‘Eboracum, Eoforwic, so good they named it Jorvik’ as that lovely song by Leonard Bernstein goes. I used to know dear old York quite well back in the day, and it certainly was my kind of town. Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate’s up and the Quilt Museum and Gallery’s down, to coin a phrase.
In fact the Quilt Museum was one of the reasons we decided to have a short break in my old stamping ground. The wife gets a determined set to her jaw and a steely glint in her eye when there’s antique needlework to be scrutinised, and there were a few exhibits in the collection that she particularly wanted to see. What she particularly did not want was me dragging around behind her, yawning extravagantly, and occasionally remarking that if Dignitas opened a branch next door they might be surprised at how brisk business could be. Therefore I was excused (or barred from, if you prefer) this item on the itinerary. I intended to spend a couple of hours in the Yorkshire Museum, which has a fine collection of Roman stuff, but it was such a nice afternoon that I sat in the sun by the Hospitium, watched the pretty student lasses go by dressed in their summer clothes and reminisced fondly about days long gone.
We took the train up, neither of us being particularly happy driving these days. A pleasant and uneventful journey, and to cap it all we saw Johnny Vegas on the platform at York as we got off the train. Well, the wife saw him; I’ve no idea who the chap is. Famous though, apparently. And lost a lot of weight recently too, according to the wife.
We got a taxi just outside the station. Turns out the driver was an old Brummie lad from the same part of the city as Mrs B. He’d even worked in the same depot as the wife’s dad and probably had known him. Small world, isn’t it? The fare was only a fiver, as well. In Warwick it’s seven quid to just get into a bloody cab, let alone budge so much as a bloody inch. When we got out of the car I gave him a tenner, told him to keep the change and suggested he move down here as he’d be a millionaire within the year.
York was Roman for about three hundred years, and was ruled by the Vikings for slightly less than a hundred, but was an Anglo-Saxon city for well over four hundred years: longer than the two other periods combined. But it’s the Vikings who get their own Museum and ‘Experience’. This does irk slightly but the wife wanted to go, and we duly ambled down Coppergate to the Jorvik Centre.
It’s a jolly enough thing, I suppose. You trundle around a diorama in a dodgem car whilst various animatronic dummies spring jerkily into life, and you listen to a commentary in the language of your choice through a headset. There’s quite a decent little display of artifacts found on the site, and even a perspex floor raised above the actual uncovered Viking layer. I went to Jorvik not long after it had first opened and I remember that, in order to create a more authentic experience, the diorama area was perfumed with an artificially created stench approximating the fragrance of a Dark Age town. An eye watering blast of sewage combined with the smell of frying bacon, it seemed to me at the time. They’ve toned this down a bit nowadays. Good thing too.
The Multangular Tower, on the west side of the city wall facing the River Ouse, is one of the best preserved Roman structures in Britain. Originally it stood perhaps thirty feet high, and projected forwards from the fortress wall thus allowing the soldiers a field of fire along the outside of the wall itself. The top eleven feet of masonry is Medieval and some of the lower courses have been repaired at various times, but overall you can still get an impression of the solidity and grandeur of the original Roman structure.
The Multangular Tower was built around 300AD, probably by the Emperor Constantius or his son Constantine, who was proclaimed Emperor at York on his father’s death. This was Constantine the Great, who built Constantinople and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire among a great deal else. We do not know much about early Christianity in York but we do know that it was a Bishopric by 314AD, as the Bishop of York is listed amongst the attendees at the Council of Arles. The Council of Arles decreed that actors and those who drove in chariot races were to be excluded from the church. An excellent precept which the current ArchBish of C could contemplate today to his benefit.
This is a tile stamp of the Ninth Legion ‘Hispania’. The Ninth was raised by Julius Caesar for his campaign in Spain, took part in the invasion of Britain in 43AD under the Emperor Claudius, and eighteen years later participated in the action to suppress the British uprising led by Queen Boadicea, or ‘Boudica’ as Mary Beard now insists we spell the name. In fact the original name was probably closer to ‘Buddug’, which is a lot less romantic and not a name you’d gift one of your daughters with.
Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, the tribe which occupied most of what is now Yorkshire, was favorably inclined to Rome but many of her subjects were not. This meant that her reign was punctuated by civil wars, which in turn required frequent Roman intervention to keep their preferred candidate seated on her unsteady throne. In 71AD the governor of Britain, Petillius Cerialis, marched the Ninth from its base at Lincoln and built the first fortress at what was to become York. By Bootham Bar there is a big lump of white clay at the base of the Roman wall. This is part of the original bank and palisade fort thrown up by the men of the Ninth when they arrived at the site, and is hence the oldest part of Eboracum still visible above ground.
The Ninth Legion was based at York for over fifty years, rebuilt the fortress in stone around 100AD, and participated in the Emperor Hadrian’s building of the famous wall that now bears his name. However after this, the Legion disappears from the record. It used to be conjectured that the Ninth was annihilated in an unnamed battle in the wilds north of the Wall, but some modern experts dispute this. I still prefer this theory, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s book ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ was what sparked my interest in Roman history. Still a good read, if you come across it.
It looks like something that a man skilled at putting up garden sheds would create if you gave him a pile of stones and told him to build you a tower, but this little chap is one of the most intriguing things in York. To my mind, at least.
At some point in time this stretch of the fortress wall, just a hundred yards along from the Multangular Tower, was breached. We do not know when or by whom, but an episode or two of Game of Thrones will give you a rough approximation of what the event might have been like. Subsequently somebody repaired the gap and built this tower to reinforce the repair. We don’t know if it was carried upwards in stone or wood, and archaeologists can only date it to a period between 400-800AD. That is to say sometime between the Romans withdrawing the Legions from Britain and the Vikings arriving. In archaeological terms this is equivalent to blushing, shuffling your feet and mumbling ‘I dunno, really. Could be anyfink, couldn’t it?’
It is possible, just, that this is a rare relic from the time when the Roman Britons were left to fend for themselves against the mounting pressure of attacks from the barbarians. There was a period, from about 400-600AD, when independent Celtic kingdoms established themselves as successor states to the Empire in Britain. They spent a very great deal of time fighting amongst themselves, thus making themselves even easier prey to the depredations of the Saxons, Angles, Irish and Picts. But for a while around 500AD, they seem to have set aside their differences, combined their efforts, and inflicted upon their enemies a series of defeats so conclusive that, for example, the archaeological record of Saxon settlement in lowland Britain during this period shows a hiatus of two or three generations before any new areas were settled by the pagans. York may be the lost British kingdom referred to in the medieval Welsh Annals as ‘Ebrauc’, and this tower might have been the work of a man who was trying to defend the last flickerings of Roman civilisation against the onslaught of barbarism and ignorance. This period, ‘of old, unhappy far-off things and battles long ago’, is sometimes known as the Age of Arthur.
Right, I could carry on rambling in this vein ad infinitum but I’m sure you young ‘uns have places to do and things to be, so I’ll draw a line under it there.
We had a lovely time in York. Mrs B was enchanted by the place, the weather was excellent, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. York is still, as I remembered it, a cheerful, civilised place, although tourism looms far larger than it did forty years ago. I would imagine that in high season it is very crowded indeed, so spring and autumn might be the best times if you ever plan to visit. And I strongly suggest that you do.
© Bobo 2018