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 on York's site by the Romans and the fortress was called Eboracum. They evidently recognized that the site was strategically located to control the principal south-north route through the country: the Vale of York. 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. The fortress, situated 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 Romans is hazy. Little evidence of the Anglo-Saxon newcomers has been turned up in York by archaeologists, as yet. The Roman roads probably helped keep it a settlement of some importance as the remnants of the Christian Romano-British society disintegrated. This is suggested by two pieces of evidence: when Augustine was sent to Britain (601) to begin the process of restoring orthodox Christianity it was intended that York be the centre of one of two planned episcopal sees; and 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.
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 Minster church in the late seventh century, and again after severe fire damage in 741. On the other hand, 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 in the seventh century.
By the eighth century the picture is clearing. There is evidence of an Anglo-Saxon settlement in the Fishergate area, 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. 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 conquered East Anglia, spread northwards and captured York, in the following year defeating the Northumbrian forces that tried to retake 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.
The city continued to be a target in the struggle for control of England. The Viking kingdom of the north faced threats from both from Wessex and Norsemen from Ireland, the latter succeeding in taking over York. Athelstan of Wessex took it during his invasion of 927 but was unable to hold it. Control of Yorkshire swung back and forth until just after mid-century when Northumbria was united with southern England into a single kingdom, although earls continued to rule the north from York. In this unstable environment, the role of York as a centre of Christian learning declined.