The History of York
By Tim Lambert
Dedicated to James Gardner
The history of York begins with the Romans.
They invaded this part of England in 71 AD and quickly subdued
it. They built a fort between the rivers Ouse and Foss. At
first northern England was a rough and uncivillised area but
gradually it was 'Romanised'. By the mid-2nd century a little
town had appeared by the fort. Craftsmen and merchants came
to live there because the garrison of the fort provided a
market for the townspeoples goods and ships could sail up
the Ouse with merchandise. The Romans called the town Eboracum,
which may be derived from Celtic words meaning the place with
yew trees. By the early 3rd century the town had a stone wall
to protect it. Inside there were public buildings such as
a baths. Rich people lived in grand houses with mosaic floors.
However in the 4th century Roman civillisation began to break
down. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407 AD. Soon
afterwards Roman towns were abandoned and fell into ruins.
SAXON AND VIKING YORK
What happened to York after the Romans left
is not known for certain. York was probably abandoned or almost
abandoned and the old Roman buildings fell into ruins. There
may have been a small number of people living inside the walls
farming the surrounding land but York ceased to be a town.
However in 627 York was given a bishop. A cathedral was built
inside the walls of the Roman town and a bishops residence
was probably built there. It is also possible the local Saxon
king built a royal palace inside the Roman walls. Then in
the 8th and 9th centuries York revived. The old towns position
made it an ideal place for trade and during that time craaftsmen
came to live there. They probably started a market. Goods
such as pottery were brought by ship from Europe. By the mid-9th
century York was a flourishing town once again. However it
was probably much smaller than the Roman town with a population
of, perhaps, 2,000. It is believed that the Saxons called
the town Eofer's wic (wic meant trading place). The Danes
changed the name slightly to Jorvik.
Then in 866 the Vikings conquered northern England
and York became the capital of a new Viking kingdom. Under
the Vikings York grew rapidly and by 1066 probably had a population
of 9,000 or 10,000. In Viking York wool was woven. There were
blacksmiths and potters. Other craftsmen made things like
combs from bone and antler. The Danish word for street was
gata which in time became corrupted to 'gate'. Coppergate
was cooper gate.
THE MIDDLE AGES
After the Norman Conquest William built a wooden
castle in York. However in1069 the north of England rose in
revolt. The Norman garrison of the castle was massacred. William
then captured and sacked York. He also built a second wooden
castle to guard the town. In 1190 an infamous event occurred
when Jews were massacred in York. They took refuge in the
main castle. Some committed suicide. The townspeople set fire
to the castle and the rest were persuaded to surrender but
they were murdered anyway. Cliffords Tower was built in the
mid-13th century to replace the keep of the main castle which
had been burned in 1190.
In the Middle Ages York was an important port.
Luxuries such as wine were imported from the continent. York
was also an important manufacturing centre. Wool was woven
in York. It was then fulled. That means the wool was cleaned
and thickened by pounding it in a mixture of water and clay.
The wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by watermills.
The wool was then dyed. York was also a centre of the leather
industry. First leather was tanned (in Tanners Row). It was
then used to make goods such as gloves, shoes and saddles.
There were also a large number of other craftsmen such as
butchers, bakers, blacksmiths, coopers, goldsmiths, barber-surgeons
(who cut your hair, pulled your teeth and performed operations
like setting bones) and many others. By the 13th century York
had 2 fairs. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but
were held only once a year. People would come from all over
Yorkshire to buy and sell at a York fair.
In the Middle Ages the church ran the only hospitals.
In York there were several 'hospitals' where the monks cared
for the sick and poor as best they could. There was also an
abbey dedicated to St Mary outside the walls. There were also
several priories (small monasteries) in York or immediately
outside the walls. In the 13th century friars arrived in York.
The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from
the world they went out to preach and help the poor. In York
there were several orders of friars, Fransiscans (known as
grey friars because of their grey costumes), Dominicans or
black friars, Carmelites (white friars) and Augustinians.
In 1349 York was decimated by the Black Death
which may have killed half the population of the town. The
population of York was around 13,000 in the mid 14th century
but it fell to about 10,000 by the year 1500. However in the
late Middle Ages some of York's historic buildings were made.
The Merchant Adventurers Hall was erected in 1368. The Guildhall
followed in 1453. York Minster was built in stages between
1220 and 1472. St Williams College was built in 1461 as a
home for the priests of the Minister. (St William was William
Fitzherbert who was made Archbishop of York in 1153).
THE 16th AND 17th CENTURIES
In the 16th and 17th centuries York continued
to be the most important northern town despite the fact that
other towns in the area were growing more rapidly. The population
of York was probably about 10,000 in 1500 but it rose to about
12,000 in 1600. This was despite outbreaks of plague. There
were outbreaks in 1550-51, 1604, 1631 and 1645. Each time
the plague struck hundreds of people died.
