This is the first of a series about No Kidding Shakespeare Camp 2016: Shakespeare’s England: A Land of Lords. Over the course of the ten-day trip, we’ll be staying in three wondrous hotels. The farthest north of those is Middleton’s in York. York has been a center of power throughout the history of the British Isles. During the Middle Ages, its distance from London meant that it could almost function as a separate political entity. Understanding the city better will be a way of getting a grip on the War of the Roses that Shakespeare stages in the plays about Henry VI and wraps up with Richard III.
Among the things we’ll do is walk some of the walls of York, which are a mere 7 minutes from our hotel. York has more miles of intact city walls than anywhere else in England. While city walls were once common, even crucial to a city’s survival, most have deteriorated in the modern age. York’s extant walls are not entirely contiguous, nor all from the same era. The first walls were built in 71 AD, around a Roman fortress on the River Ouse. Little of this original stonework remains, but some can be seen in the Multangular Tower in the Museum Gardens.
A legion at the time encompassed 5500 men, and their presence encouraged trade with enterprising locals. Through these interactions, the fortress eventually grew into the city of Eboracum, a busy port and cosmopolitan provincial capital. The Emperor Hadrian visited this fortress in 122, on his way north to plan his great frontier wall (the focus of a future Preview Email!), and Emperor Septimius Severus made it his base of operations for campaigning in Scotland in 208.
The city went into decline following Rome’s withdrawal from Britain. By the 9th century, the walls were in poor repair, and when the Danes (“the Great Heathen Army”) invaded in 867, renaming the city Jorvik, they demolished all the towers except for the surviving Multangular. The Danes buried what was left of the Roman walls beneath earthbanks and wooden palisades. These were badly mangled during the 1069 “harrying of the North” that followed the Norman invasion and brought the northern counties under William the Conqueror’s control. The majority of the remaining walls, encircling the medieval city, date to the 12th-14th century and were built during the reigns of some early Plantagenets: Henry III and the three Edwards.
There are four main gatehouses, or “bars”, which restricted traffic in medieval times and served as tollbooths. Initially the walls also had 6 secondary gates and 44 intermediate towers, stretching over 2 miles encompassing the city and castle. York was an important outpost during the Plantagenet wars with Scotland, so much so that Edward I actually moved the seat of government to York in 1298. In the 15th-17th centuries, York and the surrounding county were the sites of many battles and sieges during the Wars of the Roses, various Tudor rebellions, and the English Civil War. (The map at left dates to 1617).
The walls of York play their largest role in Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part 3, which features several scenes that actually take place on the walls as the two factions, each a branch of those ever-contentious Plantagenets, struggle for control not just of the city but of the nation. Early in the play, the Duke of York is captured by the Lancastrians, and in giving his execution order, Queen Margaret taunts:
Off with his head, and set it on York gates,
So York may overlook the town of York.
Margaret’s later reference to the head, when welcoming Lord Clifford to York, suggests that a prop may actually have been placed upon the “walls” — the gallery above the stage — to add to the gruesome spectacle:
Welcome, my lord, to this brave town of York.
Yonder’s the head of that arch-enemy
That sought to be encompass’d with your crown:
Doth not the object cheer your heart, my lord?
We’re unlikely to encounter anything so appalling on our trip, but we may pass by the very spot at Micklegate Bar (below) where the Duke’s head once stood, bearing a paper crown.
In 1800, the Corporation of York applied for an Act of Parliament to demolish their walls, as London and other cities were doing (since none of them had been invaded by ground in quite some time). They were met with fierce opposition from the populace, however, and instead of being torn down, were restored starting in the mid-19th century. Today they are a Scheduled Ancient Monument — just waiting for us to tread the same paces that legionaries, nobles, rebels, and monarchs have for nearly 2000 years!