YORK is the North’s most compelling city, a place whose history, said George VI, “is the history of England”. This is perhaps overstating things a little, but it reflects the significance of a metropolis that stood at the heart of the country’s religious and political life for centuries, and until the Industrial Revolution was second only to London in population and importance. These days a more provincial air hangs over the city, except in summer when it comes to feel like a heritage site for the benefit of tourists. That said, no trip to this part of the country is complete without a visit to York, and the city is also well placed for any number of day-trips, the most essential being to Castle Howard, the gem amongst English stately homes.
The Minster is the obvious place to start, and you won’t want to miss a walk around the walls. The medieval city is at its most evocative around the streets known as Stonegate and the Shambles, while the earlier Viking city is entertainingly presented at Jorvik, perhaps the city’s favourite family attraction. Standout historic buildings include the Minster’s Treasurer’s House, Georgian Fairfax House, the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, and the stark remnants of York’s Castle. The two major museum collections are the incomparable Castle Museum and the National Railway Museum (where the appeal goes way beyond railway memorabilia), while the evocative ruins and gardens of St Mary’s Abbey house the family-friendly Yorkshire Museum. Just fifteen miles away from town, and accessible by bus, Castle Howard is one of the nation’s finest stately homes.
An early Roman fortress of 71 AD in time became a city – Eboracum, capital of the empire’s northern European territories and the base for Hadrian’s northern campaigns. Later, the city became the fulcrum of Christianity in northern England: on Easter Day in 627, Bishop Paulinus, on a mission to establish the Roman Church, baptized King Edwin of Northumbria in a small timber chapel. Six years later the church became the first minster and Paulinus the first archbishop of York. In 867 the city fell to the Danes, who renamed it Jorvik, and later made it the capital of eastern England (Danelaw). Later Viking raids culminated in the decisive Battle of Stamford Bridge (1066) six miles east of the city, where English King Harold defeated Norse King Harald – a pyrrhic victory in the event, for his weakened army was defeated by the Normans just a few days later at the Battle of Hastings, with well-known consequences for all concerned.
The Normans devastated much of York’s hinterland in their infamous “Harrying of the North”. Stone walls were thrown up during the thirteenth century, when the city became a favoured Plantagenet retreat and commercial capital of the north, its importance reflected in the new title of Duke of York, bestowed ever since on the monarch’s second son. Although Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries took its toll on a city crammed with religious houses, York remained wedded to the Cathoic cause, and the most famous of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was born here. During the Civil War Charles I established his court in the city, which was strongly pro-Royalist, inviting a Parliamentarian siege. Royalist troops, however, were routed by Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, another seminal battle in England’s history, which took place six miles west of York.
The city’s eighteenth-century history was marked by its emergence as a social centre for Yorkshire’s landed elite. Whilst the Industrial Revolution largely passed it by, the arrival of the railways brought renewed prosperity, thanks to the enterprise of pioneering “Railway King” George Hudson, lord mayor during the 1830s and 1840s. The railway is gradually losing its role as a major employer, as is the traditional but declining confectionery industry, and incomes are now generated by new service and bioscience industries – not forgetting, of course, the four million annual tourists.