Home   York Garrison   Garrison   Article

History of York

By SPP Reporter

History of York

The Romans founded York in AD 71. They built a legionary fortress on the easily defended site at the junction of two rivers, and the town which grew up around it became the capital of one of the two provinces into which they divided Britain. The occupation lasted some 400 years.

York’s religious pre-eminence in the north of England was established in the Anglo-Saxon period. Since 664 there has been a bishop in York and it has had an archbishop from 735. The Vikings made Jorvik – from which the name York derives – their principal town in England, and left an indelible mark on the face of the city in the pattern of its streets and their names.

After 1066, William the Conqueror, like the Romans, realised the strategic importance of the city and re-established it as a military centre, building two castles to control the rivers. The most important legacy of the Normans was their religious foundations. Many hospitals, chapels and churches were rebuilt and St Mary’s Abbey was founded in this period.

The next 200 to 300 years were York’s golden age. It was a favourite city of kings and queens and the presence there from time to time of parliament and the royal courts stamped it as the second city in England. It was, together with London, Bristol and Norwich, one of the largest cities in the country and indeed one of the richest, making a big tax contribution to the king.

York’s prosperity during the early Middle Ages was based on the wool industry, for whereas many cities in the north of England exported wool to be made into cloth abroad. York became a centre where wool was dyed and woven into cloth which was then exported to Europe.

The trade to and from the city was largely in the hands of the Merchant Adventurers’ Company whose magnificent hall is one of the splendours of the city. York was a port long before Hull, and its rivers the Ouse and the Foss have always played a major role in its history.

It was not until the Ouse began to silt up in the early fifteenth century that the city’s fortunes began to decline. But paradoxically it was during this period, when it was living off its fat, that some of the great buildings – the Minster, the guildhalls and the parish churches – were built. York remained essentially a market town, which ensured its survival throughout the next two centuries.

During the Civil War the city played a major role in history when loyal – as always – to the sovereign it was besieged by parliamentary forces for three months, its surrender marking the end of the King’s power in the north. But the leaders of the parliamentary forces,

Lord Fairfax and his son Sir Thomas Fairfax, ensured the city did not suffer for its support of the King, giving strict orders that nothing was to be destroyed, so York’s unique churches and stained glass were preserved.

By now the city had lost its pre-eminence in England but its revival came in the eighteenth century when the nobility of the county built their town houses there and it became a centre for their social activities. The Georgian legacy of architecture, as exemplified in the Assembly Rooms and Fairfax House, is a significant part of the York scene.

In the nineteenth century the coming of the railway was followed by the development of the chocolate industry with the Rowntree and Terry businesses, giving York a sound economic foundation.

The city’s importance as a regional centre was further demonstrated by its being chosen as the site of one of the new universities in 1962.

Walls and Gates

Not only do York’s walls still almost completely encircle the medieval city, but they are raised on a high earth mound, providing a wonderful viewing platform for people who walk along them.

Built during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the walls are nearly three miles (5 km) long, the circuit broken only for a stretch at Foss Island Road, where from Norman to Victorian times there was a great lake known as the King’s Fishpond which served as a natural defence.

The medieval walls stand in places on Roman foundations and also contain Anglo Saxon work. Like the Minster, they are built of magnesium limestone, quarried at Tadcaster, some nine miles (14 km) from York, from where it was brought by river.

It takes between two and three hours to walk round the walls, which have interval towers with names such as Robin Hood Tower and Bitchdaughter Tower, and are pierced by all the original gateways – Bootham Bar, Micklegate Bar, Monk Bar and Walmgate Bar.

The word ‘bar’ is possibly derived from ‘barrier’ and is not unique to York. Originally all four York gates had barbicans, or fortified extensions, but only the one at Walmgate Bar survives. One of the gateways, Monk Bar, was in the sixteenth century also used as a prison.

Known traditionally as the Bar Walls, York’s walls have survived into the twentieth century largely untouched. Their chief enemy was, sadly, the city council, which in the early nineteenth century demolished three of the four barbicans despite a plea by Sir Walter Scott who said that he would walk from Edinburgh to York if he could save the one at Micklegate Bar. But the council was prevented from demolishing the walls themselves by strongly expressed local opinion and by an Archbishop of York who successfully sued the city council for the loss of tolls which could have been collected during the Lammastide Fair at a lesser gate which had been demolished.

The Minster

York Minster is one of the great cathedrals of England. It is the largest cathedral north of the Alps and a veritable treasure-house of stained glass.

