Welcome to Old York! (It’s been waiting for you!)

After checking out Chatsworth House, Neil and I drove North to the city of York. I wanted to see York for a few reasons: first, I really wanted to see the medieval wall that encircles it; second, I heard they had a great Viking museum; three, a couple of friends of ours had gone there and highly recommended it. Unfortunately, heavy flooding in 2015 meant that the Jorvik Viking Museum was closed. But there were still plenty of other attractions for us to see!

Part of the old wall below.

A tower gate.

There were some really narrow—and short!— streets. I think this is an example of one of the infamous York snickelways (a small street or footpath). According to Wikipedia, the term was coined in 1983 by local author Mark W. Jones and combines the words snicket (passageway between walls or fences), ginnel (a narrow passageway between buildings), and alleyway. York has many of these paths, most of them medieval in origin. They have quirky names such as Mad Alice Lane, Hornpot Lane, and Mucky Peg Lane.

Below is York Minster. “Minster” is a term applied to churches established in the Anglo-Saxon period as missionary teaching churches. More on York Minster will follow later in the post.

Below is The Shambles, an old street in York with timber-framed buildings that date as far back as the 14th century. The street was once known as “The Great Flesh Shambles” for all of the butcher shops and their shelved displays of fresh meat. I like how the buildings jut out into the street, obviously made before building codes.

“Shambles” is an obsolete term for an open-air slaughterhouse and meat market. There were 25 butcher shops on this street in the late 1800s, but none remain today.

There were no sanitary or hygiene standards at the time so blood, guts, and organs would be tossed into the gutter in the middle of the street. Things are a little prettier these days.

We went to The House of the Trembling Madness for dinner and a pint. The Trembling Madness refers to a state of withdrawal from alcohol in which the person becomes confused, shakes or shivers, and has a rapid heart rate. The pub was inspired by Belgian beer halls and has a medieval theme. The building it is housed in dates back to 1180. As a friend pointed out, it is interesting to notice that all of the weight-bearing beams in the roof are different sizes.

We then went to The Golden Fleece, York’s oldest (and its most haunted!) pub.

More information below.

I didn’t see any spectral figures but, more importantly, I met this delicious Swedish cider that I enjoyed everywhere I could find it for the rest of the trip. It tasted like strawberry campinos!

We continued onto a third pub where we ran into a group of locals who were out on a company pub crawl. Neil and I were waiting in line at the bar when a man cheerily asked us what we were drinking and ordered us two pints. We had just received them and were beginning to chat with his friends when he informed everyone that we were all moving onto the next establishment. We had been adopted!

After a couple of more pubs and a pleasant talk with the locals, people were beginning to pack it in. The man who had initially invited us gave us a walking tour of the brickwork in some of the local buildings. I wish I could remember what he said—it was all very interesting. We then ended up in a loud dance club (apparently York is a happening place for clubs and hen parties!) before the three of us called it a night.

Thursday, June 16: For a full day of York sightseeing, we began with a walk on the city walls. York was founded by the Romans in 71 A.D. as Eboracum. The Romans built a fortress and put up walls around the city. The site of the Headquarters of this fortress now lies under the foundations of York Minster. York has more miles of intact wall left than any other city in England.

After the Romans left Britain, York was taken and settled by Angles in the 5th century. King Edwin of Northumbria would later make York his capital. The first wooden minster church was made for his baptism in 627. Edwin later ordered the minster to be rebuilt in stone. In 866, the Vikings captured the city and called it “Jorvik” (the “j” is pronounced as a “y”—sound familiar?). The Danes restored the neglected city walls and destroyed all of the Roman towers but one (the Multangular Tower). The last Viking ruler, Eric Bloodaxe, was driven from the city in 954 by King Eadred in his successful attempt to complete the unification of England.

In 1068, two years after William the Conqueror took over England, York rebelled against Norman rule. William arrived in York soon after and put an end to that. The stone minster had been badly damaged in the uprising. Around 1080, Archbishop Thomas started building the cathedral that would become the current Minster. York became a major manufacturing and trading centre, and began to prosper. More work on the walls was undertaken in the 12th-14th centuries, and then some further reconstruction in the 19th century and later.

What a pretty, decorative turret!

A good place to hide and shoot arrows from! Sneaky!

A view of the Minster.

Spying on people’s gardens is WHAT I DO, OKAY?

Approaching Monk Bar. Monk Bar is a four-storey gatehouse that was built in the early 14th century. It was intended as a self-contained fort, and each floor is capable of being defended separately. Today, the Monk Bar houses a museum called the Richard III Experience at Monk Bar.

On our way up to York, I did my best to explain to Neil all of the personalities of the main players in the English War of the Roses (the Lancaster family vs. the York family, cousins in the royal House of Plantagenet). It was fun trying to tell him about something he didn’t know a lot about (this doesn’t happen very often).

Richard III was the last of three York brothers who, it could be argued, usurped the crown from Henry VI. Henry VI was a weak ruler with some mental health issues and the eldest York brother, Edward IV, seized the crown in 1461 with the support of military commander Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. (Warwick was also known as “the Kingmaker”—does that sound familiar?). Henry VI would later die of mysterious, but convenient, circumstances in the Tower of London.

