The Fortified City of York

York Sky

After a two-hour train ride threading through the grassy moors north of London, you will find yourself at the walled city of York.  Walk through the center of this city, and you will feel that you are in a medieval town, not a modern one.  Cobbled streets cozily lined with sandstone structures house tea shops and stores all designed to gently lure the interested traveler to eat, buy, explore, or just sit with a cup of tea and watch the people around you.

Probably the most famous street in the town is the tiny lane known as The Shambles (a name evolving from Fleshammels, the Anglo-Saxon word for the butcher shelves displaying various meats for sale).  The buildings are so near to each other that you can reach out of one upper story and almost touch the house across the street.  Harry Potter fans will recognize this street as the inspiration for Diagon Alley.

The Shambles is an old street in York, England, with overhanging timber-framed buildings, some dating back as far as the fourteenth century. This image must be reproduced with the credit ‘VistBritain/Andrew Pickett’

The handsome building rising as an elegant presence over the town is the 2nd-largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe:  The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter in York, popularly known as York Minster.

York face

For those of us who don’t live next door to a cathedral, here are some interesting distinctions:

*    A Cathedral is the headquarters of a Bishop, in this case the Archbishop of York, the third-highest ranking clergyman in the Church of England.

*Why is it called a Minster?  Well, that comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for monastery and is a title of honor in addition to being a Cathedral.  So, York Minster is quite special in church history.

*The Minster has survived several fires.  Some grumpy parishioners complained that one fire was sent by God as a judgement on a Bishop that nobody liked.

*And for those of you of a practical mind, it takes about $25,000 per day to heat, light, clean, staff the place in order to keep open to the public and open for services.

Some elements of history can’t be varnished over, and there’s no avoiding it in this case:  apparently the only thing comfy about the early history of York were the Vikings’ shoes.  In the 900s fierce Vikings crossed the North Sea and conquered this area, and made it their capital, Jórvik, which which evolved into the modern word York.

Viking shoes

Viking shoes displayed in the Jórvik Viking Centre

Around 1070, William the Conqueror raised the level of violence by his infamous “Harrying of the North,” an unbridled effort that drove out about 75% of the population so William could replace them with his lords and followers.  The stone fortifications of the city developed after his purge.

Not to be outdone, in 1190 York inhabitants persecuted Jews so unrelentingly that 150 Jews committed suicide in York Fort (Clifford’s Tower) rather than be turned over to the mob that threatened to kill and mutilate them.

York suicides Clifford’s Tower

We have to accept that fortified cities were products of violent times. You will find, though, that the people of modern-day York have turned any vestiges of this past into educational sites that, hopefully, show that now everyone is welcome to come within their stone walls.

Next Time:  The Lay of the Land in London


Unnoted Photo Credits:

York Minster towers:  Church Times

Viking Shoes: Jórvik Viking Centre

Other York attractions:  Open Sources




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