York Museums

We’ll finish describing the fascinating city of York with a look at their two very different museums, the Yorkshire Museum (York’s history) and the York Castle Museum (re-creation of home life in more Victorian times).  This post is a bit long, dedicated to museum go-ers; be forewarned!


There were a few exhibits from Roman times – statues, busts, a mosaic floor, parts of a painted Roman wall, pendants, jewelry, etc, but most interesting to me was the arm purse (last picture below).  Soldiers were paid in silver coin; since there were no banks, a soldier

carried his wealth on his arm; to open the purse, it had to be removed from the arm.

After the Romans left, the Angles, from northern Germany, moved into the region they called Northumbria and settled Eoforwic (York). They occupied the region from about 410 to 866.   The museum has a number of wonderful artifacts from this time.

Comb, 600-700 ADLet me digress for a moment and present this interesting tidbit of life back then.  The comb to the left is from 600-700 AD, and was not used primarily to arrange hair.  Rather, it’s use was to remove lice and their eggs ….

In 866 the Vikings (Ivan the Boneless and his Great Heathen Army [I’m not making that up!]) conquered the region and renamed Northumbria “Danelaw”.  Eoforic maintained its status as capital of the region but was renamed “Jorvik”.  Shown below are several stone carvings from this period, and a reconstruction of a Viking farmstead.

The York area was always a capital of northern Britain and was therefore relatively wealthy.  But there were  frequent hostilities with the Saxons, who had claimed the southern regions of  Britain in the post-Roman period, and during times of war, much wealth was buried underground for protection.  Some treasures were never reclaimed by their owners and were only found a millennium later.  Examples are shown below.  The

last two pictures show the Ormside Bowl, an Anglian ecclesiastical vessel converted in Jorvik into a Viking drinking bowl.  It is an outstanding example of medieval art.

The Normans arrived in 1066; they met with resistance in York, and much of the city including the Minster was destroyed during its conquest. In order to repress further rebellion, William the Conqueror built several strong castles around York, rebuilt the

Minster in Norman style, and built St. Mary’s Abbey, which became the wealthiest and

most powerful monastery in the North.  The interior of the Norman abbey was richly decorated for the time (pictures below).  What survives of the decoration are just a few painted fragments that were discovered in the mid-twentieth century.

Entrance statue to St. Mary's AbbeyThe larger-than-life statue to the left is one of 4 that adorned the abbey entrance to awe and inspire visitors.  The statues were originally painted in a rich palette, and are the finest surviving examples of 11th century sculpture in England.  It was dug up after being buried in mud for more than 3 centuries.

Ruins of St. Mary's Abbey Chapter HouseThe museum had a (much-restored) section of a wall from the Abbey’s Chapter house, shown above.  Better, however, is what is on exhibit just outside the museum – the remains of St Mary’s Abbey itself.  The Abbey met its demise during Henry VIII’s “Dissolution of the Monasteries” in 1540.   These ruins (and so many others like it throughout England), stand as beautiful and stark reminders both of man’s artistry and accomplishments and man’s struggles with power and ambition.

We should also mention the adjacent St. Leonard’s hospital, one of the oldest and largest medieval hospitals in England.  Run by the Augustinian order, it could house as many as 240 patients.  It’s hard to get an overall picture of this ruin, so I’m including a picture of a

drawing.  The high ceilings and large windows were there to circulate fresh air, important since illness in the middle ages was thought to be caused by ‘bad air’.  The hospital cared for the sick, poor, and old; care included cleaning, feeding, clothing and housing.  The sick were not treated for any illness until they had confessed their sins and thus cleansed their soul.  The hospital was closed during the Dissolution, and York would not have any hospital for the next 200 years (!).

We come next to the Angevin Empire, 1154 -1399, when England was ruled by a succession of kings and the Royal Court was moved to York (perhaps with an eye on extending the

Empire into Scotland).  Choosing the winning side when potential heirs were battling for the throne was a tricky business, and York chose poorly in the case of Henry IV vs. his cousin Richard II (1400).  Henry ultimately killed Richard, and wealthy York, which had raised an army in defense of King Richard II, suffered greatly.  It took nearly a hundred years to recover.  At the end of the War of the Roses, with Richard III on the throne (1483), York once again was favored.  In medieval times, the badges of powerful people were worn by Medieval heraldic badgetheir followers (choose well!) and the museum had a number of these.  The white boar was the symbol of Richard III, and for his coronation 8000 badges were printed (most in cloth).  Metal badges were reserved for supporters of higher status, and precious metal badges for the VIP’s.  These were all represented in the museum.

