Friday, June 26th 2015
The region around York had been settled in Celtic times but the Romans put it on the map by building there, first a fort and then a town, the largest in the north of the province they called Britannia. They Romanized the Celtic name to Eboracum. The Anglo-Saxons later established a port here and modified the name to Eoforwic, meaning ‘wild-boar town’. From the middle of the 9th century to the middle of the 10th century, this was the Viking capital, known to its inhabitants as Yorvik. The English recovered it and since then it has remained one of the nation’s principal cities. It abounds with Roman, Viking and Anglo-Saxon remains.
We travelled there by train, of course, and disembarked at the Victorian railway station. Built in 1872-7 and now Grade II* listed, this is York’s second station. The first was built within the city walls which effectively made it a dead end, impractical for through traffic.
In the station we find this fascinating vestige of the past. In 1905, the North Eastern Railway set out to make precise measurements of the distances between stations and to this end placed a post in the middle of the station as the zero point for these measurements. The York Zero Post, as it came to be called, remained in place until 1936 when it was removed for safe keeping during station modifications. Unfortunately, it was subsequently lost, or possibly destroyed in wartime bombing. To mark the 150th anniversary of the North Eastern Railway in 2004, a replica was placed here, beside platform 5.
Walking from the station to the town centre, one encounters what at first sight seems to be simply a lawn, enhancing the environment but which, on closer inspection turns out to have a more sinister history. It is known as the Cholera Burial Ground and is the final resting place of the 185 victims of the cholera outbreak that afflicted the city for 5 months in 1832.
York is associated with two rivers, the Ouse and the Foss, and as a river city, like London, relies on its bridges. I paused on Lendal Bridge to take this photo of the main river, the Ouse.
We wanted to visit the Yorkshire Museum which is situated in splendid gardens that were once the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey. Beside the entrance is this impressive lodge (shame about the dustbins)1.
St Mary’s Abbey, a Benedictine foundation, was established a couple of decades after the Norman invasion and became richest in the North of England. The ruins we see today, however, are of the abbey as rebuilt in the 13th century. The abbey lasted until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 when its wealth was confiscated and the building largely destroyed.
The Yorkshire Museum was originally founded by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. On receipt of a royal grant of land within the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey, the museum was moved to a purpose-built building and opened its doors to the public in 1830. The Museum and its gardens were transferred to the citizens of York in 1961.
The museum covers the history of the area which is rich in Roman remains, such as this statue of the god Mars, a Roman god but here shown wearing Greek military clothing. In his heyday he would have been plastered and painted in bright colours.
As a principal town, Eboracum would have counted among its inhabitants people of wealth and power. They would have brought to their homes all the conveniences and amenities that they would enjoy in Rome, such as under-floor heating and fashionable decor. This Greek-inspired mosaic would probably have been made for a reception room in a Roman villa.
Roman culture was superseded by that of the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons. The latter people provided the above remarkably well preserved vestige of their life and times. Known as the York Helmet and also as the Coppergate Helmet, it is a robust military helmet, developed from Roman models, finely made and decorated, probably in the 8th century. A Latin inscription suggests that the helmet was owned by a man called Oshere, but this is not entirely certain. The owner would have to be a principal citizen, perhaps a member of the local royalty. It was found buried in a hole lined with wood. Was this to hide it to be recovered later or was it a ritual offering or something else entirely? We shall probably never know.
The Normans are remembered as builders of huge castles of menacing aspect but they were also builders of churches and founders of monasteries and abbeys. St Mary’s Abbey became rich and powerful and did not hesitate to display its prestige by means of ostentatious display. These larger-than-life figures, dating from the 11th century, were carved, and then painted, and placed above the west entrance to the newly refurbished abbey church. But pride comes before a fall: the figures were rediscovered in 1827, face down in mud, having been used as part of the foundations of a later church building.
The sculpture of the goddess Minerva, painted as were the sculptures of the Roman era, looks down benignly on passers-by on the corner of Minster Gates and High Petersgate. (‘Gate’ here derives from the Viking word for a street.) Minerva was the goddess of wisdom (she is here accompanied by the Owl of Minerva, another symbol of wisdom) and a sponsor of the arts. Her statue marks the place where once there was a bookshop and meeting place of writers.
High Petergate was in Roman times the via principalis, or main street, of the fortress town. Minster Gates is appropriately named as it leads to York Minster, also known as the Cathedral and Metropolitan Church of St Peter in York.
Today, unfortunately but no doubt of necessity, parts of the façade of the Minster were obscured by scaffolding. Churches have existed on this site since no later than the 7th century but the clock was reset, so to speak in 1075 when the Vikings destroyed the then current church. Rebuilding in the Norman manner began in 1080. Since then fires and other damage have necessitated repairs and partial rebuildings while additions and modifications have further complicated the story. It remains a remarkable and aesthetically interesting structure that presents within its forms a history of the development of Gothic architectural.
Beside the Minster we find the bronze statue of a reclining Emperor Constantine. By Philip Jackson and unveiled in 1998, it is larger than life size (one and a third times life, according to the sculptor) and shows a relaxed and confident man of power. The fact that Constantine was the emperor who made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire might seem to explain his presence here, so close to a mighty icon of Christendom, but in fact, there is an important link between this man and the city of York. Constantine had accompanied his father, the emperor Constantius, to Britain in 305. His father died here in 306 and the soldiers of Eboracum, with whom Constantine was popular, acclaimed him emperor. This act had huge consequences for the Roman Empire and thus for the western world. (For a succinct account, see this page of the History of York site.)
Time was getting on and we began making our way, with detours, towards the station. Along the way we encountered this ancient looking church. It is dedicated to a somewhat obscure saint about whom I have been able to find no information. One source says he was an Archbishop of York but I cannot find verification of that. Parts of it are as old as the 11th century but it has been damaged, burnt and rebuilt on various occasions. Its use as a church ceased in 1968 or 1969 (sources disagree) and some time later became a day centre for senior citizens, a good use for a redundant church, I think.
One of my last photos was the one below, an evening shot of the Ouse, taken this time from the Micklegate Bridge. That bridge is part of Micklegate Bridge Street whose name derives from Scandinavian words mickle, meaning ‘great’, and gate, meaning ‘street’.
1It is surprising and lamentable how often the view of beautiful and interesting buildings is spoilt by a row of refuse bins placed in front of them. With a little care and forethought this eyesore could be avoided. It is all the more surprising when the buildings are owned by the council which makes a point of showing off the city’s heritage to visitors.