In his latest book Yorkshire – Ancient Nation Future Province, author, environmentalist and transport campaigner Colin Speakman describes what he defines as the nine ‘cultural landscapes’ of Yorkshire. Here he introduces the first of these landscapes – York, the ancient capital of the North.
To understand a landscape and the history of that landscape, always start with the rocks – the geology. That determines the landforms, their erosion by glaciers and rivers, their natural history, agriculture, settlement – and especially in somewhere like Yorkshire, the industry, and with that industry the people and the culture that belong there.
York – the ancient capital of the North
York, the first of Yorkshire’s cultural landscapes, was established in the first century by the conquering Roman army, at what was probably a small Celtic settlement on a low glacial moraine at the confluence of rivers Ouse and Foss. ‘Eboracum’, as it was known, was the highest point that could be reached by larger sea-going vessels at high tide. Because of its strategic position close to main military highways to the Scottish borderlands, it became the capital of Britannia Interior, or northern Britain.
When from the fifth century onwards, the Romans departed, Anglian invaders arrived from what is now Schleswig-Holstein in Germany to settle in Yorkshire, speaking the guttural language that evolved to Old and later Modern English. The ruins and walls of what they called ‘Eorforwic’, ‘wick’ meaning ‘market’, were easily adapted for defence. Part of a small defence tower just behind the Roman Wall in the museum gardens, the so-called Anglian Tower, is reputedly the only non-ecclesiastical Anglian building to survive in England.
From the seventh century onwards, York became the capital of Christian Northumbria, where for two centuries a remarkable Anglo-Saxon culture flourished. This produced the first known English poet, Caedmon of Whitby, and the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospel, one of the great masterpieces of medieval European art.
York itself was also a remarkable centre of scholarship. In the late eighth century, Alcuin, a leading scholar at York’s Cathedral School, travelled by boat and land to Rome on behalf of his bishop. A chance meeting in Parma with Karl, King of the Franks – later to become Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor – led to Alcuin becoming Emperor’s tutor before helping to establish the hugely influential Palace School in Aachen, in effect one of Europe’s first universities.
From the Vikings to King Cnut in York
Tragically when the Viking Heathen army arrived along the Ouse in 866, the great library in York was destroyed. The Vikings, mainly from what is now Denmark, were great traders and merchants but had no tradition of written language and little time for books.
Connected as it was to the major North Sea trading routes by the rivers Ouse and Humber, the city and inland port now known as ‘Jorvik’ prospered as the province’s commercial and administrative centre. They soon established their own independent Kingdom of Jorvik – with the city of Jorvik or York its capital, and home of its open air ‘thing’ or parliament. The realm was divided into thirds – ‘thrithings’ or ‘ridings’ – East, North and West Riding, divisions of the Kingdom, and until 1974 English counties.
Even after the assassination the last King, Eric Bloodaxe in 956, the former Viking kingdom kept its status as a semi-autonomous province, ruled by an earl, later the Duke of York. The 18-year-old King Cnut was first proclaimed King in York after his father’s sudden death, but as this was not accepted by Wessex Saxons, he returned with a Danish army to claim his throne.
York: England’s second city
Even after the brutal Norman Conquest and the Harrying of the North – genocide in revenge for a fierce Yorkshire rebellion against Norman rule – York remained England’s second city, a role which continued into Tudor times with the Council of the North established in the city by Plantagenet and Tudor Kings. The York Guilds – tradesmen and merchants – flourished in the city and left a legacy of several Guild Halls and the York Cycle of mystery plays.
From Tudor times onwards industry and trade with the new Empire grew and industry moved elsewhere to towns served by larger ports, and soon canals and railways. York lost its pe-eminence even within Yorkshire to the new manufacturing centres of Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Middlesbrough, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield. But with its minster and assize courts it remained an important cultural centre.
A major revival came when entrepreneur and fraudster George Hudson based his York and North Midland Railway in the city, demolishing part of the medieval city walls in so doing, but ensuring York’s role as the principle railway hub of Yorkshire. Excellent railway links also enabled chocolate manufacturing to develop, both Terry’s and the remarkable Quaker Rowntree family, whose Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust is still one of the most significant antipoverty campaigning organisations in the world.
The spiritual capital of Yorkshire
York remains the spiritual capital of Yorkshire, a city whose history is as old and deep as England. York Minster is the greatest Gothic church in northern Europe; its archbishop second only to that of Canterbury. In more recent times it has become home to the award-winning National Railway Museum, one of Europe’s leading transport museums.
But this isn’t the end of the story. York is also one of Yorkshire’s greenest cities, with several fiercely protected ‘strays’ or commons, several close to the city centre, such as Knavesmire racecourse. The city has enlightened polices on traffic, with extensive city centre pedestrianisation, a network of cycling and walkways into the suburbs, such as Millennium Bridge, and a widely admired park-and-ride service.
It is a major regional cultural centre and tourist hub with early music and other festivals, an opera house, fine theatre, conference centre and several wonderful museums, including the much-undervalued Yorkshire Museum and the amazing Jorvik Viking Centre. It also has two fine universities.
York and North Yorkshire mayoralty
How appropriate therefore that on Yorkshire Day, 1 August 2022, in York’s Railway Museum, agreement in principle was reached between the government’s levelling up secretary, Greg Clark MP, North Yorkshire Council and York City Council, to set up the York and North Yorkshire Mayoralty.
The new elected mayor will have the same strategic powers as the existing ‘city region’ metro mayors of West and South Yorkshire over such issues as strategic planning for transport, housing, education, police and crime. It will be the first UK metro mayoralty to cover what, outside York, is a largely rural area. The deal also means £540mn of new government money for both authorities (spread over 30 years) together with hopes for further future investment in jobs and enterprise.
This might be only a small step towards the devolution deal most Yorkshire people must surely wish to see for the Yorkshire region, but it nonetheless is a significant step in the right direction. It is also hoped that a proposed Hull and East Riding mayor will soon follow to ensure the whole of the Yorkshire region is democratically represented.
The hope must be that working with North Yorkshire, York will both gain influence and support to attract investment that the city and rural North Yorkshire so badly needs and deserves. If, as many of us hope, Yorkshire eventually is given what England’s most prosperous region – London – has long enjoyed, a democratically elected regional assembly, the most obvious city to host that assembly most surely be our ancient capital of York.