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City of York

01YorkIn 1900 - “Thoroughly to master the story of the city of York is to know practically the whole of English history. Its importance from the earliest times has made York the centre of all the chief events that have take place in the North of England; and right up to the time of the Civil War the great happenings of the country always affected York, and brought the northern capital into the vortex of affairs. And yet, despite the prominent part the city has played in ecclesiastical, military, and civil affairs through so many centuries of strife, it has contrived to retain a medieval character in many ways unequalled by any town in the kingdom. This is due, in a large measure, to the fortunate fact that York is well outside the area of coal and iron, and has never become a manufacturing centre, the few factories it now possesses being unable to rob the city of its romance and charm.

There could scarcely be a better approach to such a city than that furnished by the railway-station. Immediately outside the building, we are confronted with a sloping grassy bank, crowned with a battlemented wall, and we discover that only through its bars and posterns can we enter the city, and feast our eyes on the relics of the Middle Ages within. It is no dummy wall put up to please visitors, for right down to the siege of 1644, when the Parliamentary army battered Walmgate Bar with their artillery, it has withstood many assaults and investments. Repairs and restorations have been carried out at various times during the last century, and additional arches have been inserted by the bars and where openings have been made necessary, luckily without robbing the walls of their picturesqueness or interest. The bright, creamy colour of the stonework is a pleasant reminder of the purity of York's atmosphere, for should the smoke of the city ever increase to the extent of even the smaller manufacturing towns, the beauty and glamour of every view would gradually disappear.

Of the Roman legionary base called Eboracum there still remain parts of the wall and the lower portion of a thirteen-sided angle bastion while embedded in the medieval earthen ramparts there is a great deal of Roman walling.

The four chief gateways and the one or two posterns and towers have each a particular fascination, and when we begin to taste the joys of York, we cannot decide whether the Minster, the gateways, the narrow streets full of overhanging houses, or the churches, all of which we know from prints and pictures, call us most. In our uncertainty we reach a wide arch across the roadway, and on the inner side find a flight of stone steps leading to the top of the wall. We climb them, and find spread out before us our first notable view of the city. The battlemented stone parapet of the wall stops at a tower standing on the bank of the river, and on the further side rises another, while above the old houses, closely packed together beyond Lendal Bridge, appear the stately towers of the Minster.

On the plan of keeping the best wine until the last, we turn our backs to the Minster and go along the wall, trying to imagine the scene when open country came right up to encircling fortifications, and within were to be found only the picturesque houses of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, many of them new in those days, and yet so admirably designed as to be beautiful without the additional charm of age. Then, suddenly, we find no need to imagine any longer, having reached the splendid twelfth-century structure of Micklegate Bar. Its bold turrets are pierced with arrow-slits, and above the battlements are three stone figures. The archway is a survival of the Norman city. In gazing at this imposing gateway, which confronted all who approached York from the south, we seem to hear the clanking sound of the portcullis as it is raised and lowered to allow the entry of some Plantagenet sovereign and his armed retinue, and, remembering that above this gate were fixed the dripping heads of Richard, Duke of York, after his defeat at Wakefield; the Earl of Devon, after Towton, and a long list of others of noble birth, we realize that in those times of pageantry, when the most perfect artistry appeared in costume, in architecture, and in ornament of every description, there was a blood-thirstiness that makes us shiver.

The wall stops short at Skeldergate Bridge, where we cross the river and come to the castle. There is a frowning gateway that boasts no antiquity, and the courtyard within is surrounded by the eighteenth-century assize courts, a military prison, and the governor's house. Hemmed in by these buildings and a massive wall is the artificial mound surmounted by the tottering castle keep. It is called Clifford's Tower because Francis Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, restored the ruined wall in 1642. The Royal Arms and those of the Cliffords can still be seen above the doorway, but the structure as a whole dates from the twelfth century, and in 1190 was the scene of a horrible tragedy, when the people of York determined to massacre the Jews. Those merchants who escaped from their houses with their families and were not killed in the streets fled to the castle, but finding that they were unable to defend the place, they burnt the buildings and destroyed themselves. A few exceptions consented to become Christians, but were afterwards killed by the infuriated townspeople.

On the opposite side of the Foss, a stream that joins the Ouse just outside the city, the walls recommence at the Fishergate Postern, a picturesque tower with a tiled roof. After this the line of fortifications turns to the north, and Walmgate Bar shows its battlemented turrets and its barbican, the only one which has survived. The gateway itself, on the outside, is very similar in design to Micklegate and Monk Bars, and was built in the thirteenth century; inside, however, the stonework is hidden behind a quaint Elizabethan timber front supported on two pillars. This gate, as already mentioned, was much battered during the siege of 1644, which lasted six weeks. It was soon after the Royalists' defeat at Marston Moor that York capitulated, and fortunately Sir Thomas Fairfax gave the city excellent terms, and saved it from being plundered. Through him, too, the Minster suffered very little damage from the Parliamentary artillery, and the only disaster of the siege was the spoiling of the Marygate Tower, near St. Mary's Abbey, many of the records it contained being destroyed. Numbers were saved through the rewards Fairfax offered to any soldier who rescued a document from the rubbish, and as the transcribing of all the records had just been completed by one Dodsworth, to whom Fairfax had paid a salary for some years, the loss was reduced to a minimum.