Warwick and Edward IV fell out due to issues of foreign policy but also because Edward married an ordinary English woman, Elizabeth Woodville, who was poor, widowed with two children, and not even a noble. Warwick would have preferred if Edward had made a more politically savvy alliance.

Warwick then tried to oust Edward by having the second York brother, George, put on the throne instead. Edward killed Warwick in battle but this seed of dissent Warwick planted would plague the brothers for many years to come. After years of George being a threat to his rule, Edward imprisoned George in the Tower of London. Faced with the impossible decision of having to execute his own brother, Edward asked George how he would like to die. George, still thinking this was all a joke (surely, his brother wouldn’t actually execute him) said he would like to be drowned in a barrel of wine. Well, joke was on him because that is exactly what happened.

King Edward IV’s two sons were too young, at 12 (Edward) and 9 (Richard) years old, to become King in their own right when their father died in 1483. In contrast to the treasonous George, the youngest York brother, Richard, had consistently proven himself faithful to Edward. It made sense, then, for Richard to assign himself as Lord Protector of the Realm until young Edward was of age to succeed his father…right? Richard was going to crown his nephew, he just needed the boy to stay at the Tower of London while they prepared for the coronation. It would also make sense, then, if the younger brother Richard joined him there soon after. It was for their safety, of course. Their mother, Queen Elizabeth, was suspicious of her brother-in-law and had gone into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey with her daughters. She had tried to instate her own brother, Anthony Woodville, as Lord Protector, but that didn’t work out as well as she had probably hoped because Anthony was arrested and also taken to the Tower. Even more disconcerting, Richard sought an act of Parliament that declared Edward’s marriage with Elizabeth, and their children, as illegitimate.


In short, Anthony Woodville lost his head and the two boys disappeared while staying at the Tower of London, never to be seen again, leading to the grim legend of “the Princes in the Tower.” In 1674, workmen at the Tower of London dug up a wooden box containing two small human skeletons. It was accepted at the time that these were the bones of the young boys, but it has never been proven. The bones are now interred at Westminster Abbey. Did Richard kill them? It hasn’t been conclusively decided but, again, this seems to be a case of convenient circumstances…

Richard III maintained close connections with the city of York and visited the city several times. Shortly after his coronation in 1483, he stayed in York for three weeks. While in York his son, also Edward, was made Prince of Wales at the Archbishop’s Palace.

Below is the Richard III exhibit.

If it’s any consolation, Richard didn’t rule long. He was defeated in the Battle of Hastings by supporters of the man who would become the first Tudor king, Henry VII. Henry would marry one of Elizabeth Woodville’s daughters, also named Elizabeth, and so the House of York through Elizabeth (the white rose) and the House of Lancaster through Henry (red rose) were united. The Tudor rose reflects this alliance: a red rose within a white. Elizabeth and Henry VII would have a son who would also leave his mark on English history: Henry VIII.

In 2012, Richard III’s body was discovered buried underneath a car park.

If this sounds like the stuff of novels, well, it is. I’ve read a few books of historical fiction by Philippa Gregory that recap these events.

Below: entry into a tiny corner prison cell.

Replicas of helmets that would have been worn in battle during the 15th century.

Narrow, tight staircases.

Barley Hall is a reconstructed medieval townhouse. It was originally built around 1360. The building has been set up to look the way it would have in 1483.

Below is the Grand Hall. Note the Tudor roses on the wall.

Below is the main table set up for a feast, with the addition of a chamber pot. It was considered rude to get up and leave during a meal so people would remain seated throughout the whole occasion, even if they had to use the washroom…

It was customary to cook decorative birds for dinner and then dress the cooked meat with the skinned remains of the animal in order to impress the diners. It’s really a wonder anyone survived the middle ages without dying of plague, war, water contamination, and food poisoning.

Below are examples of a couple other rooms in Barley Hall.

Back to the wall!

Next stop: York Minster. York Minster is the second largest Gothic cathedral of Northern Europe. The present building began construction in 1230 and finished in 1472.

A view from the top tower of York Minster.

A great view of the city.

Flying buttresses.

It’s 275 very steep, narrow steps up to the top.

A lower level of the Minster had an exhibit on the building’s history, and included Roman and Viking artefacts, like this Roman wall plaster below.

Below the foundations of the Minster are the ruins of the Roman fort that occupied the same site.

Below is the Horn of Ulf, dating from the beginning of the 11th century. The horn belonged to a Viking nobleman (called a “thane”) named Ulf. Ulf owned large estates around York and throughout Yorkshire. The Horn acted as a land deed and Ulf presented this horn as a symbol or record of his gift of lands to the Minster.

These medieval hand-glazed floor tiles date from the 1200s are are from the original floor of Saint Nicholas’ Chapel in the Minster. On the bottom row are the crossed keys of Saint Peter—the symbol of the Minster, which is dedicated to this saint.

The exhibits downstairs were so fascinating that we totally lost track of time. We had seen the top of the Minster and the bottom, but we ran out of time to explore the main level (and the main features) before it closed for the night!

York was a lot of fun and the locals were really friendly. Later that night we ended up sitting at a table beside a couple who were there celebrating their anniversary. We had a great conversation with them. They were interested in knowing why I had always wanted to come to England—they thought it was surprising that I had always wanted to visit there! They recommended that we go out to Brontë country in West Yorkshire the next time we came to England. They were very concerned that if they came to visit Canada that they would be attacked by bears.

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