York is a bustling English city with incredible medieval roots. Join me on a walking tour of the city’s medieval sites including the most intact city walls in Britain, a castle and prison, a street straight out of the Middle Ages, a magnificent cathedral, and a Holy Roman emperor’s sword! Let’s go back in time to explore medieval York.
One of things that York is best known for is its city walls. York has more miles of intact walls than any other city in Britain! The walls date back all the way to Roman times, and you can see the best preserved structure from Roman times if you visit the Multiangular Tower in the Museum Gardens (the free, public, botanic gardens in the center of York). The tower is a defensive structure that is, likely, and addition to the Roman walls built around 310 A.D. While the surviving Roman structure is fascinating, we’re here to see the medieval city walls, which were constructed from the 12th to the 14th century. The medieval walls are interrupted by four gatehouses which are known as “bars”. These bars not only provided a way to close off the city in times of war but also to restrict traffic and allow the collection of tolls. Collecting tolls to enter a city is not a modern invention! The oldest of these gatehouses is Bootham Bar. Bootham’s archway dates from Norman times, but the rest of the gatehouse was constructed during the 14th century, when the structure was heightened to add a portcullis. In 1501, a larger knocker was added to Bootham Bar because the gate was kept locked and any visiting Scots were required to knock and obtain the permission of the Lord Mayor to enter the city. I would imagine most people followed the rule because the heads of traitors were often mounted on the gate! Today, visitors are welcome to climb across and through Bootham Bar while they walk along the 2.5 miles of walls surrounding York. The walls are the most complete of any English city, and I found the scenery along the wall walk to be incredibly beautiful. Here’s a link to map of the city’s walls, which I used during my walk. If your mobile device can’t access the internet in the UK, be sure to print out a copy before you leave your accommodations.
The next stop on our tour of medieval York is the city’s most famous and most popular tourist destination. York Minster, officially the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St. Peter in York, is a Gothic cathedral built over a period of 250 years between 1220 and 1472. I bet you’re wondering why it’s called a “minster”? The first church on the site was built in 627, and during Anglo-Saxon times, important churches were called minsters, hence the cathedral’s name. Many also don’t know that York Minster was originally built as a Norman-style cathedral but was dismantled as the Gothic architecture replaced the previous one. Today, York Minster has the highest proportion of surviving medieval stained glass of any European cathedral. This includes, what I considered to be the highlight of my visit to the minster, a chance to see the breathtaking rose window, which is often referred to as the “Heart of Yorkshire”.
If you’re like me, you might be interested in seeing how York looked during medieval times. The Shambles is a street that allows us to do just that. Many of its half-timber buildings date back to the 14th and 15th centuries. The name “Shambles” is likely short for “Great Flesh Shambles (Shelves)”, indicating that all of the butcher shops of the city were once located along this street, all the way up through the Victorian Era. Outside some of the shops, you can still see metal hooks that meat once hung on. Slaughter houses were located behind the store fronts, and meat would be sold from what is now the window bottoms. Looking up, it’s evident that the second floor hangs over the street, likely to prevent the sun from hitting the meat for sale. Visitors will also notice that the sides of the streets are higher, creating a channel through which the blood and remains of the butchering process could be washed away. Medieval Europe was definitely not known for its sanitation! Don’t worry because the butcher shops are long gone and today the street is lined with shops, pubs, and restaurants and is a popular destination for both tourists and locals alike.
The next stop on our tour is lovely St. Helen’s Square, which is the site of one of the most elegant buildings in York, Mansion House. When I visited, Mansion House had beautiful trees of petunias standing in front of it, so I couldn’t help but stop and smell the flowers. In England, a “mansion house” is home of the city’s Lord Mayor. Completed in 1732, York’s Mansion House is the oldest in England, making it twenty years older than even London’s equivalent. The Lord Mayor of York, who is also Chairman of the City Council, is appointed by that council each year and serves as the city’s civic head and its first citizen. So why are we stopping at an 18th century structure on a tour of medieval York? Well, since York’s first Lord Mayor was appointed by King Richard II in 1389, the Lord Mayor is second in precedence only to the Lord Mayor of London. So the Lord Mayor of York would have presided over the city in medieval times. In addition, York’s Mansion House is open to the public and features period furnishings, one of the largest collections of city-owned silver in England, and a display of civic regalia, including a sword once owned by a medieval Holy Roman Emperor. That’s what makes Mansion House a worthy stop on our tour of medieval York!
So we’ve seen a medieval city walls, a towering cathedral, a street straight of the Middle Ages, and some medieval weaponry. Let’s finish off our tour of medieval York with a castle, albeit one with a rather tragic past. Clifford’s Tower, the keep of York Castle, has a dark and sad history. In 1190, a group of 150 Jews were offered the official protection of the king against a mob of violent anti-Semitic riots sweeping through England. A group of local gentry, who owed large debts to Jewish money-lenders, saw widespread rioting against Jews as an opportunity to rid themselves of their debtors. Fearing betrayal, the Jews locked out the royal constable, who summoned knights and siege engines to open the tower by force. A local monk, who was inciting the mob gathered outside, was accidentally killed by a falling rock. This event further enraged the crowd, who increasingly called out for Jewish blood. Faced with the fear of being killed by the mob or being forced to be baptised, most of the 150 Jews inside committed suicide and then set fire to the keep, which was wooden at the time. A few Jews who did not take their own lives died in the fire, and the remaining were killed by the mob. An investigation, ordered by the king, was later held, and the city was forced to pay a heavy fine. However no people were ever tried or punished for the horrific crimes. The tower was rebuilt out of stone and used as a jail until an explosion destroyed the interior in the 17th century. The ruins became a tourist attraction and are managed today by English Heritage. In 1978, a memorial tablet was installed at the base of the tower to remember those that died there, and in 1990, the 800th anniversary of the pogrom was held on site.
While you’re at Clifford’s Tower, I highly recommend visiting the York Castle Museum. Located on the site of a former castle, the museum is located inside of an 18th century prison that once held both male and female prisoners. If you purchase tickets to the museum you can tour (for free) a section of the original prison cells and what learn what life was like there for some rather infamous inmates. The museum itself contains many fascinating and regularly changing exhibits. The main attraction for me was Kirkgate, an entire Victorian street that has been recreated inside the museum. You can wander in and out of each of the shops along the street. Each shop is based on an actual business in York, some of which are still in operation today! Some of shops include Banks Music, Sessions Printers, Cooper’s Saddlers, Horsley’s Gunsmith, Cooke’s Scientific Instruments, Edward Allen Taxidermist, The Little Dust Pan Ironmongers, Kendrick’s Toy Dealers and Fancy Repository, George Britton’s Grocers, and John Saville the Pharmaceutical Chemist. You’ll also wander into an alleyway known as Rowntree Snicket which shows us the poverty of Victorian cities and a working class family’s home. While exploring the street, you might run into one of many Victorian characters who can tell you more about their lives or catch the Magic Lantern Show. York Castle Museum is one of my favorite museums in the world, and therefore, I consider it a “must” to any trip to the city.
Locations in York
I’ve created a clickable map with all of the destinations mentioned on our tour. Click on the map below and then click on the marker for each location to get detailed walking or driving directions to it. York is a very walkable city, so I’d recommend plotting out a route by using the map and then hoofing it, like I did. Clifford’s Tower and York Castle Museum are a bit of a distance away from the other sites, so you might want to see those on a different day, use public transportation, or hail a taxi to reach them.