King George VI once remarked, "The history of York is the history of England". He was not exaggerating. The city has passed through the hands of Romans, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans. It has been the scene of battles that helped determine the fate of the entire nation, and its rich range of architectural and cultural remains is unique in Britain.
Exploring York's historic city centre is like taking a trip back in time. The city's rich cultural heritage dates back to Roman times, but the flavour of Viking Jorvik is still alive at the outstanding Jorvik Viking Centre, and the medieval architecture of the city is outstanding.
York is dominated by the imposing bulk of York Minster with its superb stained glass windows, but spare some time to explore one of York's other fine medieval churches, and wander the narrow streets of The Shambles area.
Don't leave York without taking a walk on the city walls that were first erected by the Roman legions. Along the walls you can visit the medieval gateways to the city.
A short detour from The Shambles leads to York's shortest and most unforgettably named street, "Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate". A word about York street names. You will notice that many streets end in the suffix "gate", such as Stonegate, Coppergate, and Skeldergate. This does NOT mean that the "gate" in question was a part of the old York city walls. Instead, the "gate" in this case comes from the Viking "gata", meaning simply "street". The actual city gates are called "Bars", such as Micklegate Bar and Walmgate Bar.
York MinsterThe first York Minster dates back to the year 627. Bishop Paulinus accompanied the Christian princess Ethelburga of Kent when she came north to marry Edwin of Northumbria. Edwin was convinced to convert to Christianity, and Paulinus baptised him in a church especially constructed for the purpose.
This rude wooden church, of which nothing remains, is regarded as the first York Minster. This first church was rebuilt in stone a few years later, and dedicated to St. Peter. York. This church was itself rebuilt by St. Wilfrid around 670, but it was Egbert (732-766), the first recognised Archbishop of York, who made the cathedral school and library the envy of Europe. The Minster Church burned down in 741, but it was replaced by a glorious new church containing no less than 30 altars.
The next few centuries were ones of turmoil in York, as the city was held by the Danes, Saxons, Norse, and English in turns. The pagan invaders left the church alone, and one Danish king, Guthfrith, converted to Christianity and was buried in the Minster in 895.
A subsequent archbishop, Ealdred, was responsible for crowning William the Conqueror in London. Ealdred was buried in the Minster in 1069, and just a few days later the church was badly damaged in a struggle between the Danes, Normans, and Saxons.
The city of York and the Minster suffered greatly during William's "Harrying of the North", but they suffered more when a Danish invasion destroyed the church completely in 1075. The new Norman Archbishop of York, Thomas of Bayeux, rebuilt the Minster. beginning in 1080. The foundations of this first Norman church can be seen today in the Foundations Exhibit.
In 1137 the Minster suffered severe fire damage yet again. The choir and crypt were rebuilt beginning in 1154, and a large chapel dedicated to St. Sepulchre was added to the nave. But by this time the Norman Minster was decidedly out of step with the new Gothic fashion then sweeping Europe.
A slow makeover of the Minster began in 1220 with the South Transept, followed by the North Transept. The styles of these transepts are quite unique, though they were built but a few years apart. The North Transept is famous for its "Five Sisters"; five graceful lancet windows topped by five smaller gabled lancets. A great central tower was built at the same period as the transepts, but this collapsed in 1407.
The delicate Chapter House, where the day to day business of the Minster was run, was begun in about 1260. It is a superb example of the Gothic Decorated style which was then in vogue. The ribbed wooden roof is truly a masterpiece of medieval architecture, and the traceried stained glass windows puts even the Five Sisters to shame.
The old Norman nave was rebuilt, beginning around 1280. The new nave was exactly twice as wide as the old, making it the widest in Europe and the second tallest (after Westminster Abbey) in England. The last surviving part of the Norman cathedral, the choir, was rebuilt in 1395.
Richard Scrope was appointed Archbishop by Richard II in 1398. Scrope then rebelled against Richard's successor, Henry IV in 1405, but he was captured and executed before the walls of York. A new central tower was begun in 1420 to replace the one which collapsed in 1407 (see above). In 1472 the work of rebuilding the minster was declared complete and the Minster was rededicated.
