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'Introduction', An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 2: The Defences (1972), pp. 1-5. URL: Date accessed: 20 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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The following account of the Defences of York begins with a survey of their history and development from the post-Roman period to the present day. Next the arrangements for maintaining and manning the defences are briefly examined. Then details, especially of the walls, are considered and comparisons are made between the defences of York and those of other English towns. A select chronological table and the detailed Inventory follow. The history of the two castles, of the individual gates and towers of the city wall, and of St. Mary's Abbey wall will be found, together with architectural descriptions, in the Inventory, but York Castle is not treated in detail since its building history has recently been studied in The History of the King's Works I (1963) and in the Victoria County History for the City of York (1961).

Two books by T. P. Cooper have been essential sources for the present work. These are The History of the Castle of York (1911), and York: the Story of its Walls, Bars and Castles (1904). Thomas Parsons Cooper (1863–1937), a self-educated official of the York United Gas Light Company, became interested in the defences through his enthusiasm for heraldry. His books are so well based on archival sources that further research has confirmed rather than corrected his account of the city's defences. His numerous articles include useful material on many aspects of local history, for instance literary associations of York.

Much information has also been gathered from W. Hargrove's History and Description of the Ancient City of York (1818) and from A. Raine's Mediaeval York (1955). Anyone attempting to write a history of the defences must draw heavily, as have the authors mentioned, both on the published records of the central government, such as Close and Patent Rolls, and on the city's archives. Some of the latter, edited by Raine and covering the period 1476–1584, have already been published by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society in York Civic Records (I-VIII, 1939–52), but the greater number are unpublished and, though used extensively by Cooper and Raine, have yielded many more relevant references. The most important of these are quoted or summarised below, but many others which could not be included are noted in the Commission's archives. The bibliography (p. 182) also includes a selection of material on the siege of York in 1644, to which particular attention has been paid, and some works on other English town defences.

Less evidence is available relating to the building of the stone walls at York than, for example, at Coventry or at Edward I's new towns in Wales. The one surviving contract, made in 1345 between the city and the otherwise unknown Thomas de Staunton, although useful, is little enough when compared with the documents preserved for a dozen other places. At Alnwick the walls and Bondgate Tower were built between 1434 and 1450 by Matthew the mason of Alnwick Abbey. (fn. 1) Beverley's North Bar was erected in 1409 by William Rolleston. The famous Henry Yevele designed the West Gate of Canterbury of 1378–90, and John Helpeston was the architect of Chester's new Water Tower in 1322. At London in 1278 Robert of Beverley was consulted over the extension of the walls near Ludgate. Other examples are Rochester (1396–1400) under John Westcote, Southampton (1379 onwards) under William Wynford, and Winchester, where both Wynford and Yevele worked on the defences in c. 1390. Regulations are also known for the collection of murage: at Chester in 1249 the money was to be deposited in the abbey in a chest with three locks, and the collectors were to hold two keys and the abbot, prior, or sacristan the third; at Worcester in 1236 two collectors and two receivers had to take special oaths. (fn. 2)

It is rare indeed for a mediaeval description with measurements of a city's defences to survive, like the one for Bristol made in c. 1470 by William Worcester (fn. 3) or that for Canterbury written in c. 1400 by Thomas Ikham. (fn. 4) Surveys made for manning or repairing the walls, as for Calais in 1442, (fn. 5) are often more detailed than those preserved at York. Early plans are usually conventional and imprecise; even so, nothing so early as, for example, the plan of Canterbury Cathedral Priory of c. 1150 showing the city wall nor so detailed as the plans of London and Bristol dating from before c. 1700 exist for York. London, not unexpectedly perhaps, is far better illustrated by early views than York; however, the subject of a panel of the St. William window of 1422 in York Minster has been identified as the welcome of the archbishop at Micklegate Bar in 1154. (fn. 6) The city gate appears as an arch, equipped with a portcullis, flanked by buttresses with moulded setbacks below bartizans on corbel courses. A sketch of a city, labelled 'ebrauc', with many pinnacled towers and spires, also appears in a manuscript of c. 1420. (fn. 7)

There is, however, abundant later evidence for the history of the York defences in the form of plans and views. Several of them are reproduced as illustrations in this Inventory. The most important printed plans of the whole city are by Speed (1610), Benedict Horsley (1697) and Peter Chassereau (1750). A manuscript plan by James Archer of c. 1682, now in the York City Reference Library, shows the castle and walls in greater detail. Archer, a captain in the Royal Engineers, probably visited York in 1682 with the Lieutenant of the Ordnance. His plan is the most accurate and fullest pre 19th-century survey of the defences and includes a detailed key with references to the Civil War siege and a section of Clifford's Tower and its motte. Four volumes of plans of city properties were drawn by Peter Atkinson in 1810–13, when he was City Steward and Husband, and include the walls and ramparts. In the archives of the City Engineer's department many large-scale drawings survive, made during the 19th century for the restoration or alteration of the bars and walls. These include a plan of Bootham Bar before the barbican was demolished, elevations of the walls in the Micklegate area of c. 1831, in the Walmgate area of 1857, and in the Central area of 1870–90.

