SACRED and Ancient Celtic Sites
The Shambles has the effect of a time machine, transporting you back to the Elizabethan period. The houses that jostle for space along The Shambles project out over the lane in their upper stories, as if trying to meet their neighbours opposite. In some places the street is so narrow that if you stand with arms outstretched you can touch the houses on both sides.
The name "Shambles" comes from the Saxon "Fleshammels", which means, "the street of the butchers", for it was here that the city's butcher's market was located. Notice the wide window sills of the houses; the meat for sale was displayed here.
The butcher's shops have now been replaced with shops catering to visitors, including jewelry and antiques; indeed, the Shambles is now one of the premier shopping areas in the city of York.
One building of note in The Shambles is the home of Margaret Clitherow. She was arrested in 1586 on the charge of harbouring Catholic priests. To make matters worse, she had regular Masses said in her house, and hid clergy vestments there. The authorities condemned her to death by pressing (crushing beneath a heavy weight). Margaret Clitherow was canonized in 1970, and her home is now a shrine.
York is an ancient Viking town most famous for its Minster (cathedral). Boasting huge, walkable city walls, the city has played an important role in the history of Britain, whether from the religious sector of the ArchBishop of York, to the fortified military resistance to Kings. Beautiful in its own right, York is surrounded by some of the lovliest countryside in Britain. The Yorkshire Moors gained fame in 'James Heriott's Yorkshire', better known as "All Creatures Great and Small".
York Minster, seat of the Archbishops of York, is one of the finest examples of medieval church architecture to be found anywhere in the world. York, strategically placed to command the natural South-North route from London to Scotland, again became a major powerbase in both the secular and ecclesiastical affairs of the nation. Work on the present edifice of York Minster - which stands an impressive 534ft (160m) long, with towers 197ft (60m) high - was started in 1220 but so ambitious was the project that it was not finally completed until 1480.
No-one knows when Christianity first arrived in the city but by 306 when Constantine The Great was proclaimed Emperor in York it is probable there was a small Christian community among those who proclaimed him. In 312 he issued a general edict of toleration for the Christian Church. However, by the year 314 York already had its own bishop, implying that the Christian community had been meeting there for some time, probably since long before their faith was officially tolerated.
The history of north-eastern England between 400 and 600 AD is obscure but York itself survived with its fortifications kept up and even strengthened. However, it seems that the organised Christian community disappeared during the pagan invasions that followed Roman withdrawal in the 5th century. In 625 Christianity returned to York when Bishop Paulinus accompanied Ethelburga, a Christian princess from Kent in southern England, who came north to marry Edwin, the pagan king of Northumbria. Edwin accepted Christianity two years later and was baptised, along with his court, by Paulinus in a church built especially for the occasion - this building is traditionally regarded as the first York Minster. Bede records that the church was built in a hurry ('citato opere'), that it was made of wood, and that it was small. Before Edwin's death in 632/3 work began on a larger stone church designed to enclose the earlier wooden building. Edwin died before his stone church was completed and it was finished by his successor Oswald, dedicated to Saint Peter as the cathedral in York has been ever since.
A period of instability followed with York vulnerable to attack from Penda of Mercia and the Britons of North Wales. We know that the city was overrun at least twice and probably three times between the death of Oswald in 641/2 and the Battle of the Winwaed in 654/5. In about 670 St. Wilfred took over the see of York and found the structure of Edwin's church fairly lamentable 'The ridge of the roof owing to its age let the water through, the windows were unglazed and the birds flew in and out, building their nests, while the neglected walls were disgusting to behold, owing to all the filth caused by the rain and the birds.'.
Saint Wilfred set to work renewing the roof and covering it with lead, whitewashing the interior walls and installing glass windows. Based on descriptions given of other churches built at a similar time it is possible to understand something of how Wilfred's restored church at York would have looked to the 7th century worshippers who entered it. The altar, within which relics were deposited, would have been decorated with purple silk hangings of intricate woven design. Upon the altar, raised by a book rest and in a jewelled binding, would stand the illuminated gospel book. The walls and probably also the testudo (a wooden partition screening the altar) would be adorned with icons painted on wooden panels depicting the types and anti-types of the Old and New Testaments. These church painting were essential to the evangelization of England, being the only effective way of explaining the 'the new worship' to an illiterate population. Gregory the Great called them 'the books of the unlearned'.
