Why Has Anglo Saxon York Been Forgotten?
Every year the residents of York roll out the metaphorical red carpet for the Jorvik Viking Festival and we all look forward to witnessing brightly-dressed and well-armed Viking reenactors from all over the country march through the city’s streets, in ‘celebration of York’s rich Norse heritage’,according to the official website.
This has become a common theme. When we think about the nebulously-termed ‘early medieval period’ from about 400 to 1066 in the North, there is one word that is raised over and over again – Vikings. While it is true that in this period there were numerous raids and settlements created by the Vikings, their stories have often taken predominance over the narratives of the Anglo Saxons. It is very easy to find remnants of Viking York in popular culture, if not in lasting material remains.
But what do we know of Anglo Saxon York?
York in the time of the Anglo Saxons is something of a mystery. In stark contrast to the centuries that came after, there is little left of it. We can see remnants of the Norman period in the imposing York Minster, and streets such as the Shambles and Stonegate offer a glimpse into what medieval York would have looked like. Fairfax House is a relic from the Georgian period, and there is of course a plethora of material evidence from Victorian York and the 20th century. This article will feature an introduction to some of the partially surviving Anglo Saxon sites in York, as well as an analysis of why, despite their rich and fascinating history, they remain largely understudied and unknown.
The Anglo Saxon Minster
(Image: York Minster)
The Minster as we know it today was constructed in the 13th century, initially beginning under Walter de Gray, who became archbishop in 1215. But the existence of a church in this spot significantly predates the arrival of the Normans. From as early as 637, a rudimentary wooden church would have existed here, and this was refined and rebuilt as the centuries went on. This wooden church was initially built as a baptistry for King Edwin of Northumbria. According to Bede, in the year 625, after the partial conversion of the Anglo Saxons to Christianity, Edwin of Northumbria married Aethelburh, daughter of the King of Kent and a fervent Christian. It is the historical consensus that, through her persuasions and those of her ally and bishop Paulinus, she managed to convert Edwin along with a significant portion of his household. As Edwin was in York at the time, this required the immediate construction of a rudimentary baptistry. This would have been absolutely necessary as in Anglo Saxon England baptism was generally administered by a bishop in ‘living water’, meaning that people had to either be baptised in streams or purpose-built baptistries which contained baptismal pools.
Evidence indicates that there were further plans to expand the baptistry and ‘enclose it in stone’, but before any of that work could be completed, Edwin was slain in battle against King Cadwalla of Wales in the Battle of Hatfield. After this, both of Edwin’s sons reverted back to paganism and much of the work started by Paulinus and Edwin was abandoned.
There is some evidence of sporadic attempts to build a stone structure by various archbishops of York following this time, notably Bishop Wilfrid in 669, but very little record of this survives, beyond a cycle of destruction by various invading forces, and a subsequent rebuilding of the church in stone. By 771, the church had been damaged by fire, and Archbishop Albert, native to York, determined to take the church down and completely rebuild it. Sadly, we have very little record of how that church looked or what adornments it might have boasted, as it was destroyed in 1069 due to a Danish invasion
It is at this point that the narrative becomes more confusing and disjointed. Archaeological evidence points to the existence of multiple buildings in the vicinity of the current Minster dating back to the 700s. As such, it has been suggested that an Anglo Saxon cathedral complex is a better way to understand the phenomenon, not as a single building which is what it would later become. The sources mention: the cathedral church of St Peter, founded in 627 and afterwards enlarged; a church of St Mary, in existence by mid 8th century; and a church of Alma Sophia in the vicinity of the modern day Minster by 780. We know almost nothing about where any of these places were exactly, but they would have been in the vicinity, or possible on the same site as, the current minister. However, the church of Alma Sophia itself must have been a large and significant building in its own right, and we do have a record of a poem which goes some way to highlighting the splendour the building must have held: –
‘One prelate saw this wondrous temple rise,
The first stone laid with joy, and the great pile
Completed, hallowed to the Lord…
Thro’ windows clear and numerous breaks the day,
To light the spacious porticoes around;
Whilst under different roofs the galleries range
And thirty altars court the supplicant’s knee’
(Image: Alcuin of York)
As well as the existence of a stone church, we have records of a library existing in York in the Anglo Saxon period. This library was founded by Archbishop Egbert in 732, and continued by his successor Archbishop Albert, who made valuable additions from his continental travels. Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar and churchman who would go on to serve Charlemagne, likely used and added to the library as well. Nothing of the library survives to this day, but it is clear that its collection was not to be scorned. When Alcuin was in France with Charlemagne, he mentioned in a letter that he wanted to send some French youth to York to transcribe some books from there to bring back to France,‘That the flowers of Britain might be transplanted to France’. This not only indicates that York possessed some of the finest literary works of the day, but also that it was seen as a city of considerable cultural and religious importance.
