Sectional Preface
History to 1540


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'Sectional Preface: History to 1540', An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 5: Central (1981), pp. XXXIII-XXXVIII. URL: Date accessed: 19 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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Sectional Preface

The Central Area

The present volume covers the central part of York, within the city walls and on the left bank of the river Ouse. This includes the whole of the site of the Roman fortress to the N., a narrow strip between the S.W. wall of the fortress and the Ouse, and a much larger area to the S. crossed by the river Foss.

From 1066 to 1200

The Norman Conquest greatly changed the southern end of the city with the establishment of the Castle, cutting across the main road to the S. which followed a line from Castlegate to Fishergate, and with the damming of the Foss to form the King's Fish-pond. Fire devastated the city in 1069 and again in 1137. Few documents and fewer buildings survive from the period before the second fire. From the later part of the 12th-century, however, numerous title deeds have been preserved, naming, in the whole city, forty streets and thirty-five parish churches, and contemporary masonry has survived at a number of places. Stone houses are mentioned at this time as far apart as Bretgate (Navigation Road) S.E. of the Foss, Goodramgate, and Coney Street where the Jewish community had 'houses like royal palaces'. The only remains of 12th-century stone houses to survive are in Gray's Court and off Stonegate.

Whether the numbers of parish churches in York reflect the density of the population or the interests of many landowners, they occur in similar numbers in England only in those towns which were established before the Conquest and flourished in the 11th century. Cities comparable to York in having a concentration of ancient churches (45, of which 35 are recorded by 1200) are London with 104, Norwich (59), Winchester, already declining by 1130 (56), Lincoln (30), Canterbury (22), and Bristol, Cambridge, Leicester, Oxford and Stamford (each 10–20).

So many of the streets of mediaeval and modern York are already mentioned in documents before 1200, many of the 'gates' and 'gails' (streets and lanes) having names of Scandinavian origin, that the street system was probably well established before the Norman Conquest. Certainly recent excavations in Coppergate and elsewhere have shown that tenement boundaries there were already fixed by A.D. 1000. The pattern established by 1200, with some streets, such as Coney Street, Petergate and Stonegate, on or very near Roman lines, and with others, like the many lanes down to the Ouse, being the result of 11th-century commerce, clearly indicates that the population was concentrated in the area of the Roman fortress and between its walls and the two rivers. The existence of only a few streets and fewer churches S.E. of the Foss stresses the importance of the central area of York.

Two important thoroughfares, both flanked by parallel lanes, crossed by the church of St. Crux. Collier-gate and Fossgate led from the site of the Roman gatehouse in King's Square to Foss Bridge and Walmgate, crossing the route from Ouse Bridge to Peasholme Green and Layerthorpe by way of Ousegate, Pavement, and St. Saviourgate. The space between Colliergate and Shambles and between Ousegate and Coppergate and Kergate (King Street) and between St. Saviourgate and the old Stonebow Lane may have been an open area used for markets and containing the churches of Christ Church, King's Square, St. Crux, All Saints, Pavement, and St. Saviour. (Parliament Street and Piccadilly were only cut through in the 19th century.)

Some confirmation that these strips were once open may be found in the phrase of c. 1130 'magna placea que dicitur Usegata', in the name 'strata de Marketshire' for Pavement, in the persistence of markets in the area (the chancel of All Saints was taken down in the 18th century to make more market space) and in the concentration in this district of streets named from trades. The principal market place, however, was the Thursday Market, now St. Sampson's Square, in the S. corner of the Roman fortress, off the line of any main street.

In the late 12th century the area between St. Saviourgate and the Foss was known as 'the Marsh' but already included three parish churches. Presumably by that time the marshy conditions, due to an earlier loop of the Foss, were already becoming a memory. Excavation to the W. has shown that a thick peaty deposit still exists, water-logged even now to within a few feet from the surface, preserving wooden pile foundations, the planking of buildings, wattle fences, leather and much other organic debris, with timber-lined wells penetrating deeper through the post-Roman flood deposits. The principal street in this area, before the formation of the modern Stonebow, was Hungate, leading down to the Foss, with the site of the Carmelite Friary immediately W. of it. At a later date it was lined by poor tenements which were cleared away in 1936.

