The Minster is the pride of York, steeped in history and a symbol of the importance that York wielded for 1500 years (!). I want to give you a feeling for the amazing historical bones of this city that led up to the mighty Minster, then present the interesting evolution of this impressive building (and York’s claimed link to the survival of Christianity!). This post will be all history with no sightseeing, so feel free to wait for the next post devoted to the Minster.
We begin in AD 71, when 10,000 (!) Roman soldiers establish their northernmost fortress, named Eboracum, from which to control the rebellious Brigantines (note Lincoln on the map: we’ll get there in a later post). For perspective, below are artists’ renditions of the Roman fortress – and the remains of the real thing.
A civilian settlement quickly grew up to supply services and goods to the Roman soldiers. For 200 years Eboracum (York) continued to grow, becoming an economic center as well as the provincial capital; on three occasions it hosted visits by a Roman Emperor. Roman Britain was later divided first into 2 and then into 4 districts, with Eboracum always a capital; 4 deputy emperors were introduced to rule Britain. In 303, Emperor Diocletian commanded a “Great Persecution” of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. In 305 Chlorus, who had become senior western emperor, summoned his son Constantine to Eboracum to help fight the northern Picts. When Chlorus died at Eboracum in 306, Constantine was named his successor by his loyal troops; subsequently his position as emperor was made official by Rome. In 313, Constantine reversed Diocletian’s anti-Christian edict, issuing the Edict of Milan that allowed Christians to worship openly; in 380 Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. York somewhat slyly implies that the fate of Christianity hinged on what transpired at Eboracum. Not long after this, troops began to be siphoned away from Britain to deal with barbarians closer to home. In the early 400’s the fortress at Eboracum was abandoned, and by 410 all armies were withdrawn and Britain ceased to be part of the Roman empire.
Subsequently, Germanic people (Angles, Saxons, Jutes) invaded and settled in Britain and a pagan Anglo-Saxon culture developed. The Anglian King Edwin (of Northumbria) chose Eboracum as his seat of power and renamed the city Eoforwic. Around 600, Pope Gregory sent missionaries to re-Christianize Britain, and Eoforwic was chosen as the church’s northern missionary center. King Edwin was converted; in 627 he built the first Minster, a wooden church, and was baptized there. Three years later, a larger stone church was built.
In 866 Viking raiders (“Ivar the Boneless and his Great Heathen Army” – I love the title!) invaded northern England, captured the city and killed its last king. They called their newly won kingdom “Danelaw” and kept Eoforwic, renamed Jorvic, as its capital. They made (tentative) peace with the Saxons who controlled southern England, although skirmishes between the two countries continued. In 954, Eric the Bloodaxe, last Viking king of Danelaw, was murdered, and Jorvik was captured by Eadred, King of England (he unified England, more or less). Are you following all of this? British history is nothing if not serpentine, and kings had notoriously short life spans.
A turbulent period followed with local rebellion and Norwegian invasion. In 1066 King Edward the Confessor died without a successor and his brother-in-law Harold assumed the throne. The Norwegian King Harald invaded from the north and was defeated (and killed) by King Harold (are you still following this? Harold beats Harald?), but within days William, Duke of Normandy (aka “the Conqueror”), who was King Edward’s first cousin once removed, landed in the south with an army of Normans and French, to claim the English throne; King Harold marched his tired troops south but was defeated (and killed) at Hastings. William assumed the throne but faced many rebellions, which he ruthlessly suppressed; he burned the city of Jorvik (and the Minster) in 1069, and the surrounding countryside was laid to waste and thousands of people slaughtered or starved. In order to maintain control of the region, he built several commanding castles nearby.
This William was not exactly a nice guy, but he did bring stability. The next year he began rebuilding the city in the shadow of the two imposing castles, and Jorvik became Yorke. He appointed an Archbishop to the city and repaired the Minster. Yorke became strong both defensively and economically, and powerful people were drawn to it. The city prospered and successive kings used Yorke as their northern base.
Here we begin our story of the building of the Minster. In 1080 construction started on a new Norman Minster, the site using existing foundations and columns from the ruins of
the 1000-yr-old basilica that was part of the Headquarters building of the abandoned Roman fortress (ultimately a mistake, as we’ll discuss in a subsequent post). Some of this foundation is still there to see, as shown below. In 1100 the work was completed; the new
Norman church claimed to be the largest cathedral in England – larger than Canterbury, home of the first Archbishop of England. There was a rivalry, and when Archbishop
Thomas Becket of Canterbury was murdered in his cathedral in 1170, the Archbishop of York (Roger of Pont L’Eveque) was thought to be behind it. Ah, serpentine English religious politics!
In about 1230 the north and south transepts were rebuilt in Early English Gothic style;
around 1280 the lovely Chapter House was built (wait ’til you see that!). In 1298 King Edward I, wanting to extend his Anglo-French empire into Scotland, moved his court to Yorke, making the city the royal capital of England. Yorke’s nobility and gentry became among the wealthiest in England, and a wealthy middle class emerged. In 1360 the Gothic
nave was completed, and the Gothic east end finished in 1373. In 1407 the central tower collapsed and the central region (Gothic ‘Quire’) was rebuilt with a shorter tower in about 1415. Finally the west towers were completed in 1450, and by 1472 the present
Gothic Minster was completed.
OK, so enough of history, eh? You do see that York sits on a lot of it! For the next post, let’s take a closer look at this Minster!