As regular readers will know, I am a bit of a history fanatic and it’s fair to say that York is one of Britain’s best cities for those craving a trip through the ages. I was in York over Saturday and Sunday for the BBC History magazine History Weekend, which was absolutely fantastic! I was completely knackered by the time I returned to my B&B on Saturday evening, but it was entirely worth it. Having only the Sunday to spend exploring York meant I had to keep quite rigorously to the schedule I’d created; a schedule which took me on a tour of the city’s highlights. I’ll add it or a map of my route to a future post for anyone to follow in their own time if desired.
For now, let’s start with some York ‘basics’. The city was founded by the Romans in 71 AD under the name ‘Eboracum’. Prior to that, the area was settled by a tribe known as the Brigantes, the largest of the British tribes with lands covering parts of what is now Yorkshire, Northumberland, Lancashire, and County Durham. One of their more notable tribespeople was Cartimandua, a.k.a. Queen of the Brigantes. Her story is not entirely relevant to that of the city of York so I shan’t tell it here, but if you have the time, do research her – she has quite a tale!
As we travel through the thousand-or-so years following the Roman occupation of York, we see settlement by the Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Saxons (again), Vikings (again), and finally the Normans in 1069. What is interesting to see through this period is how the name of the settlement changes and the modern day name of ‘York’ emerges. The first inkling is apparent when the Vikings rename the town ‘Jorvik. Visitors and natives to the city will now know this to be the name of the successful attraction in the city centre which focuses on the Vikings in York. I didn’t have the time to spend at Jorvik, but having visited in the past I can say it’s worth a look!
From Micklegate to Monk Bar
My first port of call on my grand tour of York was Micklegate, chosen mainly as it was almost directly outside my overnight halt: the Bar Covent. The Convent itself is worthy of note. The booklet I discovered in my room describes it as ‘England’s oldest living convent’, having been established in 1686 and remaining on the same site ever since. Its position beside the city walls also makes it a perfect base for city exploring!
Micklegate, as described in ‘A Walking Guide to York’s City Walls’*, is probably the most photographed of all the gates due to the fact it’s where royal visitors are welcomed to the city. In times gone by, it was the gate that guarded the main road south from York and it was also where, as per the tales, the head of Richard, Duke of York was placed upon a spike following the Battle of Wakefield, mockingly adorned with a paper crown. The Battle of Wakefield was one of the many skirmishes that took place under the umbrella of the Wars of the Roses. I don’t think anyone escaped learning about them in school and they’re never too far away in York’s collective memory. Contained in Micklegate is The Henry VII Experience; Henry VII of course being the eventual victor of The Wars of the Roses and England’s first Tudor monarch. The museum takes up three floors of Micklegate Bar and is one of two twinned ‘experiences’ in York. Its partner museum revolves around Henry’s rival, Richard III and is situated in Monk Bar, which is more or less on the opposite side of the city centre from Micklegate. But we’ll come back to that later.
The exhibition at the Micklegate museum takes you through Henry’s journey from being an infant born to the great-great-granddaughter of Edward III, all the way to him becoming King of England. He had a pretty weak claim to the throne. He was a direct descendant of Edward III through his maternal line. Times have thankfully moved on a bit since, but in the 1400s being born a woman generally put you at a disadvantage, and having a claim to anything through a woman made it very tenuous at best. There are the odd one-or-two women that buck the trend – one of these women was Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. Now, the exhibition doesn’t really go into her life, but I want to take a time out to show how great a woman she was.
Margaret Beaufort is one of those characters who divides opinion. She’s been seen as a pious and devout woman but also as a scheming, power-hungry mother who did whatever it took to get her son, the future Henry VII on the throne. I say: why can’t she be both? Margaret was born into a period of upheaval, into a country on the brink of war between Lancastrians and Yorkists.
By the age of 16, she had been married to three different men and had endured an extremely traumatic birth which almost resulted in her death and the death of her only child, Henry. Her first marriage at the age of 7 was to the son of her guardian, the Duke of Suffolk. The union was dissolved three years later and her wardship was transferred to Jasper and Edmund Tudor, half-brothers of King Henry VI. She married the latter aged 12 and fell pregnant not too long after. Edmund died when Margaret was six months along, leaving her to give birth to her son three months later. As mentioned above, this appears to have been horribly distressing for her. She was only 13 years old by this point and, by all accounts, was a small and slight girl – not a great physiology for childbirth.
Her later marriages were based in pragmatism but seem to have developed into a friendship or respect over time. Her last husband, Thomas Stanley, seems to have deferred some of his business dealings to her, apparently trusting her skills with estate management and money. It makes you wonder how much of Henry VII’s ascension to the throne was down to Margaret playing the long-game, and maybe she was one of the biggest strategists in Medieval England? She made moves to ensure she stayed in with the biggest players at court, especially Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV.
Having researched her life and times, it’s clear to me that everything she did and each move she made was to help her son. Who can fault her for that?! I don’t want to talk too much about Margaret in this post, given I’m supposed to be telling you about my day in York so I’ll pause this topic here!
Back to York
Once my jaunt in Micklegate Bar was over, I took the wall path down to the River Ouse and across to the Museum Gardens. I’d visited the Gardens the day before as it was the venue for the BBC History Weekend and been dying for more of a meander – especially to the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey. But we’ll save that for the next post, I think!
P.S.: I promise there will be more ‘actual York’ next time.
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