We’re just 20 days out from greeting our #NKSC16 attendees at Heathrow Airport. In this, the penultimate trip preview, I’m going to bring you back to the location that started the series off: York.
York is very much a city built on its medieval footprint — though its history goes back much farther than that. As I discussed in the first preview email, York dates back nearly 2000 years. Known as Eboracum to the Romans and Jorvik to the Danes, York assumed much of its current shape — and much of its current architecture — in the 13th-15th centuries.
When we visit The Shambles, we’ll see how closely connected modern York is to its elder self. Known as “the most medieval street in England,” the Shambles was for centuries home to York’s butchers and meat markets. The street is mentioned in the Domesday Book compiled by William the Conqueror, and much of its architecture dates to the 1400s, including its famous overhanging buildings and timber-frame structures. (And if the Harry Potter fans are thinking that picture looks a bit familiar, you’re not wrong — The Shambles formed the visual inspiration for Diagon Alley).
The name “Shambles” likely comes from the (somewhat more gruesome) Anglo-Saxon word “fleshammels” — literally, “flesh-shelves”. Though the word long pre-dates Shakespeare, perhaps he did not have Henry VI use the term coincidentally during the opening confrontation in Henry VI, Part 3:
Far be the thought of this from Henry’s heart,
To make a shambles of the parliament-house.
Cousin of Exeter, frowns, words and threats
Shall be the war that Henry means to use.
Thou factious Duke of York, descend my throne,
and kneel for grace and mercy at my feet;
I am thy sovereign.
York Castle may not look like much, but for centuries, it had it where it counted: Standing between the River Ouse and the River Foss, this was once a prime fortification in Northeast England. William the Conqueror built it as part of the “Harrying of the North”, during his 1068-1070 campaign to secure this region of England.
York Castle grew from a simple wooden motte and bailey castle to a more complex limestone structure in the 13th century, when both King John and King Henry III used it as a personal fortress. Investment in its maintenance waned in the 15th century, however, and though Richard III intended to make extensive repairs, the Battle of Bosworth Field and his death there interrupted the plans. Queen Elizabeth I was advised that the castle no longer had strategic purpose, and it fell into significant disrepair until it was shored up as a Royalist stronghold during the English Civil War. Some buildings were later used as prisons, as was common with decrepit medieval castles, and now all that stands of the original structure is Clifford’s Tower (seen above).
York’s grandest and most famous structure, however, is York Minster.
The cathedral seat for the Archbishop of York, York Minster is the second largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, and it is another testament to the city’s long history. Christianity had a presence in York from at least the 4th century, though the Venerable Bede mentions chieftain Lucius of Britain calling for missionaries in 180. The first church on the site was built in 627 — a rush job, needed to baptise Edwin, King of Northumbria. Archbishop Walter de Gray began construction of the Gothic cathedral in 1215 and building continued all the way through its consecration in 1472. Despite rebellions, arsonist attacks, and freak lightning strikes that set the roof on fire, York Minster has been continually preserved as the pride of the city. Its flying buttresses were innovative at the time of its construction, and the cathedral features some of the best examples of Gothic sculpture in the country — look for angels, demons, animals, and humans adorning the walls.
More than half of England’s medieval stained glass stands in York Minster. Across the nation, many of these works of art fell victim to anti-Catholic fervor during the English Civil War, but the stained glass at York Minster appears to owe its survival to the Lord General of the New Model Army himself — Thomas Fairfax, a Yorkshireman. York Minster’s stained glass features the East Window, pictured here, which is the size of a tennis court and depicts the story of the world from Genesis to Revelation; the Five Sisters Window, the nation’s only memorial to the women of Great Britain who lost their lives in the First World War; and a beautiful rose window commemorating the unification of the Houses of York and Lancaster.
The next Shakespeare’s England: A Land of Lords preview will be the last, and I’ll be discussing the home of the man himself: Stratford-upon-Avon.