Saint Wilfred held the see of York for 40 years until 705 but only when not in dispute with Canterbury or for some other reason out of the country. His successors were much more in accord with the wishes of Canterbury and Rome, at last making York a centre where both the Saxon and Roman church were at peace. In the period that followed until the arrival of the Vikings, the Church in York went through a great period in its history. Egbert, who ruled from 732 to 766 and was the first archbishop approved by Rome, hugely expanded the cathedral school and library, which became famous throughout the Christian world. The school's most famous pupil Alcuin, wrote a verse in which he listed the books in the church library. They included not only the Latin fathers, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory, and more recent authors like Boethius and Bede, but classical texts, Virgil, Cicero and Pliny among them. No other such school and library existed north of the Alps and York was truly at the centre of civilization. Meanwhile, in 741 , the Minster Church had been burned down. The fire left the old church in ruins but the people of York were in a position to rebuild it and judging by the account of Alcuin it must have been a work of great splendour. He describes it as lofty, supported by columns, and having round arches and panelled ceilings. It contained thirty altars , and was surrounded by many beautiful side-chapels.
In 793, after 'dire portents' in the shape of whirlwinds, lightning and 'fiery dragons…flying in the air' the first Viking attacks fell upon Britain, destroying the church of Lindisfarne. After years of sporadic attacks, the Viking army wintered in England for the first time in 855. By 867 the Danes were occupying East Anglia, and the following year they went north and captured York. Despite losing both their kings in the fight to repel the invaders the English seem to have negotiated a truce which left them in possession of the city; but in 892 the Danes restated their claim and the see of York was vacant for eight years. For the first half of the tenth century there is very little recorded history of the church of York. Occupied in turn by the Danes, the armies of the West Saxon successors of Alfred and Norse raiders from Ireland, it was not until the reign of Edgar that the English were safely in possession of the whole of Northumbria.
These years were not, however, a time of entire depression, either for the city or its Christian population. The trading Vikings brought a measure of prosperity and the Anonymous Life of St. Oswald in 980 describes York as a densely populated city, full of Danish merchants, even if its buildings were somewhat down-at-heel. The Minster survived and remained a centre of Christian worship with archbishops continuing to serve, although they are little more than names to us. Some of the Danes even showed an interest in Christianity and as early as 895 a Danish king, Guthfrith, was buried as a Christian in the Minster. In 934 King Athelstan made the Church a very significant grant of land and in 946 King Eadred presented it with two large bells. Even so, the pagan element among the north-eastern Vikings made York an insecure base for a bishop in the mid to late tenth century.
Then the clouds of history rise again we find something altogether new; a line of archbishops, Benedictine monks but of Danish origin, restoring some semblance of order to the Christian life of the city and its Minster. The most distinguished of these were the second Saint Oswald, archbishop from 972 to 992 and Wulfstan from 1003 to 1023. The York of their day had become a largely pagan place, the most thoroughly Viking town of the whole Danelaw. Athough none of these new monk-archbishops managed to restore a single monastery to the north they were far from negligible figures: it was the last of their line, Archbishop Ealred, who travelled south on Christmas Day 1066 for a truly momentous engagement…On Christmas Day 1066 Ealdred anointed and crowned William the Conqueror king of the English in Westminster Abbey, an event which radically changed the course of history for Britain, York and its cathedral.
When Archbishop Ealdred was buried in the Saxon Minster in 1069 the building was virtually intact. However, within days of his burial it was severely damaged during conflicts between the Danes, rebellious Saxons and William I and his followers, with many of its charters and fittings lost. William had faced rebellion in the north in that year and always feared York as a centre of Viking sympathisers. His answer was characteristic: a fearful devastation from which the city took several generations to recover fully.
In 1070 Thomas of Bayeux was consecrated the first Norman archbishop, and on his arrival began to put the affairs of the church back in order, re-roofing the church and rebuilding the refrectory and dormitory. In 1075 the Danes came again to York and destroyed the church entirely. Undaunted, In 1080 the archbishop, decided to rebuild the Minster. Remains of this Cathedral can still be seen in the Foundations Exhibition below the present Minster. The first Norman church was remarkable, 365 feet long with walls seven feet thick, the exterior was rendered with hard white plaster and lined in red to look like ashlar.
