York is a lot older than it looks. Situated in rolling plains at the heel of the North York Moors, downstream from the glacial valley of the Vale of Pickering, York seems fixed in time as a medieval city with later additions, but its past is much older than that. If you want a quick history to help you plan a trip to York, read on! This article covers everything from prehistory through medieval all the way to modern times, with named buildings/landmarks for you to find from each time period, too!
The city of York has a shorter prehistory than other parts of North Yorkshire, for example Scarborough. There’s nothing of it to see in the city, unfortunately, but the monolith in Rudston, near Bridlington, is one of several places in North and East Yorkshire where you can take a day trip to see some prehistory.
If you love the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron ages, check out these 9 prehistoric day trips you can take from York.
Celtic York (Iron Age)
Nothing really remains from York’s Celtic past but we know about it from the Romans. York was located at the confluence of two Celtic tribes, the Brigantes who occupied much of what are now the counties of North and West Yorkshire, and the smaller Parisi tribe, who occupied what is now East Riding of Yorkshire.
Not much is known about the area that became York at this time, but it was probably a small settlement or trading outpost where the two tribes could exchange goods, since the Parisi’s main town was near what is now Brough, East Riding.
Ptolemy said York was already called Eboracum and under the Brigantes’ control by the time the Romans occupied. He may not be a reliable source since he was a Greek historian who lived in Egypt and had never been to England. His knowledge of Britain likely came from rumours and Roman propaganda, so take it with a pinch of salt.
Celtic buildings were biodegradable, made out of wattle and daub (big stick frames packed with manure reinforced with hay), so it is much harder to find the remains of Celtic settlements than it is to find Roman ones, which incorporated stone.
We get a lot of our information on the Celts from burials. The nearest Celtic burial site includes an incredible chariot burial in Pocklington, which was Parisi controlled. This site is currently being studied and they haven’t decided how to display the discoveries, yet.
The Romans conquered Britain in AD43 after previous, failed attempts. It was 28 more years before they reached York, where they built a fort in the city of Eboracum. It was actually already a settlement (as we have just seen) but the Romans moved in and made it their own, first with a military fort, and then a civilian settlement.
Archaeologists think the Brigantes were originally working with the Romans but dissented over taxation issues, at which point the Brigantes had a short future with a lot of sharp things in it. The Romans took over Eboracum and made it a military outpost. Once the area was at peace, the Romans turned their fort into a walled city, still called Eboracum.
The Romans built the Basilica (administrative civic building with a courthouse) beneath what is now York Minster. We also have evidence of Roman baths, and some remains of other Roman sites in York, but a lot of it is probably built under existing buildings. Where a building is medieval, it is unlikely that we will ever find out what Roman things lay beneath it, because the new building has to be preserved.
Some people say the Multangular tower is Roman but actually only its base is. The council have it listed as built between 1250-70.
There are still Roman remains you can see in York. Check out this article on them!
The Saxons renamed Eboracum to Eoforwic. Influences from this time include place names, such as the nearby Queen Ethelburga’s school. At the time, England was devolved into six kingdoms: Wessex, Essex, Sussex and Kent across the south coast; East Anglia, in modern-day Norfolk; Mercia, in the midlands; and Northumbria in the north. Little remains of this time. During this time, the first York Minster was built in 627. The original building was made of wood. This was replaced by the second Minster, a stone building completed in 637. This was extensively renovated in the 670s and the Minster library and Minster school were founded. This second Minster burned down in 741. Not to be deterred, the Saxons rebuilt it a third time (it was later destroyed again, by marauding Vikings in 1075).
In 866, Ivar the Boneless brought an army of Danes to York. From East Anglia, they moved north through Bernicia and into Deira. In 875-954, the area was mostly controlled by Vikings with the occasional Saxon resurgence. The Vikings quickly established themselves in the area and while they were not even here for a century, they transformed York into England’s second largest city in that time. The old Roman wall was covered with earth and a huge wooden palisade was built on top to make it more effective at keeping people out. Viking coins were minted in York, the title “King of York” was created, and one Viking king (Guthred) was buried in York Minster, and the city was largely at peace again. The Viking rule ended in 954 with the death of Eric Bloodaxe, and the next ruler of York was an Earl, rather than a King, as the warring countries within England all became one large country. The Vikings did return and attempted to take Jorvik again but they did not succeed and the whole area returned to Anglo-Saxon rule for 110 years.
