A Brief History of York

Apr 5, 2018

Having started life as the Roman city of Eboracum, York has developed into one of the UK’s most picturesque and celebrated cities. A tourist magnet, the charming alleyways and winding walls of this historic city are some of the most visited in the nation.

York began life as a small Roman military fort, constructed at the junction of the rivers Ouse and Foss. Later rebuilt in stone, the garrison housed around 6,000 troops and remained occupied by Roman forces until 400 AD, the end of the Roman occupation of Britain.

The fortress then spread out across the area now occupied by the stunning Minster. The grounds of the cathedral were the basis of the Roman stronghold and remains of the headquarters have been found in excavations in the Minster’s undercroft.

The ancient Roman roads of Via Praetoria and Via Principalis ran under the streets that now form Stonegate and Petergate, remains of which have been found under the Minster’s courtyard.

In the years after the collapse of Roman rule in Britain, York became an important bastion for the Kings of Northumbria. It was during the 7th century that Paulinius of York erected a small wooden church on the site that would eventually become the city’s iconic cathedral.

York boomed under the Northumbrian monarchy, becoming an important centre of learning and education. Trading links to the rest of Europe made it an important centre of commerce and business, and the settlement expanded along the banks of the river.

York fell into Danish hands with the coming of the “Great Heathen Army”. The invading Vikings captured the city unopposed and so York became Jorvik.

The city was substantially damaged during the Harrying of the North by invading Norman forces. Under Norman rule, the city expanded, becoming an important centre of commerce and trade within Yorkshire.

York prospered as the medieval age wore on. The city walls, the most complete example left in Britain, were erected around the city centre. Clifford’s Tower and St Mary’s were added. The iconic Minster soon followed and was completed in 1472.

The city was a myriad of ginnels and snickets, cobbled alleyways and stone streets. Some of these medieval pathways still remain to this day – the former timber-framed butchers’ shops of The Shambles are one of the city’s premier tourist attractions.

The city’s Minster, the seat of the Archbishop of York, made it an important religious centre throughout the medieval era. Even with the ransacking of St Mary’s Abbey and dissolution of the monasteries under the rule of Henry VIII, the city retained a steady number of parish churches and an important religious bastion.

York remained large, despite missing out on much of the trade and industry that swept across northern England. Relatively landlocked, it didn’t have the benefits of Leeds’ canal system or the ports at Hull.

It was with the railways to which York’s industrial heritage would become so intertwined. Rail links to city neighbours Hull and Leeds appeared in the mid-19th century. York became a centre for rail carriage production.

George Hudson, the “Railway King” turned the city into an important half-stop on the route from Edinburgh to London, with the historic city becoming one of the most important rail junctions in the nation.

With improved rail links came improved industry, as York became a hotbed for the burgeoning confectionary trade. Rowntrades and Terry’s, two of the giants of the early cocoa business had their roots in amongst York’s cobbled alleyways.

Nowadays, York’s pristine medieval snickets, high walls and rich history have made it into one of the UK’s most popular city tourism spots.

Next: Find out more about what makes York unique with our collection of fascinating facts about the walled city.

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