ORIGINS AND EARLY GROWTH
The pre-Conquest borough and effects of the Conquest
Development of local government | Power struggles with rivals
Buildings and fortifications | Economy | Information sources
Map of York at the close of the Middle Ages
|Origins and early growth|
As the Roman invasion of Britain moved north, a garrison was established by the newcomers on York's hitherto largely unoccupied site and this fortress was called Eboracum. Medieval residents were receptive to a subsequent claim of their city's foundation by a British prince but this was no more than a medieval myth, just like the tradition that exaggerated both the emperor Constantine's connection with York and the Christian dimension of his background. The Romans evidently recognized that the site was strategically located to control the principal south-north route through the country: the Vale of York; that lowlands region was easier to govern and defend than the uplands of northern England. It was not only a natural focus of ancient land-routes, which Roman-built roads subsequently augmented, but also well-placed to connect with the inland waterway system that later developed; the Ouse was part of this system, and had a reasonably convenient connection to the North Sea via the Humber; York was established at the lowest bridging point on the Ouse. By the time of Domesday it was possible to travel by river from York into the Midlands and East Anglia, thanks to canals dug beween Torksey, Lincoln and the Wash, connecting up to major rivers. By contrast, the principal Roman roads steered clear of the lowlands, marshy and vulnerable to flooding, and York was approached via a number of linking roads, some stretches carried on causeways. The Roman fortress, situated on an elevated site in the northwestern section of the future medieval York, attracted a civilian population which settled on the opposite bank of the Ouse and York became one of the provincial capitals and, after the Christianization of the empire, the centre of a bishopric. It was to remain one of England's most important cities for the next 1,300 years, although this was a double-edged sword, for it meant that York would often be caught up in national conflicts.
What happened to York after the departure of the Roman military is hazy, but life probably went on much the same for years, perhaps decades; though there is evidence of the presence of Anglian soldiers by the late fifth century, these might have been mercenaries employed to help defend the shrinking Romanized population. Relatively little evidence of the beginning or extent of settlement of the initial Anglo-Saxon invaders has been turned up in York by archaeologists, as yet, although they have thrown much light on Anglian York in its later period. The Roman roads probably helped keep York a settlement of some importance as the remnants of the Christian Romano-British society disintegrated. This is suggested by two pieces of evidence. First, when Augustine was sent to Britain (arriving 601) to begin the process of restoring orthodox Christianity, it appears Pope Gregory's assumption was that York would still be the appropriate choice as the base for one of two planned episcopal sees; and such was the conclusion of the missionaries, Augustine's companion Paulinus settling into York as its first bishop. Second, when the king of Northumbria was converted to Christianity (627) his baptism took place at York, where a modest wooden church dedicated to St. Peter was hastily constructed for the purpose the king initiated a project to reconstruct it on a larger scale, in stone; evidently Edwin also saw what remained of York as suitable for a ceremonial centre in his kingdom. By Edwin's time clearly the Angles were in control of York, although it would be going too far to suggest it the capital of his Northumbrian kingdom, and we cannot even be sure it retained all the characteristics by which historians define a place as urban.
Possibly York's importance in this early period of the Middle Ages was more as an administrative centre both religious and secular than one of population or trade. This role is reflected in further rebuilding of the original Minster church in the late seventh century, and again after severe fire damage in 741. Yet by that period we have evidence of growing economic activity, including long-distance trade across the North Sea. On the down side, York was also subject to the political instabilities of the period; during the wars between the various kingdoms into which the country was divided, York was captured several times during the seventh century.
By the eighth century the picture is clearing. There is evidence of an Anglo-Saxon settlement in the Fishergate neighbourhood, by the River Foss perhaps an industrial and trading community serving the resident administrators which justified the "wik" in the Anglo-Saxon name for the town: Eoforwic. Such wiks are an early sign of the development of a national network supporting commercial exchange. In their choice of Fishergate, the Anglo-Saxons may have been deliberately avoiding the area of Roman habitation on the south-west bank of the Ouse. This shift of the civilian settlement would help explain why the medieval bridge across the Ouse was further east than the likely site of the Roman crossing at the end of Stonegate. In 735 York's bishop acquired archiepiscopal status and York was beginning to acquire a reputation as a centre of learning, thanks to a school attached to the church of St. Peter. There seems to have followed a period of prosperity yet also one of complacency for, whereas an eighth-century writer mentions the city having high walls (presumably the remnants of the Roman fortifications), the existence of strong walls was denied by a later writer, referring to events of the 860s, so perhaps the walls had been allowed to fall into disrepair.
In 866 the Danes, having invaded East Anglia, spread northwards and captured York, in the following year defeating the Northumbrian forces that tried to retake it, before returning to East Anglia to complete their conquest of it. The Danes subsequently refortified the city and made it, under the name Jorvik, the centre of their northern kingdom; this attracted further Danish settlement to the area, leading to an economic boom, in part thanks to the energy of Danish craftsmen and traders and their improved accessed to markets in northern Europe. Christianization of some of the Danish kings lessened the impact of this on the city's role in religious administration, although there appears to have been some disruption and paganism flourished alongside the Christian church.
York continued to be a target in the struggle for control of England. The Viking kingdom in the north, of which York was an important but not the only part, faced threats from both Wessex and Norsemen based in Ireland, the latter succeeding in taking over York for a while. Athelstan of Wessex took the city during his invasion of 927 but his grip on it may not have been firm, and certainly his successors were unable to hold it securely. That the Scandinavians and the Anglian residents had found a way to live and work together is suggested by their combined opposition to reconquest efforts coming out of Wessex. Control of Yorkshire swung back and forth until just after mid-century when Northumbria was united with southern England into a single kingdom, although it was impracticable to try to govern the north from Wessex, and royal influence was effected through earls some English, some Danish using York as an administrative centre but not necessarily their residence. In this unstable political environment, which continued throughout the remainder of the Anglo-Saxon period (Harold's succession in 1066 being followed quickly by a Norse invasion that first targeted York) the role of York as a centre of Christian learning declined.
On the other hand, under Viking rule and subsequent regimes York cohered into an urban community, with the area of the former Roman fortress and colony receiving a growth in population along with some redevelopment of the street plan, new areas of housing being laid out elsewhere in a planned fashion, and commercial activity spreading across the whole as defined by the walls later to be built around the city and beyond into what would become suburban hamlets (or thorps in Norse). Prosperity grew alongside the growth in population. As the only large town in the region, York was the sole site of an Anglo-Saxon mint north of the Humber, the majority of its minters having Scandinavian names, just as a high proportion of the street names of post-Conquest York embodied Norse elements.