Inside York

York History

York has a wealth of history, all within walking distance! It is possible that no other city in the world has such a varied and rich history within such a small area.

Only a small percentage of York's archaeological treasures have been excavated, yet experts agree that almost wherever you dig here, you are guaranteed to find something of interest.

Some of the finds have become exhibits in the museums of York and indeed the rest of the world but there is nowhere near enough room to put anything but a fraction of them on display.

York has been so strategically important over the years to so many different peoples, that layer upon layer of history has accumulated to create the city that you now see today.

 Viking in York

Above: A Viking warrior at Clifford's Tower

Evidence of human activity in the York area goes back to the Old Stone Age, with exhibits from the period on display at the Yorkshire Museum. Here, you can also see items from later Celtic times, right the way up to the 17th Century AD.

The city of York itself was founded by the Romans in AD71. They built a fortress at the junction of the river Foss and the river Ouse, figuring that the site would be easily defendable. They called the Fortress 'Eboracum' and during their 400 years of occupation, the Romans built up a town around it which became the capital of one of the two provinces into which they divided Britain.

Later, the Vikings also chose the city, which they called 'Jorvik', as their most important town, and built it up into an internationally significant trading centre. The name 'York' is derived from the Viking 'Jorvik'. Tens of thousands of archaeological finds have been discovered from the Viking period, which can now be seen by modern visitors at the Jorvik Viking Centre in Coppergate, as well as the Yorkshire Museum itself.

The Norman French invaders laid waste to much of Yorkshire and burnt the city of York to the ground, but they too realised that the place had strategic importance, so they built two castles and established churches, chapels and hospitals. They also founded St. Mary's Abbey, the remains of which can be found in the Yorkshire Museum Gardens and even in the basement of the museum itself.

York Minster with Treasurers House


During Medieval times, York became a major wool trading centre, with related industries such as cloth making and dyeing contributing to the wealth of the city. The Minster was rebuilt at this time into the magnificent structure that you see today, as were the Merchant Adventurer's Hall and many other fine buildings.

The city was strategically important in the Wars of the Roses and later in the Civil War and as a consequence, several important battles were fought nearby, including the one at Towton - the bloodiest ever battle fought on English soil.

In Georgian and Regency times, York's prosperity was reflected in the many splendid town houses built at the time, some of which exist to this day. One of the finest examples is Fairfax House on Castlegate, now home to several works of art and a magnificent glassware collection.

This period saw a flowering of the social scene in York, with some of the richest and most eligible people in the country coming to visit the city for balls, parties and horse racing.


Shambles.jpg (15597 bytes)  Fairfax House

As well as being a tourist magnet, York is also an industrial town, having been a railway centre since the 1830s and a major manufacturer of confectionery since even before that. Famous names associated with York include Rowntree's (now owned by Nestle) and Terry's (recently closed). The railway connection is kept strong by the presence of the National Railway Museum and the sweet tradition has been revitalised in the 21st Century by a new wave of small exclusive chocolatiers.


Famous York Characters and Historic Figures

Septimius Severus
African-born Roman emperor, who died in Eboracum in 211, Septimus Severus was an intimate of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus - both were recently portrayed in the global hit movie ‘Gladiator'. Some say he may even have been implicated in Commodus' murder.

Guy Fawkes
The Gunpowder Plotter was baptised (a Protestant) at St Michael le Belfrey church in 1570, but later converted to Catholicism. The plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament was found out, but only after severe torture did Fawkes give up the names of his accomplices.

Margaret Clitherow
Wife of a Shambles butcher, she was crushed to death for harbouring Catholic priests in 1586. The brave Clitherow also organised schooling for the Catholics of the city. Today the house is a shrine (located in the Shambles and open to visitors) and Margaret is revered as a martyr. Her hand, which was cut off after her death, is kept in the Bar Convent Museum.

Constantine the Great
First Christian Roman Emperor: he was baptised on his deathbed. Declared Emperor in York 306AD. Under Constantine, the powerbase of the Empire shifted east from Rome to Constantinople - named after him.

George Hudson - The Railway King
Born near York in 1800. When the draper of College Street invested a legacy of £30,000 in the North Midland Railway in 1828 it spelled the beginning of York's great Railway Age, and Hudson went on to become a Councillor, Alderman, Member of Parliament and Lord Mayor. He did indeed ‘mak all t'railways come t'York', thereby making possible the city's highly profitable sweet trade (fruit from Scotland and cocoa from Liverpool), but questionable financial dealings were ultimately his downfall. Dickens said of the man; "I disavow any allegiance to the ‘Railway King'...the Giant Humbug of this time, and not a pleasant illustration of our English Virtues."

Dick Turpin
The dashing epitome of the dandy highwayman, complete with legendary mount Black Bess, or a brutal killer who was a good deal nastier than his romantic image suggests? Whichever the truth, one undisputed fact is that Turpin hanged at York Racecourse in 1739 - you can visit his condemned cell at the Castle Museum. A cool customer, it's reported that he chatted amiably with guards and executioner on the gallows for half an hour before nonchalantly indicating that he was ready for the hangman to do his work.