From 1200 to 1540

During the early 13th century four friaries were founded at York. Two were established on royal land: the Dominicans around a chapel of St. Mary Magdalene in the King's Tofts near Toft Green, the Franciscans near the castle, possibly in a former outer bailey or approach hitherto kept clear for military purposes. The Carmelites at first settled in the Horsefair, where they enlarged an earlier suburban church, but moved in 1295 to a large plot between Fossgate and Hungate with a landing on the banks of the King's Fish-pond. The Augustinian Friars had a more limited precinct between Lendal and the Ouse. The establishment of these friaries, although indicating that open areas were still available within the defences in the 13th century, meant that these plots were no longer free for house building. Indeed the Franciscans were given leave in 1279 to enclose a street 338 ft. long and 15–18 ft. wide, presumably parallel to the three Water Lanes, just as twenty years later St. Leonard's Hospital incorporated in its precinct a lane leading from Blake Street to Petergate, and the Dean in 1300 blocked a lane, where evil-doers gathered, linking the Minster churchyard and Petergate.

Of the three Water Lanes referred to, First Water Lane or Cargate, also known as Hatter Lane in the 16th century, is now King Street and before its rebuilding in 1851 was said to house the poorest and most disorderly part of the population. Middle Water Lane, earlier known as Thursgail and Thrush Lane, is now Cumberland Street. It was shortened by the opening of Clifford Street and formerly was lined with picturesque timber jettied buildings depicted by Cave, Nicholson and others. Far Water Lane, or Hertergate, is now Friargate.

At the beginning of the 14th century the royal administration was at York intermittently for some twenty years with the exchequer, treasury and courts in the castle, the chancery in St. Mary's Abbey and the king often staying in the Franciscan Friary. Regulations made in 1301 to control prices in connection with the governmental presence name over 380 persons engaged in eleven victualling trades and order the establishment of public latrines in each quarter. A pavage toll was granted in 1319 and there is evidence for street repairs from then onwards. By 1300 York was renowned for its retail trade and by 1330 was prospering by the export of woollen cloth through the newly-formed port of Kingston-upon-Hull.

By 1400 York had achieved its greatest importance and prosperity, with a population of perhaps 15,000. There are few figures to use in calculating its numbers (the 1,607 houses of 1066, the 7,250 freemen of 1381, the 12,040 poor given alms by King Richard in 1396) but it is thought that before it reached this peak the population was between 8,000 and 12,000, to which it was to be reduced again in the 16th and 17th centuries. Land was needed to house this growing population: in the 14th century there is evidence for the building of six rows of houses on churchyards to endow chantries and there may have been others; the Vicars Choral built similar rows for rent on strips behind their garden in the Bedern. Already in 1288 it was said to be an ancient custom for owners of property adjoining the Ouse to enlarge their holdings onto its banks, a practice similar to that recorded at Bristol in 1221 of building quays into the tidal Avon. Some reclamation had taken place below Coney Street in the 12th century, and the Grey Friars' river wall of 1288–91 had given them more land further downstream. Shortly before 1366 the city built a new quay, the King's Staith, no doubt reclaiming land from the river in the process.

By 1378 the bridges across the Ouse and Foss were already lined with small houses and shops, as were bridges at Bristol and Lincoln. The rents of these buildings, which belonged to the city, went towards maintaining the bridges. The city records for 1420–1 show a determination on the part of the authorities to lease as much waste land on or near the ramparts and anywhere else in the city as possible, whether because of pressure on the space available, or because of a need for ready money, or from a fuller appreciation of this source of income. However, the mention in 1427 of selions of land near Hungate suggests that there was still ground in the former Marsh not used or not fit for building.

By the mid 15th century the wealth flowing into York from its trade in wool and textiles, from offerings at St. William's shrine, and from increased commerce when the court was in residence, was starting to lessen. The city's overseas trade with the Baltic and Flanders was being interrupted by piracy and more powerful competitors in the Hanseatic League and London; its cloth trade, which in 1400 occupied about a sixth of its citizens, was being undermined by the rise of rural industry in the West Riding; royal visits were becoming less frequent and Henry IV's arrival in 1405 was to punish York for its part in the rebellion of Archbishop Richard Scrope and to arrange for his execution. Not only York but English towns in general apparently declined after 1450 (R. B. Dobson, Trans. Royal Hist. Soc., xxvii (1977), 1–22).