The largest collection of old views of York and of its defences is in the York City Art Gallery. There are smaller collections in the City Reference Library and the Minster Library, and others can be found in the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and Bodleian Library. The artists whose work is most useful for knowledge of the defences are William Lodge (1649–89), Francis Place (1647–1728), Joseph Halfpenny (1748–1811), John Carter (1748–1817), Henry Cave (1779–1836), and George Nicholson (1787–1878). Lodge and especially Place, who lived in part of the King's Manor, give a good idea of the general appearance of the castle and walls between 1675 and 1720. The other artists were concerned to record details of the walls when they were in danger of destruction during the period 1790–1830. Nicholson in particular made several sketches of all the principal gates and towers. Halfpenny's clearer views omit adjoining buildings which obscured the barbicans in order to show the bars as a whole. Although William Etty (1787–1849) was a passionate advocate of the preservation of the city walls, only one view by him of Monk Bar is known to survive out of paintings of at least three of the bars.

Some literary associations of the defences may be briefly mentioned. The legendary Ebraucus, whose statue was set up on Bootham Bar, appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136) as the son of Mempricius, ruler of Britain for 40 years, and the founder of 'a city beyond the Humber which, after his own name, he called Kaerebrauc'. In Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part III (c. 1590), Queen Margaret, referring to Richard, Duke of York, cries: 'Off with his head and set it on York Gates; So York may overlook the town of York'. Later in the play Edward IV replaces his father's head with those of Lancastrian leaders captured at Towton, and, returning from exile, parleys with the citizens at one of the gates. These events had actually happened at Micklegate Bar in 1460 and 1461 and at Walmgate Bar in 1471. The group of poems Prison Amusements, written by James Montgomery in 1795–6 when he was imprisoned in the Castle, throw light on conditions there. The raven which he mentions was perhaps the original of 'Grip' in Dickens' Barnaby Rudge (1841). The promenade on the walls is described in Wilkie Collins' No Name (1862), and the Civil War siege in novels by Beatrice Marshall, The Siege of York (1902), and by Florence Bone, A Rose of York (c. 1900), although without the benefit of Mr. L. P. Wenham's recent monograph on that topic. The slow death of Robert Aske on Clifford's Tower is a grim episode in H. F. M. Prescott's The Man on a Donkey (1952).

For most of their length the walls of York, almost entirely built of magnesian limestone from the Tadcaster neighbourhood, generally white in colour, stand on top of a massive earth rampart. They enclose in a perimeter of just over 2 miles an area of 263 acres, divided into three parts by the river Ouse, flowing from N.W. to S.E., and by its tributary the Foss running approximately N.-S. to a confluence just below the old city. The largest of these parts, the central area of York, includes the site of the Roman fortress and is a spur of boulder clay capped on the N.W. by gravel and sand, rising to 50 ft. above sea level and sloping S. and E. to the rivers. On the opposite bank of the Ouse the Micklegate area rises to a height of 60 ft. at Toft Green in the W. angle of the defences. The third and smallest part, a lozenge with Walmgate as its axis, is generally level. The site of the castle in the angle between the two rivers was originally also fairly level. The present contours are somewhat different from those at the end of the Roman period, since over most of the centre of the city there is 10 ft. of post-Roman accumulation, steep slopes have been levelled, and the normal river level is now higher than in the past, when it was liable to more extreme fluctuations due both to tides and floods.

Some confusion may be caused to students of the defences by varying nomenclature employed by different writers. From about 1700 the city walls have been popularly known as 'the Bar Walls', a term seldom used in the House Books of the Corporation but frequent in the Chamberlains' Books of Account and still usual in newspaper references. The earth ramparts on which the walls stand were often described as 'moats'; the ditches were called 'Bar Dykes'. The spaces below the gatehouses and within the barbicans were known as 'barsteads'. There are also several variations in the names of gateways and towers. The most confusing are Bishopgate (for Skeldergate Postern), George Street Postern (for Fishergate Bar), and Peasholme Green Postern (for Layerthorpe Postern). Fishergate Postern is 'the postern near St. George's Church' of mediaeval documents. A tower can have as many as three different names: so, Tower 27 was called at various times Bawing, Frost Tower, and Robin Hood Tower; Talkan Tower is now known as Fishergate Postern Tower; and the Multangular Tower was once Elrondyng. The names Sadler Tower and Davy Tower have also been applied to other towers than those so identified in this volume.