The earliest building on the site was a wooden church specially built in 627 for King Edwin of Northumbria, a convert to Christianity who was baptised there. The church was rebuilt in stone following his death in 632.

A Norman cathedral of enormous scale, though smaller than the present one, was later built on the site; its remains can still be seen in the crypt of the Minster.

The present building was started in 1220 by Archbishop Walter de Gray who built the south transept, literally challenging his successors to build to the same scale, which happily they did, the whole building being completed some 250 years later in

1472. The archbishop’s tomb can still be seen in the south transept. Although there were many changes in architectural fashion while the Minster was being built, the styles blend harmoniously together to form a building of great beauty.

Curiously, fires have played a significant role in the Minster’s development. The earliest one was in 741, followed by others in 764, 1137, 1829, which destroyed the choir, 1840, which destroyed the nave, and 1984, which destroyed the roof of the south transept.

The Minster’s superb collection of stained glass is contained in 128 windows which cover the development of stained glass over a period of 800 years, making it unique in Europe. The collection of fourteenth and fifteenth century glass is the finest of its time.

The glass in the seven windows, which mainly dates from the thirteenth century, and the stalls with their exquisite carvings make the chapter house one of the great glories of the city.

As well as its major features the Minster contains a great deal else to give pleasure. The bosses in the roof of the nave are of particular interest, each telling part of the Bible story. The south transept, the roof of which was destroyed by the 1984 fire, includes bosses based on designs by children who responded to an invitation on the Blue Peter television programme. These, and indeed the windows of the Minster, call for the use of binoculars if their true glories are to be revealed.

Streets & Alleys

York’s streets and alleys have a wealth of detail and all are in a fine state of preservation, forming a rich, colourful backdrop against which the major monuments are set.

Little altered since medieval times, the streets and alleys are a constant joy to wander along, particularly since cars are usually banned from most of the historic heart of the city. Many of the names of the streets end in ‘gate’ and this gives a clue to their history. Gate comes from ‘gata’, the Scandinavian name for a street or a way,emphasising the influence of the Viking occupation on the city.

York’s medieval street pattern includes scores of little passageways, now known as snickelways, which were the short cuts taken by townsfolk. The word snickelway derives from a mixture of snicket, ginnel and alleyway, terms in the north of England for passageways. They now have fascinating names such as Pope’s Head Alley, Horn Pot Lane, Black Horse Passage, Coffee Yard, and Finkle Street – formerly called Mucky Peg Lane.

Undoubtedly York’s most popular street, the Mecca forall visitors, is the Shambles, the classic medieval street. It was one of the first streets to be conserved as a whole, the forerunner of present-day conservation areas.

Two roads follow the line of Roman roads through the city. Stonegate, a highway for over 1900 years, was the Via Praetoria leading to the Roman fortress and is so called because it was originally a stone-paved street – and not, as is popularly supposed, because the stone for the Minster was brought along this way, though it was.

Petergate, lying roughly on the line of the Romans’ Via Principalis, is named after the patron saint of the Minster, St Peter. Both Stonegate and Petergate contain architecture of all ages from Norman to late Victorian times with little lamentable intrusion from the twentieth century.

While strolling along the old streets of York look above the shop fronts at their windows and under the eaves to see interesting architectural details which sometimes give clues to the buildings’ histories, for example by revealing the date of the building and the initials of the owner. The best time to enjoy the streets of York and to experience its medieval atmosphere is after dark when the crowds have gone.


York Castle Museum

The fascinating York Castle Museum features Victorian and Edwardian streets full of shops, the prison cell of highwayman Dick Turpin and many other extraordinary items. Do not miss Chocolate! the mouth watering new exhibition.

York Minster

York Minster is the largest Gothic Cathedral in Northern Europe and a must for all visitors to York. A visit to the Central Tower offers excellent views over the city.

The Foundations Museum under the Minster shows how the present building was constructed on the site of a Norman Cathedral, which was itself built on a Roman Fort.

Jorvik Viking Centre

Deep beneath the pavements of modern York, archaeologists have uncovered what Viking life was really like. Now you too can journey back 1000 years to experience Jorvik, its atmosphere, sounds and smells. Viking timber houses can be seen where they were actually found, and hundreds of artefacts from excavations on this very site are on display. In historic York, the past is all around you. Only at Jorvik

Viking Centre is the spirit of the Vikings held captive for all time.