What’s left to see:
Across the river on Bishophill Jr, you can find the church of St Mary Bishophill, a 10th Century church. This is the only building left from this period.
Norman Medieval York
After the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066, York suffered heavy damage during the harrying of the north, a programme aimed at subjugating the last vestiges of resistance to Normandy rule. The land around the city of York was razed, to make it impossible to grow crops there, and 150,000 people died. After starving out the resistance and paying the Danes to leave, William removed all Anglo-Saxon nobles and installed Norman rulers and York was rebuilt mostly the way it is today.
Important buildings you can see from the Norman medieval period include the Minster (current version 4.0) and the remains of York Castle (Clifford’s tower). The ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey in the Museum Gardens is from 1089. St Martin-cum-Gregory church, while it has been altered over the years, still has an 11th century nave which you can see from the outside. Further afield, on Lawrence Street, the 12th century tower of the Old Church of St Lawrence creates a mysterious silhouette in the churchyard of what is now St. Lawrence parish church.
There is also a secret building you can find if you are feeling adventurous. The Norman House is the ruined remains of a twelfth century house. Behind Stonegate, it is unmarked on Google maps. Those in the know will tell you to find an archway on Stonegate to access The Norman House. It’s actually a neat, black door, marked 52A. Presumably, this door was installed to protect the house from the local yoof and potential squatters. Info here.
Plantagenet Medieval York
The house of Plantagenet was a continuous line from William the Conqueror, but not known as such until Richard of York adopted the name. This era spanned 1216 to 1485 and was characterised by a long and bloody feud between the rival branches of the family: The house of Lancaster and the house of York. The city of York wasn’t greatly involved, the house of York was largely York in name only, but some locals do feel a loyalty to these kings – mostly called Richard or Edward – over the rival Lancastrian kings – the Henrys. This turbulent time is known as the War of the Roses, and references to this can still be seen today, as the White Rose of York is now an emblem for the whole of Yorkshire and none of the fighting took place in the city of York, which thrived and finished this era unscathed—by politics.
The Black Death In York
In 1348, The Black Death reached England and spread across the entire country before the end of the following year. It reached York in 1349. Higden of Chester travelled across the north of England and asserted that “scarcely a tenth of the population was left.” By this measure, York fared better than many nearby towns and cities; estimates suggest it lost 30-60% of the population. A more concrete number is difficult to calculate because York actively recruited more citizens from the surrounding rural lands, which added to the population.
The graveyards overflowed and plague victims were buried in huge mass unmarked graves in grassy ditches just outside the walls. An unreliable source suggests these victims were buried in the embankments, and still remain undisturbed, but this is not true. As we have already seen, the embankments cover the Roman walls (and this would be a bizarre way to bury the dead at a time when religious zeal was at its peak). It is far more likely that they were buried below ground level, perhaps where the former moat was.
In some parts of the city, houses and roads either side of the walls make it impossible for there to be undisturbed medieval burials in them. In what remains, it is doubtful the city had the space to bury around 10,000 people around the walls, which calls into question the higher death toll estimates.
Within the city, daily life was a balancing act between waste disposal and grand ideas. On one hand, St. Leonard’s Hospital was the biggest hospital in the North of England (with 225 beds compared to most hospitals having around 20) and the medieval Minster was a great Catholic cathedral. On the other, the streets were swamped with domestic and business waste and sewage, and the water was unsanitary. None of these issues are peculiar to York, however, and are representative of how people understood things during this time.
The evidence shows the presence of leprosy and other diseases in York, but largely health problems were due to poor diet, with iron-deficiency anaemia, joint problems, and rickets commonly found in skeletons from this time. When it comes to medieval hospitals, more is known about the buildings than the people or their ailments/infirmities, and St Leonard’s is no exception.
