York As They Saw It

Published 13 Oct 2017

The city of York has gone through several incarnations since its founding by the Romans in 71 AD, from its time as a fortress city to being one of the cultural, economic and religious centers of the U.K., York has been an important part of the history of the region. With each succeeding occupation from the Romans, to the Vikings to finally the English York has been adapted to suit the needs of its inhabitants and it shows through the diverse relics of architecture, cultural backgrounds and social nuances that have ingrained themselves into the population and landscape of the area. It is through the study of historical text and architectural ruins that we are able to have a glimpse into diverse history of the region, just as King George once remarked ‘The history of York is the history of England’ we are able to see the history of the country in nutshell so to speak since the city itself has been occupied by the Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans, been the scene of numerous battles that have shaped the nation in what it is today and as such is rich in the sort of architectural and cultural history that is unique to the British nation. This paper seeks to show the different architectural, cultural and social changes that have happened to York through numerous historical accounts and how all of these changes that it has inherited have culminated in the present.

During the time of King Edward the city of York took on a different appearance than what it had not the past, gone were the massive fortifications needed to fend off a potential Viking attack rather what happened was the creation of a city geared towards royalty and religion in the article written by Palliser it was stated that ‘William of Malmesbury elaboration of the city was such that he described it as being second only to Canterbury.’ It is from this statement that we can surmise that York was evolving into a center of trade and commerce within the U.K. However, York was too ‘near to barbarian peoples (Danish)’ and the ‘English kings and their Norman successors paid more attention to the south than to the north’

During the Medieval Era York underwent a transformation from its state as a dilapidated fortress city to a city of economic religious importance in the North (‘York… in circuit it is great but not in population or in wealth; in respect these matters it falls much behind London.’- John Major). The city walls that were initially erected by the Romans and enhanced by the Vikings were rebuilt and strengthened. As such structures previously made out of wood were turned into stone and fortified gates were included to regulate the incoming and outgoing traffic in the city. The Minster within the city was rebuilt and made grander than it previously was as well as numerous other churches resulting in a rich architectural history for the area (‘York is the second city of England, the most beautiful in the region and indeed of the whole North, as well as its principal fortress. It is pleasant, large, and strongly fortified, adorned with private as well as public buildings , crammed with riches and its people’- William Camden).

During the civil war era numerous buildings within York were destroyed due to the siege on the city (‘-it has been sufficiently raised by the mosses, by it several ruins and devastations; and you cannot dig anywhere, almost, but you meet with burnt earth, ciders and stone pavements..’- Francis Drake). As such previous architectural accomplishments during the medieval era were lost. Fortunately though damage to the city’s churches and York Minster was minimal (‘-haith in it a most beautiful cathedral and a chapter house, both which are famous all over the world. It has a castle and a tower plated with ordnance which commands the city.’- Marmaduke Rawdon) .

Georgian era York was said to be a period of great social and cultural growth for the city of York especially for that of the affluent members of society. York at this era though declining as a trading and administrative center for the region became a gathering place for the rich and well to do. As such numerous private houses and public building catering towards the affluent sprung up in York (‘The dimensions of it are as follows, the entrance strikes the mind with the awe which is the result of the magnificence arising from the vastness; but I never met with any thing in the proportion of a gothic cathedral that was either too great or too pleasing’- Arthur Young) .

Victorian era York could be described as the era of York’s industrialization and inauguration into the modern age. With the advent of the railroad in York in 1839, the city became a hub for railway transportation due to its location between London and Edinburgh. The result was a rapid industrialization of the region and the decay of Georgian era housing. The factory and the work shop became more preeminent than the old fashioned Georgian homes of the elite that the city was famous for. It was due to this rapid industrialization that pollution became a problem for its inhabitants. Not all signs of old fashioned housing went away, it was due to the rapid industrialization that numerous fortunes were made by industrialists resulting in the creation of Victorian age dwellings and mansions which were synonymous with the rich and elite at the time (Pallister, 2009).

York has gone through several incarnations in the past from its rise in the Medieval period, to its stagnation and decay in the Civil war period, to its appeal to the burgess in the Georgian era to finally its rapid industrialization in the Victorian era. Through each incarnation York has both gained and lost a part of itself whether it be an architectural structure to a part of its culture that disappeared due to either expedience or a lack of significance for it. As such it can be said that York was created as a result of gain and loss wherein through the years it wasn’t able to keep everything that it came across but was able to retain enough to make it a truly culturally significant location that shows the history of an entire country with the area of a few square miles.


  • David and Mary Palliser, York as they saw it-from Alcuin to Lord Esher, York: William Sessions, 1979
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