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  • Writer's pictureRoyston Nicholls


York Minster

Certainly, one of my favourite cities in Britain, York is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in England, a city that displays virtually every period of its history, above and below ground. From the Romans to the Industrial Revolution, the city is a living history lesson. The very name of the city, York, reflects that historical evolution. The Romans called the city, Eboracum, an adaption of the original Brithonic name for the city, which probably meant "the settlement of (a man named) Eburos" (a Celtic personal name). To the Angles, who came after the Romans, the city was known Eoforwic, a compound of its Roman name and -wic, a village. When the Vikings occupied the city, the name evolved in to Jorvik, and by medieval times it had become York.

York Minster's Great West Window

At the heart of the city, in every sense, is the great cathedral church of York Minster. A building of huge size and great beauty, superlatives soon become inadequate. Originally it was the site of the principia (headquarters building) of the Roman legionary fortress, and excavations in the Undercroft of the cathedral church have revealed parts of the Roman structure. Since 627 a succession of churches has stood on the site, all rebuilt or destroyed, but then in 1220, Archbishop Walter de Gray, ordered the construction of a Gothic structure to compare with the cathedral at Canterbury. Building work continued into the 15th century, with the cathedral declared complete and consecrated in 1472. The oldest of the cathedral’s stained-glass windows date to the 12th century and the Minster has the finest collection of stained-glass in the country. The Great East Window, created by John Thornton in the early 15th century, is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the country. Of comparable beauty is the Great West Window, often known as ‘the heart of York’ because of the shape of the stone tracery which forms one great heart at the centre of the window.

The Minster Nave

York City Walls

The Roman Tower

York was incredibly important to the Romans, both as a legionary fortress and a ‘colonia’. The Emperors Hadrian, Septimius Severus and Constantius I all visited York during their various campaigns, and when Constantius I died in 306CE during his stay in York, his son, Constantine the Great, was proclaimed Emperor by the troops based in the fortress. Constantine became the first Christian Emperor and founded Constantinople. Bootham Bar, one of the city’s medieval gates, is built on Roman foundations and much of the well-preserved city wall follows the line of the Roman wall. In St Mary’s Abbey Gardens are the remains of one of Roman towers, still standing to a height of the south-west corner of 20 feet. Around two-thirds of the medieval walls are still accessible and the best stretch of wall to walk is that between Monk Bar and Bootham Bar, which gives wonderful views of the Minster.

York Minster's Rose Window

The Shambles

With over 2000 listed buildings, much of the original street pattern of York survives and a visitor can walk the lines of both Roman and medieval streets. Particularly interesting is The Shambles, a street with overhanging timber-framed buildings, some dating back as far as the fourteenth century. It was once known as The Great Flesh Shambles, probably from the Anglo-Saxon Fleshammels (literally 'flesh-shelves'), the word for the shelves that butchers used to display their meat. As recently as 1872 twenty-five butchers' shops were located along the street, but now none remain. Behind the Minster and round the corner from St. William’s College (a 15thC building that originally housed priests), is Chapter House Street, which follows the line of the Via Decumana, a military road that ran northwards from the Roman headquarters building, and which is said to be haunted by a troop of Roman soldiers, adding to York’s reputation as the most haunted city in Europe

St William's College

St Mary's Abbey Gardens

With its historic buildings, ancient streets, and great museums (the Jorvik Viking Centre, Yorkshire Museum and National Railway Museum, to name a few), York is a wonderful city to explore. It also makes a wonderful centre to explore the Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, and the dramatic Yorkshire Coast. Enjoy!

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