Things in the city from this time period are plentiful and include: The Merchant Adventurer’s Hall (completed in 1361), which was most recently an almshouse until 1900. The Shambles (the houses you see today date from 1350-1475), a former street of butchers. 2 Jubbergate, at the top of The Shambles, is a fantastic building from the late 14th century. York Barley Hall, a former priory which is now a museum. What you can see of York walls, the third version of the walls, was constructed during the fourteenth century with some accessibility modifications in Victorian times. You can also see the ruins of St Leonard’s hospital (destroyed during Henry VIII’s Reformation) in the Museum Gardens and even venture into its undercroft where there are some displays.
A grand example of the overlap between styles can be seen at St. William’s College, on College Street near the Minster. This impressive half-timbered building was built in the middle of the reign of Edward IV. It was the home of twenty-four priests whose job was to pray for the dead. Later, it became the home of the chantry priests of the Minster. At a first glance it looks Tudor, but the yellow brickwork belies the fact it is older.
The Renaissance in Italy spread to England by the reign of Henry VIII, with ideas such as humanism which would shatter the philosophy underpinning the state. The Reformation and subsequent swinging pendulum between whether the monarchy expected the population to be Catholic or Protestant in any given year caused deep rifts between people that probably began the decline of faith in Britain. Whether this was good or bad depends on your point of view.
Vernacular buildings (houses, shops, and other small projects) in Tudor York were timber-framed, with the wooden beams exposed on the outside of the building. The first floor often projected further into the street than the floor below, and many Tudor buildings were famous for their black-and-white effect between the dark timbers and the white daub between it. The roofs had a steep pitch and leaded glass windows, to avoid Henry VIII’s glass tax. Some buildings were brick-built rather than timbered.
You can see Tudor buildings in York at King’s Manor (the king in question being Henry VIII), A home built in the reign of Henry VII at 31 North Street (designated “Church Cottages” but this name isn’t findable on Google). 7, 8, 12, 12a, 41 and 42 The Shambles are also from the same time period as are 85-89 Micklegate.
For Elizabethan-era buildings, Mulberry Hall on Stonegate is exactly what people imagine when they think of Tudor buildings. Heslington Hall (about 2.5 miles out from the city centre) is a grand example of “high architecture” of the time, but you can’t go inside as it’s part of the University of York’s admin buildings. King’s Manor is older, more accessible and very impressive, situated between the Yorkshire Museum and the Art Gallery.
After the Tudors
The House of Stuart ruled England from 1603 to the eighteenth century, a time of great turbulence. During the Civil War, York’s walls had to defend the city as it became a Royalist stronghold, with the ousted King Charles even holding court in York after London became untenable. Soon, Republican forces marched on the city and laid siege to it. The Royalist army based at York burned the east side of the city down to buy time keeping the Republicans out. The city was badly damaged by the siege, which is why there is a sudden shift from ancient monuments to modern buildings in the east.
Financially, York struggled during this period, especially as the many soldiers in the city were waiting on back pay. A gunpowder explosion in 1684 destroyed York Castle, leaving only what exists today. This ended York’s military power for the time being.
There are a few Jacobean buildings, from the reign of King James I/VI, which look identical to the Tudor style but more dowdy. Examples include St Anthony’s Hall (also known as The Hospital of St Anthony) on Peasholme Green; 28, 30 and 32 Coppergate; the Dutch House at 9 Ogleforth; 35 Stonegate.
After the repressive Puritanism and troubled times of the seventeenth century, the eighteenth brought back abundance, optimism and refinement to the city. The glass tax had been abolished and windows became ginormous. Ceilings also got higher, as new building methods using fired bricks transformed architecture and design. Buildings became light and spacious.
In York, the century began with the debtor’s prison opening in the severely-damaged York Castle in 1705. In 1740, York finally got a hospital again – the first since St. Leonard’s was ruined during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The industrial revolution of 1760 largely bypassed the city. Where other northern towns such as Leeds and Bradford were transformed during this time, York was already a profitable city, its residents were largely gainfully employed in skilled industries which couldn’t be streamlined by factories yet, and only a handful of factories appeared over the next century and a half.
