By Tim Lambert
The Romans founded the city of York. They invaded Yorkshire in 71 AD and built a fort between the rivers Ouse and Foss. By the mid 2nd century a small town grew up by the fort. Craftsmen and merchants came to live there because the soldiers in the fort provided a market for their goods and ships could sail up the River Ouse.
The Roman name for York was Eboracum, which may be derived from Celtic words meaning the place with yew trees. By the early 3rd century Roman York was protected by a stone wall. In the town there were public buildings such as a baths. Rich people lived in very comfortable houses with mosaic floors.
However, in the 4th century Roman civilization began to break down. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407 AD and afterward Roman towns were abandoned and they fell into ruins.
York in the Middle Ages
After the Romans departed York was probably abandoned or nearly abandoned and the old Roman buildings fell into ruins. There may have been a few people living inside the walls farming the land outside but York ceased to be a town.
In 627 a bishop of York was appointed. A cathedral was built inside the walls of the Roman town and a bishop’s palace was probably built there as well. It is possible the local Anglo-Saxon king built a royal palace inside the Roman walls.
Then in the 8th and 9th centuries, the town of York revived. Its position made it an ideal place for trade and so craftsmen came to live there. They probably started weekly markets and goods such as pottery were brought by ship from Europe. By the middle of the 9th century, York was a flourishing town once again. However, it was probably much smaller than the Roman town with a population of only about 2,000. It is believed that the town was called Eofer’s wic (wic meant trading place). The Danes changed its name to Jorvik.
Then in 866, the Vikings conquered northern England and York became the capital of a new Viking kingdom. Viking York boomed and it grew much larger. In the town, wool was woven. There were blacksmiths and potters. Other craftsmen made combs from bone and antler. The Danish word for a street was gata, which in time became corrupted to ‘gate’. Coppergate was cooper gata.
By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 York was booming and it probably had a population of 9,000 or 10,000. William the Conqueror built a wooden castle in York. However, in 1069 the north of England rebelled. The Normans in the castle were massacred. However, William captured York and sacked it. He also built a second wooden castle to control the town.
In 1190 a horrific massacre took place in York. Jews took refuge in the main castle. Some committed suicide. The townspeople set fire to the castle and the rest were persuaded to surrender but they were murdered anyway. Cliffords Tower was built in the mid-13th century to replace the keep of the main castle which had been burned in 1190. Then in 1212, King John gave York a charter, which allowed the city self-government.
Medieval York was a flourishing port. Wine was imported from Europe. York was also a busy manufacturing center. Wool was woven in York. It was then fulled. That means the wool was cleaned and thickened by pounding it in a mixture of water and clay. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by watermills. Afterward, the wool was dyed. There was also an important leather industry in York. Firstly leather was tanned (in Tanners Row). Then it was used to make goods such as gloves, shoes, and saddles.
There were many other craftsmen in Medieval York such as butchers, bakers, blacksmiths, coopers, goldsmiths, and barber-surgeons (who cut your hair, pulled your teeth, and performed operations like setting bones), and many others.
By the 13th century York had 2 annual fairs. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but were held only once a year. People would come from all over Yorkshire for a York fair.
In the Middle Ages the church ran the only hospitals. In York, there were several hospitals where the monks cared for the sick and poor as best they could. There was also an abbey dedicated to St Mary outside the town walls. There were also several priories (small monasteries) in York or immediately outside the walls.
In the 13th century, friars came to York. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. In York, there were several orders of friars, Franciscans (called grey friars because of their grey costumes), Dominicans (called black friars), Carmelites (called white friars), and Augustinians.
In 1349 the Black Death reached York and it may have killed half the population of the town. In the mid-14th century the population of York was around 13,000 but it fell to about 10,000 by 1500.
However, in the late Middle Ages, several great buildings were built in York. The Merchant Adventurers Hall was built in 1368. The Guildhall followed in 1453. York Minster was built in stages between 1220 and 1472. St Williams College was built in 1461 as a home for the priests of the Minister. (St William was William Fitzherbert who was made Archbishop of York in 1153).
York in the 16th century and 17th century
In the 16th century and 17th centuries York was still the most important town in the north of England. The population of York was probably about 10,000 in 1500 but it rose to around 12,000 in 1600. This was despite the plague. It struck York in 1550-51, 1604, 1631, and 1645. Each time the plague struck it killed hundreds of people. Yet each time the population recovered.
In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friaries in York and the priories. In 1539 he closed St Mary’s Abbey, which stood immediately north of the town walls. Furthermore, the number of parish churches in York was cut from 40 to 25. A grammar school was founded in York in 1557.