Original Ghost Walk of York

An opportunity to discover the hidden magic of ancient York on the world’s first Ghost Walk. Featured world wide ie Judith Charmers 1992, Valerie Singleton 1993, SKY 1996 and 1997, Jeff Watson 1998. Our Yorkshire guides are county (Blue Badge) City or Equity qualified (one with a Degree in Yorkshire History). AD FINEM

The Yorkshire Museum

Celebrate 1000 years of our region’s heritage at the Yorkshire Museum. Through our rare collections explore Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval life in Yorkshire.

Discover the underwater world of Jurassic times in the ‘Hunters and Hunted’ gallery. Also watch out for our exciting temporary exhibitions which are advertised from time to time throughout the year.


Get on a YorkBoat and see the sights of York whatever the weather. One hour guided river trips sail throughout the day (February-November) from Lendal Bridge and King’s Staith. Enjoy our Floodlit Evening Cruise or YorkBoat Ghost Cruise.

National Railway Museum

Nowhere tells the incredible story of the train better than the National Railway Museum. From Rocket to Eurostar, it is the world’s biggest railway museum – taking you from the giants of steam age in two great exhibition halls – to a miniature railway ride for the whole family. Interactive displays and acclaimed exhibitions like ‘Palaces on Wheels’, which reveal the secrets of royal travel, bring it dramatically to life. Young or old, you will discover just how much railways have affected people’s everyday lives in a fun-packed day.

York Dungeon

Catch the PLAGUE at York Dungeon! Take a spine-tingling tour round the plague-ravaged streets of fourteenth century York in the company of our grisly guides.

And that is just the start! You can plot with Guy Fawkes, follow Dick Turpin on his way to the gallows and meet the ghostly reincarnations of long-dead Roman legionnaires!

Clifford’s Tower

Experience this proud testament to York’s Medieval Castle, enjoy wonderful views of Historic York and uncover a shameful and bloody past. Originally constructed as the central keep of the castle, built by Henry III.

York City Art Gallery

Six hundred years of European painting, from early Italian gold-ground panels to the art of the twentieth century. The collection includes pictures by Bellotto, Reynolds, Lowry and Nash. An outstanding collection of studio pottery. Varied and exciting exhibition programme.


Ryedale is a farming area to the north of York and south of the North York Moors, taking its name from the River Rye, the main tributary of the River Derwent.

Discover Ryedale pure Yorkshire, bounded by the spectacular scenery of the North York Moors and the gently rolling Yorkshire Wolds. Explore the grandeur of stately homes, the majestic ruins of abbeys and castles, the splendid museums of rural life and modern history, idyllic rural villages, family fun parks and forest drives. Take a steam hauled journey into the moors or explore Ryedale’s vibrant cultures and living heritage. Enjoy walking, horse riding, mountain biking, children’s activities and more. Near to York and the Heritage Coast, the unspoilt splendour of Ryedale is the ideal touring base for the rest of the best of Yorkshire!

Ryedale Folk Museum

Museum of the year 1995. Yorkshire’s leading open air museum. Twelve buildings all with displays set in two and a half acres, including the oldest photographic studio in the country, Elizabethan Manor House, thatched cottages, farm and craft buildings, village shop and post office, regular craft displays.

Yorkshire Dales

The Yorkshire Dales are famous for breathtaking tranquil scenery, a patchwork of walled fields; dramatic limestone fells; unspoilt villages; lively market towns, ancient castles and abbeys; fascinating museums; beautiful gardens; underground caves; steam railways; an array of family attractions; craft workshops; open farms; agricultural shows and festivals. Above all, the Yorkshire Dales are a paradise for walkers and those who enjoy outdoor activities including cycling, fishing and riding.

The Yorkshire Dales, where a warm welcome and an abundance of friendly accommodation awaits you.

Scarborough, Whitby and Filey

Scarborough – The jewel in the crown, spectacular seaside – the superb holiday contrast.

Whitby – Maritime town, fishing port and seafarer’s haven, unspoilt, bursting with character and quite unique.

Filey – An Edwardian gem, a family flavour and one of the most beautiful beaches in the country.

The three resorts have splendid settings each with a beauty of its own, with so much more beyond and between including the dramatic North Yorkshire Moors. If you have not discovered us yet – what are you waiting for?

