A History of Yorkshire

By Tim Lambert

Prehistoric Yorkshire

In 7,000 BC Yorkshire would look quite different from what it does today. In those days it was covered in thick forest. At that time the first humans arrived. They were stone age hunters and gatherers. They hunted the abundant wildlife in Yorkshire such as deer and boar. Then in 3,000 BC, Stone Age farmers arrived. They began the long process of cutting down the forests to make way for farming. In about 1,800 BC they were followed by farmers who made bronze tools and weapons.

The Bronze Age farmers were in turn replaced by the Celts. The Celts arrived in Yorkshire after 500 BC. They brought iron tools and weapons. Most of Yorkshire was occupied by a tribe called the Brigantes, who had their capital at Aldborough but parts of Eastern Yorkshire were occupied by a tribe called the Parisii.

Roman Yorkshire

However, the written history of Yorkshire begins about 71 AD when the Romans arrived. The Romans invaded Southeast England in 43 AD and they conquered England in stages. In 71 AD they invaded Eastern Yorkshire and built forts, including ones at Doncaster and York.

At first, the Romans built forts in Yorkshire but by the 2nd century, three towns had been created. One grew up at York by the site of a 1st-century fort. There was also an important Roman town at Aldborough (on the site of the old Brigantine capital) and another at Brough on Humber. The Romans mined lead in Yorkshire (The Romans used lead a great deal).

Nevertheless, Roman civilization was, skin deep. The most ‘Romanized’ area was the East Riding. However, for most ordinary people in Yorkshire Roman rule probably made little difference. At any rate, by the 4th century AD, Roman civilization was in decline. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407 AD. Afterward, the Roman towns were abandoned and the Roman way of life disappeared from Yorkshire.

Viking Yorkshire

In time trade and commerce began to revive and people came to live on the site of the old Roman town of York. In the mid-8th century York sprang to life again. Craftsmen went to live there and weekly markets began. Also, ships began to sail along the River Ouse to and from the Humber and the sea. They brought goods to and from the town. However, Yorkshire remained overwhelmingly agricultural. Most people lived in tiny villages and tilled the soil.

Unfortunately, life in Yorkshire was disrupted by the Vikings. They began to raid England at the end of the 8th century. In the mid-9th century, they turned to conquest. The Vikings captured York in 866 and shortly afterward a separate kingdom of Yorkshire was founded. The Danish kingdom of Yorkshire lasted until 954 when it was recaptured by the English.

Yorkshire in the Middle Ages

In 1066 Harald Hardrada, the king of Norway invaded England. His army sailed along the Humber and the Ouse. However, after they landed they were utterly defeated by the English at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Shortly afterward William Duke of Normandy won the battle of Hastings and was crowned king of England. In 1086 the people of Yorkshire rose in rebellion. William marched to York and built a fort there.

However, when he left the area in 1069 the North rose in rebellion again. This time William took drastic action. His men burned all the stores of food and the crops in the fields. They also slaughtered domestic animals and destroyed farm tools. This ‘scorched earth’ policy was called the Harrying of the North. As a result of it, many people in Yorkshire starved to death.

Yet Yorkshire eventually recovered. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Yorkshire prospered and many new towns were founded. These included Barnsley, Doncaster, Hull, Leeds, Northallerton, Pontefract, (its name comes from the Latin words Pontus fractus, meaning broken bridge), Richmond, Scarborough, and Sheffield. Meanwhile, many monasteries were founded in Yorkshire. These included Bolton Priory (a priory was a small abbey), Bridlington Priory, and Pontefract Priory.

By the year 1300 Yorkshire was booming. The population of Yorkshire was booming. The population of Yorkshire had risen dramatically since 1066 (despite the harrying of the North). Much woodland had been cleared for farming. However, in the early 14th century, the climate worsened and in the years 1315-1322 famine struck. In the early 14th century Yorkshire also suffered in a long war with the Scots. In 1318 Robert the Bruce burned Northallerton.

Then in 1349, Yorkshire was devastated by the Black Death, which killed about a third of the population.

In the 15th century Yorkshire, like the rest of England, was affected by the Wars of the Roses. During those civil wars, battles were fought at Wakefield in 1460 and at Towton in 1461. Meanwhile, some Yorkshire towns declined in prosperity and importance. The population of York itself declined significantly.