The textile trade in York declined during the 16th century and 17th century because of competition from towns in the West Riding. In the 16th century, York was still an international port but in the late 17th century it declined. This was largely due to the new colonies in North America and the West Indies. York was on the wrong side of the country to trade with them. York also faced growing competition from Hull.
Although international shipping to and from York declined there was still an important coastal trade. Ships carried goods to and from other ports in Britain.
In 1642 civil war between the king and parliament began. Most of the people of York supported the king. However, in April 1644 York was besieged by the parliamentarians. However, the parliamentary soldiers left at the end of June when a royalist army came to relieve the town. Yet on 2 July 1644, the royalists were defeated at Marston Moor. The parliamentarians then laid siege to York again. The town surrendered on 16 July 1644.
In the late 17th century York gained a piped water supply (for those who could afford it). Water flowed along wooden pipes to houses. By the end of the 17th century York probably had a population of around 13,000.
York in the 18th century
In the 18th century, York became less important as other northern towns grew rapidly. Nevertheless, York was still quite large. It was a market town rather than an industrial town but it had many types of craftsmen like butchers, brewers, bakers, tailors, shoemakers, coopers, comb makers, jewelers, and pipe makers. There were also booksellers and wine merchants. Meanwhile, the port prospered.
There were also some improvements in 18th century York. The first newspaper in York was printed in 1719. In 1732 Assembly Rooms were built where the wealthy could attend balls and play cards and the first theatre in York opened in 1736. New Street was built in 1746.
York County Hospital was built in 1740 and a lunatic asylum followed in 1777. Then in 1788, a dispensary was opened where the poor could obtain free medicines. Furthermore, from 1786, a man called a scavenger cleaned the streets of animal dung and other rubbish.
York in the 19th century
In 1801, at the time of the first census, York had a population of 16,846. By the standards of the time, it was quite a large town but it became less important during the 19th century. Many other towns in Yorkshire boomed with the industrial revolution. However, in the early 19th century York stayed a market town with many craftsmen but no factories.
A railway was built from Leeds to York in 1839. Another railway was built from York to Scarborough in 1845. From 1865 York was connected to Hull by railway. Meanwhile, in 1842 a repair workshop opened. Soon afterward York became famous for making railway carriages. In the late 19th century confectionery and making cocoa also became major industries in York. So did flour milling. Also in the late 19th century making optical instruments was an important industry.
In the 19th century, the population of York grew rapidly and houses spread across the fields outside the walls. In the 1840s many Irish immigrants arrived in York escaping a potato famine. Many of the new houses in York were overcrowded and like all 19th-century towns, York was dirty and unsanitary. In 1832 and 1849 York was struck by epidemics of cholera. Meanwhile, there was also an epidemic of typhus (a disease spread by lice) in 1847. It killed 403 people.
However, conditions in York did improve in the 19th century. From 1824 York had gas street lights. Then in 1825, an Act of Parliament formed a body of men called the Improvement Commissioners who were responsible for paving, lighting, and cleaning the streets. They were replaced by a Board of Health in 1850.
The first modern police force in York was formed in 1836 and from 1880 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of York. York Art Gallery opened in 1892 and the first public library in York opened in 1893.
York in the 20th century
By 1901 the population of York was 77,914 and it continued to grow rapidly. In 1951 it reached 105,000. Meanwhile, in 1909, the trams in York began running on electricity. However, they were eventually replaced by motor buses. The last trams ran in 1935.
In the early 20th century the confectionery industry in York expanded as rising living standards meant people had more money to spend on sweets. By the mid-20th century, confectionery was the main industry in York. Other industries in York were sugar, making railway coaches, and optical instruments.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the York council cleared slums and built many council houses. During the Second World War York was bombed and some 87 people were killed in bombing raids. The worst bombing raid on York was on 29 April 1942. The church of St Martin le-Grand was badly damaged by fire.
However, York soon recovered. After 1945 many more council houses were built in York and the city flourished. The first York Festival was held in 1951. York University was founded in 1963 and a ring road around the city was built in 1987.
Today tourism is a flourishing industry in York. The National Railway Museum opened in 1975. The Jorvik Viking Centre opened in 1984. York is a regional shopping centre. Monks Cross Shopping Park opened in 1998.
York in the 21st century
In the 21st century, York is still a thriving city. In 2012 York celebrated 800 years since it was granted self-government with a charter in 1212. In 2021 the population of York was 202,000.