Famed Anglo-Saxon scholar, who was educated at York's cathedral school around 750, he was a major figure of York's ‘Dark Ages'. He features heavily in local history exhibitions at the Yorkshire Museum.

Eric Bloodaxe
So called because he killed seven of his eight half-brothers - they had been foolish enough to rebel against him. In 940 this deposed Viking King of Norway became King of York, only to be expelled in 954 and later murdered. One of the bloodiest figures in York's bloody history.

Scientists of Note

Martin Lister
Fellow of the Royal Society and Physician to Queen Anne, practiced in York from 1670 to 1683.

John Snow
Born in York in 1813, pioneer in anaesthesia and was recently voted the ‘greatest doctor ever.'

John Goodricke
Astronomer of York, discovered the binary star Algol in 1782.

Sir George Cayley
1773 to 1857, ‘the father of aviation', was a member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society'

Thomas Cooke
Instrument maker for Scott's Antarctic expedition, established his business in York in 1837.


Dame Judi Dench
Cleopatra...Queen Victoria... Queen Elizabeth. Dame Judi Dench is one of the finest, best-known and best-loved English actresses, excelling on stage, screen and television alike. This remarkable actress is equally believable as James Bond's M, or in the popular television comedy A Fine Romance, in which she starred with her late husband Michael Williams and for which she has received more than one BAFTA. In 1999 she won an Oscar for her eight minutes of screen time as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love - and as anyone who has seen the film will testify, they are an unforgettable eight minutes! In 2002, Dame Judi Dench played the leading part of Iris Murdoch, in the film Iris, starring alongside Kate Winslet. This film describes the last years of her marriage and Murdoch's decline into Alzheimer's disease.

Judith Olivia Dench was born in York in 1934, Dame Judi attended the city's Mount School. She was voted as York Personality of the Millennium, voted for by readers of the city's Evening Press newspaper. In December 2002 Dame Judi received a BAFTA Academy Fellowship, recognising her outstanding contribution to film and television. The accolade is the highest bestowed by BAFTA.

David Bradley
Cast as Argus Filch, the cadaverous caretaker in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. David is from York but now lives in Stratford. From the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, David then joined the Sheffield Playhouse before being snapped up by Granada TV for its long-running series, Family at War. David has also had a glittering theatre career and played God in the 1976 York Mystery Plays.

Mark Addy
Remember Dave in The Full Monty, the lovable, insecure security guard who wraps himself in cling film in a desperate slimming attempt before the boys' big night? That's Mark Addy, born and bred in York, he still lives in the city despite a growing Hollywood career. Mark appeared as Fred Flintstone in 'Flintstones in Las Vegas', and British audiences remember him for appearances in such popular television series as 'The Thin Blue Line' and 'Band of Gold'. So attached to home ground is Mark that he even tried to persuade the producers of the Flintstone movie to let Fred speak with a Yorkshire accent: "Nobody really knows what accent people had back then, do they? I tried to blind them with science. I argued that with the shift in tectonic plates and the like, Yorkshire could well have been the centre of civilisation at the time, and Fred could have sounded like he lived in York - like me!"

Ian Kelsey
Fans of the popular English soap television programme Emmerdale know Ian Kelsey as Dave Glover, whereas Casualty watchers will recognise him as nasty Dr Patrick Spiller, whose bedside manner left a lot to be desired. Born in York in 1972, Ian worked as a stunt cowboy in the United States in order to get his Equity card, and a stint on the London West End in Grease added to his already considerable fan following. He has also appeared in the popular television programme Casualty.

Hunter from "Gladiators" (James Crossley)
Gladiators is a well-known English television programme, where grown-up men fight gladiator-style battles. The youngest and for many the best of the UK Gladiators hails from York (which quite possibly played host to a few gladiators for real in its Eboracum days). A former Teenage Mr York and Mr England, fitness freak and body-builder extraordinaire James excelled on the show, particularly on The Wall. Since the programme ended he has appeared on various television programmes, and has also presented the TV show Peak Performance.

Kate Atkinson
York-born author Kate Atkinson won the prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year prize in 1995 with her extraordinary family saga Behind the Scenes at the Museum - set in York. The book was an international sensation. A stage version was premiered at York's Theatre Royal.

Janet McTeer
Yet another outstanding York actor, McTeer may be best known to British audiences as the no-nonsense Helen Hewitt in the TV prison drama The Governess. In 1999 she made the move to the big screen in style, however, with an Oscar nomination for her work in the Southern family drama Tumbleweeds. In 1997 she won a Tony for her performance in Ibsen's A Doll's House, on Broadway.

John Barry - Composer
York-born music maestro John Barry composed 12 of the 19 soundtracks for the Bond films, including Zulu, Born Free, Midnight Cowboy and the famous theme piece to Dr.No. He is also known for scores of other much loved themes such as the theme music for the films Born Free and Dances with Wolves. In May 2001 John Barry was honoured with admission to the Ivor Novello Fellowship. This was only the second fellowship ever to be given out by the prestigious Musical Academy, the first being that given to ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney. John Barry received an honorary Doctorate from the University of York in July 2001.