Barely touched by time, York’s city centre remained the same as ever, adding grand buildings to the streets but no slums or factories. Science came to York, and one notable scientist was the astronomer John Goodricke, the namesake of one of the University of York’s colleges.
The first factory industry to come to York was in 1824, when the York Gas Light Company, who made lights powered by gas, founded their factory in Layerthorpe. Nothing remains of this. An iron foundry was set up inside the walls at Dixon’s Yard, Walmgate in 1837.
In 1829, tragedy hit the Minster when an arsonist motivated by religious delusions set fire to the building. The choir and the roof of the nave (the main length of the cross-shaped Minster) were severely damaged. Another fire in 1840 completely destroyed the roof and extensive repairs had to be made.
In two separate endeavours, Mary Tuke and Joseph Rowntree, whose families were well-acquainted, opened grocery stores in the 1820s. Mary Tuke developed a successful family cocoa business which was bought out by Henry Isaac Rowntree in 1862. When he got into financial difficulties, his older brother Joseph Rowntree invested, paving the way for York’s main industry for the next hundred and fifty years—confectionery.
A second confectionery company—Terry’s, of the chocolate oranges—predates Rowntree. Terry’s was founded in York in 1797, by Bayldon and Berry. Joseph Terry, Berry’s son-in-law, took over the family business in 1821 and, with his qualifications and experience as a pharmacist, created fruit sweets, candied peel, cough sweets and other medicinal sweets. Later, his successor, son Joseph Terry Jr, launched a line of cocoa products. The famous Chocolate Works on Bishopthorpe Road beside the racecourse dates to 1923, and you can still see it today, although it closed in 2005 when production moved abroad.
Other major developments to York in the nineteenth century include the railway. The line was first constructed in 1842, but the station, with its famous late Victorian architectural style similar to the old St. Pancras Station, was not built until 1877.
Industry wasn’t the only thing that transformed nineteenth-century York; between 1829-1851, the cholera epidemic plaguing Britain also deeply affected York. You can visit the York Cholera Graves on Station Road, in a graveyard just outside the walls en-route to the railway station. The outbreak was so severe, and people were so afraid of it, that the city stopped funeral processions taking place along narrow roads, in an attempt to halt the spread. Outdoor funerals were also mandated. These measures caused an uproar amongst people at a time when giving people a “proper send-off” had become almost an art-form and very specific etiquette and customs were usually observed. Fear of contagion caused widespread anxiety, which led to rioting, and in some cases, angry, frightened citizens threw coffins of the deceased into the river.
Where to see York’s nineteenth century past
The Terry’s confectionery shop is in St. Helen’s Square, opposite Betty’s. The business inside it has long-since changed to a high street store, but the building still has a fresco between floors two and three which says “Terry’s” on it. The Cholera Graves are still maintained by York Council and are beside the walls, across the road from the Memorial Garden on Station Road. The railway station is also on Station Road (funnily enough), and if you ascend the bridge between platforms, you can get a good view of the original construction of the roof.
Of the factories founded in the nineteenth century, only one building remains—the Nestle factory, formerly the Rowntree factory, out in New Earswick. However, the “Morrisons Chimney” (real name: The Destructor) still stands, alone and without any context or even a memorial plaque. It was the 55m high (180 feet) chimney stack used as part of the incinerator for destroying the city’s waste.
This area was still the old city tip a hundred years later, in the 1990s. The chimney was situated near where the city’s small, original power station was built, but the power station, and most of York’s industrial heritage, was destroyed in the early 2000s. It seems very ironic that York should know the value of the past better than anywhere, and yet they so readily threw an entire chapter of theirs away to make room for a shopping park on Foss Islands Road/Jewbury.
York’s modern history is easy to spot because it really stands out among the backdrop of the mostly historic buildings! From the car park on Stonebow which is a controversially ugly example of 1960s brutalist architecture (and which isn’t a listed building, despite rumours to the contrary), to the war memorial and memorial garden near the train station, the past hundred-and-twenty years did not leave York untouched.