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Capital of the North exhibition, Yorkshire Museum, from February 16
A new exhibition covering 1,000 years of York’s history opens at the Yorkshire Museum on Saturday. STEPHEN LEWIS had a preview.
THE carving shows two men, hands clasped in friendship or greeting. They are both clad in long belted tunics that reach almost to their ankles.
One wears a sword at his waist, the other a horn. They have thick moustaches and long flowing hair. You’d almost swear their hair was yellow, though all you’re looking at is eroded limestone.
Wit this carving, you are gazing back into York’s past, seeing what the people of the city were like in the Anglian period, about 700 AD.
This carving formed the base of a large stone cross that stood on the site of what is now St Mary’s Church, Bishophill. Crosses such as these stood at various points around the city at that time, says Natalie McCaul, curator of archaeology at the York Museums Trust.
Before any churches had been built in Anglian York, people congregated around them to worship. “So you’re looking at the beginnings of Christianity in York here.”
There are three crosses on display, all from the site of different York churches, and they are some of the most striking items on show in a new exhibition, Capital of the North, that opens at the Yorkshire Museum on Saturday.
The exhibition includes some of what the museum calls the “most significant medieval objects ever found in Britain”: objects such as the York Helmet; the Middleham Jewel and the Cawood Sword. But it also features a host of objects rarely on public display that reveal a wealth of information about the lives of our ancestors.
The aim is to depict more than 1,000 years of York’s history, from the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ after the Romans left in about 410AD right up to the Tudors and Henry VIII.
York, because of its strategic location at the confluence of two rivers, was an important capital throughout much of that time – whether a political power base under Richard, the Duke of Gloucester (later to be King Richard III); a trading centre and capital of the Danelaw under the Vikings; or a religious centre in the medieval age.
Natalie doesn’t much like the term ‘Dark Ages’ to describe the period after the Romans left. Just because written records disappeared for a while does not suggest the people living here lapsed into barbarism, she says.
Yes, there was clearly a period of uncertainty after the Romans left and Angles from Denmark and Jutland began to sail up the Humber and Ouse to settle in and around York. But there was no apocalypse, no last battle that wiped out the Romano-British who had lived here – and who were themselves a mix of peoples.
There is some evidence that after the Romans left, people deserted the Roman city of Eboracum to live outside the walls. But by the time the first Anglian kings had installed themselves, there is evidence of sophisticated trade links with the Continent – and fine examples of craftwork made here in York.
One of the objects on display in the new exhibition is the Escrick Jewel, a beautifully crafted golden ring dating from the fifth or sixth century. There is a large sapphire set in the middle, and fine gold filigree and cloisonné work on the ring itself.
It is thought to have come from Merovingian France – and it may well be evidence of an exchange of gifts between ruling elites on different sides of the channel, which shows how important York was even by about 500BC, says Natalie.
There were also skilled craftspeople working here. Another gold object, dating from the seventh or eight century, is a beautiful aestrel, or pen-top, in the shape of a stylised animal. It may well have been locally made, and since it was used to help with reading – you’d run the aestrel along the line as you read – it is evidence that York was an important capital of learning and culture, if nothing else, at this time.
By 627, King Edwin of Northumbria had been baptised at the church which was the forerunner of York Minster and the Anglians began producing those beautiful carved crosses about which congregations of Christians could gather.
In 866 the Vikings came. There was undoubtedly fire and blood: but also, as things settled down, a mixing of cultures.
One of the objects on display is the Sigurd Slab. This Viking grave-covering was discovered beneath York Minster. It shows the Viking hero Sigurd fighting three dragons. We don’t know whose grave it marked, but since he was buried in the early Minster, there is a good chance he may have been Christian.
Another stone carving from the period is an inscription recording the founding of St Mary’s Church, Castlegate, by two men named Grim and Aese.
Other items testify to York’s importance as capital of the Viking Danelaw. Among them is a stunning gold arm-ring – 320gms of pure, soft gold, woven into a ring that would have been wrapped around the wearer’s arm.
“It would have been given as a reward by a ruler to one of his henchmen,” Natalie says.
There are items from the Norman and Angevin period, including the carved shrine from the sarcophagus of St William, who as William Fitzherbert was Archbishop of York in the 12th century. He was believed to have been responsible for a number of miracles – including one in 1154.
The people of York had turned out to greet him as he arrived to take up his post as Archbishop, and the weight of numbers on the old Ouse Bridge was so great it collapsed. “But nobody died,” says Natalie.
By the 15th century, York was a hugely important religious centre. “There were 46 churches, eight monasteries and the Minster,” says Natalie.
Why so many? It was probably a reflection of the fact that York was such a rich trading city, she says. Rich businessmen paid for churches to be built so people would pray for their souls. “It was a way to save your soul.”
The exhibition ends with a section dedicated to Tudor York, including a giant mural of King Henry VIII, and a suit of Tudor armour.
Before that, however, there is a room dedicated to the House of York – most notably King Richard III.
Included in the collection are two silver gilt boar badges – the symbol of Richard himself. “Boars are known for being brave, stalwart and fierce, and Richard used the boar as his symbol,” Natalie says.
When his son Edward was invested as Prince of Wales in York Minster in 1483, no fewer than 13,000 badges were made. Most were of cloth. But silver gilt ones like those on display may well have been worn by wealthy or high-status members of Richard’s entourage.
“And these may even have been worn at the investiture of Edward at the Minster.”
Natalie admits she is yet to be convinced that the body found beneath a car park in Leicester really is that of King Richard. “I’d like to see the science.”
But whether it is or not, the revival of interest in the last Yorkist king could not have come at a better time for the museum’s new exhibition.
• The Capital of the North exhibition opens at the Yorkshire Museum on Saturday.
• For more information about the periods covered in the exhibition visit: historyofyork.org.uk