site of the Jewish quarter in medieval York. In the 1980s archaeologists where called in to investigate the site before construction began on a proposed development.
Excavations revealed some five hundred graves and skeletons. However, heeding the request of the Chief Rabbi – who argued for the respect for the dead, no matter the length of time they had been deceased – the dig was cut short and further tests on the skeletons were not carried out. The bodies were initially reburied in York but were later move to a Jewish cemetry in Manchester. The original cemetry is now a supermarket car park.
Just after Jewbury the walls come to an abrupt stop. This area used to be covered in a marshy lake which served as a natural defensive line for this side of the city. The lake was created when William the Conqueror ordered the damming of the River Foss to create a moat around his castle in the city. Known as the King’s Fishpool, there were strict laws governing it’s use and fines for anyone caught dumping rubbish.
However, some seven hundred years later the Victorians were encouraging people to do the exact opposite. The standing water was thought to be a health hazard – York had experienced an outbreak of cholera in 1832 – and so in an effort to build up the level of the ground the city corporation actually paid people to dump cartloads of rubbish here.
The walls begin again at the Red Tower. Constructed quite late in around 1500, after a particularly turbulent period in English history which saw the overthrow of the House of York, it was decided that the edge of this marshy swamp needed to be protected by its own tower. However, as money was short it was constructed from locally sourced brick rather than the usual magnesian limestone which was quarried over ten miles away.
In later centuries the tower fell into a ruinous state and had to be repaired by the Victorians. They also built up the land in this area, so the tower appears about two metres shorter than it was when it was originally constructed.
As mentioned above, Walmgate is the only bar which retains its medieval barbican. A Victorian councillor elected to represent the local ward claimed that the barbican hadn’t been removed and the road not improved because the people here were so poor the authorities didn’t think it would matter. It wasn’t until the 20th century that steps were taken later to improve the area and a programme of slum clearance improved the local housing stock.
It is thought that the many pitted hollows in the walls and the bar were caused by musket and cannon fire during the English Civil War – although some claim this is just the result of natural weathering. Whilst the city was under siege during the conflict, Parliamentarian forces dug a secret tunnel intended to undermine Walmgate Bar itself.
The plan was fill it with gun powder and blow it up, demolishing the bar and breaching York’s defences – a tactic that had been partially succesful on the other side of the city. However, after capturing a Parliamentarian soldier, the Royalists defenders discovered the plot, dug their own shallow tunnel above the attackers’ and flooded it with water. The water found its way into the attackers’ tunnel flooding it too and forced them to abandon their plan.
Fishergate Bar & Postern Tower
Attacked and burned during a peasant revolt against the King’s new taxes in 1489, Fishergate bar was bricked up and remained this way for the next 340 years – you can still see the evidence of the fire in the pink coloured stone in the archway.
Just around the corner is Postern Tower, built to replace an earlier structure around the turn of the 16th century. Overlooking the junction of the rivers Foss and Ouse, Postern Tower guarded the dam that flooded the castle’s moats. If the dam was destroyed the moats would’ve drained making York Castle easier to attack.
The castle itself was originally surrounded by it’s own walled defenses which butted up to Clifford’s Tower. There was another postern on Tower Street – butting up to the other edge of Clifford’s Tower – and the walls extended for a small stretch down to Davy Tower on the edge of the River Ouse.
If you cross the river at Skeldergate Bridge, heading away from York Castle, you can climb back onto the walls at Baile Hill. Although the tower here and the steps are Victorian, the hill itself dates back to Norman times and was the site of a “motte and bailey” style timber castle.
The motte refers to the hill itself atop of which there would’ve been a keep or castle, whilst the bailey was an enclosed and fortified lower area overlooked by the keep. Clifford’s Tower and York Castle were originally built in this configuration and if you visit the tower you can see a scale model of this defensive system.
Continuing along the walls you will find the wonderfully named Bitchdaughter Tower at the next corner. The origins of the name are mysterious but it still raises a smile today. The next gate you will cross is Victoria Bar and as the name suggests this was opened up in the nineteenth century, however, the work revealed that it has been the site of an earlier medieval gate.
The main gate to the south, Micklegate Bar is the place visiting monarchs must pass through when entering the city. There is a curious ritual that is still performed on such an occassion, involving a ceremonial sword and associated pageantry.
Like Monkbar, it had it’s barbican removed in the late Georgian period and you can still see the doors mid-way up that would’ve led out onto this structure. It is now home to the Henry VII Experience – the companion museum to the Richard III Experience – which explores the founding of England’s Tudor dynasty.
Heading away from Micklegate and towards the train station you will see some of the most significant Victorian alterations to the walls. In the age of steam, massive arches were built to allow trains to enter York in the 1840s. The station was then where the council offices are today and it wasn’t until 1877 that a new station was opened outside the city walls.
Just past the station, on the left as you look from the walls, is the site of a graveyard from the 1832 cholera epidemic. Originally a moat, space was at such a premium that it had to be used as a place to bury the dead. Although the graves have no markers, the yew trees – traditional in English graveyards – mark this as a burial site.
Lendal Bridge is the Victorian replacement for the ferry that used to carry traffic across the Ouse at this point. The quaint sandtone towers at either end – now both cafes – date from this period. Crossing it in the direction of the Minster you see will Lendal Tower on your left.
In medieval York a chain would’ve stretched between Lendal Tower and Barker Tower on the opposite bank to prevent visitors by boat trading in the city without paying the necessary taxes (there was a similar chain on the south side of York at Skeldergate Bridge). From the 17th century it was used as a pump house – water was taken from the river and distributed to residents wealthy enough to pay for such a service.
You can follow the line of the walls into the Museum Gardens where you will see the most substantial remains of York’s Roman fortifications. The Multangular Tower and the section of wall leading up to it were part of the north-west corner of the legionary fort.
The tower was reused by later inhabitants of the city, and there are medieval walls – with their distinctive arrow slits – built upon the Roman original. Inside the tower itself you can see stone Roman coffins, more of which can be found dotted around the Museum Gardens.
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Find more Attractions in York in our Things To Do guide.