(Image: Coppergate dig)
There are some archaeological finds relating to Anglo Saxon York, though most of the work done in this field has pertained to the sites of the Vikings, such as the Coppergate site, which leant a valuable insight into the items being manufactured and traded in York itself. Nevertheless, this is a crucial piece of information, as it gives us an idea of the sort of items which would have been available commercially to the native Anglo Saxons. From Coppergate, we find evidence of items such as combs, bones, glass beads and leather, and in Clifford Street and Castle Yard two bronze bowls were excavated, possibly relics from the mid 600s when King Edwin held sway. Bronze bowls similar to the ones found in York are numerous in excavation sites in Kent, and Edwin was married to a Kentish princess who came to York with allies from Kent.
There is also evidence of Anglo-Danish-influenced artwork on a grave cover in St Denis’ churchyard, which features designs of plait-work and Mercian animals.
All in all, the archaeological finds suggest that despite the upheaval that undoubtedly took place in the Anglo Saxon period the population of York adapted to these changes and cultural exchange flourished.
Conclusion – why have we forgotten Anglo Saxon York?
For any historical period to gain currency in the modern world, it needs to make itself visible somehow to the public, whether that’s through architecture, archaeological remains, TV shows, reenactment, books, museums, anything that the public can engage in. The trouble with making anything from the Anglo Saxon period ‘visible’ in this way is that so little of it materially survives in comparison to other time periods – there are fragments of this and that scattered around the country, but very little (with the exception of sites such as Sutton Hoo) to surround oneself with. Viking York might have been doomed to the same fate had the opening of the Jorvik Viking centre not made it ‘imaginable’ and therefore accessible to the public.
Another key reason is a huge blindspot we seem to have in the way that our history is taught. In secondary school, we learn that William the Conqueror defeated Harold Godwinson and Anglo Saxon rule was at an end by 1066, but there is very little taught on what England was like before that time. One of the few phrases that is used with abandon about the Anglo Saxon period is ‘Dark Ages’, which conjures up images of a bleak, lawless and violent society only concerned with conquest and killing. This, as Anglian York shows, is far from being the whole story.
Written by Elsa Robinson
Blyth and Moore. History and description of the cathedral church of St Peter, commonly called York Minster; with a short account of the churches in York, St Mary’s abbey. York, Blyth & Moore, c 1845.
Brewer, JN. The History and Antiquities of the Cathedral Church of York. London : Coe pr., C. & J. Rivingtons, J. Hatchard, Lloyd, & Sherwood, Jones; sold also by Deighton, Todd, & Wolstenholme, York; 1819.
Cramp, Rosemary. Anglian and Viking York. York : St. Anthony’s Press, 1967.
Norton, Christopher. The Anglo Saxon Cathedral at York and the Topography of the Anglian City. London, 1998.
Sinclair Miller, John. The Site of the Saxon Minster : an idea. York : Dean and Chapter, 1995.
Wolstenholme, John. A guide to the cathedral church of St Peter’s, York, commonly called York Minster. Seventh edition., York : printed by and for J. Wolstenholme, Minster gates. 1823.