YORK CITY WALLS
including EBORACUM ROMAN FORTRESS
York was founded by the Roman Ninth Legion to serve as a main operating base within the hostile territory of the Brigantes tribe. The fortress they built led to a civilian settlement which was later enclosed within walls. The Vikings and Normans would both augment the defences which were tested during the wars with Scotland and in the Civil War.
In AD 43 four Roman Legions, supported by extensive auxiliary units, stormed ashore at Richborough in Kent. This was the start of the Roman conquest of Britain and it would consume Imperial resources for decades. Nevertheless the Romans overcame resistance in the south, an extensive insurgency in Wales plus the Boudica rebellion and by the AD 70s they were looking to extend their control northwards. Around AD 65 the Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana) established a fortress at Lincoln (Lindum) but held there as the land to the north - much of Yorkshire and beyond - was under the control of the pro-Roman Brigantes tribe. However, in AD 68 its ruler, Queen Cartimandua, was deposed and the tribe then supported rebellions against Roman rule. Accordingly Petilius Cerialis, who was appointed Governor of Britain in AD 71, commenced the conquest of the Brigantes. He moved the Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana) north to a new base in York, the centre of the tribe's territory. The site was chosen due to its proximity to the convergence of the Rivers Foss and Ouse which offered both logistical and defensive benefits. Named by the Romans as Eboracum, the fortress was configured in a standard playing card configuration and enclosed an area of 50 acres - sufficient to house the men, animals and work facilities required by the 5000+ strong unit.
The original intent was York would merely be a temporary base with the Legion moving north as the insurgency across the Pennines was suppressed. As the Romans pushed north and achieved what seemed like the final victory over the native Britons at the Battle of Mons Graupius (AD 83), the Twentieth Legion (Legio XX Valeria Victrix) moved north to Inchtuthil on the River Tay. However, reallocation of Imperial resources saw the withdrawal of one Legion from Britain and the Romans fell back to the Solway/Tyne isthmus which would later be consolidated into the Hadrianic frontier (Hadrian's Wall). The net effect was York became the permanent base for the northern-most army of Imperial Rome. Accordingly the Ninth Legion commenced rebuilding their fortress in stone in the early second century AD and this was continued when they were replaced by the Sixth Legion (Legio VI Victrix) between AD 120-2. The fate of the Ninth is unknown (see comment below). As with other Legionary bases a large civilian settlement developed outside the fort and in York this was situated on the Western bank of the River Ouse.
In AD 237, to aid administration of the province, Britannia was divided into two areas of administration with York chosen as the capital of Britannia Inferior. Towards the end of the third century this increased status was reflected by construction of Walls around the civilian settlement. Such walls were intended to indicate the prestige of the town rather than serving a defensive purpose especially as the Sixth Legion remained based in York. The Legion was finally deployed to Rome in AD 401 after which it was apparently annihilated in the war against Alaric the Visigoth.
The Multangular Tower is a remnant of the Roman Legionary fortress.
After the Romans
Following the withdrawal of the Roman military in the early fifth century, York declined dramatically as the populace returned to subsistence farming although some form of local government may have continued from the site. York became part of the Kingdom of Diera which occupied the land between the Rivers Humber and Tees. By the early seventh century this had merged with the Kingdom of Bernicia and became the Kingdom of Northumbria - a territory stretching from the Humber north to the River Forth. York was chosen as the seat of the bishop for the new Kingdom and in AD 627 King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised there. On Edwin's death though the caput moved north to Bamburgh and the religious centre temporarily relocated to Lindisfarne. In the mid seventh century York once again became the seat of the bishop and in AD 735 the post was elevated to Archbishop.
By the ninth century AD the east coast of northern England was being regularly attacked by Vikings. On the 1 November 866 (All Saints Day) a force led by Ivar the Boneless seized York. They would hold the city, which they called Jorvik, for almost one hundred years with it becoming the capital of the Viking held north - land that became known as the Danelaw. The Roman walls of both the fortress and former civilian settlement continued to provide protection to the city albeit augmented by additional earth banks and wooden palisades as required. However, the Vikings were focused on offence rather than defence - they continued their incursions south throughout the ninth century slowly defeating each of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms until just Wessex remained. It was at this time King Alfred commenced his fight against the Vikings which was continued by his son and daughter - King Edward the Elder and his sister Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians - who pushed them out of the Midlands and East Anglia. By the mid-tenth century the Danelaw was collapsing under Anglo-Saxon attack and it was King Edred, grandson of King Alfred, who attacked and took York from them in AD 954.
In 1066 York was the target of a Norwegian attack. Harold Hardrada, King of Norway sought to wrest control of the Kingdom of England from its new King, Harold II. After initial assaults along the coast he sailed up the River Ouse, established a base at Riccall and marched on York. He was intercepted by the northern Earls Edwin and Morcar who fought the bloody Battle of Fulford on 20 September 1066 in an attempt to stop him. The Norwegian King won and York capitulated offering hostages and supplies. However, the Norwegians were surprised and routed by the army of King Harold II at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
The monument at Stamford Bridge, some nine miles east of York.