Nevertheless York was still regarded as the second city of the kingdom; although Bristol and Norwich had overtaken it in wealth and population, it was still the largest town in the North of England. The new choir and towers at the Minster, the rebuilding of St. Crux in 1424 and of St. Martin, Coney Street, soon afterwards showed that there were still funds for church building. The numerous craft guilds were able to compete at the Corpus Christi festival in a costly display of mystery plays, well established by 1417 and presented from wagons at twelve places moving down Micklegate to Coney Street, up Stonegate and along Petergate to Pavement. The finest of their halls survive: the Merchant Adventurers' Hall of c. 1360, the new Guildhall of 1449–59 replacing one mentioned as early as 1256, St. Anthony's Hall of c. 1458, and the smaller Merchant Taylors' Hall. The halls of the Butchers, Cordwainers and Haberdashers near Shambles, in Hungate and in Walmgate, demolished in the 19th century, were timber-framed but less ambitious buildings than those which survive. With other works, for example the new market cross of 1429, St. William's College of 1466, the Minster lantern tower completed in 1472, such buildings showed confidence that the old prosperity would continue. By 1487, however, the mayor was complaining to Henry VII of York's poverty and the loss of half its population. (R. M. B.)

Carved Saxon Stones

The distribution patterns presented by the surviving carved stones of Saxon date in York are illustrated in a previous volume (York IV, Figs. 3 and 4). S.W. of the Ouse they were concentrated in the Bishophill area, discussed in York III. E. of the Ouse the main concentrations were centred on the Minster and its associated cemetery, and on St. Mary, Castlegate. Other carvings were mainly found singly and range from the extramural area of the Earlsborough to the Walmgate area. Detailed discussion of the carved stones from the Minster will appear in a later R.C.H.M. volume, and mention of these and other carved stones found outside the limits of the present volume is restricted to comparisons with items in this inventory. A group of incised flat slabs, forming a distinctive pre-Danish type, is represented in York only within the Minster. The main concentration in time dates from after the Danish invasion, and York carvers were probably at their most active in the immediate pre-Conquest period of the later 10th century and the first half of the 11th century.

Magnesian limestone is used for the pre-Danish crosses, but later carvings show a preference for gritstone. The extensive re-use of Roman material at York suggests that there was no freshly quarried stone, but the Romans tended to use magnesian limestone in small ashlar blocks of insufficient size for cross-shafts, and monumental or other features were all in gritstone. It could be postulated that all the magnesian limestone derived from one lost Roman building using this material in large blocks, and that the exhaustion of this source caused the change in material between the earlier and later Saxon periods. Alternatively, some knowledge of masoncraft may have survived from Romano-British times. The evidence from cist burials in the oolitic limestone area, and the use of new quarried oolitic stone in the 'Anglian tower' (York II, Tower 19), probably of an earlier date than any of the surviving crosses, suggests that it may have done so in at least one area. For Saxon quarrying in Northumbria we now have evidence from Monkwearmouth, and further south new quarrying was widespread in the later period (E. M. Jope, 'The Saxon Building-Stone Industry in Southern and Midland England', Med. Arch., viii (1964), 91–118). There is evidence throughout the North of the use of soft limestone in the 7th and 8th centuries for crosses and architectural features. Where the surface survives, these show a distinctive technique, also evident in the early crosses at York, of dressing with small chisels and then polishing to produce a fine polished surface. Although probably deriving from foreign masons, it became a standard technique of the Northumbrian period and could be said to go on to the Viking period. Wilfrid, according to Eddius, imported masons and craftsmen of all kinds in 666 and, according to Richard of Hexham, they came from Rome, Italy, Francia and other lands (D. P. Kirby (ed.), Saint Wilfrid at Hexham (1974), 68). They, and successors they trained, were responsible for the fine technique, but the use of the best local stone available may be due to local knowledge. Its use at York was probably denied to the builders of the Anglian tower by the survival of the Kingdom of Elmet, but the proximity of Wilfrid's other church, at Ripon, to the magnesian limestone belt suggests that local knowledge was available to masons at York in the later 7th and 8th centuries. At the later period the use of gritstone, the greater use of reused Roman material, and the decline in technique, although partly due to the unsuitability of the stone, may be a result of the Danish invasion and the destruction of much of Roman York that survived.

