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York (Aerial view).jpg
York from the air
Grid reference: SE603522
Location: 53°57’45"N, 1°4’56"W
Postcode: YO
Dialling code: 01904
Local Government
Council: York
York Central, York Outer

York is a walled city in the centre of Yorkshire, the largest county in Britain. The city stands at the meeting of the Rivers Ouse and Foss. York within the walls is the only part of Yorkshire not in one of the three ridings, for the bounds of the East, North and West Ridings of Yorkshire converge to meet at the walls of York.

The historic Capital of the North, York has a rich heritage and has provided the backdrop to major political events throughout much of its two millennia of existence. The city offers a wealth of historic attractions, of which York Minster is the most prominent, and a variety of cultural and sporting activities.

The city was founded by the Romans in AD 71, under the name of Eboracum. It became in turn the capital of the Roman province of Britannia Inferior, and later of the kingdom of the Northumbrians. At the coming of Christianity to the English, York became the capital of the northern province of the Church of England, a role it has held ever since. Seized by the Norse, York became the capital of their lands in Britain; the Kingdom of York. In the Middle Ages, York grew as a major wool trading centre.

In the 19th century York became a hub of the railway network and a manufacturing centre. In recent decades, the economy of York has moved from being dominated by its confectionery and railway-related industries to one that provides services. The University of York and health services have become major employers, whilst tourism has become an important element of the local economy.

Name of the city

The name of York comes from the ancient British language. The earliest form coming down to us is its rendering in Latin as Eboracum or Eburacum, from a lost native original. One suggestion is that the name was from a British word reconstructed as Eborakon, meaning "Yew-tree Place", comparable to the Welsh efwrof ("alder buckthorn place"). Another suggestion is "field of Eboras".[1]

After the Roman retreat, York was known in Old Welsh as Evrawg (Modern Welsh Efrog). It is known as Eabhrac in Irish Gaelic and Eabhraig in Scottish Gaelic.

The name 'Evraug' was turned into 'Eoforwic' by the incoming English in the 7th century; the new name meant "Wild boar village", though clearly its origin in the native British name, conformed to the Old English language and with the common English suffix -wic ("settlement") added. When the Norse conquered the city in 866, they again conformed the name to their own tongue and named the city Jórvík.[2]

Jórvík was gradually reduced to York in the centuries following the Norman Conquest. The form York was first recorded in the 13th century.[3][4] The name is recorded in variant forms on occasion: Yerk (14th century), Yourke (16th century), Yarke (17th century).

The Archbishop of York uses Ebor in his signature, short for the Latin Eboraci ("of York").


York lies within the Vale of York, a flat area of fertile arable land bordered by the Pennines, the North York Moors and the Yorkshire Wolds The original city was built at the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Foss on a terminal moraine left by the last Ice Age.[5]

During Roman times, the land surrounding the rivers Ouse and Foss was very marshy, making the site easier to defend. The city is prone to flooding from the River Ouse, and has an extensive (and mostly effective) network of flood defences. These include walls along the Ouse, and a liftable barrier across the River Foss where it joins the Ouse at the 'Blue Bridge'. In October and November 2000 York experienced the worst flooding in 375 years with over 300 homes being flooded. Much land in and around the city is on flood plains and has always been too flood-prone for development other than agriculture. The ings are flood meadows along the River Ouse, while the strays are open common grassland in various locations around the city.

The centre of the city is only about 50 feet above sea level, on the level gound which stretches out to the Humber in the East Riding, and all around the city is the gentle plain. The three Ridings of Yorkshire converge of the city, meeting at the city walls and so all are represented in York though the city itself shows nothing of the dramatic fells and dales which characterise much of the North and West Ridings.

