Saturday, November 15, 2014

York: Walking The Walls

The heart of the city of York is its Minster, and that heart is guarded by stone walls that predate the Gothic cathedral by a thousand years. The Roman army legions built the walls to protect Eboracum, the capital of Britannia Inferior; the city of Londinium and the southern half of the territories were called Britannia Superior, or "upper Britain" as opposed to the northern "lower Britain," a trick of perspective perhaps similar to the New Yorker's view of the rest of the United States. Undoubtedly there are traces of earlier settlements along the River Ouse in what is now York, but it was the Romans who built to last.

Or perhaps they didn't last. After the Roman legions left towards the end of the 4th century, the incoming Anglo-Saxons who pushed them out may have let the walls crumble a bit, because the next wave of víkingar from the north, the Danes, had little trouble taking over in 866CE. A manuscript from 893CE, Vita Ælfredi regis Angul Saxonum, notes that:

The heathen fled at their approach, and attempted to defend themselves within the walls of the city. The Christians, perceiving their flight and the terror they were in, determined to follow them within the very ramparts of the town, and to demolish the wall; and this they succeeded in doing, since the city at that time was not surrounded by firm or strong walls.
       - translation by Albert S. Cook (1906)

I am somewhat unclear as to whether this is a bit of revisionist history, because I'm getting confused as to who was invading and who was defending, and after looking through various broken bits of text and trying to piece together different accounts it seems that it was the Danes attacking the Anglo-Saxon forces, and not the other way around. Be that as it may, the walls were not sufficient to the task, and whoever it was that ended up taking over the city built them up again.

There are a few spots where there are no walls, most notably at two places: one where a large tangle of roads pushes in from the south along the River Ouse, another along the River Foss to the east. But there are still over three kilometers of walls to walk, and the views on a sunny day are delightful. You can't see as far as you could from the top of the central tower of York Minster, but although the inner face of the walltop walkway often has a barrier-free drop of several dozen feet, it's not nearly as vertigo-inducing.

The Minster is actually up in the north corner of the walls, between Bootham Bar and Monk Bar (bar = gateway). Anchoring the south is a high mound where William the Conqueror built a castle in 1068CE. He actually built two mounds and two castles (or had them built, I suppose - he probably wasn't there with a pick and shovel), one on either side of the River Ouse, but both were made of wood, and the mound called Baile Hill is all that's left of the one on the west bank. To protect the one on the eastern bank, between the Ouse and the Foss, he had the Foss dammed up to create a large marshy lake called the King's Fishpool. This swamped the area enough to provide a defense, and no exterior walls were rebuilt along that stretch during this period.

The fortress and royal residence were rebuilt in stone in the 13th century under Henry III, and its keep is now called Clifford's Tower. The king's chambers were originally in the keep on the mound (the motte), but later moved to the rebuilt walled courtyard of the bailey, although apparently royals preferred to stay in church-owned buildings across town most of the time because there wasn't enough money to keep the castle compound in good repair. The hilltop fortress turned into a prison, and county administrators took over the bailey. Because it saw fairly constant use as a military base, the complex wasn't left to fall apart completely, and it was rebuilt over the centuries. Today, the York Castle Museum occupies several of the buildings; A. told me it was a great place to visit, but I never got there. Next time.

At the same time that Henry III was rebuilding the walls around the castle, someone decided that it might be a good idea to repair the walls around the whole of the city. This rebuilding was done with the local magnesian limestone (dolomite for the most part [hi, Mom!]), which was also used for the Minster and the castle complex. All subsequent repairs and rebuilding were done with the same quarried stone, or with rubble from other buildings, except for the structure called the Red Tower, originally built in 1490 out of brick. William the Conqueror's marshland defense - which was the main cause of the structural problems in the keep and castle - was silting up and both church and city officials were tasked with closing the gap in the walls. For some reason it was decided to hire bricklayers and tilers to build this tower, which cheesed off the masons who had the traditional monopoly on tower-building and wall-repairing back then. There were riots by the stonemasons, two of whom were hanged for the murder of one of the tilers in 1491. It was used to store arms and ammunition, and later in the manufacture of gunpowder.

I walked along this eastern section with A. one day, from Walmgate Bar past the Red Tower and then along the east bank of the Foss. A few weeks later, on a lovely sunny day, I went back and did the whole circuit.
Walmgate Bar is the only tower section of the walls to still have its barbican attached and relatively complete, except for its missing roof. This defensive entryway was another protection against invaders, closed off by portcullises at either end, and "murder holes" in the roof through which one could pour hot oil on the people trapped between the two gates. Since Walmgate Bar leads directly into the main shopping area in the old town centre, all barbarian tourists are now welcomed in instead, and the portcullises (portculli?) are gone.

Monk Bar (below, right) used to have a barbican as well, but it was torn down in the early 19th century. However, there is still a working portcullis in this gate, though it's not lowered very often. In fact, the last time was in 1953, as a celebration of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. I'm not entirely sure about the significance of this, as that seems less celebratory and more of a rude gesture towards Britannia Superior. At four stories tall, this is the highest of the surviving gates.

Monk Bar Chocolatiers opened in 1999 just inside the walls here, continuing the York tradition of fine confectionery, though they've since moved to a larger building in the middle of The Shambles. They do a Bucks Fizz Truffle that I would have like to try, but no Anthrax Ripple.

Micklegate Bar is the oldest of the gates into the city, dating back to the Roman period. This entrance is on the main road from the south, and is traditionally where all visiting monarchs pass when going in to York. Even today, the Queen stops at this gate to ask permission from the Lord Mayor before she goes through. In 1971 they greeted her with a fanfare of trumpets, a nicely Medieval touch.

Crowned heads went through below, but severed heads were stuck above. For nearly three hundred years the heads of people executed as traitors and rebels were impaled on spikes along the gate and walls and left there to rot, with the last skull taken down in 1754. That skull belonged to James Mayne, a Scottish rebel defeated along with the rest of the Jacobites in the Battle of Culloden. Mayne, along with twenty-one other prisoners, was taken back to York, where they were tried and executed in 1746. According to Thomas Allen's "A New and Complete History of the County of York, Volume I" (1828), Mayne's skull was the only one still there in 1754, when it was stolen by a local tailor named William Arundell, with the help of his Irish journeyman (whose name is lost to the depths of time, but who was probably the one who climbed the gate and did the nasty work of removing the old bones). Arundell was fined five pounds - about £600 today.

I liked York. I hope to get back there some day to see the museum and revisit the Minster, and then head 70 miles further north to Durham, another old city built on the banks of a river, with an even older cathedral. According to legend, the cathedral (and later the city) was founded in 995CE at the spot where monks, who were carrying the bones of Saint Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria, and fleeing from the invading Danes, ended up following a milkmaid to the high ground in an oxbow of the River Wear called Dun Holm, where she had lost her dun cow. Saint Cuthbert's remains remain at the center of the cathedral, as well as those of the Venerable Bede, Cuthbert's mentor, who died in 735CE. So much history. So much time. So little time to see it all, much less grasp the scope of the stony weight of passing centuries from my butterfly perspective. But I'll keep trying.

The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.

- an excerpt from Saint (as of 1899) Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (731CE), as translated by one A. M. Sellar, "Late Vice-Principal of Lady Margaret Hall," in a 1907 publication

No comments:

Post a Comment