Other surviving treasures are the portable shrine to St. William of York, once jeweled (1480’s) – it was “destroyed and sold” during the Dissolution – and a St. Christopher

plaque, found at Wistow.   With few bridges, river crossings were hazardous, so the Saint’s aid was often invoked.  Among the displayed jewelry was the Middleham Jewel, considered to be England’s finest piece of medieval gold-working.

Finally, the museum covers the Tudor period, from 1485, with just a few items.


17th century dining roomWow, are these two museums different!  The Castle museum immerses you primarily in Victorian times – with a few exceptions, the first being this reconstructed dining room of a prosperous, late 1600’s family from the York area.  The family no longer ate with the servants in a communal hall.  Everything was made of oak, from the wall paneling to the decoratively carved furniture.  The room would have been much lighter and brighter when new, without the patina of age and soot.

The Georgian Room, about 1780The second, the Georgian Room (about 1780), would have been found in a fashionable city home.  The room is lined with painted pine paneling.  The chairs and ceramics are typical of the period.  With growing industry, items like the carpet, previously a luxury, are now affordable to a larger number of people.

The Moorland Cottage, about 1850The Moorland Cottage, from about 1850, depicts a small rural house in Yorkshire (the rest of the building would house livestock).  The peat-burning fire was the center of family activity and was used for heating, cooking, and providing hot water.  The furnishings are practical rather than decorative, and often home-made.  Furniture like the bed would be passed down over generations.

The Victorian Parlour, about 1870.The Victorian Parlour, about 1870, depicts the “best” room in the house of a middle-class family living in the York suburbs.  The room reflects comfort and prosperity.  Most of the furnishings were, by then, mass-produced, relatively cheap and widely available.


Women’s fashions for mourning and wedding were fascinating.  Mourning had some complex rules!  A widow mourned her husband for 2.5 years, through several stages of

mourning apparel – first and second mourning, ordinary mourning, and half mourning.  By the end (half mourning), grey, white and shades of purple were allowed.  Different types of jewelry were to be worn at certain stages.  Men, of course, were hardly affected, except for jewelry.

Women’s (and some men’s) wedding clothes through the years were also quite interesting – wedding dresses have not always been white!

Kitchens over the years were also fascinating.  Look at the clever hardware of the 1800’s – the fascinating “chimney crane” with the rotisserie turned by a weighted pulley.  The crane

supported the weight of heavy cauldrons, frying pans, bakestones or kettles, swung outwards from the fire to make it easy to lift pots on and off, and had an adjustable lever to help raise or lower the cooking vessel above the fire.  Examples of other kitchens are shown below:  note the improvement between the last two kitchens, both operating at nearly the same time!  All of this history shows that life today, at least in some areas, is indeed a lot easier and nicer than yesteryear!

Part of the museum is dedicated to a recreation of a Victorian street, called Kirkgate.  The museum was closing, and the street and shops were deserted as we were being shooed out (normal situation for us), but we still could see some interesting old stuff, like that vintage

bike.  There was a bunch more to see in this museum, but you can’t see it all, can you?  Hope you enjoyed this long look at the museums.

Next stop – Durham and its magnificent Norman cathedral.  Heading toward Scotland!









The York Minster

56DSC_0015The previous post described York’s history and the building of this Minster, finished in the 1400’s (York’s History and the building of the The York Minster, January 20, 2015).  Here we get to see it!  I’ll set the stage for the beautiful York Minster by showing you this fabulous ceiling from its Chapter House.  If I could’ve included more of the windows in the photograph, you’d be even more impressed!  I’m lying on my back in the middle of the floor to get this shot; I probably could have lain there mesmerized for hours, but I was afraid of being stomped on by people who were also looking up at the ceiling, not down at me on the floor.  Spectacular, isn’t it?  Now, with that appetizer, on to the Minster!


Instead of a photograph, I’ll have to show you a Overview of the York Minsterschematic of the Minster, shown to the right.  It’s hard to capture the beauty of this cathedral because (1) it’s huge (it’s one of the  largest in Northern Europe), and (2) it’s nestled in the heart of the city and you can’t back up far enough to capture it all.  Hopefully seeing some of its parts will give you a reasonable idea of how magnificent it truly is.


And of course I must include some of the gargoyles!  A sculptor obviously has to have some fun, after all.


The interior is impressively enormous, and beautiful.