The walled city encloses an area of some 260 acres, with a circumference (according to Drake's Survey of 1665) of two miles, three furlongs, and ninety-six yards. His perambulation and distances measured in perches is:

  • From the Red Tower to Walmgate Bar, 60
  • Thence to Fishergate Postern, 99
  • Thence to Castlegate Postern, 58
  • Thence to Skeldergate Postern, 34
  • Thence to Micklegate Bar, 136
  • Thence to North Street Postern, 140
  • Thence to Bootham Bar, 86
  • Bootham Bar to Monk Bar, 116
  • Thence to Layerthorpe Bridge, 66
  • Thence to the Red Tower, 80

York Minister

York Minster

The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York, usually known as York Minster, is the Cathedral of the Diocese of York. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, and stands at the city's centre. It is the seat of the Archbishop of York, the second-highest office of the Church of England.

The minster has a very wide Decorated Gothic nave and chapter house, a Perpendicular Gothic choir and east end and Early English north and south transepts. The nave contains the West Window, constructed in 1338, and over the Lady Chapel in the east end is the Great East Window, (finished in 1408), the largest expanse of mediæval stained glass in the world. In the north transept is the Five Sisters Window, each lancet being over 50 feet high. The south transept contains a famous rose window.


St Augustine, who came to convert the pagan English, established York as an archbishopric in the seventh century; the first Archbishop was Paulinus, a member of Augustine's mission. The first recorded church on the site was a wooden structure built hurriedly in 627 to provide a place to baptise King Edwin of Northumbria, but a stone church was completed in 637 by Oswald. The church was dilapidated by 670 when Wilfrid ascended to the see of York. He repaired and renewed the structure. The attached school and library were established and by the 8th century were some of the most substantial in northern Europe. The church was damaged in 1069 during William the Conqueror's harrying of the North, was repaired but then destroyed by the Danes in 1075 and replaced with a Norman-style cathedral.

Archbishop Walter de Gray (1215) ordered the construction of a new Gothic cathedral to compare to Canterbury, and work continued until 1472.[6]

Interior of York Minster

The Cathedral was stripped of the signs of popery at the Reformation; there was much destruction of tombs, windows and altars. In the Civil War the city fell to Cromwell in 1644, but Thomas Fairfax prevented any further damage to the cathedral. The Archbishop was deposed with all bishops at the time, and the office of archbishop restored only at the Restoration in 1660.

In the 18th and 19th centuries there was some work to restore the cathedral. On 2 February 1829, an arson attack by a Non-Conformist, Jonathan Martin,[7] inflicted heavy damage on the east arm. An accidental fire in 1840 left the nave, south west tower and south aisle roofless and blackened shells. The cathedral slumped deeply into debt and in the 1850s services were suspended. From 1858 Augustus Duncome worked successfully to revive the cathedral.

During the 20th century there was more concerted preservation work, especially following a 1967 survey that revealed the building, in particular the central tower, was close to collapse. £2,000,000 was raised and spent by 1972 to reinforce and strengthen the building foundations and roof. During the excavations that were carried out, remains of the north corner of the Roman Principia were found under the south transept. This area, as well as remains of the Norman cathedral, can be visited by stairs down to the undercroft. On 9 July 1984, a fire believed to have been caused by a lightning strike[8] destroyed the roof in the south transept, and around £2.5 million was spent on repairs. Restoration work was completed in 1988. In 2007 renovation began on the east front, including the Great East Window, at an estimated cost of £23 million.[9][10]


York Minster is the second largest Gothic cathedral of Northern Europe and clearly charts the development of English Gothic architecture from Early English through to the Perpendicular Period. The present building was begun in about 1230 and completed in 1472. It has a cruciform plan with an octagonal chapter house attached to the north transept, a central tower and two towers at the west front. The stone used for the building is magnesian limestone, a creamy-white coloured rock that was quarried in nearby Tadcaster. The Minster is 518 feet long and each of its three towers are 197 feet high. The choir has an interior height of 100 feet.

