The city walls in York date back to Roman times, being originally built of earth and wood in AD71. They were rebuilt in stone in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. The Anglo-Saxons patched up the Roman defenses. The Vikings and Normans replaced them with earthen ramparts. They were rebuilt in stone in the 13th century for defense against the Scots.
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The walls were prepared for siege in 1745 when Bonnie Prince Charlie led the Jacobite rebellion, but fortunately they were never tested. The last time the walls were defended was 1757 when rioters, protesting at taxation to support the militia, threatened the city.
In the late 18th century the walls became ruinous. In 1800 the city resolved to pull down the walls by Act of Parliament, but the government, or perhaps George III himself, refused assent. The city council then decided to obtain their ends by attrition. Skeldergate postern was demolished in 1807. However Archbishop Markham sued the council for loss of tolls he was entitled to exact from there at Lammastide; thus further demolition was more cautious. William Etty, among many others, campaigned against demolition and for the restoration of the walls. Sir Walter Scott offered to walk from Edinburgh to London in 1826 if it would save Micklegate Bar barbican.
The walls and castle are largely owned by York city council and are listed as ancient monuments. The council maintains the walls under the guidance of English Heritage, though the work is usually performed by outside contractors.
The bars and posterns were manned continuously by resident bar keepers, and, up until the late 18th century, were closed at dusk and opened at dawn. The gates were also closed twice a day on Sunday to keep people in to prevent them visiting country ale-houses instead of attending church as they were expected to.
From 1501 door knockers were added to the bars for “Scots and other vagabonds and rascals” to knock at before entering the city. It is said that the statute allowing citizens to shoot a Scotsman on sight, provided he used a crossbow, has never been repealed.
Barbican is a French word of uncertain origin, but is probably not related to the word bar, which is from French ‘barre’, a barrier or wooden toll bar.
Details of the walls:
Multangular Tower: Added c 300 as a projecting nine-sided bastion, probably to take a catapult to fire at Anglo-Saxon invaders coming up the Ouse.
Bootham Bar: Heads were impaled on spikes here after hanging, drawing and quartering, which was the punishment for traitors and rebels. The execution was carried out at York castle or on the Knavesmire and the four quarters set on the four bars of York and the head was placed on Micklegate bar. Sometimes other bars or Foss or Ouse bridge were used if there was no room on Micklegate bar.
Harry 'Hotspur', fought in the rebellion against Henry IV and was killed at the battle of Shrewsbury in1403. He was buried at Whitchurch, but people said “Hotspur lived” so he was dug up and his corpse displayed in Shrewsbury Market, then ground with salt between two millstones, after which it was hung, drawn and quartered. His quarters were sent to London, Chester, Newcastle and Bristol and his head to York.
Monk Bar: The portcullis still survives and is complete with its winding mechanism. It used to be lowered on Sunday afternoons prior to World War I. The last time it was dropped was in 1953 to celebrate the Queen's coronation. The ropes broke, and the portcullis fell and embedded itself in the road. It took several days to raise it again. Just in front of the portcullis in the high recess above the road were machicolations or murder holes through which missiles and boiling liquids could be poured.
Near Merchant Taylor’s hall: Behind the hall on the walls is a pair of garderobe seats, which served as a public toilet in the middle ages. These are the oldest surviving public toilets in York. The steps up to them from the Merchant Taylor’s hall still survive.
Red Tower: This is so-called as it is the only tower built of brick. It was rebuilt in 1490 after a rebellion against Henry VII. It was originally much higher as its base is now buried five feet due to draining of the Foss islands swamp in the 1850s. The projection was a garderobe emptying into the swamp, which seems to have all but encircled the tower.
The tiled roof dates to the 19th century when the tower was patched up and used as a brimstone manufactory. In 1490 there was a dispute between the tilers building the tower and the masons, who resented them getting the work. The masons smashed the tools, kilns and work of the tilers and threatened to mutilate them. In 1491 they carried out their threat: the master-tiler John Patrick was murdered by emasculation, and masons, including William Hindley–minster master mason, were prosecuted but never convicted–they hid in the sanctuary of the minster precinct.
Walmgate Bar: The lower part of the bar and its arch date from the 12th century. The upper part and barbican are early 14th century but were heavily restored after the rebellion of 1489, the civil war siege of 1644 and again in 1840. The bar still has its portcullis and 15th century gates. The wooden extension to give the bar keeper better accommodation was added c1584. The railings around the roof were said to have been added to keep pigs on the roof.
The bar was lived in until 1960, the last one to be inhabited. It became a bookshop, then a scout room and later a rock band practice room. Currently Calvary chapel occupy the bar and operate a coffee shop.
Near the Wall at Fishergate Bar: St George’s churchyard—burial place of the infamous criminal Dick Turpin.
York Castle and Clifford’s Tower: The first castle was built in 1068 of earth and wood by William I. In 1069 it was destroyed in a rebellion and rebuilt again in wood. In 1190 several hundred Jews perished by mass suicide and massacre at the hands of an anti-Jewish mob. The tower was rebuilt in wood. In 1245-60 the castle was rebuilt in stone, and Clifford's tower was built in stone by Henry III. In 1322 Roger de Clifford was hung alive in chains from the tower for rebellion against Edward II, hence its name. In 1360 Clifford's tower reported as cracked top to bottom, explaining its lean. In 1684 a St. George's day salute went wrong and destroyed most of interior of Clifford's tower.
Micklegate Bar: This was the main royal entry from the south, and used by every king of England from William the Conqueror to Henry VIII, except Richard the Lionheart and Edward V. It was also the principal place for display of traitors’ heads notably that of Sir Henry Perry (Harry Hotspur) and, in 1460, the duke of York after the battle of Wakefield. The head was taken down by Edward IV in 1461 after the battle of Towton and replaced by four Lancastrian heads. In 1746 the last heads were put up after the Jacobite rebellion. They were stolen by a Jacobite tailor in 1754. Around 1800 the bar ceased to be locked at night as the bar keeper's children lost the key while playing.
Information courtesy of York Walk
York Walk offers a program of themed walking tours of York throughout the year. Other tours include the Historic Toilet Tour, the Graveyard, Coffin and Plague tour, the Guy Fawkes Trail, and the Bloody Execution Tour. Visit their website or phone 01904 622303 for full details.
Photo of Clifford’s tower courtesy Lakeland Cam
Photo of Micklegate bar and Bootham bar courtesy Visit York
Other photos courtesy Mad about Mountains.