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York, England: Stories Writ in Stone

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Lovers of Olde England have their favorite places: London Bridge, Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon; and way up north is the city of York.

Photography by the authors

Lovers of Olde England have their favorite places. There’s London Bridge; Westminster Abbey; Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon; the villages of the Cotswolds with their buttery colored stone homes; the mystery of Stonehenge; and way up north in Yorkshire is an attraction that brings half a million visitors a year to the cathedral Yorkminster.

Yorkshire doesn’t have the charm of England’s south, although it is the declared location for television’s Downton Abbey. It has, moreover, its share of the crotchety people described by veterinarian James Herriot in his “All Creatures Great and Small” series of stories. In one of his house call tales he relates how his car got stuck on the moors in a blizzard that nearly caused his death. In winter some parts of Yorkshire are swept with such howling winds that it is easy to imagine how the rural people would find the relative comfort of a cathedral—and its mystique—appealing.

The magnificent Yorkminster—the largest medieval cathedral in Britain—stands proudly and almost arrogantly in the city of York. Its Great East window is the single largest window of medieval glass in the world and is so big some guidebooks suggest visitors bring binoculars to view them adequately. The window was created by local artist John Thornton in 1405-1408. Although everyone in York wanted their monument in Yorkminster, Thornton wasn’t remunerated with a statue; he got real money. He was paid 56 pounds sterling (the equivalent then of $200) for his 3 years of work!

We will get back to Yorkminster in a moment, but first we must explore York, which is arguably the most interesting walkable city in England outside of London.

(Top) Clifford’s Tower, what’s left of the Royal Castle; (middle) the Shrine of Margaret Clitherow; (bottom) Thomas Herbert House

The Royal Castle was the scene of a horrible massacre in 1190: “the most notorious example of English anti-Semitism in medieval England.” A family of 150 Jews came here for protection during a rampage incited by a nobleman who owed money to Jewish businesses and saw a chance to liquidate more than his debts.

The similarly horrifying story of Margaret Clitherow, who was put to death in 1586 for harboring Catholic priests in a Protestant country, shows how even-handed religious biases were.

The home where Sir Thomas Herbert was born in 1606 is a splendid example of what then was contemporary architecture. Herbert supported parliament in its dispute with King Charles I until the king’s execution. Later, he served as a servant to Charles II, for which he was made a baronet. Once given such title, it passes down to succeeding first male child in contrast to titles earned. For example, Sir Tom Jones, the Welsh singer whose pelvic gyrations on stage were as impressive as his singing, has a title that stops at his death and is not continued in his offspring.

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It’s fun to walk around the old streets of York. Here’s a tea room named after a famous tea itself: Earl Grey. We wonder if they would serve its competitor “English Breakfast” but it’s not tea time. It is lunch time so we skip the children’s clothing store named after Edward Lear’s popular nonsensical rhymes.

We head for the Old White Swan for 2 reasons: First, its cooking, namely its “splendid sausages.” (Although British dining has improved in the last 100 years, the French still can’t get themselves to call it cuisine.) And second, its history. Although the restaurant’s construction date is given as 1703, a pub existed on this spot well before that.

The poster of the 7 conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot was printed in London in 1605. The red dot indicates Guy Fawkes, and he is enlarged to the right.

The infamous Guy Hawkes, who tried to blow up the houses of Parliament in the gunpowder plot of 1605, was a native son of York. He went to school here and is seen by some locals not as an anarchist, but as a patriot!

We thread our way through narrow streets, always under church spires. If you have time or inclination, then climb the 275 steps to the 200-foot-high tower and, among the gargoyles, you’ll get a magnificent panoramic view of Yorkshire beyond the rooftops of the city.

Church spires predominate. Figure Richard II. City wall battlements. Yorkminster.

We enter the small museum in the battlements and gaze upon the likeness of King Richard II (1367-1400), who made many visits to this northern part of his kingdom. The St. George Cross demonstrates York’s deep devotion to the Church and its fealty to England in a city close to Scotland, a country often, even usually, at war with its southern neighbor. The 5 lions show the city’s strong support for the monarchy. The British love the pomposity of all this, although we know it was one of the reasons the Pilgrim Fathers headed west across the Atlantic.

The Cathedral. Roman Column. Statue of Roman Emperor Constantine. Everyone wanted to be buried in Yorkminster. Tribute to the dead of a local regiment in the Indian Mutiny.

Despite Yorkminster’s monstrous size a local standing beside us says the most significant part of York’s history lies not inside but outside. Here at the entrance stands a statue celebrating the spot where, in the year 306 Constantine, the first Christian emperor was crowned.

The Roman column formerly stood in the Great Hall of the headquarters of Rome’s 6th Legion; it was discovered, fallen, during excavations in 1969. The 19th century plaque honors the 13 officers and 360 men of the 84th York & Lancaster Regiment, almost one-third of the regiment, who fell in the wars of the Indian Mutiny in 1857-1859.

Most of the inscriptions are in Latin, which makes our understanding difficult. Bottom figures are Sir Henry (1624) & Lady Ursula Bellasis.

The same local who said that the outside was the most important area points us towards the rows of mausoleums that run down the length of the cathedral. He is, apparently, a local cynic.

“Here,” he says, “Lie wealthy patrons of the Church portrayed in all their insufferable piety. I tell you that in case you believe those figures are practicing yoga or giving a Thai welcome to Americans.”

(Top) Archbishop of York Walter de Gray (1255) Purbeck marble. (Bottom) Archbishop of York, Matthew Hutton (1529-1606)

Walter de Gray, a powerful archbishop, accompanied King John to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and was as much a politician as bishop. He paid King John 5,000 marks to be made the Lord Chancellor of England and later gave 10,000 pounds sterling to Pope Innocent III to let him serve the congregation at York. Gray later led endeavors to enforce clerical celibacy, keep benefices from being inherited, and improve the education and morals of the clergy.

The Archbishop of York, Matthew Hutton (1529-1606) is shown reclining and relaxed. Why would he not be? He was pretty unconcerned when his predecessor, Archbishop of York Edwin Sandys, leveled 13 charges against him in 1596 “for granting leases of church lands to his children, which considerably enriched them.”

It would appear there was as little transparency in Church and political affairs then as there is today.

The sign reads: “The Shambles. The ancient street of the Butchers of York mentioned in the Domesday Book of William the Conqueror. It takes its name from the word “Shamel” meaning the stalls or benches on which the meat was displayed — later versions of which can still be seen. It was rebuilt about 1400 when it assumed its present character.”

It’s the end of a day. We don’t want to see one more carving. We know what we want: it’s to find the celebrated Golden Lion or the Golden Fleece. We want a tankard of English Ale and we don’t care if it’s warm.

It’s been a long but interesting day. And, we think, to the South on at the other end of England lies a monument with twice the annual visitors of Yorkminster: Stonehenge!

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.


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