Walmgate leads straight to the bridge over the Foss, and just beyond we come to fine old Merchants' Hall, established in 1373 by John de Rowcliffe. The panelled rooms and the chapel, built early in the fifteenth century, and many interesting details, are beautiful survivals of the days when the trade guilds of the city flourished. On the left, a few yards further on, at the corner of the Pavement, is the interesting little church of All Saints, whose octagonal lantern was illuminated at night as a guiding light to travellers on their way to York. The north door has a sanctuary knocker.

The narrowest and most antique of the old streets of York are close to All Saints' Church, and the first we enter is the Shambles, where butchers' shops with slaughter-houses behind still line both sides of the way. On the left, as we go towards the Minster, one of the shops has a depressed ogee arch of oak, and great curved brackets across the passage leading to the back. All the houses are timber-framed, and either plastered and coloured with warm ochre wash, or have the spaces between the oak filled with dark red brick. In the Little Shambles, too, there are many curious details in the high gables, pargeting and oriel windows. Petergate is a charming old street, though not quite so rich in antique houses as Stonegate, illustrated here. A large number of shops in Stonegate sell 'antiques,' and, as the pleasure of buying an old pair of silver candlesticks is greatly enhanced by the knowledge that the purchase will be associated with the old-world streets of York, there is every reason for believing that these quaint houses are in no danger. In walking through these streets we are very little disturbed by traffic, and the atmosphere of centuries long dead seems to surround us. We constantly get peeps of the great central tower of the Minster or the Early English south transept, and there are so many charming glimpses down passages and along narrow streets that it is hard to realize that we are not in some town in Normandy such as Lisieux or Falaise, and yet those towns have no walls, and Falaise, has only one gateway, and Lisieux none. It is surely justifiable to ask, in Kingsley's words, 'Why go gallivanting with the nations round' until you have at least seen what England can show at York and Chester? Skirting the west end of the Minster, and having a close view of its two towers built in late Perpendicular times, which are not so beautiful as those at Beverley, we come to what is in many ways the most romantic of all the medieval survivals of York. There is an open space faced by Bootham Bar, the chief gateway towards the north; behind are the weathered red roofs of many antique houses, and beyond them rises the stately mass of the Minster. The barbican was removed in 1831, and the interior has been much restored, without, however, destroying its fascination. We can still see the portcullis and look out of the narrow windows through which the watchmen have gazed in early times at approaching travellers. It was at this gateway that armed guides could be obtained to protect those who were journeying northwards through the Forest of Galtres, where wolves were to be feared in the Middle Ages.

32YorkFacing Bootham Bar is a modern public building judiciously screened by trees, and adjoining it to the south stands the beautiful old house where, before the Dissolution, the abbots of St. Mary's Abbey lived in stately fashion.

When Henry VIII paid his one visit to York it was after the Pilgrimage of Grace led by Robert Aske, who was hanged on one of the gates. The citizens who had welcomed the rebels pleaded pardon, which was granted three years afterwards; but Henry appointed a council, with the Duke of Norfolk as its president, which was held in the Abbots' house, and resulted in the Mayor and Corporation losing most of their powers. The beautiful fragments of St. Mary's Abbey are close to the river, and the site is now included in the museum grounds. In the museum building itself there is a wonderfully fine collection of Roman coffins, dug up when the new railway-station was being built. One inscription is particularly interesting in showing that the Romans set up altars in their palaces, thus explaining the reason for the Jews refusing to enter the praetorium at Jerusalem when Christ was made prisoner, because it was the Feast of the Passover.

We can see the restored front of the Guildhall overlooking the river from Lendal Bridge, which adjoins the gates of the Abbey grounds, but to reach the entrance we must go along the street called Lendal and turn into a narrow passage. The hall was put up in 1446, and is therefore in the Perpendicular style. A row of tall oak pillars on each side support the roof and form two aisles. The windows are filled with excellent modern stained glass representing several incidents in the history of the city, from the election of Constantine to be Roman Emperor, which took place at York in A.D. 306, down to the great dinner to the Prince Consort, held in the hall in 1850.

The Church of St. Michael Spurriergate, built at the same period as the Guildhall, is curiously similar in its interior, having only a nave and aisles. The stone pillars are so slight that they are scarcely of much greater diameter than the wooden ones in the civic structure, and some of them are perilously out of plumb. There is much old glass in the windows.

St. Margaret's Church has a splendid Norman doorway carved with the signs of the zodiac; St. Mary's Castlegate is an Early English or Transitional building transformed and patched in Perpendicular times; St. Mary's Bishophill Junior has a most interesting tower, containing Roman materials, and the list could be prolonged for many pages if there were space.

We finally come back to the Minster, and entering by the south transept door, realize at once in the dim immensity of the interior that we have reached the crowning splendour of York. The great organ is filling the lofty spaces with solemn music, carrying the mind far beyond petty things.

Edwin's wooden chapel, put up in 627 for his baptism into the Christian Church nearly thirteen centuries ago, and almost immediately replaced by a stone structure, has gone, except for some possible fragments in the crypt. Vanished, too, is the building that was standing when, in 1069, the Danes sacked and plundered York, leaving the Minster and city in ruins, so that the great church as we see it belongs almost entirely to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the towers being still later.

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