Observations on York’s Official History

Tuesday, 13th August 2013 at 9:54 UTC 1 comment

I’ve been working with a friend on a survey of York’s medieval churches, and its turning up some really bizarre, and slightly contradictory, discoveries. But its also calling in to question some of the common understanding of the historic city. Perhaps the title should be: “Some of our history is missing”.

Opposite St Georges, the Roman Catholic church just inside Fishergate Bar, is a cemetery. The tour buses pass it by, despite it being a bit tucked away. They tell everyone that cares to hear that Dick Turpin is buried in that graveyard. A few months ago, I heard a speaker at a history event say that Dick Turpin was probably the least interesting person buried in York. Yet its Turpin who’s story is elevated above all others.

What they don’t tell you is that the new church of St Georges takes its name from the old church of St George’s and is one of two catholic churches which have hopped over a road during the few centuries. It was, despite its English name, popular with the city’s Irish community.

The other, St Wilfred’s, should be under the Assembly Rooms, better known as Ask Restaurant, making it York’s only consecrated eatery – the church was never deconsecrated, but was instead suppressed for carrying on the Catholic side of the faith. It now stands nearer the Minster, playing that clever game whereby it looks to be taller as you approach from Lendal Bridge. It appears that, despite the suppression, the Catholics get the last laugh on this one.

And this is where everything gets a bit meta. Step back from York’s history as we know it, and ask a different question: how did we get to York’s current understanding of it’s history? Or better put: what is the history of York’s history? Because, as much as we like to hear simple straightforward stories of things that definitely happened, often those are just stories. What really happened is under a huge cloud of debate, with conflicting opinions saying wildly different things.

York’s largest medieval parish church is St Crux. Or it would be, if they hadn’t knocked it down and replaced it with the ‘hall’ that is a fragment of the original size, and, whilst very quaint, completely misleading. Imagine you take a walk down the Shambles, arguably York’s most famous street. Starting at the King’s Square or market end, you would eventually be confronted with this view:

First, its clear the artist has somewhat overdone the perspective, so it looks wider in the foreground and one can better see the shops on either side. But what’s that? A massive church tower? That’s the St Crux Church that the Victorians demolished. It took up every square millimetre of what it now the yard around the St Crux hall. Some might say it is no big loss – York has two dozen medieval churches to visit as it is. But the tower alone was unique (which other has a domed roof?) and its grandeur impressive. Today it would be heavily protected. The demolition caused uproar, and led to the founding of a group dedicated to preserving the remaining medieval churches in York.

Looking around, one grows to loathe the Victorians. And the Romans. And the Vikings. Each of them is so easy to box up and create a simple, accessible brand out of. Except the Vikings – we don’t actually know if they should be called Vikings, but don’t let that imply we should rename the Viking™ Centre. Medieval York falls by the wayside for one of a number of reasons, but one of them is that it is so hard to pin down. Its exciting history not because it contains a dominant group who we can ‘get to know’ through exhibits and wax works, but because it contains a myriad faces and forces at play. American tourists sometimes use the term “the Medievals”, but this is a stupid fallacy.

Early Medieval York was a city of between five and seven languages. It lay just a matter of miles away from another country (ever wonder why Sherburn is ‘-in-Elmet’?). Its neighbouring villages were settlements of different ethnic characteristics – Haxby is Saxon with an X, and Wigginton is Norman by the ton. Silly mnemonics are our friends.

Perhaps its that Medieval York shows up the largely mono-cultural world York still appears to inhabit. Perhaps its the challenge of conveying the many separate cultures that met in the great city. This place was hardly elegant – the lantern tower on All Saints Pavement was added to try and help pilgrims make their way through the maze of which York Minster was the minotaur. But it was, if you’ll pardon the expression, multicultural. It didn’t conform to the expectations we have of, say, the Romans – a strictly tiered military society. The city had renegade guilds, warring factions and a dazzling mix of faces.

All that has fallen by the wayside of the modern marketing that builds the city up as a place of singular groups of people with a highly streamlined, marketable image. The chaos of the medieval city has no place in the ordered ranks of the Roman or the meticulously tended (and fenced off) Victorian. But the real excitement comes amidst the chaos of that which defies branding.

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Entry filed under: Culture, History, York.

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