“Alas, poor York! I knew this city, Horatio, a city of infinite beauty, of most excellent sightseeing, it has borne me on its back of amazing history”. OK that’s enough Hamlet mashing. My apologies to the Bard and his Yorick. Now let me explain why the “alas”!
York today is an awesome city – but could have been the Capital of England, ruling the world! Alas, that aspiration went out the window when Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, defeated Richard III of York in 1485. The Battle of Bosworth Field was the final major battle in the Wars of the Roses: yes, “wars” plural, and they were not about flowers. They were basically civil wars and lasted some 30 years. The “roses” part is due to the emblems used, the white and red rose. Alas, poor Richard did not survive Bosworth. His death signaled the end of the Plantagenets and the rise of the House of Tudor. It’s a fascinating story.
The story of how York came to be has intrigued me for a long time. I have a thing for Roman Britain and that’s why I started visiting places like Bath, Exeter, Hadrian’s Wall (awesome hike) and also York, many moons ago. York was founded in 70 AD as Eboracum by the Roman “Legio IX Hispana”, the legendary and infamous Ninth Legion. The Ninth gained its nickname “Hispana” and honors during campaigns in what is now Spain but developed issues of corruption and rot over the decades. They established Eboracum as a military base because of its advantageous position at the rivers Fosse and Ouse.
Decades later, much farther north, the Ninth marched off into the mists of Scotland to deal with the ever-recurring rebellions. A Roman Legion over 4,000 strong is an awesome fighting machine – but the Ninth vanished into thin air. Ambushed? Massacred? Mutiny? Desertion? Did remnants survive, return and get re-assigned to what is now Germany? Why was the Ninth erased from the otherwise so very thorough Roman Military roles? The historical record is thin, and we’ll never know for sure what happened but, the Eagle of the “Lost Legion”, symbolizing their honor – what was left of it – vanished with them.
Or did it…?
In 1866, a Roman Eagle sans wings was found in Silchester, old Roman Calleva Atrebatum, in the south between Reading and Basingstoke, not far from London. Interpretations of what kind of Eagle this is vary but, it inspired author Rosemary Sutcliff to write a book I just finished called “The Eagle of the Ninth”. She wrote it for young adults in the 50s, so I figure that by now it’s OK to read for older dudes like me! It is the first of her Roman Britain trilogy and yes, I’ve got the next on order. Sutcliff spins an epic tale about the hunt for the Eagle by Marcus Aquila, son of a senior officer who served with the Ninth and disappeared with them. Marcus himself is a young Centurion who has to leave his own Legion due to a severe leg injury sustained while heroically saving his troops. He meets Esca, a captured Brigantes warrior made gladiator/slave and frees him. Marcus hears a rumor that the Eagle of the Ninth has been seen in the Far North and wants to go after it to restore his father’s honor. He begs the Roman Commander in charge to send him and gets permission – but only because the Commander wants the Eagle retrieved – or destroyed – to prevent it being used against Rome as a weapon of divine inspiration by the fearsome Northern Tribes uniting under it for their next attacks. Marcus and his friend Esca go north of Hadrian’s Wall “where no Roman can survive” to find the Eagle.
There’s also a 2011 movie “The Eagle” based on her book, starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell and the ever-awesome Donald Sutherland as the Centurion’s uncle, his lost father’s brother. Not bad but the storyline deviates and the ending is completely different – I liked the book a lot better! Still, the movie did go to considerable lengths to find Scottish Gaelic speaking actors for added realism (the more likely Pictish of the times having died out; Gaelic didn’t actually come in vogue until several hundred years later). To portray a young boy of the “Seal People” they even found an Irish kid who studied Irish Gaelic in Belfast and hired him! As close as they could get, as only 1% of Scots speak Gaelic today.
Eboracum became the base of operations for several visiting Emperors including my fave Hadrian of Hadrian’s Wall fame. The most famous and influential was Constantine the Great, named Emperor of Rome here in 306 AD who converted to Christianity in 312 AD, earning himself a statue right at the Minster. Constantine’s conversion was huge for Europe’s subsequent history, as only 10% of the sprawling Roman Empire was Christian at the time.
Fun fact: did you know that Emperor Constantine is the one who very craftily initiated celebrating the birth of Christ, which was not observed in the previous 300 years, and picked the Pagan celebratory date of December 25th to help conversions to Christianity? A few years later, Pope Julius I sanctioned Constantine’s ploy and decreed that henceforth, December 25th was the official date for Christmas, celebrated by over two billion people of the largest religion on earth to this day! Quite a legacy.
After the Empire started to collapse and the Roman Army retreated from Britain around 400 AD, York saw the Danes, Vikings, Anglos and Normans coming through. They were alternately building, abandoning, rampaging and rebuilding. The name York is said to originate from Jorvik, Norse name of the 800s, contracted and Anglicized to York by about 1,300. There is still an annual Jorvik Viking Festival celebrating that history every February, a fun time to visit York.
York’s location on the River Ouse made it attractive not just for the Roman military and subsequent conquerors and occupiers but also economically. The growing city saw some major ups and downs over the following centuries but did well in trading, shipping and textile manufacturing. And, it became a religious base, with its monastic houses and the after 800 years still glorious Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe (yes, Britain is part of Europe, at least geographically. Oops.). In the 1800s, railways became a key factor in York’s success, like the rivers were in earlier days. The National Railway Museum is right here, at the Station. Today, York is a great spot to visit and easy to get to, right on the direct line between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh Waverley. Note: the directs to Glasgow including the Caledonian Sleeper depart from London Euston and don’t route via York.
York is one of those cool cities where you don’t need a car to get around downtown. Last time I took the train in from Scarborough on the east coast after hiking the Yorkshire Wolds Way (subject for a future post). It only took about 10 minutes to walk to my hotel right on the Ouse. Cross the bridge and you’re in the Shambles, the old narrow streets loaded with restaurants, shops and pubs. Had a fab Indian meal there after hours of walking, most welcome!
Fun fact: did you know Guy Fawkes, him of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament, was born and raised in York? The event is better known as Bonfire Night in the UK and commemorated/celebrated every 5th of November to this day. After the 2005 “V for Vendetta” movie, the “Guy Fawkes mask” has become a symbol for political protest movements worldwide. Remember remember….
My favorite spot in York is (of course) the “Roman Bath pub” with its subterranean museum. Perfectly located right in the heart of York at St. Sampson’s Square, they only discovered in 1930 that this was the site of Roman baths from almost 2,000 years ago! Who knows, the legionnaires of the Ninth may have freshened up here one final happy time before marching off to their doom… Make your way down the stairs while looking up at the list of historic events described on the slanted ceiling above your head – but be careful, as your chances of tripping and bumping your head here are, well, legion!
DISCLAIMER: My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My opinions and views are not necessarily shared by the company. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine too except where credited as noted, as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch….Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
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