I won’t try to hide it: I’m a history nerd. Anything related to British, medieval or ancient Roman history gets me particularly excited, so when I found all this — and much more — in York, England, it’s no wonder my heart fluttered like a teenager experiencing her first crush.
York began as the Roman fort of Eboracum, built by order of the Emperor Vespasian in 71 A.D. Roman Eboracum eventually became Anglo-Saxon Eoforwic — which, in turn, was captured by Vikings, who called it Jorvik, a name that later evolved into York. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the city gradually developed into the political, economic and religious capital of northern England.
I began my exploration of York’s layers of history at Yorkshire Museum, whose treasures range from prehistoric tools and Roman mosaics to an enormous hoard of Viking gold. Later, in the surrounding Museum Gardens park, tour guide James Matthewson of Yorkwalk pointed out sections of an old Roman city wall and several 1,700-year-old sarcophagi scattered in the shrubbery.
The gardens also contain the picturesque ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, founded in 1088 and once one of the richest religious houses in England. The abbey’s wealth ultimately made it a target for Henry VIII, who dissolved all monasteries in England during the 1530s.
Next, Matthewson led the way to Bootham Bar, one of York’s four main gates.
“All our streets are gates, all our gates are bars and all our bars are pubs,” he explained.
The word “bar” comes from the French word for barrier, whereas the use of “gate” in street names such as Coppergate, Mickelgate and Petergate reflects the Scandinavian influence of the Vikings. Bootham Bar sits atop the original Roman entrance to the city, some 12 to 15 feet below.
“The entire Roman city is basically still there underneath,” Matthewson said.
York’s tallest gate, Monk Bar, houses the Richard III Experience, a museum that examines the controversial life and short reign of England’s last Plantagenet king, who had strong connections to York. Henry VII, who claimed the throne after defeating Richard in battle in 1485, has his own multimedia museum at Micklegate Bar, where, for centuries, the severed heads of traitors and rebels were mounted as a gruesome deterrent to others.
At Bootham Bar, I followed Matthewson up the steep stone stairs and emerged onto the city walls that encircle York’s core. England’s longest and best-preserved medieval city walls, they extend for more than 2 miles, with walkways added during the Victorian era. The stretch between Bootham Bar and Monk Bar is the most scenic, in large part because of its views of York Minster, the city’s dominant landmark.
Built between 1220 and 1472 around an older Norman cathedral, which occupied the site of a seventh-century church, York Minster is known for its soaring Gothic architecture and outstanding array of medieval stained glass, which have survived despite threats from civil war, arson and World War II air raids. A museum in the undercroft traces the site’s two millennia of history, with exhibits including the foundations of the Norman Minster, the remains of a Roman barracks and an intricately carved elephant tusk that once belonged to a Viking lord.
Details of York’s Viking past came to light in 1972, when an archaeological dig at Coppergate uncovered abundant remains from the 10th century. The site is now Jorvik Viking Centre, which explores life in Viking times through artifacts, multimedia displays and a tram ride through a reconstructed settlement, complete with authentic smells. It reopened April 8 after a lengthy closure due to flood damage.
Between Jorvik and the Minster lies York’s heart, an enchanting labyrinth of medieval streets and tiny lanes known as snickelways. The most famous and picturesque is The Shambles, once a street of butchers. Its name derives from an old Anglo-Saxon word for the benches on which raw meats were displayed — the origin of the phrase “a bloody shambles.”
Near The Shambles, I discovered an unexpected sweet side of York’s heritage on a multimedia tour at York’s Chocolate Story. Beginning in the 18th century, several Quaker families made York the chocolate capital of England, giving the world popular treats such as KitKats, Rolos and Smarties. At York Castle Museum, a new, interactive experience called Chocolate: York’s Sweet Past further explores this mouthwatering legacy. It opened April 1.
York has dozens of other attractions, from ancient Roman baths and medieval guildhalls to the free National Railway Museum, where visitors can explore 200 years of railroad history. With so much to see and do, one thing is certain: You don’t have to be a history nerd to fall head over heels in love with York.
Jorvik Viking Centre
National Railway Museum
Richard III & Henry VIII Experience
York’s Chocolate Story
York Castle Museum