In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friaries and the
priories. In 1539 he close St Marys Abbey which stood immediately
north of the town walls. The city authorities also drastically
reduced the number of parish churches from 40 to 25. A grammar
school was founded in York in 1557. However the textile trade
in York declined during the 16th and 17th centuries due to
competition from towns in the West Riding. In the 16th century
York remained an important international port but in the late
17th century it declined. This was partly due to the establishment
of colonies in North America and the West Indies. York was,
obviously, on the wrong side of the country to benefit from
this trade. There was also growing competition from Hull.
Although international trade declined there was still an important
coastal trade. Ships took goods to and from other ports in
Britain. Like all towns in those days York suffered from outbreaks
of the plague. There was a severe outbreak in 1550-51. However
the population rose from about 10,000 in 1500 to about 12,000
In 1642 came civil war between king and parliament.
York was solidly behind the king but from April 1644 it was
under siege by the parliamentarians. However the parliamentary
soldiers left at the end of June when a royalist army came
to relieve the town. On July 2nd 1644 the king was decisively
defeated at Marston Moor. The parliamentarians then laid siege
to York again. The town surrendered on 16 July 1644.
In the late 17th century York gained a piped
water supply. Water was transported along wooden pipes to
the houses of those who could afford to be connected. By the
end of the 17th century York probably had a population of
THE 18th CENTURY
In the 18th century York declined in importance
as other northern towns grew rapidly. Nevertheless York was
still quite large. It was a market town rather than an industrial
centre with a diverse range of craftsmen like butchers, brewers,
bakers, tailors, shoemakers,coopers, comb makers, jewellers
and (smoking) pipe makers. There were also book sellers and
wine merchants. The port continued to flourish. Wool was brought
to and from York. Grain was brought to the city to supply
the citizens. So was coal.
The first newspaper in York appeared in 1719.
In 1732 Assembly Rooms were built where the wealthy could
attend balls and play cards. The first Theatre in York opened
in 1736. New Street was built in 1746. York County Hospital
was built in 1740. A lunatic asylum followed in 1777. In 1788
a dispensary was opened where the poor could obtain free medecines.
From 1786 a 'scavenger' was employed to clean the streets
of animal dung and other rubbish.
THE 19th CENTURY
In 1801, at the time of the first census, York
had a population of 16,846. By the standards of the time it
was quite a large town but it declined in importance as the
century drew on. The industrial revolution meant other Yorkshire
towns boomed but York failed to industrialise. In the early
19th century it remained a market town with many craftsmen
but no factories. However the railway reached York in 1839.
In 1842 a repair workshop opened.Soon afterwards York became
famous for making railway carriages, largely through the efforts
of George Hudson known as the railway king. In the late 19th
century confectionery and making cocoa also became a major
industry in York. So did flour milling. Also in the late 19th
century an industry of making optical instruments flourished.
In the 19th century the population of York grew
rapidly and houses spread across the fields outside the walls.
Part of the rise in population was due to an influx of Irish
immigrants who arrived in the 1840s fleeing the potatoe famine.
Many of the new houses were overcrowded and like all 19th
century towns York was dirty and insanitary. In 1832 and 1849
York suffered outbreaks of cholera. There was also an epidemic
of typhus (a disease spread by lice) in 1847 which killed
403 people. However there were some improvements in the city
during this century. From 1824 the streets were lit by gas.
In 1825 an Act of Parliament formed a body of men called the
Improvement Commissioners who were responsible for paving,
lighting and cleaning the streets. They were replaced by a
Board of Health in 1850. In York some people were rich enough
to afford a flushing lavatory connected to a sewer but until
the end of the century the raw sewage was flushed into rivers.
Most of the people in York used 'earth closets', which were
really buckets that were emptied at night into carts by the
'night soil' men. The 'night soil' was sold as fertiliser.
In 1890-95 the council built a proper sewage disposal system
but it wasn't until the 1920s that all houses in York were
connected. The first modern police force in York was formed
in 1836. After 1880 horse drawn trams ran in the streets of
York. york Art Gallery opened in 1892. The first public library
in York opened in 1893.
THE 20th CENTURY
By 1901 the population of York was 77,914. By
1951 it had risen to 105,000. In 1909 the trams were electrified
but they in turn were replaced by motor buses. The last trams
ran in 1935. In the early 20th century the confectionery industry
in York expanded as rising standards of living meant people
had more money to spend on sweets. Confectionery became the
main industry by the mid 20th century. Printing was also an
important indsutry in the early 20th century. Other industries
were sugar, making railway coaches, and optical instruments.
In the 1920s and 1930s York council carried
out slum clearance and built many council houses. During World
War II York was not as heavily bombed as some cities but it
did not escape entirely. Some 87 people lost their lives in
bombing raids. After 1945 many more council houses were built
at York. The first York Festival was held in 1951. York university
began in 1963. A ring road around the city was built in 1987.
Today tourism is a major industry in York. The National Railway
Museum opened in 1975. The Jorvik Viking Centre opened in
1984. ARC (Archeological Resource Centre) opened in 1990.
York now has several modern shopping centres. The Coppergate
Centre opened in. Monks Cross Shopping Park opened in 1998.
Today the population of York is 181,000.
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