top of page

Written by the ten leading authorities on York's past, this fascinating and highly detailed book traces the history of the city from its foundation as a Roman legionary fort through to the floods at the end of the second millennium.


Every aspect of English history can be found in York.

 'A work that is both broad in scope yet full of detail.'




WHEN you are writing a book with the ambitious title: "The History Of York: from earliest times to the year 2000", where do you start?


At the beginning, of course. So it is that chapter one introduces the readers to the Romans, who founded the city in AD71.


The final chapter, Twentieth Century York, runs right up to the recent floods. A rich and colourful journey propels the reader from one to the other.


It is the book history buffs have been crying out for.


A trustworthy and readable guide to York through the centuries, set out in chronological order so the reader can read the entire narrative or dip in and out.


The History Of York is not comprehensive, of course. A 20-volume work would struggle to contain the entire York story, and this book has only 400 pages. But as a detailed introduction to the key developments, it is hard to beat.


The book, one of the Blackthorn Press Local Histories series, has been edited by academic and architect Patrick Nuttgens. All those who have contributed chapters are experts in their time periods, and they share the gift of writing with clarity. Their words are further illuminated by numerous pictures and diagrams.


In his preface, Professor Nuttgens elaborates on King George VI's famous quote: "The history of York is the history of England".


Layer upon layer of historic development has, writes Prof Nuttgens, "been laid one on top of the other, preserving the old layers below, or sometimes wedged into cracks in the historic infrastructure.


In the last century, many more of these layers have been revealed, yielding up their riches of interest and knowledge.


There is, therefore, no other city in Britain capable of illustrating the history of the country, at large, both in terms of its absorbing past or its promise for the future."


The capture and defence of York by successive invaders is detailed by the contributors.


In his Roman chapter, Patrick Ottaway of the York Archaeological Trust explains the reasons behind the distinctive design of the Multangular Tower in Museum Gardens, once part of a much larger fortress.


"These projecting towers embody new ideas on military fortification as they allowed defenders to fire along the line of the fortress walls at hostile forces attempting to scale or undermine them."


Earlier towers stood entirely behind the line of the walls.


"It is unlikely, however, that the Roman army at York ever expected to be besieged and the south-west defences of the fortress should be seen principally as architecture appropriate to York's pre-eminent status in the north."


"It was intended to impress local residents and visitors alike with the power of an empire on which the sun would never set."


Another eminent York archaeologist, Richard Hall, guides us through the Viking age.


The Vikings left many enduring legacies, from the "multitude of parish churches" to the development of Walmgate and Fossgate.


In contrast to the destructive image of the Vikings, Jorvik became a settled and thriving metropolis, as this account, written in about 1000, shows.


"The city of York is the capital of the whole people of the Northumbrians. Formerly it was nobly built and constructed with strong walls, which have now been left to the ravages of age.


The city rejoices, however, in the multitude of its population which, counting men and women but not infants and children, numbers not less than 30,000.


The city is crammed beyond expression, and enriched with treasures of merchants, who come from all parts, but above all from the Danish people."


York's darkest moments are not neglected in the book. The most infamous chapter in the city's history, when Jewish families fled from a murderous mob to the castle, only to be besieged and take their own lives, is recounted by historian Chris Daniell.


"One of the most shocking aspects of the massacre is that this was not a riot by a crazed mob in the heat of the moment, but was a carefully orchestrated siege which lasted a week. The attackers had enough time to build a siege engine to attack the castle," he writes, of the 12th century atrocity.


"It is also very noticeable that the authorities did very little to control the situation, indeed all law and order seems to have broken down during that week."


The origins of many of York's most famous buildings are also included in The History Of York. Architectural historian Alison Sinclair, in her chapter on the 18th century, reveals that the architect of the Mansion House, built in 1725, has never been discovered.


Whoever it was created the first civic residence to be built in England.


"It is a building which encapsulates many of the characteristics which distinguished life in Georgian York. It was at the height of fashion, built in the new Palladian style advocated by Lord Burlington, arbiter of York taste," Miss Sinclair writes.


The task of chronicling the massive changes York underwent in the 19th century falls to history professor Edward Royle. He describes the industrialisation of the city: the arrival of railways, of factories - and of inner city slums.


"One of the worst parts of York was Bedern where former mansions of the rich and their outhouses were let as tenements for the poor," he writes. "Of 98 families living there in 1844, 67 each inhabited only one room. In one house with sixteen families there were only two privies. Water from dung hills seeped back into the houses. In the parish of St Dennis, a quarter of families each lived in one room. The state of the parish burial grounds was an added cause of concern, many of them filled to overflowing..."


"In All Saints, North Street, down by the River Ouse where nearly four out of every five inhabitants were of the labouring class, the mean age at death was under 20."


The following century eventually brought lifestyle improvements that could not have been dreamed of by these poor families. But the city had to get through two wars first.


Prof Nuttgens and his wife Bridget share the task of writing about the fastest-changing century of them all: the 20th. Yet, despite the upheavals of the modern age, they bring the book to a close on an optimistic note:


"York is as well cared for, as fascinating and handsome as it has ever been.


The poverty found by Rowntree at the beginning of the century is, at its end, confined to small pockets, for which, in many cases, individuals rather than the system is to blame.


But in subtle and not very obvious ways York is changing: no longer a proud provincial town, no longer merely an internationally recognised centre for history and conservation, York can take its position as a global centre for business, research and development."

Patrick Nuttgens - The History Of York : From Earliest Times To The Year 2000

    bottom of page