The History of York
Through the last two millennia the history of York is captured in its changing name as different groups built and controlled it. For the Romans it was Eboracum, probably derived from the Celtic tribes who called it after the yew trees growing there – yew in their language being perhaps Evor or Ebor. When they left it became Caer Ebrauc, capital of its region; when the Angles and Saxons arrived it changed to Eoforwic, the sound obviously linked, but the meaning now supposedly “boar town”. To the Norsemen who ruled it for almost a century it was Jorvik (“horse town”). And eventually for the Normans as for us the city became York.
Evidence of human habitation in the area has been found signifying man’s presence by at the latest 6,000 years BC, fertile strips of land among the largely heavy soils of the area supporting small settlements, or perhaps nomadic groups. As ever in early history rivers drew people to them – in this case the Ouse and the Foss – providing transport routes, food in the form of fish, and of course water; but also offering some defensive protection.
It was this defensive aspect which drew the Romans. After the breakdown of their initial cooperation with the Brigantes (the tribes controlling what would become Northern England and parts of Scotland) the Romans invaded and conquered the region. In about 71 AD they constructed a basic fortress which at its peak garrisoned over 5,000 soldiers, firstly housing the Legio IX Hispana, and later the Legio VI Victrix. The large troop numbers attracted craftsmen and merchants to serve them, thus a major trading centre grew up in Eboracum – evidence of Roman glass-working, tanning, pottery and metal-working have been discovered in and around York. The wooden and turf fort was replaced by stone walls, some still visible today, as the settlement grew in importance, becoming the capital of Britannia Inferior and by about 237AD a ‘colonia’, a city of some status.
The importance of York to Rome is shown by its imperial links: Septimius Severus was based there from 208AD to his death from pneumonia in the city in 211AD, campaigning against the unruly tribes beyond Hadrian’s Wall – and Hadrian himself had lived in the city for a time previously. Later Constantine I would die during a visit to Eboracum, his son Constantine the Great proclaimed his successor by the troops there.
As a colonia Eboracum became a focal point of the Roman road system in Britain: Ermine Street linked it with London to the south; Dere Street led north to Catterick (Cataractornium) and beyond it to Hadrian’s Wall, and at the height of Roman conquest to the Antonine Wall further north still. In the 4th century Christianity had come to York, shown by the presence of one Eborius as a delegate at the 314AD Council of Arles.
With the Romans the four great and interwoven threads of York’s history were established: it was a place of military significance; a trading hub; a major transport point; and a religious centre.
After the Romans left in the early 5th century Eboracum, in common with other British towns, was probably largely abandoned, the loss of its military market a death-blow to traders. But when shortly afterwards the Angles and Saxons spread through Britain they settled the place again, and eventually it became the most important centre in their Northumbrian Kingdom. In 627 Edwin King of Northumbria invited the Christian priest Paulinus to his capital, where a wooden church was built and the nobility baptized by Paulinus, who became the first Bishop of York; in 735 the city became an archbishopric. During this period a huge church of 30 altars was constructed, and the great scholar Alcuin resided in the city.
The Vikings seized the city from the Saxons when the latter were weakened by the rift between two rival kings Aella and Osbert. Ivar the Boneless, King of Dublin, captured and held it in 866, and killed the reconciled Aella and Osbert the following year when they tried to storm and retake their lost capital. These Danes and Norwegians who ruled York until 954 took the city as warriors but developed it as traders. For Rome trade had been by road; the Vikings travelled by sea, linking York with the great ports of Northern Europe and even beyond.
Erik Bloodaxe was the last Viking ruler in their near century-long occupation, driven away in 954 by the resurgent Saxons in the form of Eadric King of Wessex, but the Norsemen were far from finished, invading and briefly taking the city again for a time in the last years of Edward the Confessor ’s reign. At the Battle of Fulford on September 25 1066 the invading army of Harald Hardraada of Norway defeated the local Saxon Lords at Fulford on the outskirts of York; but they were then surprised and routed by the army of King Harold Godwineson five days later at Stamford Bridge a few miles away: the Norse threat to England was ended, but more to the benefit of the Normans than King Harold , whose army returned to the South Coast immediately; exhausted and depleted by battle and journey it was defeated by William at Hastings .
Three years after Hastings William the Conqueror ravaged York during the Harrying of the North in 1069, but his regime, like Romans, Saxons and Vikings before him, recognized the strategic value of York and built not one but two wooden fortresses there, and also developed it as a centre of ecclesiastical authority as the Saxons (and to a lesser extent the Vikings, who for example built St Olave’s Church) previously had. St Mary’s Abbey was a Norman foundation; so was Holy Trinity Priory.
Church building in York continued through the Middle Ages, leaving an architectural legacy still clearly seen today not least in the Minster , with several such buildings still in regular use. This period also saw the celebrated York Mystery Plays emerge. The great days of York’s religious houses ended with Henry VIII ’s Dissolution, but as the English church was taken over by the crown York was one area that retained a leaning towards Catholicism. It is surely no coincidence that Guy Fawkes was schooled in York, or that the great Catholic martyr Margaret of Clitherow, executed in 1586, came from York. A century later the secret Catholic Bar Convent was daringly established in York during a period of great anti-Catholic sentiment and legal suppression.
As the religious tide ebbed the political flowed: from 1530 to 1641 The Council of the North was based in York, administering the region for the crown and providing a sounding-board too. The political and religious spheres met in 1536 in the Pilgrimage of Grace, which for a time held York. This mass movement had economic, political and above all religious grievances against Henry VIII and his counsellors, and was brutally suppressed.
Charles I , having fled London, held his court in Royalist York in 1642, but after prolonged siege the city fell to Parliamentary general Lord Fairfax, the Battle of Marston Moor nearby confirming Parliament’s victory in the region. Like Stamford Bridge in 1066 Marston Moor in 1644 – probably with more combatants than any other battle in our history – was one of the great turning points in our national development.
York after the Restoration developed as an administrative and legal centre, and certainly as a social one, though it declined in economic importance in comparison with other northern centres like Manchester and Leeds . In medieval times the wool industry had been productive there, but shifted elsewhere long before the Industrial Revolution , which failed to take root in elegant York where entrepreneurs focussed instead on the racecourse, the theatres and the assembly rooms.
What saved York economically in the 19th century was – an echo of Roman and Viking times – transport. Already a major staging point for coaches in the 18th century York naturally became a locus in the new railway network in the middle of the 19th. George Hudson was the great name in bringing the railways to the city in 1839, though he was disgraced and ruined later. Carriages and engines were made and repaired in York, and at the height of the railway age as the 20th century dawned more than 5000 of its residents worked in the industry. Easy distribution attracted major factories serving the entire country, particularly in the confectionary sector with Rowntree’s and Terry’s to the fore.
As the Railway Age ended, York turned again to learning to boost the city, though not necessarily religious-based this time, with the foundation of The University of York in 1963 (York St John becoming the city’s second university in 2006). The move has been productive, and in the 21st century York is building a reputation for cutting-edge entrepreneurship, especially in the biotechnological field.