Features in: Sworn Sword; The Splintered Kingdom.
Known to Norse speakers as Jorvik and to the Anglo-Saxons as Eoferwic, York was one of the largest cities in Conquest-era England, vying with Bristol and Norwich for second place after London. A thriving market and manufacturing centre, it was also part of an extensive trading network; archaeological finds include coins from Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan and a cowrie shell from the Persian Gulf.Like many Anglo-Saxon urban centres, York had its origins in a Roman fortress, Eboracum, which stood on the site occupied now by York Minster. Evidence of settlement in the early Anglo-Saxon period is sparse, and there is no written mention of the place for more than three hundred years from AD 314. Nevertheless, in 627 it was chosen as the location for the baptism of King Edwin: the first Northumbrian ruler to convert to Christianity. An early settlement has been excavated close to the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Foss and has been dated to the eighth century, making it contemporaneous with the famous York (or Coppergate) Helmet, which was unearthed in 1982 and is currently on display in the Yorkshire Museum.
In 866 a Viking army captured York, and the town was to remain in Scandinavian hands until 927, when King Æthelstan of Wessex received its submission. After Æthelstan’s death, control passed back and forth between the house of Wessex and the Scandinavians until in 954 the last Viking king of York, Eric Bloodaxe, was driven out and killed and the city was brought into the new kingdom of England.
As well as being a major market for goods from overseas, York in the tenth and eleventh centuries was also a flourishing manufacturing centre in its own right. The street-name Coppergate derives from the Old Norse Kopparigat, meaning “street of the cup-makers”. Excavations have also revealed evidence of metalworking, as well as crafts in bone and antler, glass and amber.
For all of these reasons, York proved attractive to raiders and invaders well into the eleventh century. In 1066 it became the target for Harald Hardrada, the famed Viking adventurer and king of Norway, who arrived with a fleet of (it is said) around 300 ships and received the city’s surrender. Days later, however, he was defeated and killed the forces of King Harold II of England in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, only a few miles from the city. York’s troubles didn’t end there, either. From 1069 to 1075, it was the target of several attacks by English rebels and Danish raiding-fleets in search of plunder.The importance of York – both as an economic centre and as a military strong point from which government could be exercised over northern England – was recognised by the Normans. They arrived in 1068 and straightaway established a castle, where the thirteenth-century keep known as Clifford’s Tower now stands in the triangle of land between the River Ouse and the River Foss. When that proved insufficient to defend the city and its garrison, a second castle was constructed in spring 1069 on the southwest bank of the Ouse, directly across the water from the first, and entrusted to King William’s loyal right-hand man, William fitz Osbern. Nothing now remains of this second castle save for the motte, which is known today as Baile Hill.
How large was York at the time of the Conquest? Byrhtferth of Ramsey’s Vita S. Oswaldi (Life of St Oswald), written c.1000, refers to a population of 30,000, but that is probably an overestimate. Domesday Book, generally considered a more reliable source of information, suggests that the city had around 1,800 households in 1066, indicating a population of perhaps around 9,000 to 11,000, which would make it only a little smaller than London at the time.
If you’re interested in finding out more, the History of York website, recently set up by the York Museums Trust, contains a wealth of information. Many artefacts from the Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman periods of occupation can be found in the
Yorkshire Museum, including the Coppergate Helmet and the Cawood Sword, which dates to c.1100 and is not unlike the kind of weapon that Tancred would have wielded.
Also worth a visit are the Jorvik Viking Centre, which has an excellent museum with artefacts from the pre-Conquest period, and Clifford’s Tower, which affords excellent views over the medieval city. The later medieval walls, which largely follow the same course as the timber palisades of the Viking and Norman eras, are free to access. Walking them gives a real sense of the sheer extent of the city in the Middle Ages.