The Chapter House, built in 1280, is a private meeting room where all the priests could gather for readings or to conduct business.  This Chapter House is an octagonal building

with a pointy roof.  Nice on the outside, but the inside is better (below).  Like many chapter houses, there are places for all the priests to sit along the walls; note that the sculptors had a good time with the figures above the seats!

The last picture shows a model of the superstructure built to support the ceiling.    This is 1280, remember!  The central post (king post) is constructed from 3 huge oak trees spliced together ….  For perspective there is a human figure at the center.


And then there are the marvelous (and numerous!) stained glass windows.

That last window, the West Window, is from 1338!  Its heart-shaped tracery is called “The Heart of Yorkshire”.  Note in some of the pictures above that it is difficult to discern The East Windowthe images.  Over the centuries the windows have shifted and buckled and the glass has cracked and been repaired so many times that there is as much lead as glass.  To address this, the church is carefully (and at significant expense) restoring the windows, starting with the Great East Window of 1408, shown on the left.  This window depicts the beginning and end of the world, and is the largest existing expanse of medieval stained glass in the world.  Happily, a few of the repaired window panes were on display.  The first one, below, is from Revelation 16:3 – “The second angel poured his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died“.  The repaired panes are pretty spectacular.

Well, enough for now.  The next York post will show you some cool stuff from a couple of museums, and then we’re off to Durham, site of England’s greatest Norman church, and Hadrian’s Wall.  Perhaps you’ve surmised from our northern trajectory that our main goal here is bonny Scotland, which we’ll explore in some depth.


York’s History and the building of the The York Minster


Roman forts in Lincoln and, farthest north, YorkThe 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.

The early York, Eboracum 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!

York is a Fabulous City

Wow, where to start!  York has it all – it was always important, and its history surrounds you, with Roman ruins, two centuries of Viking rule, a fabulous minster (cathedral – reputedly the finest Gothic church in England), medieval city walls, and a preserved medieval quarter.  There is much to see!  Let’s start with just a walk around the town.  How about walking the city walls?  To get to them, you first climb one of the city gates, which York calls “bars” (“gates” are streets – blame the Vikings).

Below is a wander around this medieval city (lots of pictures!).  We’re caught by how old everything is, and still in use.

Among the medieval buildings are a number of guild halls, one of them pictured above.  Another we found by accident, just wandering into courtyards and alleys.  We’ve recreated this wander below (you’ll also notice a lot of rebuilt and repurposed buildings).

The parish church shown below, Holy Trinity, dates from the 11th century (!), expanded in the 12th century, another aisle added in 1325, and a tower and refinements added over the next 200 years.   The inside is impressively old!

“Younger” buildings, such as the King’s Manor, are pretty cool as well.  Built in 1483, it originally  housed the abbots of St. Mary’s Abbey (which we’ll see in a later post).  It survived Henry VIII’s “Dissolution of the Monasteries” (again, a later post), when Henry made it the seat of the Council of the North in 1539.  King Charles I stayed here a few times in the 1630’s.  You can see his coat of arms over the doorway in the first picture; his father, King James I (who was also James VI of Scotland, the first Scottish King to reign in England), had introduced Scotland’s unicorn into the royal arms, joining the lion of England.  The King’s Manor surrounds a series of courtyards and is now part of the

University of York.  Another interesting parish church is St. Michael le Belfrey, an Anglican church right next to York Minster; it was originally a chapel for the Minster, dating to 1294 or earlier.   In 1525, during Henry VIII’s crusade against the Catholic church, it was rebuilt in Tudor gothic style.  Of particular interest is the beautiful east window, much of which survives from 1330.  The

church is also of note for baptising local boy Guy Fawkes in 1570.  Fawkes later converted to Catholicism and was arrested with 36 barrels of gunpowder under England’s Parliament in a failed attempt to assassinate the Protestant King James I (James VI of Scotland).  Oops!  Hanged, drawn and quartered.

A fascinating part of York is an intact medieval street of half-timbered houses, called “The Shambles”. As early as the 11th century, it was a street of butchers; the name comes from “Shamel”, the stalls or benches that displayed the meat beneath the overhanging eaves of the houses.  The area was rebuilt in the 1400’s and hasn’t changed much from then – except the goods are pretty touristy now.

Overview of the York MinsterWell, that’s enough for the introduction to York, right?  In the next post I want to show you the fabulous gothic York Minster (which started off as a Norman church about 1100!). However, first I think it would be useful to introduce a little history on how York got started in Roman times, and why the Minster is here.  So that will be the next post, with the  Minster to follow.