I can’t believe I’ve reached the third part of this series. In fact, yes, I can believe it – there’s so much heritage in York that it would be hard to squash it all into one, or even two, posts! The end of part two saw the back of St. Mary’s Abbey and Monk Bar; so now we’re looking ahead to one of York’s most well-known landmarks, one of the city’s oldest streets, and a final hurrah from Clifford’s Tower.
The landmark is, of course, York Minster. It’s hard to miss and most people I know who have visited the city have also stuck their heads in at some stage. ‘York Minster’ is only its nickname, however. Its full title is the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St. Peter in York, but that doesn’t really roll off the tongue as easily. The building as we see it today (broadly) took 250 years to build, and I can only assume those builders were taking an awful lot of tea breaks! The effort clearly paid off though – the building is phenomenal! Architectural trends obviously changed during these 250 years resulting in a cathedral in which visitors can see all three English Gothic styles. Fun fact: English Gothic architecture actually originated in France – it became very popular here in England, so we kept it and said it was ‘English’. Shocker, I know!
Styles at the Minster
It began with the Early English style, noted for its ‘lancets’ or tall, pointed windows, such as the Five Sisters window at York Minster. Each of these lancets is over 16 metres tall which is quite frankly staggering. It then moved to a stage where everyone got a bit fancy with their windows. It was dubbed ‘Decorated Gothic’ and as you can imagine, there’s a lot going on. Just look at the western end of York Minster and you’ll see what I mean. The ‘Heart of Yorkshire’ window features on this end of the cathedral and is a great example of how ‘extra’ the architects were becoming at the time. Last but not least came the ‘Perpendicular Gothic’ style with its much more muted attitude. Some have argued that this was a result of the Black Death which swept the country on two occasions in the 1300s. After witnessing more than a third of the population dying, the remaining country folk were so stricken by grief that they couldn’t see the point of the flamboyant ‘Decorated’ style. As such, we not only see a lot of vertical lines but also some immense windows. During this time, they reduced the amount of stonework and left space for the stained glass window professionals to do their job. Take a look at the Great East Window in York Minster as a shining example – it is, in fact, the largest surviving expanse of Medieval stained glass in the world. How about that?!
Another fun fact for you – one of the many people buried in York Minster is Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland and killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 at the ripe old age of 39. After his first burial in Shropshire, King Henry IV had him exhumed to prove he was dead and then quartered, scattering his remains across the country just to make sure everyone knew. Better to be safe than sorry. When his body was all returned to his widow, she had him buried in the Minster. But that wasn’t my ‘fun fact’! Henry Percy, as you may have gathered, lends his name to the football club ‘Tottenham Hotspur’. They adopted his nickname because the area in which the club’s first grounds was based, Tottenham Marshes, was once owned by his descendants. It’s a bit convoluted but you never know when you’ll need that bit of information! Probably never.
The Minster today is, as I mentioned at the top of this post, one of York’s top attractions. You’re not only letting yourself in for an outstanding array of Gothic architecture but also the Undercroft Museum, which reveals more about York’s Roman, Norman, and Viking history. One of the ‘must-see’ pieces is the ‘Horn of Ulf’. Dating back to the 11th century, the elephant-tusk-now-horn once belonged to a Viking thane named Ulf – surprisingly – and was used as a rudimentary land deed for Ulf’s vast estates surrounding York. When the horn was transferred to the Dean and Chapter of York, the land was also transferred. I like it. It’s simple and to the point; none of this rigmarole we use today.
Through the Shambles
The next stop on my walk was The Shambles, another staple in any York visitor’s itinerary. Actually, I lie. My next stop was lunch, but no one wants or needs to hear about the toastie I ate at Café Nero. The Shambles is far more interesting. The street is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and is noted for the surprisingly well-preserved overhanging buildings which line the cobbles. Most of the buildings on the alleyway date to 1350-1475 roughly and at one point or another, most of them were butchers’ shops. The name ‘Shambles’ is a ‘ye olde’ term for an open-air slaughterhouse and meat market and there lies the link with the butchers! Nowadays though, you’re more likely to find a swarm of tourists and a bundle of Harry Potter merchandise than pig innards swinging from an awning! Probably for the best…
The Castle Quarter
Moving swiftly on down to the Castle Quarter, thus named for the whopping great museum. I’m joking of course. There is a museum, but this district is obviously designated by York Castle. ‘Castle’ may be a bit of a stretch though – now, it is essentially a sole tower on a hill. This fortification also goes by the name ‘Clifford’s Tower’. In the years since its construction in the late 1000s, the castle has been a prison and a cattle shed, it has been burnt down numerous times and rebuilt again, and it has also seen one of the most harrowing events in English history. In the 12th century, tensions were rising between the Christian and Jewish communities in England, partly due to the anti-Jewish Crusade propaganda and the fact that many were in ever-increasing debt to Jewish moneylenders. Following the coronation of Richard I, a completely falsified rumour swept the nation, stating that the King had ordered a massacre of the Jewish population. The Jews in York were initially given protection in the Tower, but as mistrust grew between the royal officials and the assembled 150 Jews, the officials were locked out of the battlement. The troops they then summoned to help retake the Tower only incited the angry group of debtors and rioters gathered around the site. Soon it spiralled out of control and seeing that they had no way to safety, Rabbi Yomtov urged his fellow members to opt for suicide rather than be taken by the furious city folk. Many heads of households killed their own families before themselves. Some other members of the community elected not to take this path. Shortly after, the Tower was set alight, taking the lives of some of those that had refused to take their own, leaving only a handful of survivors. The remaining few left the Tower under amnesty only to be murdered soon after by the mob.
It is, without a doubt, one of York’s darkest tales and one which is also commemorated with a plaque installed at the base of the mound on which the Tower sits. I don’t want to leave my post on such a sombre note, so instead let’s take a look at the stunning views from the top. See if you can spot the Minster – it’s not hard to miss!
If you haven’t already taken a look back at parts ONE and TWO of this series, click on either of those numbers to be zipped over there. If you have read them, thank you, and if you want even more from Holme & Away, you can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. See you there!