The North and South transepts were the first parts of the new church to be built. They have simple lancet windows, the most famous being the Five Sisters in the north transept. These are five lancets, each 50 feet high and glazed with grey (grisaille) glass, rather than narrative scenes or symbolic motifs that are usually seen in mediæval stained glass windows. In the south transept is the famous Rose Window whose glass dates from about 1500 and commemorates the union of the royal houses of York and Lancaster. The roofs of the transepts are of wood. That of the south transept was burnt in the fire of 1984 and was replaced in the restoration work which was completed in 1988. New designs were used for the bosses, five of which were designed by winners of a competition organised by the BBC's Blue Peter television programme.

Work began on the chapter house and its vestibule that links it to the north transept after the transepts were completed. The style of the chapter house is of the early Decorated Period where geometric patterns were used in the tracery of the windows, which were wider than those of early styles. However, the work was completed before the appearance of the ogee curve, an S-shaped double curve which was extensively used at the end of this period. The windows cover almost all of the upper wall space, filling the chapter house with light. The chapter house is octagonal, as is the case in many cathedrals, but is notable in that it has no central column supporting the roof. The wooden roof, which was of an innovative design, is light enough to be able to be supported by the buttressed walls. The chapter house has many sculptured heads above the canopies, representing some of the finest Gothic sculpture in the country. There are human heads, no two alike, and some pulling faces; angels; animals and grotesques. Unique to the transepts and chapter house is the use of Purbeck marble to adorn the piers, adding to the richness of decoration.

The choir screen

The nave was built between 1291 and c. 1350 and is also in the decorated Gothic style. It is the widest Gothic nave in England and has a wooden roof (painted so as to appear like stone) and the aisles have vaulted stone roofs. At its west end is the Great West Window, known as the 'Heart of Yorkshire' which features flowing tracery of the later decorated gothic period.

The East end of the Minster was built between 1361 and 1405 in the Perpendicular Gothic style. Despite the change in style, noticeable in details such as the tracery and capitals, the eastern arm preserves the pattern of the nave. The east end contains a four bay choir; a second set of transepts, projecting only above half-height; and the Lady Chapel. The transepts are in line with the high altar and serve to throw light onto it. Behind the high altar is the Great East Window, the largest expanse of mediæval stained glass in the world.

The sparsely decorated Central Tower was built between 1407 and 1472 and is also in the Perpendicular style. Below this, separating the choir from the crossing and nave is the striking fifteenth century choir screen. It contains sculptures of the kings of England from William the Conqueror to Henry VI with stone and gilded canopies set against a red background. Above the screen is the organ, which dates from 1832. The West Towers, in contrast with the central tower, are heavily decorated and are topped with battlements and eight pinnacles each, again in the Perpendicular style.


There are 32 active Church of England churches in York, the chief of which, and the mother church of the town, is the Cathedral, known as York Minster. The Cathedral is the seat of the Diocese of York and of the Province of York, both presided over by the Archbishop of York.

Churches include:


Early history

Roman wall and west corner tower of Eboracum

Archaeological evidence suggests that Mesolithic people settled in the region of York between 8000 and 7000 BC, although it is not known whether these settlements were permanent or temporary. By the time of the Roman conquest of Britain, the area was occupied by a tribe known to the Romans as the Brigantes. The Brigantian tribal area initially became a Roman client state, but, later its leaders became more hostile to Rome. As a result, the Roman Legio IX Hispana was sent north of the Humber into Brigantian territory.[11]

The city itself was founded in 71 AD, when the Ninth Legion conquered the Brigantes and built a wooden military fortress on flat ground above the River Ouse close to its junction with the River Foss. The fortress, which was later rebuilt in stone, covered an area of 50 acres and was inhabited by 6,000 soldiers. The site of the Roman fortress lies under the foundations of York Minster, and excavations in the Minster's undercroft have revealed some of the original walls.[2][12]