Pre-Danish carvings include a group of well-cut inscriptions, of which the majority come from the Minster (Okasha, 133–5, York v, vi and viii). The inscribed magnesian limestone cross-head, previously published as item i in the list of mediaeval sculpture in the Yorkshire Museum (York IV, xliv, xlvi, Plate 25), 'probably found after 1875 in York' (Okasha, 132, York iii), was positively identified in 1881 by Haigh as 'a fragment of a cross from St. Mary, Bishophill Junior' (YAJ, vi, 48). This increases the number of stones S.W. of the Ouse 'to which a pre-Danish date can be given with any assurance' (York III, xli) to two. Outside the Minster, only two have been found E. of the Ouse, both within the area formerly occupied by St. Leonard's Hospital, and could be associated with an undocumented pre-Conquest church which preceded the chapel of St. Peter built by William II. One of the stones, an inscribed cross-shaft (1) (Plate 21), is best considered in the context of the Minster inscriptions mentioned above. A further cross-head fragment, apparently showing similarities to the St. Mary, Bishophill Junior, fragment but bearing no inscription, was published by Collingwood as 'in private possession at York' without a find-spot, and was known to him only from a photograph (YAJ, xx, Part 78 (1908), 204). The second cross-shaft from St. Leonard's, (2) (Plate 21), is carved on one face with an early 9th-century degenerate version of the inhabited scroll which can be paralleled elsewhere in Yorkshire and Lancashire, and on the reverse with a coarsely-carved vine scroll. The interlace on the sides is composed of a single and three separate strands respectively, and forms chain-stitch patterns resembling knitting.

Unlike the area S.W. of the Ouse, where cross-shaft (1) from St. Mary, Bishophill Junior, (York III, 28b) is a spirited example of the survival of a sculptural tradition, E. of the Ouse the period after the Danish invasion is a blank for about a century as far as carving is concerned. Then, for about a century before the Norman Conquest, and possibly until the first Norman Minster obliterated the cemetery of its predecessor, destroyed by fire in 1080, Anglo-Danish carvers produced an impressive quantity of standing crosses and sepulchral monuments, usually in the form of cover slabs with headstones and footstones, using a common repertoire of interlace patterns, zoomorphic designs and stylised figures. No complete hog-backs have been found in the area, apart from one stone from the Minster, unfortunately destroyed, which may have been a tegulated hog-back, but two fragments in St. Mary, Castlegate, (16) and (17), are possibly part of one. Coped slabs were popular, as were those carved with crosses, which usually have carving covering the space between the cross-arms. Only three stones have a definite link with a church structure: the finial cross from St. Crux, which probably surmounted a gable, and an arched lintel (1) and the important dedication stone (6) (Plate 21) in St. Mary, Castlegate. Some of the carvings associated with St. Mary, Castlegate, predate the dedication stone and, whether or not there was an earlier church on the site, this suggests that there was a graveyard in use in the area by the 10th century. It might be of greater antiquity, as two hanging bowls found with Viking debris may have come from 7th-century graves, and a lead cross marked with a coin of Osberht, 847–67, may also have come from a burial.

No standing cross survives intact. Three pieces of reused Roman column in St. Mary, Castlegate, (2), (3) and (5), may have served as cross-bases. Three cross-shafts in the Minster have a faint echo in one fragment with a bird in St. Mary, Castlegate, (11), and a larger fragment from Newgate (Plate 23), whose closest parallels are with the Nunburnholme Cross. The Newgate fragment is the top of the shaft, and has a dowel-hole in the top for a cross-head. Cross-heads are well represented at St. Mary, Castlegate. Substantial portions of three survive: two, (7) and (8(a)–(d)) (Plate 22), are wheel-heads, and the waists on the cross-arms of (8(a)–(d)) are again visible on the third cross-head, (12) (Plate 22). Two are noteworthy, (8(a)–(d)) for the animals carved in relief on one side, and (12) for the figure carving on both sides. Two fragments (10), found at the junction of Castlegate and Friargate, and another sandstone fragment, 10 in. by 7½ in. by 4 in., may have been parts of cross-head arms. The latter fragment, 'found on a rubbish heap in York' and transferred from the Castle Museum to the Yorkshire Museum in 1976, tapers slightly and has the same design on the front and back (YAJ, xxxv (1943), 2–4).

