Inside York

City Walls, York

The English city of York has, since Roman times, been defended with walls of one form or another. To this day, substantial portions of the walls remain, and York has more miles of intact wall than any other city in England. They are known variously as the [York] City walls, the Bar walls and the Roman walls (though this last is a misnomer as very little of the extant stonework is of Roman origin, and the course of the wall has been substantially altered since Roman times).

In 71 AD, the Romans built a fort (castra) occupying about 50 acres or 21.5 hectares on the banks of the River Ouse, and surrounded it with a rectangle of walls.

The foundations and the line of about half of these walls form part of the existing walls, as follows:

  • a section (the west corner) in the Museum Gardens
  • the north-west and north-east sections between Bootham Bar and Monk Bar
  • a further stretch between Monk Bar and the Merchant Taylors' Hall, at the end of which the lower courses of the east corner of the Roman wall can be seen on the city-centre side of the existing wall.

The line of the rest of the Roman wall went south-west from the east corner, crossing the via principalis of the fortress where King's Square is now located. The south corner was in what is now Feasegate, and from here the wall continued northwest to the west corner. The point where the wall crossed the via praetoria is marked by a plaque in St Helen's Square near the Mansion House.

The Multangular Tower in the Museum Gardens is the most noticeable and intact structure remaining from the Roman walls. It was constructed as part of a series of eight similar defensive towers, built on the orders of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who lived in Eboracum, as Roman York was known, from 209 to 211 AD. It has ten sides and is almost 30 feet (9.1 m) tall. The lower courses are original Roman stonework, though the upper course with arrowslits is a later medieval addition.

The Danes occupied the city in 867. By this time the Roman defences were in poor repair, and the Danes demolished all the towers save the Multangular Tower and restored the walls.

The majority of the remaining walls date from the 12th - 14th century, with some reconstruction carried out in the 19th century.

Today the walls are a scheduled ancient monument and a grade 1 listed building. 

The walls are punctuated by four main gatehouses, or 'bars', (Bootham Bar, Monk Bar, Walmgate Bar and Micklegate Bar below). These restricted traffic in medieval times, and were used to extract tolls, as well as being defensive positions in times of war.

[edit] Bootham Bar

Although much of Bootham Bar was built in the 14th and 19th centuries, it also has some of the oldest surviving stonework, dating to the 11th century. It stands almost on the site of porta principalis dextra, the north western gate of Eboracum.

 Monk Bar

Monk Bar seen from Monkgate. The blocked openings at first-floor level once led to the barbican

This four-story gatehouse is the tallest and most elaborate of the four, and was built in the early 14th century. It was intended as a self-contained fort, and each floor is capable of being defended separately. The current gatehouse was built to replace a 12th century gate known as Munecagate, which stood 100 yards (91 m) to the north-west, on the site of the Roman gate porta decumana - that location is indicated by a slight dip in the earth rampart. Today, Monk Bar houses the Richard III Museum and retains its portcullis in working order.

Walmgate Bar

Most of Walmgate Bar was built during the 14th century, although the inner gateway dates from the 12th century. The Bar's most notable feature is its barbican, which is the only one surviving on a town gate in England. It also retains its portcullis and 15th century oak doors. On the inner side, an Elizabethan house, supported by stone pillars, extends out over the gateway. The Bar has been repaired and restored many times over the years, most notably in 1648, following the 1644 Siege of York in the English Civil War when it was bombarded by cannon fire, and in 1840 after it had suffered years of neglect. It was also damaged in 1489 when, along with Fishergate Bar, it was burnt by rebels who were rioting over tax raises.

Micklegate Bar

The name of this four-storey-high gatehouse is from the Old Norse 'mykla gata' or 'great street', and leads onto Micklegate ('gate' is Norwegian for 'street' remaining from Viking influence in York). It was the traditional ceremonial gate for monarchs entering the city, who, in a tradition dating to Richard II in 1389, touch the state sword when entering the gate.

A 12th century gatehouse was replaced in the 14th century with a heavy portcullis and barbican. The upper two floors contain living quarters, which today are a museum of the bar, and the city. Its symbolic value led to traitor's decapitated head being displayed on the defenses. Heads left there to rot included: Henry Percy (1403), Henry Scrope, 3rd Baron Scrope of Masham (1415), Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York (1461), and Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland (1572).

Minor bars

Besides the four main bars, there are two smaller bars.

Fishergate Bar

Bricked up following riots in 1489, Fishergate Bar was reopened in 1827 and today provides pedestrian access through the walls between Fishergate and George Street.

Victoria Bar

As the name suggests, this bar is a 19th century addition to the walls. It was opened in 1838 to provide direct access between Nunnery Lane and Bishophill. However, during its construction the remains of an ancient gateway were found beneath it. This was probably the gateway known in the 12th century as the 'lounelith' or 'secluded' gateway (in comparison to Micklegate Bar or the great bar located four hundred yards away) - a small entrance to the city which dated back to early medieval times but was blocked up later with earth and stone, possibly still in the period when the walls consisted of a wooden palisade before they were rebuilt in stone (from around 1250 onwards).

(Above text taken from, if you are interested in contributing articles to Inside York - please contact us.)

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