The Emperors Hadrian, Septimius Severus and Constantius I all held court in York during their various campaigns. During his stay, the Emperor Severus proclaimed York capital of the province of Britannia Inferior, and it is likely that it was he who granted York the privileges of a colonia or city. Constantius I died in 306 AD during his stay in York, and his son Constantine the Great was proclaimed Emperor by the troops based in the fortress.[12][13]

While the Roman colonia and fortress were located on high ground, by 400 the town itself was victim to periodic flooding from the two rivers and lay abandoned.[14] York declined in the post-Roman era, and was taken and settled by the Angles in the 5th century.[15]

Reclamation of the flooded parts of the town were initiated in the 7th century under King Edwin of Northumbria, and York became his chief city.[16] The first Minster church was built in York for the baptism of Edwin in 627.[17] Edwin ordered that this small wooden church should be rebuilt in stone, however, he was killed in 633 and the task of completing the stone Minster fell to his successor Oswald.[2][18] In the following century Alcuin of York came to the cathedral school of York. He had a long career as a teacher and scholar, first at the school at York now known as St Peter's School, York, which was founded in 627 AD, and later as Charlemagne's leading adviser on ecclesiastical and educational affairs.[19]

In 866, Northumbria was in the midst of internecine struggles when the Vikings raided and captured York. Under Viking rule the city became a major river port, part of the extensive Viking trading routes throughout northern Europe. The last ruler of an independent Jórvík, Eric Bloodaxe, was driven from the city in the year 954 by King Edred, who thus completed the unification of England.[20]

After the conquest

The Shambles, a mediæval street in York

In 1068, two years after the Norman Conquest of England, the people of York rebelled. Initially the rebellion was successful, however, upon the arrival of William the Conqueror himself, the rebellion was put down. William at once built two wooden fortresses on mottes, which are still visible, on either side of the river Ouse. York was ravaged by him as part of the harrying of the North.[21]

The first stone Minster church was badly damaged by fire in the uprising and the Normans later decided to build a new Minster on a new site. Around the year 1080 Archbishop Thomas started building a cathedral that in time became the current York Minster.[18]

In the 12th century York started to prosper. In 1190, York Castle was the site of an infamous massacre of its Jewish inhabitants, in which at least 150 Jews died (although some authorities put the figure as high as 500).[22]

The city, through its location on the River Ouse and its proximity to the Great North Road became a major trading centre. King Henry I granted the city's first charter, confirming trading rights in England and Europe.[18][23] During the course of the later Middle Ages York merchants imported wine from France, cloth, wax, canvas, and oats from the Low Countries, timber and furs from the Baltic and exported grain to Gascony and grain and wool to the Low Countries.[24] York became a major cloth manufacturing and trading centre. Edward I further stimulated the city's economy by using the city as a base for his war in Scotland. The city was the location of significant unrest during the so-called Peasants' Revolt in 1381. The city acquired an increasing degree of autonomy from central government including the privileges granted by a charter of Richard II in 1396.

Tudor and Stuart times

A view of 15th century York by E Ridsdale Tate

The city underwent a period of economic decline during Tudor times. Under King Henry VIII, the Dissolution of the Monasteries saw the end of the York's many monastic houses, including several orders of friars, the hospitals of St Nicholas and of St Leonard, the largest such institution in the north of England. This led to the Pilgrimage of Grace, an uprising of northern Romansists in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire who were opposed to religious reform. Henry VIII restored his authority through the establishment of the Council of the North in York in the dissolved St Mary's Abbey.

The disappearance of the monasteries as a major economic force did not harm the city's prosperity, for it throve to become a trading and service centre during this period.[25][26]

Guy Fawkes, who was born and educated in York, was a member of a group of Roman Catholic restorationists that planned the Gunpowder Plot.[27] Its aim was to displace Protestant rule by blowing up the Houses of Parliament while King James I and the entire Protestant aristocracy and nobility were inside.