Three grave-slabs, from All Saints, Pavement (Plate 23), from St. Denys', (2), and from St. Mary, Castlegate, (13), are coped, as is another corner fragment, (14), from the last. The All Saints, Pavement, and St. Denys' slabs both have two panels covered with interlaced animals. Similar animals to those at All Saints' occur on a fragmentary slab found a short distance away on the S. side of Coppergate in excavations by the York Archaeological Trust (The Sunday Times, 11 Sept. 1977). The St. Mary, Castlegate, slab is a cross-slab with elaborate double-strand interlace, of equal complexity but a different pattern from a cross-slab at St. Mary, Bishophill Senior, (20). Another grave-slab from St. Denys', (1) (Plate 21), is to a standard pattern of which eight fragmentary examples survive. Four come from the Minster S. transept; one from St. Mary, Bishophill Junior, S.W. of the Ouse (discovered 1968, unpublished); one, an outlier, from Gainford, Co. Durham (F. J. Haverfield and W. Greenwell, A Catalogue of the Sculptured and Inscribed Stones in the Cathedral Library, Durham (1899), 107); and one from in front of the Yorkshire Museum. The last may come from St. Olave's, founded between 1030 and 1055, which could give a mean date for the entire group. The slabs bear crosses, with small semicircular indentations at the junctions of the arms, dividing the surface into four panels, each with a winged barbel-tongued beast whose body is formed of bifurcating interlace. Similar beasts occur on the All Saints, Pavement, coped slab, and a slab from the Minster, Burial 1. (fn. 1) They probably derive ultimately from the griffins carved on a cross at Otley, Yorkshire, the barbel or pointed leaf form being an adaptation of a bunch of berries which one such creature holds in its mouth (Rosemary Cramp, 'The Position of the Otley Crosses in English Sculpture of the Eighth to Ninth Centuries', Kolloquium (1970), Tafel 46). In this group double-strand interlace appears standard, although not now visible on some of the more worn slabs, as does bifurcation; the latter feature is also visible on the All Saints, Pavement, slab and that from Clifford Street, discussed under St. Mary, Castle-gate, (9), as well as on one side panel of a cross-head from the church, (7), and on the Newgate cross (see No. 6 Newgate (289)). The cross-arm indentations occur on the Clifford Street slab, associated with panels containing single animals, and on the simple Parliament Street slab (1) (see former early mediaeval Burial Ground (16)). The equal-armed crosses on slab (2) are roughly carved and give little indication as to date, but the burial included a headstone, (3), with distinctive two-strand interlace patterns on three sides (Plate 21). On two sides it forms a knot identical with that on both faces of the fragment formerly in the Castle Museum discussed above, is possibly detectable on the fragment from the junction of Friargate and Castle-gate, and its mirror image occurs on the wheel-head from St. Mary, Castlegate, (7), on the smaller panels of slab (20) from St. Mary, Bishophill Senior (York III, Plate 25), and the side of cross-shaft (3) in the same church. The pattern on the main face, with two separate double-strands simply interlaced together, also appears on the worn side of the Parliament Street headstone.

It is clear that the same decorative vocabulary was used for a wide variety of monuments. On the Bishophill Senior slab (2) the basic knot is extended with a separate loop around the intersection of two knots on the long panels. The patterns produced include a circle intertwined with a figure-of-eight, on the end of a cross-arm of the St. Mary, Castlegate, crucifix, (12); a circle intersecting with a star-shape, on one of the faces of the same carving; the same on stone (4) at Bishophill Senior, which has a series of intertwined figure-of-eight loops on the adjacent face similar to Castlegate (11); a much more complicated series of roundels and knots on the Castlegate coped grave-slab (13); and straight-forward geometrical patterns on the bosses of wheel-head cross (8(a)–(b)). Animal interlace is much freer. The serpent on the cross-arm of Castlegate (12) is twisted into a series of separate knots, also found on the two dragons or serpents attacking an armed man on the side of the slab above Burial 7 in the Minster. Double-strand interlace is the common feature of all the Anglo-Danish carvings in York, regardless of pattern.


1 The numbering of burials in the Minster follows Pattison (Arch., CIV (1973)).