Yorkshire 1500-1800

In the 16th century, Yorkshire towns recovered. The wool industry became concentrated in Western Yorkshire. The town of Leeds flourished and its population grew rapidly. Wakefield and Halifax also prospered because of the cloth trade. Meanwhile, Sheffield boomed and was already famous for its cutlery. Agriculture flourished again and the population of Yorkshire grew.

Meanwhile, other changes took place. In 1536 Henry VIII closed the smaller monasteries. This provoked a rising that began in Lincolnshire and spread to Yorkshire. It was known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Henry managed to disperse the rebels by making various promises (none of which he kept). Afterward, England became a Protestant country. However, some people in Yorkshire remained Catholics.

Then in 1642, there was a civil war between the king and parliament. Yorkshire was divided by the civil war. In April 1642 the king attempted to enter Hull but the gates of the city were shut against him. Actual fighting began in August 1642. The royalists used York as their base. At the end of 1642, they captured Leeds and Wakefield. They besieged Bradford and Halifax but failed to capture them.

In late January 1643, the parliamentarians counterattacked. They recaptured Leeds and Wakefield. However, in June 1643 the Royalists won the battle of Adwalton. As a result, they captured all of Yorkshire except Hull. The pendulum then swung the other way In October 1643 the parliamentarians in Hull drove back the royalists and lifted the siege. In March 1644 the parliamentarians took Bradford and in April 1644 they took Leeds.

In July 1644 the royalists were routed at the battle of Marston Moor. As a result, the royalists lost all of northern England.

In the 18th century, the wool industry in Yorkshire flourished. Leeds and the other wool towns continued to grow rapidly. So did Sheffield. Meanwhile from the middle of the 18th century the town

Huddersfield, which until then had been a small place mushroomed. The town of Hull also grew rapidly. The coal mining industry in the West Riding also prospered.

Industry in Yorkshire was helped by improvements in transport. Several turnpike roads were built (they were privately owned and maintained roads and you had to pay to use them). In the late 18th century canals were dug. As well as this the late 17th and 18th centuries were also the age of spa towns. People believed that drinking mineral water or bathing could cure illness. Both Harrogate and Scarborough flourished as spa towns.

Modern Yorkshire

The population of Yorkshire rose rapidly in the 19th century. The textile, steel, and coal industries boomed. Towns like Leeds, Bradford, Keighley, Sheffield, and Hull mushroomed. In the mid 19th century York became a centre of the railway industry.

Conditions in the new industrial towns were often appalling. They were dirty, unsanitary, and overcrowded. In 1832 and 1848 there were outbreaks of cholera in the towns. However, things improved in the late 19th century. Sewers were dug and piped water supplies were created. Public parks and public libraries opened. Standards of housing also improved considerably.

However many parts of Yorkshire remained rural. Even so, they were changed by the coming of the railways. A network of them was built in the 1840s and they helped to break down the isolation of the more remote areas. Furthermore, the first seaside towns arose in the 19th century. Scarborough was one such resort.

The early 20th century was a difficult one for Yorkshire. The 1920s and 1930s were a time of mass unemployment. The old staple industries such as coal and textiles declined and they shed workers.

On the other hand, local authorities started demolishing the worst slums, and the first council houses were built. Many more council houses were built in Yorkshire after 1945. For those who had jobs, living standards rose significantly in the 1920s and 1930s. One sign of this was the building of many cinemas.

Full employment returned during the Second World War but Yorkshire was a target for German bombing. Hull was the most severely bombed town. After the Second World War, the traditional industries continued their relentless decline. Coal, steel, and textiles all shrank. The fishing industry in Hull went into a nosedive.

However, service industries such as education, retail, and tourism grew. At the end of the 20th century, many Yorkshire towns reinvented themselves and refurbished their centres. Many new museums were opened.

There was another change in Yorkshire in the late 20th century. From the 1950s large numbers of West Indian and Asian immigrants came to Yorkshire. Today many towns and cities in Yorkshire are multicultural.

In 1974 the political map of Yorkshire changed. It was divided into four local government areas, North Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, and Humberside. Today Yorkshire is a vibrant county with a prosperous future.

York Minster

Last revised 2024