York: landscape and urban environment



York is located right at the confluence of the River Ouse and the River Foss, in the Vale of York. Interestingly, the landscape of York is not as it was during the Middle Ages. From these times up until the present day, the River Ouse an overall width that is three times less than its width in the Middle Ages. This location was of high strategic and economic value for various reasons. York is placed in a very geographically diverse location that is rich in natural resources such as farmlands and water. Additionally, it’s location at the confluence of two rivers vastly increases its ability to trade and ease of access to the rest of the medieval world. The rivers also acted as a natural barrier to land invasions that made York easily defensible. Later on in York’s History, its location in the Vale of York meant that it was a much easier path between England and Scotland than the nearby Lancashire plains. This ease of overland travel was especially important in the battles between the English and the Scotsmen in the later medieval periods.

Yorkshire in the later Middle Ages, c.1100–1540 The outer border is that of the historic (pre-1974) county. Pecked borders are those of the wapentake of Ainsty and of the three Ridings.



Roman Period Landscape:

During the Roman period, there was a gradual improvement of the fortifications at York. The Romans also built a fortress on the elevated ground right at the angle of the rivers Ouse and Foss. The fortress was the control center of York and its rectangular walls began as earth and wood, but they were improved to stone in the second century and an angle tower called the Multangular Tower was added at the south-west fortress wall. The fortress housed two major streets that existed throughout the Middle Ages which were known as Stonegate and Petergate. Roman York did also have civilian presence. This began in the second century, and it led to the formation of a rectangular area with the Ouse running down the middle. There were many public buildings and the sections divided by the Ouse were linked by a bridge. Furthermore, the Romans created roads that extended from one gate to another gate in the city. The most prominent of these roads were the via Praetoria and the via Decumana, both of which are the locations of roads that exist today in York. The Romans also created some canals in York in order to increase its defensibility and access. Namely the Foss Dyke and the Car Dyke each of which helped further interconnect important surrounding rivers.

 Shown here is an overview of the Roman settlement at York c. 43-c.410.

Anglo-Saxon Period

Though less is known, early Anglo-Saxon occupation of York is confirmed by Anglian pottery that was found by the Anglian Tower. The previously discussed Roman fortress was incorporated in the settlement of the Anglo-Saxons in a similar way to the Romans, however, the function of the fortress changed from secular to ecclesiastical. The Anglo-Saxon period also saw an expansion upon the roads created by the Romans. This expansion allowed for better access to closer gates than just ones on opposite ends of the fortified settlement. The English settlements at York before the early 7th century can be characterized as rural settlements with a few cemeteries. Based on the archeological discoveries of a vast number of coins, it is believed that York experienced a burst of economic growth between the early 7th and late 8th century. That said, it wasn’t quite a settlement; it was more of a crossover point for trade. After this economic boom,  the two key players in York’s development were the brothers Egbert and Eadberht (the archbishop and king of Northumbria respectively) who worked together and made York the ecclesiastical and political center of Northumbria. Eadberht developed the School of York, and the Church of York that was founded by Egbert became one of the most important churches in the 9th century. The church attracted people from all over the Medieval world. One example was Alcuin, who traveled to York to retrieve copies of books to bring back to Tours. It is largely from Alcuin that we have descriptions of York’s environment, and an example of this is from a poem shown below. 

“…High-walled and towered…
To be a trading town by land and sea alike…
A haven for the ships from different parts
Across the ocean, where the sailor hastes
To cast his rope ashore and stay to rest.
The city is watered by the fish-rich Ouse
Which flows past flowery fields on every side…”


Shown here is an overview of the Anglo-Saxon settlement at York (c.410-c.866). There is notably less detail in this overview of Anglo-Saxon York because not as much is known about this period in this period of the landscape and settlement of York. The church in the southwest of york should be noted because it emphasizes the shows the ecclesiastical shift of York during the Anglo-Saxon period.

Viking Period

York experienced growth at the beginning of the 10th century, which was backed up by another increase in coins found from this time. C. 900, York was clearly divided into four distinct tenements. One such tenement was the tenement plot at Coppergate, which was near the center of York. At the head of every tenement, there was usually a single structure, presumably fronting on to a narrower forerunner. Tenements were often occupied by craftsmen. Newer buildings start to appear c. 930, and there were new property divisions arising at the end of the 9th and early 10th centuries. The Viking Period of York also saw an enlargement of defenses.

This is an overview of York during the viking period (c.866-c.1066). The increased fortifications (improved fort and walls) and expansion upon the Roman road system.

Hooke, Della. The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England. London ; Washington: Leicester University Press, 1998.

A York Museum’s Trust, “History of York,” History of York, March 10, 2019, http://www.historyofyork.org.uk/timeline/anglo-saxon. Palliser, D. M. Medieval York 600-1540. First ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Godman, Godman, Peter, and Alcuin. The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York. 1st ed. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford : New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1982.

Hall, R. A. “Burhs and Boroughs: Defended Places, Trade, and Towns. Plans, Defences, and Civic Features.” In The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, Chapter 31. Oxford University Press, 2011.


1 Comment

  1. sassl

    Maybe we should indicate the different names of York as they were in the different periods that we are exploring.


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