Perhaps the greatest change to the everyday life of the church in York after the arrival of the Normans was caused by the introduction of a secular Chapter. Archbishop Thomas, who died in 1100, reorganized his cathedral on an institutional pattern that survives to this day. In York, unlike some other medieval cathedrals, the foundation was never monastic. Thomas of Bayeux introduced canons living the common life at York, later converting the Chapter to conform with the model to which he had been accustomed in Normandy, a fully secular Chapter of canons living in their own houses, enjoying separate incomes or 'prebends'. From among this Chapter of canons the four offices of Dean, Treasurer, Precentor and Chancellor were created to manage the running of the cathedral, while the Archbishops themselves became increasingly significant national figures, often away from York on the business of King or Pope.
In 1137 York Cathedral was damaged by fire. The worst damage was to the eastern arm with the remainder being as patched up or improved. Newly quarried limestone was used in repairs to the walls which were re-rendered with red lines as before. However, even if the eastern arm had not been damaged in the fire, it would have been antiquated by the standards of other large churches of the twelfth century.
When Roger of Pont l'Eveque became archbishop in 1154 he set to work and built anew the choir and crypt of the cathedral. Evidence of this rebuilding can still be seen in the western crypt. Over the years the east end was entirely rebuilt with the west end enlarged by the addition of a pair of towers, close together and projecting only a little beyond the side walls of Thomas's nave. Also at the west end a large chapel known as St Sepulchre's was built at an angle to the north wall of the nave. By the early thirteenth century the fame of the Norman cathedral at York had spread beyond the Alps: it was one of the great Norman cathedrals of Europe. But fashions were changing and the first cathedrals in the 'Gothic' style had already been built, including the new church at Sens, finished in 1168, a new choir at Canterbury. York Minster must have seemed dark, heavy and antiquated to anyone who had visited Canterbury or Ile de France.
Toward the end of 1215 Pope Innocent III brought a long and ill-tempered election process to an end by telling the representatives of the York Chapter that 'By Saint Peter, virginity is a great virtue; and we will give him to you.' The events of the next forty years were to reveal to the canons of York that chastity was only one of their new Archbishop's many qualities.
The accession of Walter de Gray marks the most important turning point in the history of the medieval Minster. During the previous generation the clerks of the cathedral had suffered from the lack of an effective and respected leader. By formulating a strict code of conduct for members of the Chapter, regulating the size and distribution of prebend payments and , for the first time, keeping careful records of his acts, Gray redefined the position of the archbishop in his diocese and his cathedral.
It was in 1220 that construction of the Minster as we know it began. Archbishop Gray and the Dean and Chapter decided to rebuild the Norman Minster on a scale to rival Canterbury.
The South Transept was the first section to be rebuilt between 1220 and 1250 with the North Transept both started and finished a few years later. Both transepts were built in the Early English Gothic manner and with similar interiors. The very different atmosphere created in each transept is attributable to contrast between their end walls. The south wall is in an elaborate French style featuring gables, arcading and lancets thick on its surface with two tiers of doubled lancet windows below an ornate rose window. The north wall is so different it is hard to believe it was built at the same period: the Five Sisters, five tall, even lancets, rise above a blind arcade and are crowned by five graduated lancets in the gable. The effect is austere and graceful. While the South Transept is believed to have been the personal scheme of Walter de Gray it is his sub-Dean and eventual treasurer, John Romanus who is associated with the North Transept - whether the design was dictated by aesthetics or economics, it makes him a noble memorial.
Romanus was also responsible for the great central tower built at this period, which held the Minster bells and was almost certainly topped by a wooden spire. It is thought to have been heavier than the present tower, though carried on smaller piers, which probably explains its collapse in 1407.
Walter de Gray died in 1255 an elderly and wealthy man and his burial place is the Minster's most beautiful tomb, in the South Transept he and his Chapter created between the dark nave and choir of the Norman cathedral.
The rebuilding of York Minster that began with the transepts went on almost continuously for two hundred and fifty years.
The largest Gothic Cathedral in Northern Europe, prayer has been offered here for nearly one thousand years!
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