Bridlington and the East Coast

Forty miles of beautiful sandy beaches offering top class resorts and a host of attractions. Buzzing Bridlington, the largest and liveliest, has well-managed beaches and a packed programme of entertainment to make it the ideal resort for all the family. Just north of Bridlington, the breathtaking Heritage Coast includes some of the tallest cliffs in the country, a haven for thousands of seabirds. Further south, down the Holderness coast, there are the quieter resorts of Hornsea and Withernsea.

Malton and Norton

Formally a Roman settlement, Malton is a busy market town on one bank of the River Derwent. Across the river and separated by the York – Scarborough main railway line, is Norton, a thriving town with great horseracing connections.

Flamingo Land Theme Park and Zoo

There is endless fun for all the family at Flamingo Land Theme Park and Zoo at a price that will not break the bank. One entrance price gives you unlimited access to over 100 attractions including thrilling rides like the terrorflying Terroriser, the Bullet roller coaster and the Top Gun, children’s attractions and family entertainment shows, all set in 375 acres of country parkland. There is also over 150 different species of animals in the zoo, many of which are rare or endangered. And if you cannot fit everything into one day, you could take a short break at the Flamingo Land Holiday Village.

Eden Camp Modern History Theme Museum

A visit to the unique museum will transport you back in time to wartime Britain. Experience the sights, the sounds and even the smells of those dangerous years. Relive the civilian way of life during World War Two. A new attraction ‘The Museum within a Museum’, more of the military and political aspects of the war, year by year. Allow 4 hours plus for a visit. Yorkshire Tourist Board White Rose Award for Tourism winner 1992, 1995, 1996 and 1998. Yorkshire’s Visitor Attraction of the year 1998.

Pickering and Thornton Dale

Pickering is a busy market town that once straddled the A170 which links the Vale of York with the east coast but now stands to one side. It is the home base of the popular North Yorkshire Moors Railway. Thornton Dale is a pretty village to the east of Pickering with a famous row of cottages alongside the stream which flows through the middle of the village. Both have several tourist attractions and are popular bases for exploring the North York Moors.

North Yorkshire Moors Railway

Enjoy an 18 mile journey on the country’s favourite steam railway, between Pickering and Grosmont near Whitby, through the heart of the North York Moors National Park. The route offers outstanding scenery with sweeping moorland, woodlands, waterfalls and the beautiful Newton Dale valley. Stop off at Levisham, Newton Dale Halt or Goathland and explore a waymarked walk, or travel in style with pre-booked lunch or dinner aboard our dining trains.

Helmsley and Ampleforth

Helmsley is the major market town of north west Ryedale, a position it has occupied since Norman times, its busy market square, surrounded by shops, pubs, and hotels, is overlooked by the ruins of its splendid castle. Ampleforth is home to England’s premier Catholic boys’ school as well as the famous Ampleforth Abbey.

Helmsley Castle

Venture beyond magnificent double earthworks and into a spectacular twelfth century fortress. Enter the more modern Tudor Manor with exhibition.

Rievaulx Abbey

Explore the dramatic and extensive remains of the largest monastic establishment in Britain. Magnificent examples of English Gothic Architecture in a beautiful setting. Take an audiotour of the soaring ruins. Extensive gift shop

Castle Howard

Castle Howard is Yorkshire’s finest historic house, set in spectacular landscaped grounds it remains the home of the Howard family, and today is lived in by the Hon. Simon & Mrs Howard with their children Merlin and Octavia. The stunning 18th Century house will inspire you with its magnificent architecture and collections, and the gardens will delight visitors of all ages with breathtaking landscape and endless opportunites to roam. Castle Howard also offers a first class shopping experience, which includes an award-winning farm shop and café, a plant centre, chocolate shop, gift shops and bookshop. A choice of 4 cafés including our award-winning courtyard café serving refreshments & meals throughout the day. Seasonal boat trips on the great lake and the lakeside adventure playground will entertain children, along with children’s quiz sheets, school holiday adventure trails and workshops.

North Riding Forest Park

Enjoy the Forest Experience by taking one of the forest drives – rugged wildness of Newtondale or the varied habitats of Dalby. Both drives have picnic places and waymarked trails to suit all abilities. Wheelchair facilities are provided in the toilets at Dalby and Staindale (open all year round).

Beck Isle Museum of Rural Life

No visit to Pickering is complete without visiting Beck Isle Museum. Housed in a Regency mansion it holds interest for all the family. Twenty-four rooms packed with collections from the Victorian era. Visit typical rooms, shops and workshops of that period. Display of old farming equipment

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies - Learn More