W H Auden
Auden is not immediately associated with York, but he was in fact born here in 1907, although the family moved to Birmingham shortly afterwards. A hero of the left during the Great Depression, the poet wrote much of his work in conjunction with Christopher Isherwood. In 1939 he settled in the United States, and eventually became a US citizen, but Yorkshire continued to be an important source of inspiration. The use of the Auden poem Funeral Blues in the smash hit film Four Weddings and a Funeral (‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone...') gave the poet's work a new lease of life.

Margaret Drabble and A S Byatt
The famous author Margaret Drabble attended the Mount School in York, after which she was awarded a major scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read English. After graduating from Cambridge University, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford during which time she understudied for Vanessa Redgrave. Her novel The Millstone won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize and she was also the recipient of a Society of Author's Travelling Fellowship in the mid-1960's. She was also awarded the James Tait Black, the E.M. Forster awards and the CBE in 1980.

The award-winning author A S Byatt is her older sister. Antonia Susan Byatt was also educated at York and at Newnham College, Cambridge. Byatt taught at University College London before becoming a full time writer. She has written six novels and three short story collections, and won the Booker Prize in 1990 for Possession. Her critical works include two collections of essays: Unruly Time, on the Romantics, and Passions of the Mind. She is also the author of Degrees of Freedom, on Iris Murdoch.

Other famous Yorkies or people with strong connections to York:

Jung Chang - the author of the award-winning book Wild Swans studied at York University.

Graham Swift - Grahams Swift is a British novelist and writer of short stories. He attended York University from 1970-73 and established his career as an author with the novel Waterland.

Greg Dyke - The director general of the BBC, graduated with a degree in politics from the University of York in 1974 and a degree of Doctor of the University was conferred on him by the University's Chancellor Dame Janet Baker at a graduation ceremony in Central Hall in July 1999.

Harry Enfield - English comedian Harry Enfield is also one of the many amongst the famous alumni at York University.

James Callis - The actor James Callis appeared as the gay friend of Bridget Jones in the film Bridget Jones' Dairy. James is one of the many famous people that studied at York University. In 1993, James graduated from York University and received a BA degree in English and Related Literature at the University of York. After graduating from York in 1993, James gained a place at the renowned London Academy of Music & Dramatic Arts and started his career as an actor.

Shed 7 - Indie pop band from York. Their music is comparable to the other Yorkshire Indie band 'Embrace'.

Andrew Dunn - 'Tony' from Dinnerladies. The actor Andrew Dunn plays the part of Tony, the man who is in charge of the five dinner ladies in the British comedy Dinnerladies. Andrew is from York originally and came back for a visit to the Viking festival in 2001.

Joseph Hansom (1803 - 1882) - The architect and inventor J. A. Hansom was born in York, and was apprenticed first in this city and then in Halifax. Hansom went on to lead a varied career, partnering a string of different architects, inventing the famous Hansom Cab, and founding the eminent architectural magazine The Builder. Apart from the Birminham Town Hall, Hansom was responsible for various churches, mainly Roman Catholic, of which in London St Mary's Priory Fulham Rd (1876) is an example. The museum building in Leicester - formerly a Baptist church - is another Classical Hansom building.

Joseph Rowntree - Joseph Rowntree was the son of a Quaker grocer and was born in York on 24th May 1834. Rowntree returned to work for his father but in 1869 he left to join his brother, Henry Rowntree, who owned the Cocoa, Chocolate and Chicory Works in York. The company only employed thirty workers at the time, but under Joseph's influence the company grew rapidly and by the end of the century it was an enormous international concern with over 4,000 employees. One important development was the decision to produce Fruit Pastilles in 1881. Other new products included Chocolate Drops, Fruit Gums and Jelly Babies. On the death of Henry in 1883, Joseph became the owner of the company. Joseph also devoted a significant part of his life to public work. He served on the committee responsible for two Quaker schools in York and taught in an Adult School on Sunday. Rowntree also played a leading role in the establishment of the York Public Library.

Joseph Terry - Joseph Terry was born in 1793. When he married into the Bayldon family he began to develop the confectionery business in the city of York. He created many new confectionary products that became popular throughout the whole of Britain. The business was taken over by his sons after his death and created the famous Terry's "Chocolate Orange".

William Etty (1787-1849) - The painter William Etty was born in York, and became an apprentice in a printing works, where he remained for seven years. Then he became a student at the Royal Academy Schools in 1807, and worked for Thomas Lawrence for a year. The paintings by Etty at the Tate Gallery include the "Pandora Crowned by the Seasons", the well-known "Youth on the Prow and Pleasure at the Helm" and "The Bather at the doubtful breeze alarmed".

George Hudson - Lord Mayor of York (3 times) and known as the Railway King


The York Pass