In 1644, during the Civil War, the Parliamentarians besieged York, and many mediæval houses outside the city walls were lost. The barbican at Walmgate Bar was undermined and explosives laid, but, the plot was discovered. On the arrival of Prince Rupert, with an army of 15,000 men, the siege was lifted. The Parliamentarians retreated some 6 miles from York with Rupert in pursuit, before turning on his army and soundly defeating it at the Battle of Marston Moor. Of Rupert's 15,000 troops, no fewer than 4,000 were killed and 1,500 captured. The siege was renewed, nevertheless, the city could not hold out for long, and on 15 July the city surrendered to Sir Thomas Fairfax.[25]

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and the removal of the garrison from York in 1688, the city was dominated by the local gentry and merchants, although the clergy were still important. Competition from the nearby cities of Leeds and Hull, together with silting of the River Ouse, resulted in York losing its pre-eminent position as a trading centre. Nevertheless, the city's role as the social and cultural centre for wealthy northerners was on the rise. York's many elegant townhouses, such as the Lord Mayor's Mansion House and Fairfax House (now owned by York Civic Trust) date from this period, as do the Assembly Rooms, the Theatre Royal, and the Racecourse.[26][28]

Industrial ages

York Minster and war memorial, from the walls

George Hudson was responsible for bringing the railway to York in 1839. Although Hudson's career as a railway entrepreneur eventually ended in disgrace, by this time, York was a major railway centre.[29]

York was bypassed by the greatest growth of the Industrial Revolution which transformed the West Riding of Yorkshire and much beyond, but it was not unaffected: York lost its place as the largest town in Yorkshire but it grew and prospered in its own way.

At the turn of the 20th century, the railway accommodated the headquarters and works of the North Eastern Railway, which employed over 5,500 people in York. The railway was also instrumental in the expansion of Rowntree's Cocoa Works. Rowntree's was founded in York in 1862 by Henry Isaac Rowntree, who was joined in 1869 by his brother the philanthropist Joseph Rowntree.[30] Terry's Confectionery Works was also a major employer in the city.[26]

With the emergence of tourism as a major industry, the historic core of York became one of the city's major assets, and in 1968 it was designated a conservation area. The existing tourist attractions were supplemented by the establishment of the National Railway Museum in York in 1975[31] and the Jorvik Viking Centre in 1984. The opening of the University of York in 1963 added to the prosperity of the city.

The fast and frequent railway service, which brings York within two hours' journey time of London, has resulted in a number of companies opening offices in the city.

York was voted as European Tourism City of the Year by European Cities Marketing in June 2007. York beat 130 other European cities to gain first place, surpassing Gothenburg in Sweden (second) and Valencia in Spain (third).[32]

Main sights of the city

Clifford's Tower, York Castle
  • York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, at the city's centre.
  • York Castle: a complex of buildings ranging from the mediæval Clifford's Tower to the 20th century York Castle Museum (formerly a prison)
  • The City's mediæval walls, which are a popular walk.

The city walls

The city walls and their defences are the most complete in Britain. They have the only walls set on high ramparts and they retain all their principal gateways.[33] They incorporate part of the walls of the Roman fortress and some Norman and mediæval work, as well as 19th- and 20th-century renovations.[34] The entire circuit is approximately 2½ miles, and encloses an area of 263 acres.[35] The north-east section includes a part where walls never existed, because the Norman moat of York Castle, formed by damming the River Foss, also created a lake which acted as a city defence. This lake was later called the King's Fishpond, as the rights to fish belonged to the Crown.

Looking towards the Minster from the city walls

Mediæval streets and snickleways

A feature of central York is the Snickelways, narrow pedestrian routes, many of which led towards the former market-places in Pavement and St Sampson's Square.[36]

The Shambles is a narrow mediæval street, lined with shops, boutiques and tea rooms. Most of these premises were once butchers' shops, hence the name, and the hooks from which carcasses were hung and the shelves on which meat was laid out can still be seen outside some of them.[37]

Goodramgate has many mediæval houses including the early 14th century Lady Row built to finance a chantry, at the edge of the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church.