Just weeks later Harold himself was killed at the Battle of Hastings and William I installed as King. He came to York in 1068 and built the motte-and-bailey castle that later became Clifford's Tower. A rebellion in 1069 led to a punitive military expedition - the 'Harrying of the North' - and construction of a second fortification, Baile Hill Castle, on the south side of the River Ouse. The city walls, which at this time were still of Roman origin and showing the signs of age, were also modified and augmented where necessary with earthen banks and new defensive ditches dug. In addition the four great gates of the City - Bootham Bar, Micklegate Bar, Monk Bar and Walmgate Bar - were likely started at this time as was the great Minister.
York Castle (left) and Baile Hill Castle (right) were both built by William I.
Later Middle Ages
In 1226 Henry III granted the city permission to impose taxes on goods brought to York in order to fund upgrades to the Walls. The money was used to rebuild the defences in stone and to make substantial upgrades to all the bars into the city. Also added at this time was Lendal Tower on the banks of the River Ouse. This was equipped with a chain to control access along the river for both defensive and taxation purposes.
The Walls were tested during the first War of Scottish Independence. In 1319, with Scottish forces dominating the north of England following the defeat of the English at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314), an army arrived at York under Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray. His intention was to capture Queen Isabella but, as she had already left the city, the Scottish commander burnt the area around Bootham Bar. Further upgrades were made to the Walls during the fourteenth century. Barker Tower was added to compliment Lendal Tower on the River's edge whilst the city's Bars were once again enhanced.
Lendal Tower was built to control a chain boom that extended across the River Ouse.
Henry VII defeated the final Yorkist king, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. York had enthusiastically supported Richard, whose powerbase had been centred on the north, but nevertheless sought to welcome the new Tudor King. In 1489 a northern revolt against Henry, led by Lambert Simnel, was not supported by the city's leaders prompting the rebels to burn Walmgate Bar and Fishergate Bar. These were repaired and the Tudor era also saw new defences built; Red Tower in 1490 and Fishergate Postern Tower between 1504 and 1507.
Red Tower (left) and Fishergate Postern Tower (right) were both added during the Tudor era.
The Civil War
During the Civil War York was held for the Royalists becoming their headquarters in the north. The city was besieged by a combined Parliamentary-Scottish army numbering in excess of 30,000 men in April 1644. Heavy fighting ensued as the Parliamentary force attempted to breach the Walls. Walmgate Bar, on the east side of the city, took the brunt of the attack and was heavily damaged. Likewise Toft's Tower, on the South West corner of the city Wall, was destroyed during the siege as was St Mary’s Tower near Bootham. A breach was also made near the old Multangular Tower. However, the Parliamentarians were forced to withdraw in June when faced with the approach of a large Royalist field army under Prince Rupert. The respite to the beleaguered city was short-lived as Rupert chose to purse the Parliamentarians and was decisively defeated at the Battle of Marston Moor fought on 2 July 1644. With the Royalist threat removed the Parliamentary army returned and, with no prospect of relief, York fell just two weeks later. The damaged towers were rebuilt over the subsequent years.
Jacobites and Georgians
The last significant time the walls were prepared for a potential assault was in 1745 during the final Jacobite rebellion. The army of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) had evaded Governmental forces in northern Scotland and had invaded England. An attack on York was feared and the walls were hastily repaired. However, the rebels did not attack the city and were pursued back to Scotland where they were routed at the Battle of Culloden (1746).
By the late eighteenth century the York Corporation was keen to demolish the Walls. Not only where they ruinous by this time, they were also regarded as militarily obsolete and were expensive to maintain. They were also constraining the expansion of the city. However, the Walls were the property of the Government and required approval of Parliament before they could be demolished - bids were made but never approved. Nevertheless, the towers at St Leonard’s Place and Skeldergate plus the barbicans at all the bars except Walmgate were demolished in the early nineteenth century. Growing interest in heritage - plus fierce opposition from the Archbishop of York - prevented any further significant destruction.
Originally all the main gates into York had barbicans but there were demolished during the nineteenth century. Only the one on Walmgate Bar survives.
Arrival of the Railway
After the proposed destruction of the Walls during the Georgian period, the Victorians took a different view albeit a practical one. They demolished small portions of the wall to allow access for the railway. In 1841 a section was replaced with an arch to allow access for the tracks to pass through the perimeter and this was followed by a second arch in 1845 and a third in 1876. They also built a new gateway through the Walls - the Victoria Bar - in 1838 under the direction of the Lord Mayor, George Hudson. Finally they also "preserved" some elements of the wall and "restored" them in their own imagining of medieval style. Robin Hood's Tower was one such example rebuilt in 1888-9 - probably one of the few defensive towers than can claim to have former tram tracks included within its structure!
Once of the Victorian arches originally constructed to allow access for the railway.
