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Walking the Walls of York

Published
May 27, 2022
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The location of York in relation to the local nature parks, and the former rival city of Lancaster in the west. For scale, Lancaster is about 112 km or 70 miles westward of York. Map data ©2022 Google, north at top.

AFTER Tadcaster, I arrived in the ancient walled city of York, historically the second most important city in England after London, though it is much smaller than London now.

The City of York and its suburbs. The modern city (inside the red boundary) is about 10 km or six and a half miles across by its longest dimension. Map data ©2022 Google, north at top.

York also has 3.4 kilometres or more than two miles of city walls, still in good condition.

Detail from an information panel about the city walls

‘A map of York, England by Guy Speed from 1611’. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

The city walls distinguish York from a lot of other cities and speak to a violent past. York was founded by the Romans in 71 CE as a bastion against the northern barbarians, that is to say, my Scottish ancestors. And that was when the first set of walls was built.

Remnants of the walls

More of the walls

The walls originated with the Romans, and were then added to

A section of the walls by one of the rivers that flows through the city, either the Ouse or the Foss

Three Roman emperors, Hadrian, who built Hadrian’s Wall against the Scots, Septimius Severus who attempted to conquer the Scots without success, and Constantine the First, who founded Constantinople and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, all held court in York at various times! The walls that you can see today have Roman brickwork at the bottom and later mediaeval additions on top.

Here are a couple of photos of the ten-sided ‘multangular tower’ in the city’s Museum Gardens, showing the contrast between Roman brick and mediaeval blocks.

The Roman Fortifications showing wall and Multangular Tower in Museum Gardens York’, photo by Kaly99, 30 July 2007 (original upload date), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The same tower. This photo gives a clearer view of the cross-shaped mediaeval arrow-slits.

The additions were needed because, in the Middle Ages, York became the headquarters of the ‘Yorkist’ faction which fought a massive civil war against the ‘Lancastrians’, from Lancaster, 112 km or 70 miles to the west, for the crown of England. The symbol of York was a red rose and the symbol of Lancaster was a white rose, so the wars, the bloodiest ever fought in England, were called the Wars of the Roses.

The Wars of the Roses raged from 1455 until 1487 and were the real-life inspiration for Game of Thrones. Even the name Westeros comes from a real place in Scotland called Wester Ross.

The male lines of both the Yorkist and Lancastrian factions were completely wiped out. A Welsh family, the Tudors, then took over the vacant English throne. The Tudors were followed by the Stuarts from Scotland and then by the Hanoverians (later, the House of Windsor) from Germany. So, all English monarchs since the Wars of the Roses have been descended from foreigners.

The skeleton of Richard III, the last English king from either of the warring factions, was found just lately under a modern carpark in the city of Leicester, between London and Nottingham.

There was a big furore as to whether they were going to bury him there or not, with some saying he should be reburied in York Minster, the great cathedral in York (since he was a Yorkist), while others favoured Westminster Abbey. In the end, Richard III was reburied in Leicester Cathedral. There is now a King Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester, which I must check out at some future date.

In between the time of the Romans and all this mediaeval mayhem, York served for a time as the capital of a region called the Danelaw, part of a Danish-cum-Viking empire which controlled most of the lands bordering the North Sea in those days. The following map of the Danelaw and neighbouring regions also shows the location of Leicester, incidentally.

England and Wales in 878 CE. Graphic by Hel-hama, 13 June 2012, attested ultimate source ‘The Atlas of European History’, Earle W Dowe (d. 1946), G Bell and Sons, London, 1910. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

What you can also see from the map above is that, while it is well inland these days, York was actually on the coast back then. It was certainly accessible to shallow boats such the Viking longships, at any rate. So too, further south, was the future university town of Cambridge.

Large areas of today’s England were reclaimed from the sea in later generations, in much the same way as in the Netherlands, though the parallel efforts of the English to gain more land are far less well-known.

The Romans called York Eboracum and the Anglo-Saxons called the town Eoforwic, but the Danes called it Jórvík, a name that gradually turned into York.

There are many legacies of the Danish, or Viking, era in York, including the way that the names of some streets end in -gate, after the old Norse word for street or path, even though in standard English the same word has been turned around ninety degrees to mean something that blocks the way.

Some nearby towns such as Grimsby and Whitby also have names ending in -by, meaning town in the old Norse. These are names that would not be out of place in Sweden or in any of the lands of the old Danish, or Anglo-Danish, North Sea Empire, which at its maximum extent in the early 1000s incorporated nearly the whole of England, as well as Denmark, Norway, and bits of today’s Sweden. All the same, the really Scandinavian influence, and influence on dialects, was only seen in the north of England and Scotland, and not in the south.

The Anglo-Danish North Sea Empire late in the reign of Cnut (d. 1035 CE), king of all three kingdoms of England, Denmark and Norway from 1028 to 1035 CE. Graphic by Hel-hama, 11 June 2012, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The actual gates in York’s city walls are called ‘bars’ and there are four main bars, the Bootham Bar, the Micklegate Bar, the Monk Bar, and the Walmgate Bar, the last of which still retains its barbicans, or round defence towers from which arrows could be fired at anyone trying to push open the gate with a battering ram (those were the days!).

From time to time the heads of rebels and traitors were displayed on pikes at the Bootham Bar. The last time this happened was when the heads of three rebels who had opposed the restoration of the English monarchy, after Oliver Cromwell, were displayed in 1663.

Bootham Bar

Building displaying the coat of arms of Charles I

Monk Bar Information Panel

Monk Bar

I stayed for one night at the York YHA. It was great: warm and clean, just fifteen minutes from town, with its own café.

YHA York

I also went on a tour of the town, conducted by a voluntary guide association. I believe that they have been doing this for seventy years.

The tour started in Exhibition Square at the statue of William Etty, who is honoured as the saviour of the city’s walls.

The Statue of William Etty


The York Art Gallery, in Exhibition Square. The statue of William Etty can be glimpsed at left.

You can see from some of the photos that I took on my tour that the streets in the old quarter are very narrow and cramped. It is full of alleyways, known locally as simpleways.

A little alleyway or ‘simpleway’ past Monk Bar, showing the Monk Bar Model Shop.

Note the buildings that poke out above the street, or alley: classic mediaeval use of airspace

As England’s population grew, so did resentment against this cramping of the inner city. By the early 1800s was a push to demolish the city walls and replace them with some kind of a ring-shaped park or boulevard across which the city could easily spread, while at the same time improving the supply of fresh air to the inner city.

This was a common idea at the time and one that was carried out in many other cities, including Vienna and London.

However, in York, the idea of demolishing the city walls was strongly resisted. Various romantic types, including William Etty, who was by trade a painter of historical scenes, insisted that the walls be kept for history’s sake.

Wiliam Etty, ‘The World Before the Flood’: a painting relevant once more in the era of climate change, I suspect. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

And so, the walls were kept, though three out of the four sets of barbicans were demolished leaving only the one at Bootham Bar, and some additional holes were knocked in the walls to enable the creation of new streets and railway lines. A set of pathways was also built on top of the walls for public enjoyment. Later on, the barbican at Micklegate Bar was restored. Even more heads of rebels and traitors were displayed from here in years past, one on a spike for as long as nine years, as this was historically the most important ‘bar’ of all. The last rotting head on a spike at Micklegate was only removed as late as 1754, well into the Age of Enlightenment.

The Victorian pathway on top of the wall, leading to what I think is the tower of Mickelgate Bar

The restored tower of Micklegate Bar from the front

My next post will continue the tour of York, and show much more of the city!

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