Other sights

As well as the Castle Museum, the city contains numerous other museums and historic buildings such as the Yorkshire Museum and its Museum Gardens, JORVIK Viking Centre, the York Art Gallery, the Richard III Museum, the Merchant Adventurers' Hall, the reconstructed mediæval house Barley Hall (owned by the York Archaeological Trust), Fairfax House (owned by the York Civic Trust), the Mansion House (the historic home of the Lord Mayor), and the Treasurer's House (owned by the National Trust).[38]

The National Railway Museum is situated just beyond the station, and is home to a vast range of transport material and the largest collection of railway locomotives in the world. Included in this collection are the world's fastest steam locomotive LNER 4468 Mallard and the world famous 4472 Flying Scotsman, which is being overhauled in the Museum.[39]

York is noted for its numerous churches and pubs. Most of the remaining churches in York are from the mediæval period. St William's College behind the Minster, and Bedern Hall, off Goodramgate, are former dwelling places of the canons of the Minster.



The Theatre Royal

The Theatre Royal was established in 1744. The Grand Opera House and Joseph Rowntree Theatre also offer a variety of plays. The Department of Theatre, Film and Television, and Student Societies of the University of York put on public drama performances.

The York Mystery Plays are performed every 4 years with texts based on the original mediæval plays of this type that were performed by the guilds - often with specific connections to the subject matter of each play. (For instance the fishmongers used to present the play of Noah and the Flood.) The York Cycle of Mystery Plays or Pageants is the most complete in England. Originally performed from wagons at various locations around the city, following their resurrection in the middle of the 20th century as part of the quadrennial York City Festival, they were mostly produced in a temporary open-air theatre within the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey, using a mixture of professional and amateur actors. Latterly the cycle has also been presented within York Minster and occasionally from wagons in the streets, recreating style of the original plays.


Among many music groups performing regularly in York are the Academy of St Olave's, a chamber orchestra which gives concerts in the beautiful setting of St Olave's Church, Marygate.[40] A former church, St Margaret's, Walmgate, is now the National Centre for Early Music, which hosts concerts, broadcasts, competitions and events through the year, especially during the York Early Music Festival.[41][42] Students, staff and visiting artists of York St John University music department regularly perform lunchtime concerts in the University chapel, alongside special performances such as the annual Christmas concert. The staff and students of the University of York also perform in the city and particularly in the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall on the Heslington campus.[43]


Bettys Café Tea Rooms

In September, York has an annual Festival of Food and Drink, which has been held in the city since 1997. The aim of the festival is to spotlight food culture in York and the Vale by promoting locally farmed food. The Festival generates up to 150,000 visitors over 10 days, from all over the country.[44] One of the notable local specialities is York ham, a type of cured ham,[45] which is a mild-flavoured ham that has delicate pink meat and does not need further cooking before eating. It is a lightly smoked, dry-cured ham, which is saltier but milder in flavour than other European dry-cured hams.[46] Folklore has it that the oak construction for York Minster provided the sawdust for smoking the ham. Robert Burrow Atkinson's butchery shop, in Blossom Street, is the birthplace of the original "York Ham" and the reason why the premises became famous.[47]

In the centre of York, in St Helen's Square, there is the York branch of Bettys Café Tea Rooms. Bettys founder, Frederick Belmont, travelled on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary in 1936. He was so impressed by the splendour of the ship that he employed the Queen Marys' designers and craftsmen to turn a dilapidated furniture store in York into an elegant café in St Helen's Square. A few years after Bettys opened in York war broke out, and the basement 'Bettys Bar', became a favourite haunt of the thousands of airmen stationed around York. 'Bettys Mirror', on which many of them engraved their signatures with a diamond pen, remains on display today as a tribute to them.[48]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about York)
("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about York Minster)


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