York Minster suffered heavily during the English Reformation and its aftermath; the chantry chapels and altars were torn down under Edward VI, and much of the cathedral plate was lost.
But this was nothing compared to the depredations suffered under Elizabeth I. The interior of the Minster was stripped of its tombs, funereal brasses, memorials, altars, vestments, coats of arms, and stained-glass portraits.
The city of York was besieged by Parliamentary forces during the Civil War. When the city surrendered after the Battle of Marston Moor, the parliamentary forces held a service of thanksgiving in the cathedral. The building was spared damage due to the influence of Thomas Fairfax, Cromwell's general, who was a native of Yorkshire.
But the building was not safe from the onslaught of changing fashion. In 1730 Lord Burlington designed a new floor for the Minster in the neo-classical Palladian style. The new marble floor required the destruction of every tomb left in the nave and many in the transepts and choir as well.
The building suffered from further fires in the Victorian period, and the ravages of time have neccessitated ongoing repair work during the 20th century, but York Minster retains the allure of its rich history and marvellous architectural heritage.
Open: Summer 07.00-20.30 Winter 07.00-18.00 Admission: no charge, but a donation is requested.
Near YorkCastle Howard 15m NE York, Yorkshire, off the A64
Here is John Vanbrugh's extraordinary baroque vision realized in all its extravagance for the 3rd Earl of Carlisle. One of the very first landscape gardens was built here, and there are paintings by Gainsborough and Rubens. The huge central dome has been restored after a 20th century fire. More recently, Castle Howard was the setting for Brideshead Revisted.
Open: late March-end October, daily 11-5, Tel. 065 384 333
Beningbrough Hall 8m NW York, Yorkshire, off A19, National Trust
A red brick Queen Anne mansion, housing rich baroque interiors, and including paintings from the National Portrait Gallery.
Open: April-end October, daily Sat-Wed. 11-5 (open Good Friday and Fridays in July and August), Tel. +44 0904 470666
Eden Camp Malton North Yorkshire
A former winner of the Museum of the Year Award, Eden Camp recreates the experience of life in WWII Britain. Built in original prisoner of war huts.
Open: daily 10-5, Tel. 01653 697777
Yorkshire Air Museum and Allied Air Forces Memorial Halifax Way, Elvington, York
This museum is a re-creation of a 1940's air base, featuring the Halifax 4-engined bomber. Over 25 planes are displayed, including a Mosquitoe night fighter that took over 25 years to restore, Buccanneers, and Britain's first jet bomber. There is also a reconstruction of the 1849 Caylet glider - the first unpowered plane to carry a man. The Allied Air Forces Memorial is built in memory of the many Allied Servicemen who died while flying from this airfield.
Open: March to Remembrance Sunday Mon-Fri 10.30am-4pm, weekends 10.30am-5pm. Remembrance Sunday to March ring for details. There is disabled access. Phone: +44 (01904) 608595
Yorkshire Museum of Farming Murton Park, Murton
Really four attractions in one. There is an agricultural museum featuring tools, machinery, and farm animals. Danelaw is a reconstruction of an authentic Saxon village from the Dark Ages, and Brigantium is a model Roman army fort where children can dress in realistic Roman garb. On Sunday visitors can also ride old trains along the old Derwent Valley line.
Open: Daily 10am-5pm. Last admission 4pm. Closed Dec 25-26, Dec 31-Jan 1. Disabled access available. Phone: +44 (01904) 489966.
York Tourist Information CentresThere are 3 Tourist Information Centres in York, offering details of tourist attractions.
De Grey Rooms Exhibition Square York Tel: 01904 621756 Fax: 01904 625618
Railway Station York Tel: 01904 621756 Fax: 01904 625618
20 George Hudson Street York YO1 6WR Tel: 01904 554455
York Tourism Bureau 20, George Hudson Street, York, YO1 6WR. Tel: +44 01904 554455
Yorkshire Tourist Board 312 Tadcaster Road, York, YO2 2HF Tel: 01904 707961
Destination guides by kind permission of Britain Express