After AD 108 the Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana), veterans from the invasion of Britain who had been the core of the military force in the north of England for almost 70 years, disappeared from the historical record. Their supporting Auxiliary units - Ala Agrippiana Miniata, first Cohort of Nervorium, second Cohort of Vasconum, fourth Cohort of Delmatarum and fifth Cohort of Raetorum - also were not mentioned after this time. The last recorded action of the Legion was the rebuilding of their primary base, the fortress at York (Eburacum), in stone. After this the only certainty we have is that they were not listed in a supposedly complete record of Roman Legions made in AD 165 and that in AD 122, arriving with Emperor Hadrian, the Sixth Legion (Legio VI Victrix) proceeded north and established their headquarters in the Ninth's former base at York with additional Auxiliary units arriving shortly after to support them. The Sixth then stayed in Britain for almost another three hundred years conducting the duties originally done by the Ninth. So what happened to the battle-hardened Ninth Legion that consisted of over 5,000 men?
The Scottish Theory
The most famous theory, widely publicised by Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel Eagle of the Ninth, suggests they were ambushed and annihilated somewhere in Scotland. Circumstantial evidence supports this theory. Wars were fought with the northern tribes between AD 105 to 117 that were significant enough for 3,000 additional soldiers to be rushed to the province. As the northernmost legion, the Ninth would have borne a significant portion of the fighting even if augmented by additional forces. Contemporary historians noted significant military casualties in Britain whilst a further account by Hadrian's biographer stated that in AD 117 the "Britons could not be restrained under Roman control".
The Strategic Transfer Theory
An alternative argument suggests that the legion was simply transferred out of Britain. In support of this argument historians cite the discovery of three tiles in Nijmegen (the Netherlands) stamped 'LEG.IX.HISP' (the Roman army stamped all building materials to ensure they weren't pilfered). It is mooted these tiles demonstrate the Ninth left Britain in so much that the stamp implies the whole Legion was present in the Netherlands. Critics argue they could have been made by a vexillation (detachment) deployed in the AD 80s. Supporters of the theory also note that two of the Ninth's tribunes from the period not only survived but had distinguished careers which is more difficult to reconcile with a Scottish rout. Certainly when the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Legions were destroyed in Germany in AD 9, their commanders died alongside their forces. However, if the Legion survived its deployment in Britain, what then happened to it? Two potential options seem to exist - it was either destroyed in the Bar Kokhba Jewish revolt around AD 132 or it was wiped out in a war against the Parthians (Persians) around AD 161. The Jewish revolt is mentioned by Cassius Dio, the Roman historian, who noted "many Romans...perished in this war". Dio's texts also support the Pathian option for he described an unnamed Legion being wiped out at Elegeia in Armenia. To assign either location to the Ninth however is a little tenuous - there is no record of them being in the Middle East and the destroyed Legion in Armenia was probably the Twenty-Second (Legio XXII Deiotariana).
It is not unreasonable to assume that elements of both theories are correct. The wars of AD 105 to 117 must have caused some attrition to the Ninth - they were the northernmost unit and would have borne a significant portion of the fighting. Perhaps they suffered death by a thousand blows fighting a sustained counter-insurgency campaign centred on the Pennines perhaps being supported by the tribes of southern Scotland. It is possible by the AD 120s they were so depleted that strategic transfer was the only viable option. If so it could explain the Nijmegen tiles (assuming the post-AD 120 date is accepted) and also the survival of the Ninth's tribunes. It would also provide a rationale for the construction and scale of Hadrian's Wall as it would have been seen as a physical control measure to ensure what happened to the Ninth did not get repeated to the Sixth. However, such a theory still leaves the unsolved question of the ultimate fate of the Legion. Historians have long looked for a definitive battle where they were wiped out. Perhaps, not unlike some military units in modern times, they were just so depleted of manpower the decision was made to decommission rather than restore the Legion. The veteran Ninth may simply have been left under-strength and disbanded at some point prior to AD 165.
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York Walls are a largely complete circuit with the remains dating from various periods. York Castle (Clifford's Tower), York Museum and the Jorvik Viking Centre are other notable attractions within the city centre.
York Defences. The original Roman Legionary fortress of Eboracum was sited on the east of the River Ouse but its civilian settlement was across the water on the west. In the late third century that was enclosed by defensive walls largely defining both the Viking and Medieval defensive lines.
Multangular Tower. Originally part of the defences surrounding the Roman Legionary Fortress.
Red Tower. When Red Tower was commissioned in 1490, it was built in brick prompting a bitter feud - ending in murder - between the stonemasons and bricklayers.
Micklegate Bar. This was the main gateway leading to the south of England and was the ceremonial entrance to the city. It was also the location where heads of executed criminals were displayed. Prominent heads included Sir Henry Percy (Hotspur), killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403), and Richard, Duke of York after his death at the Battle of Wakefield (1460). The final heads to be displayed were those of Jacobite rebels William Conolly and James Mayne - the head of the latter was stolen in 1754!
Clifford Tower is a major tourist attraction within York. Car parking is available immediately adjacent to the castle or throughout the city centre. Baile Hill is a short walk away over Skeldergate bridge onto Bishopgate Street.
Car Parking Option
Tower Street, YO1 9RZ
Clifford's Tower (York Castle)
Baile Hill Castle
Museum Street, YO1 8AA
Roman Multangular Tower
High Petergate, YO1 7EN
Foss Islands Road, YO31 7UL