If earlier and fuller material were available it would probably be possible to give all the ancient names of the towers of York. As it is, fifteen such names are preserved, some originating from the situation (Tofts Tower), some from a person, whether real or mythical (Davy, Talkan, and Robin Hood), one from the colour of the building (Red), and others, like Bitchdaughter, Bawing, and Elronding, of obscure origin. At Newcastle and Chester all the towers had traditional names; at other places, such as Bristol and Norwich, some had names, but the rest were usually listed as the first, second, third etc. between gates or reckoned from terminal towers. As an example of this usage at York, Tower 28 is described in a lease of 1584 as the second tower from Monk Bar. (fn. 8) Tower 12 in 1494 was called 'a certain tower near the bar of Miklith on the north side'. (fn. 9)

Barker (North Street Postern) Tower was so named from its proximity to the tanners' quarter of Barker Hill and Tanner Row, but the name of Sadler Tower cannot be connected with the saddlers' guild nor with its use as their meeting place. Such use occurred at Newcastle and Chester, for example, where eleven and three towers respectively were used as guild halls from the 16th to the 19th century. (fn. 10) Indeed the usefulness of bars and towers, other than for defence, is widely attested. At Lincoln the town hall was over the Stonebow, the main S. gateway, and at Southampton it was above the Bargate. The use of Monk Bar and Fishergate Bar at York as prisons is paralleled at London and Newcastle (Newgate), Chester, Durham, and Oxford (North Gates). At London in 1311 the king required the use of several gates as temporary prisons for the Templars. (fn. 11) Again, the lease of gatehouses or towers as private houses is known at York from the 12th century, and happened elsewhere: at Bristol William Worcester mentions five examples, and at Oxford Roger Bacon was said to have lived in the South Gate. At London one tower was used by the Treasurer of St. Paul's and another by hermits, so was St. Stephen's Gate at Norwich. (fn. 12) None of the York gates was used as a chapel, however, as at Bristol and Oxford where churches were placed over or adjoining gateways, or at Warwick where two examples still remain. The conversion of the York Lendal Tower into a waterworks in the 17th century is paralleled at Bridge Gate, Chester, but at London and Newcastle water towers of the same period were not part of the defences.

Although the walls of York had neither the longest circuit nor the greatest number of gates and towers of any city in England, they are, by reason of the demolition of much of the defences of Bristol, Coventry, London, Newcastle and Norwich, the most complete. They also have a more complex history than those of most other towns, going back to the Roman period. Colchester and Lincoln have Roman defences; at Wareham and Wallingford Saxon earthworks can be seen; Oxford and Southampton are still partly surrounded by mediaeval walls; only at York can work of all three periods be seen together on a large scale.

During the later 18th century ancient city gates and walls were everywhere being demolished as obstacles to traffic and expansion. While Chester rebuilt its gates in classical style between 1786 and 1810, and the walls of Newcastle were still maintained as a military defence until 1800, all the eleven gates of Norwich were pulled down between 1792 and 1808, five of the eight gateways at London, already much altered in the 16th and 17th centuries, were demolished in 1760, the two remaining gates of Oxford went in 1772, and those of Canterbury, excepting West Gate, were removed after 1782. The Canterbury West Gate was only just saved from demolition for the passage of Wombwell's Circus in 1859. In 1823 the last surviving gates of the seven at Newcastle, together with large stretches of the walls, were pulled down, although eight out of twenty towers still remain. Apart from York, less than a third of the 108 walled towns in England and Wales still retain a gateway; of neighbouring places, Doncaster and Hull lost their last gate in c. 1800, Scarborough in 1843, and only one of four remains at Beverley. Canterbury and Winchester each retains a major city gate, but York retains all four of its original bars.

The Corporation of York, as described below, made strenuous efforts during the first half of the 19th century to demolish the city walls. These efforts, made against influential opposition, resulted in the disappearance of three barbicans and four posterns, but by 1855, when an attempt was made to get rid of most of the Walmgate walls, the principle of preservation had been generally accepted, and the walls were finally fully restored in 1889. Thus, as well as the bars, York retains all but a few of its interval towers.

The defences of Conway and Caernarvon may perhaps vie with those of York in completeness but they are small in comparison. The York defences are therefore of very great interest to both the architect and the historian and to the enquiring visitor. In spite of the demands of traffic and some voices still calling for their demolition, the increasing recognition of them as a tourist attraction may well prove their most important safeguard.

Projected North-West Elevation of York Castle, After Robert Wallace, 1824

Projected North-West Elevation of York Castle, After Robert Wallace, 1824

City of York

City of York


1 J. H. Harvey, English Mediaeval Architects (1954), passim for the examples quoted.
2 CPR, 1232–47, 155; 1247–58, 49.
3 J. Dallaway, Antiquities of Bristow in the Middle Centuries (1834), 40–5, 145–8.
4 BM, Stowe MS 850, f. 124.
5 King's Works, 448, cf. fig. 43, and Pls. 21, 22.
6 F. Harrison, The Painted Glass of York (1927), 211.
7 BM, MS Royal 13 Aiii, f. 16v.
8 B28, f. 158.
9 E31, f. 7.
10 Arch. Ael. xxxvi (1958), 61–72; F. Simpson, The Walls of Chester (1910).
11 CCR, 1307–13, 308.
12 CPR, 1232–47. 106–7; R. M. Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England (1914), 67, 230–1.