Great cities of the Norman world


York castleAs the largest and most important city in northern England, York played a crucial role in the determining the country's fate in the years 1066-9. It was first captured by Harald Hardrada after the battle of Fulford, but then retaken by Harold of England after the battle of Stamford Bridge. After Harold's defeat at Hastings York was seized by the Normans in 1068 when a motte and bailey castle was built on the north-east bank of the River Ouse. Early in 1069, after a serious northern revolt, William built a second castle on the opposite bank of the Ouse. In September 1069 he returned to crush a further rising and is thought to have burnt part of the city. The Normans then tightened their grip on York by refurbishing the city defences with a great ditch and earthen rampart.

The Norman Minster (York Archaeological Trust)Detail of the south door of St Denys churchIn about 1080, Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux began to rebuild the Minster in Romanesque style. Another large Romanesque church was erected as part of St Mary's Abbey, founded in the 1080s immediately north-west of the city defences, which became the largest and most influential Benedictine monastery in the north. Close by, but within the walls, was St Leonard's Hospital, the largest institution caring for the sick and infirm in the region. The parish churches of the pre-Conquest city were rebuilt in the Norman period and many new ones were founded.

Plan of York in 1100Although houses in one of its 'seven shires' had been cleared away for the castles, Domesday Book suggests that in 1086 York had a population of about 10,000. Archaeological excavations have shown how the city grew rapidly under the Norman kings expanding into new suburbs outside the defences. One of these, in the Walmgate area to the south-east, was included within the defences in the 12th century. Prosperity was based on manufacturing, especially of woollen textiles, and on trade both local and international. Dated to about 1125 there is a documentary reference to boats arriving from Ireland and Germany. By 1130 prosperous and influential townsfolk had formed a merchant guild with its own meeting house.

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