Britannia: Narrative History of Anglian York


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Narrative History of York
by David Nash Ford

Y O R K
Anglian Times

The Deiran successors of the British called York, Eoforwic, probably adapting Ebor into their own name for "boar" and adding the wic when they transformed part of the city (around Fishergate) into a major manufacturing and trading centre on the River Ouse. Northern parts of the old Kingdom of Ebrauc were soon lost to the Bernicians and then adjoining Britons, but York remained the capital of the Kingdom of Deira and it continued as the seat of Royal power. The pagan King Aelle is said to have quickly set up his palace in the city, possibly in the ruins of the old Roman military headquarters building.

Anglian York is particularly associated with the great King Edwin of Deira who, after a period of Bernician dominance, reasserted an independent Deira in AD 616 and even conquered the more northerly kingdom. York became his Deiran capital, while his Bernician seat was at Yeavering. The monarch took a keen interest in spiritual matters and, after an apparent brief dabble with Christianity in his youth, he was eventually fully converted to this new religion within two years of his marriage to the Christian Princess Ethleburga of Kent in AD 625. The new Queen's personal chaplain, St. Paulinus, was named Bishop of York. So bringing to fruition, Pope Gregory the Great's plan, which had been outlined to St. Augustine as early as AD 601, to establish a Metropolitan See in the city. On 12th April AD 627, Paulinus baptised King Edwin and many of his nobles in a small wooden oratory surrounded by the ruined Legionary Headquarters and probably adjoining the Royal Palace in York. Tradition appoints the spot to have been the well in the Norman crypt of the present Minster, but archaeological investigation has shown this area to have been the site of an Anglian cemetery. The associated church was probably somewhere nearby. The King later encased the building in stone, by erecting a more impressive Roman-style basilican church dedicated to St. Peter.

Edwin is portrayed by the Venerable Bede as the English successor to the high command of the Roman Dux Britanniarum. He may have refortified the city around AD 631 after Kings Cadwallon of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia invaded the North and brought Deira near to total destruction. The existing (so-called) 'Anglian Tower' in the city may date from this period, though modern theories seem to favour the late Roman period. The building of York Minster was interrupted two years later, when the combined Welsh and Mercian troops mustered for "a burning of York". St. Paulinus fled south. Edwin was later killed at the Battle of Hatfield Chase and Cadwallon set up his headquarters at York. He was unsuccessfully besieged there for a short while by Osric, the new Deiran king.

By AD 635, King Oswald had re-established Christianity in a united Northumbria but, though the building of the city's Minster was completed and King Edwin's head interred there, the central authority of the Church in the North was transferred from York to the new monastic establishment at Lindisfarne. The See was not restored to the city until AD 664, when St. Wilfred, fresh from his triumph at the Synod of Whitby, was created Bishop of Northumbria. Being an advocate of the Roman Church, he set himself up in York, well away from Irish influenced Lindisfarne, and restored the Minster which had by this time fallen into disrepair. However, these were times of upheaval within the Northern Church and clashes with the King and periods of absence led to an oscillation in the city's ecclesiastical standing.

In AD 735, Bishop Egbert - a cousin of King Ceolwulf of Northumbria - finally persuaded Pope Gregory III to confirm York's status as an Archiepiscopal See. Unfortunately, the Minster appears to have suffered a serious fire soon afterward, on 23rd April AD 741, though associated monastic buildings were apparently spared. It may have had some connection with King Aethelbald of Mercia's attacks on the kingdom the previous year. The church was later rebuilt by Archbishop Albert. Archbishop Egbert also founded the cathedral school which became such a renowned International centre of learning that it earnt the city the name of Altera Roma, the Alternate Rome. Its former pupil and master, Alcuin (AD 737-804) was the dominant intellectual of 8th century Europe and the library he gathered at York was famous throughout the World. It consisted of many works of the fathers and later Latin poets as well as books on philosophy and grammar. A copy of Cassiodorus' 'Commentary on the Psalms' may survive in the Cathedral Library at Durham, but the majority were destroyed during the burning of the city in 1069. Alcuin taught in Hebrew and Greek, as well as Latin, and his history of York Minster has been called "the first historical epic in an extant Latin literature of the medieval West". In AD 781, he was head-hunted by the Emperor Charlemagne to head-up the school of his Frankish Royal Court at Aachen and, here, he became a central figure in the Carolingian Renaissance.

The Minster and the city remained central to the political intrigues of late 8th century Northumbria, though its population may only have been a two or three thousand. Abdicating monarchs, such as King Eadberht (in AD 758), entered a religious life there. Others, like the young sons of the murdered King Aelfwald I, sought sanctuary there for over a year (in AD 789). Exiled King Osbald of Northumbria was buried there in AD 799.

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