York Stories and Tips

Overview of the City of York

York Photo, York, England

For 150 years tourists have flocked to York as it has much to offer. We made our way there in March. It is a no hassle place with all the attraction clustered in the city centre in what was the medieval town. For 2000 years York has played a leading role in England’s history. Even without its crowning glory, a cathedral of breath-taking grandeur, it would be a city of outstanding beauty, interest and ageless charm as the shortest of strolls can testify.

The 9th Roman Legion founded the city in 71 AD. They erected a wooden fortress on level ground above the River Ouse close to its confluence with the River Foss. The fortress, later rebuilt in stone, covered 50 acres (20 ha) and barracked 6,000 soldiers. Significant traces of the Roman city have survived, the most spectacular being the base of the Multangular Tower which formed the westward corner of the legionary fortress. York has more miles of intact wall than any other city in England. Most of the remaining walls encircling the medieval town date from the 12th - 14th century.

York declined in the post-Roman era until taken by the Angles in the 5th century. In the 7th century York became the chief city of the Anglian King Edwin of Northumbria. The city came to be the episcopal, and later, royal centre of the Kingdom of Northumbria.

Vikings from Denmark captured the city in 866 AD. Under their rule the city known as Jovik became a major river port, part of the extensive Viking trading routes throughout northern Europe. King Edred drove the last ruler of an independent Jorvik, Eric Bloodaxe, from the city in the year 954 while completing unifying England. In 1973, during excavations in Coppergate to deepen the vaults of a bank, links with the Vikings appeared. They included three timber buildings preserved in the wet peaty subsoil and many examples of Scandinavian craftsmanship.

In 1068, two years after the Norman Conquest of England, the people of York rebelled. Initially the rebellion was successful but on the arrival of William the Conqueror the rebels stood no chance. He at once built two wooden fortresses on mottes, which are still visible, on either side of the river Ouse.

Fire badly damaged the first stone Minster church in the uprising and the Normans later decided to build a new Minster on a new site. Around the year 1080 Archbishop Thomas started building a cathedral that in time became the current Minster. In the Middle Ages York grew as a major wool trading centre and the ecclesiastical capital of the northern province of England. York's location halfway between the capitals of London and Edinburgh means that it has long had a significant position in the nation's transport system. One of the most notable legacies of the period is the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall built by the oldest and most powerful of the city’s many guilds.

In 1644, during the Civil War, the Parliamentarians besieged York, and destroyed many medieval houses outside the city walls. The garrison surrendered but fortunately the terms included a promise the victors would not desecrate the Minster or any of the other churches.

In 1660 with Charles II regaining his father’s throne the garrison from York became unnecessary. In 1688 it left and the city became dominated by the local gentry and merchants, although the clergy were still important. Competition from the nearby cities of Leeds and Hull, combined with silting of the River Ouse, resulted in York losing its dominant position as a trading centre. The city's role, however, as the social and cultural centre for wealthy northerners was on the rise. York's many elegant townhouses, such as the Lord Mayor's Mansion House and Fairfax House (now owned by York Civic Trust) date from this period, as do the Assembly Rooms, the Theatre Royal, and the Racecourse.

The railways saved York from stagnation. Rail travel was still in its infancy when the first train left York in 1839. In 1840 the first train ran direct from York to London. By the 1850s, there were 13 trains a day between the two cities, carrying 341,000 passengers a year. In 1877 a new station, the largest in the country, opened to cope with the numbers. By 1888 there were 294 trains arriving daily.

Tourism boomed: within two years of the first train steaming into York, excursions to the historic city were arriving from Manchester, Nottingham and London. Theatre goers came from miles around to see productions at the Theatre Royal, rebuilt four times in the 19th century. Two Fine Art and Industrial exhibitions in 1860 and 1879, at York Art Gallery, attracted nearly 870,000 people due to the new mass mobility of the railway age. The railways also brought heavy industry to the city for the first time. Fittingly Britain’s railway heritage is on display at the National Railway Museum in York.

As well the Yorkshire Museum, the Castle Museum, the Railway Museum, the Guildhall parts of York itself is almost a museum. The Shambles and Stonegate are among the best preserved medieval streets in Europe.

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