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9:54am Friday 6th July 2012 in Features
This weekend, York celebrates the 800th anniversary of being granted the right to self-government. STEPHEN LEWIS looks at how the city has changed down the ages.
In 1212, York was finally beginning to pick itself up following a century and a half of Norman oppression. When rebellious northerners, who did not like their new Norman masters, rose up against them in 1069 and burned William the Conqueror’s two wooden castles in York to the ground, William took a bloody revenge. He used York as a base for the ‘harrowing of the North’. Thousands were killed, prompting Symeon of Durham to record that “it was horrible to observe, in houses, streets and roads, human corpses rotting…”
By 1212, however, York was on the rise again. Thanks to the River Ouse, trade was booming. York castle was the mightiest in the north, the first stage of York Minster had been completed, as had St Mary’s Abbey and a host of new stone churches. What’s more, the Archbishop of York, Walter de Grey, was chancellor to King John. “York was coming up in the world economically, and growing in greatness once more,” says Andrew Morrison, head curator at the York Museums Trust.
A hundred years after the city took its government into its own hands, York – under its merchant bosses the Freemen, and the mayor they chose – was a great trading centre once more. The Freemen’s Register gives an idea of the most prominent trades: leather working, textile crafts, building, commerce and shipping.
Goods – including wool from the surrounding countryside – were traded up and down the Ouse between York and the continent, markets were held regularly in the city’s great squares, and the standard of living of ordinary people had risen.
The greatest change, however, was that this was now a city of walls. Not only the city’s defensive bar walls – but also walled precincts around York Minster, St Mary’s Abbey, and other great religious and civic buildings. “It has been described as a honeycomb of a city, a city of walled enclosures” says Andrew Morrison. “It was partly because of the rival power-bases in the city, but also to express how great you were.”
York was down on its luck. The previous century had seen the Black Death; the peasants revolt; and the beginning of the long and bloody Wars of the Roses, sparked off by the murder of Richard II at Pontefract Castle in 1399.
In 1405, the Archbishop of York, Richard Scrope, had been arrested at Bishopthorpe Palace, then beheaded outside York’s city walls for his part in a rebellion against the unpopular new King, the Lancastrian usurper Henry IV.
To make things worse, the River Ouse was beginning to silt up, says Andrew Morrison. Nevertheless, there was still great wealth in the city. The problem was that it was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, rather than shared among the many.
Henry VIII had become king only three years earlier. And during his reign, York would hit rock bottom. No longer the highly prosperous medieval metropolis it had once been, the city had to be bailed out by Henry’s government when it could no longer pay its taxes. It was the Reformation and Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries that was to the most devastating impact on the city, however. Having broken with Rome and declared himself head of the Church of England, Henry plundered the great religious houses for their wealth.
In York, St Mary’s Abbey was the biggest victim – but not the only one. Other casualties included Holy Trinity Priory, St Leonard’s Hospital, Clementhorpe Nunnery and a number of other convents. In 1536, monks expelled from their livelihoods led a revolt known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. The “pilgrimage” ended with the ringleader, Yorkshire lawyer and landowner Robert Aske, being executed in York, and hung from Clifford’s Tower. York was cowed, and when Henry visited four years later, the city fathers met him at Fulford Cross and obsequiously begged his forgiveness.
The great golden age of Elizabeth I and Shakespeare had been and gone. York was again a city transformed. It was still important: the Council of the North, held here periodically, ensured that. But by 1612, while still prosperous, it was increasingly a city with a regional, provincial outlook. Hull had become the pre-eminent port of the North.
No-one in the city at the close of the Tudor age, however, could have predicted the upheavals that were to come. Charles I came to the throne in 1625 – heralding the civil war. York, as a Royalist stronghold, spent almost a month besieged by parliamentary forces, before surrendering. Lord Fairfax was made Governor – earning the thanks of a grateful city for refusing to allow Parliamentary armies to vandalise York’s many churches, including the Minster.
Following the upheaval of the 17th century, York was beginning to take on a new character – as the “social centre of the north.” By 1736, the historian Francis Drake was able to write that “though other cities and towns in the Kingdom run far beyond us in trade and hurry of business, yet there is no place, out of London, so polite and elegant to live in.” He added: “What has been, and is, the chief support of the city, at present, is the resort to and residence of several country gentlemen with their families in it.”
It was York’s long-established importance as a metropolitan centre that brought the well-heeled Georgian gentry here to live. They transformed the city. The 18th century saw the development of the racecourse at Knavesmire, the creation of an elegant promenade along the River Ouse, known as New Walk; elegant Georgian streets such as Micklegate and Castlegate: and the building of some of the city’s finest houses and meeting rooms – including the Assembly Rooms, and the Mansion House. The city rapidly became the “centre for polite society in the north”, says Hannah Phillip, the director of that most elegant of Georgian houses, Fairfax House.
The Industrial Revolution had largely left York behind. Behind its new, elegant Georgian façade, it was essentially a city of shopkeepers and innkeepers. Much of the city’s commercial life revolved around its markets and fairs. Wool was sold from Peasholme Green, an expanded cattle market opened outside Walmgate Bar in 1827, and from 1836 stallholders crammed into a newly expanded Parliament Street.
There was a little small-scale industry, however – three glassworks employed a few dozen people, and various family firms made everything from combs to musical instruments. One of the city’s growth industries was finance, according to the York Museums Trust’s history of York website. “Banks began to spring up – including the City and County bank, the York Union Bank and the Yorkshire District Bank.”
Then, in 1839, the first railway arrived – and York was to change for good.
On the brink of the First World War, York was a booming railway and chocolate city. In 1840, the first train had run direct from York to London. By the 1850s there were 13 trains a day between the two cities, and in 1877, a new railway station – the largest in the country – opened to accommodate them.
The rail revolution had rejuvenated the city. It had “allowed people and products to be transported to and from York faster than ever before,” says the History of York website. Entrepreneurs – including the Terrys and Rowntrees – had been given access to new markets, and tourism boomed.
Industrialisation had brought with it extremes of wealth and poverty, however – as Seebohm Rowntree was to reveal in his pioneering work on poverty in York published in 1901.
And then, in 1914, came the First World War. More than 1,400 men from York were to give their lives. The city, and the rest of the country, was to be changed for ever.
Gone are the traditional manufacturing industries of old – the carriageworks and Terry’s among them. Modern York is a city of finance, science and technology – and booming tourism. We’re emerging (hopefully) from a major recession: but York has ridden it out better than many other towns and cities.
And it has celebrated the 800th anniversary of its charter in style – with a visit by the Queen, street parties for Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee and, this weekend, a flotilla of boats on the Ouse among other things.
Here’s to the next 800 years…