King George VI once remarked that the history of York was the history of England, and it is easy to see why; the city has passed through the hands of Romans, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans, and seen battles that shaped the fate of the nation. Its astonishing range of architectural and cultural attractions is unmatched in Britain.
In 71 AD the Romans established a fort on the River Ouse that they called Eboracum, or “the place of the yew trees,” and its importance continued to grow. In the fourth century, Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, was crowned in York, and you can still see the site of his coronation under York Minster. The most enduring legacy of Roman York are the city walls, though much of what we see today dates back to the medieval period, built along the same route.
When the Romans left in 410 AD, York became the capitol of a Saxon kingdom stretching from the Tees to the Humber. In 627 AD Edwin, King of Northumbria, was converted to Christianity in a crude wooden church, which would in time grow to become York Minster, one of the great cathedrals of Europe.
The golden age of Saxon York came to a violent end in 866, when a Danish invasion, led by the delightfully named Viking warlord, Ivar the Boneless, captured York and made it the capitol of a new Viking kingdom. Families can follow the story of Viking York at Jorvik Viking Centre, which is built on the site of the ninth century city. For an even more exciting Viking experience, plan your trip for mid-February, to overlap with the Viking Festival, its sword fighting, duels, and storytelling.
Explore William the Conqueror’s northern heritage with a trip to Clifford’s Tower, the only remains of two castles he constructed in the 11th century on either side of the River Ouse. If you can face the steep climb up the castle mound, the tower offers superb views over the city skyline.
York blossomed throughout the medieval period. The city’s medieval wealth is reflected in the imposing 14th century Merchant Adventurers’ Hall and the opulent Guildhall. Under Norman rule, the city walls were rebuilt with four new fortified gates, or “bars,” constructed to control traffic into the city. Walking the walls is one of the best ways to explore York and take in the city views.
The magnificent Minster was rebuilt in Gothic style from 1220-1482, and forty other churches were built during this period, bestowing York with a rich heritage of architecture. One of the most enjoyable ways to explore this history is shop and wander along The Shambles, where many of the shops retain their original medieval storefronts.
During the Civil War, Charles I made York his capitol for a time. He held court at the Abbot’s House, now the King’s Manor, and established a Royal Mint. As part of the unrest, York was besieged twice by Parliament in 1644, and though many important buildings in the city were destroyed, most of the city’s churches, including York Minster, were spared.
During the Georgian period York continued to be a fashionable centre of society, and the era lives on in the restored Fairfax House and the elegant Assembly Rooms.
The following Victorian era was the age of the railway in York; under the leadership of George Hudson, dubbed ‘The Railroad King,’ the city became a transportation hub for northern England. The National Railway Museum, near the modern rail station, tells the story of this bustling age.
There’s so much to see in York, you could spend a lifetime exploring; it helps to have convenient accommodation, like Travelodge York, just a few minutes’ stroll from Clifford’s Tower and the medieval city walls.