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York Civic Trust

History of York Civic Trust: Understanding the city of York by Dr Jane Grenville

Column from Roman HQ building excavated from under York Minster

Statue of Constantine, declared Roman Emperor while stationed in York.

Clifford's Tower, on William the Conqueror's motte, York

York Minster

The Shambles, a York street named in the Domesday Book

View of the River Ouse in central York

Medieval city Walls of York, with Victorian walkway

Cedar Court Hotel, York, converted from former offices of North Eastern Railway

Dr Jane Grenville, who chairs York Civic Trust's Planning Committee, is a  professional archaeologist and former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of York.

All settlements are different and have their own distinctive signatures. York is no exception, yet it is exceptional in that its physical appearance is so magnetically attractive. Behind this beautiful face lies a personality that has been shaped by the city's political and economic fortunes over two millennia.  This introduction briefly outlines why York looks as it does and demonstrates how important it is to understand its architectural personality when planning for its future. York's historic buildings provide a unique working heritage which contributes significantly to the economy of the city. It is essential that the City's Local Development Framework recognises this and ensures that the buildings' contribution is not prejudiced by insensitive development. This introduction is in three parts: history, materials, and spatial relationships


The Romans founded York in 71AD as a major strategic fortress to control the north of England.  Eboracum developed as the capital of the northern province of Britain and its influence is felt in two ways. First, the physical: the two main streets of that fortress are the present Petergate and Stonegate and the headquarters building lay on the site of the Minster, where its remains may be seen in the undercroft. A civilian settlement was established on the other side of the river in the Bishophill area. Secondly its political and economic importance is imprinted on the city's personality, partly because the site of northern capital was the obvious place to locate the major cathedral of northern Britain in the seventh century. Today the influence of the archbishop is international in its reach and the presence of the largest Gothic building in northern Europe makes York a centre for religious and secular visitors alike.

The next peak of economic power came with a second invasion - that of the Vikings, who occupied the city in 866. Jorvik as it was now called, was a great trading centre with links right across Europe and in the ninth century an important change to the plan of the town occurred when the bridge moved to its present position at Ouse Bridge to carry the Great Road (which is a direct translation from the Danish 'Micklegate') across into the commercial centre around Coppergate. York is remarkable in the degree of preservation of archaeological material below the ground, because its water table is very high, so organic materials such as leather and wood survive where in other towns they have long since rotted away. But the archaeology has given us more than just the artefacts that we are familiar from the Jorvik Viking Centre (which has brought over 15 million visitors to the city since 1984, a testament to the enduring fascination of history for the general public). What is less well known is that excavation has shown that the long narrow city plots that have persisted down to modern times were laid out at that date. It is the sizes of these plots that have determined the scale and rhythm of what is seen today in the central areas of the city.

The last invasion was that of William the Conqueror.  In 1068 he built a great castle at the confluence of the rivers Foss and Ouse (a busy shipping route)  and the following year he built a second one across the river Ouse in the area now known as Baile Hill.  The great motte is still there, covered in trees and often unrecognised, unlike its neighbour across the river, which carries Clifford's Tower, one of York's great iconic buildings. So at this date, the south-east part of the city became the centre of political administration. The survival of York Crown Court into the twenty-first century is important in this respect, as it demonstrates how the character of a particular quarter is established and then persists over many centuries. By the eleventh century, the basic framework of the city was in place: a modern Yorkie sent in a time machine back to the Norman city would not recognise any of the buildings (even the Minster has been completely rebuilt since then), but would at least be able to find their way around the street pattern.

Economically and politically, York was England's second city for much of the medieval period. 800 years ago the city was granted a Royal Charter by King John (1212) allowing a local government of York to take charge of its own affairs.  The castle was rebuilt and expanded in the reign of Henry III (1216-72) and the Minster achieved its present form in a long building campaign that lasted from the early thirteenth century to the late fifteenth century. These two powerhouses sat at either end of the growing city.  In the area between them, York developed into a thriving metropolis and many of its timber-framed houses and guildhalls and the stone parish churches still survive today. Views such as the one along Petergate towards the Minster or down the Shambles are justly famous.  Although some of the buildings have been altered or replaced, the character of medieval York with its signature of narrow frontages, its scale, skyline, rhythm and building materials is an important aspect of the modern city.   This creates an intimate city centre which attracts visitors from across the world and contrasts with our larger neighbours, making York such a desirable place to live, study and work.  

Towards the end of the middle ages and into the Tudor period, York experienced an economic slump which may have been important in ensuring that the medieval core survived largely intact:  where there was no money to rebuild, the citizens 'made good' and mended. The decision to base the Council of the North in York ensured that the city's political status remained high - the Council sat until the Civil War of the 1640s at the King's Manor, which is the surviving part of the richest medieval monastery in northern England, St Mary's Abbey, dissolved along with all the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 1530s. Economic wealth, however, moved away as Hull overtook York as the main east coast port and the woollen industry grew in the West Riding. An early bid for a university was made at this moment in York's history and it is interesting to speculate on how different the history of the city might have been if it been successful.

By the eighteenth century, York was no longer the economic power it had been, but as a social centre it was rivalled by no other northern city and another important aspect of its personality developed.  Coffee houses opened, racing became an important feature of the annual social round and the New Walk was laid out in 1739 as a promenade for the gentry who began to build themselves grand houses in which to spend the 'season'. Visitors began to arrive in York to marvel at its architecture. Micklegate and Bootham exemplify this important period in York's history, and many houses in the city centre were rebuilt or re-faced to reflect the new fashion for buildings inspired by classical Greece and Rome. The Mansion House (1725 is perhaps one of the best examples, while the Assembly Rooms (1732) in Blake Street is a building of international importance for architectural historians. At the same time, York's physical and administrative position as the main political centre for the three Ridings which met here was confirmed by the construction on the site of the castle of the Crown Court and of the two prisons which now form the Castle Museum. Hustings for elections were held on the Eye of Yorkshire, the oval lawn created in the late eighteenth century. This area of the city has never been a commercial hub and it is interesting that its character has been retained through successive centuries since the conquest of William I. Changing that character at a stroke, for instance by the introduction of major retail facilities, would disrupt the rhythm of the city and have a much greater impact on its personality than the bland expression 'change of use' might suggest.

In the nineteenth century the railway came to York and its economic fortunes improved as transport links improved. The railway industry, in the form both of carriage building and of company administration, became central to the economy, as did the manufacture of confectionery. Three aspects of York's townscape appeared as a result: the suburbs of workers' housing, the widening of some streets to improve traffic flow (for instance Parliament Street and Duncombe Place) and, as a direct result of the latter, the growth of interest in the earlier phases of the city. This self-conscious acknowledgement of the past as part of the character of York resulted in the saving of the city walls, demolished in other comparable cities, and reinforced the attraction of the city to visitors, forming the basis of the tourist industry that has become so important today.

York in the twentieth century grew as an industrial town, but not on the scale of its West Riding neighbours.  In the later part of the century, it turned more to white-collar employment, in the insurance business, in tourism and in education. The founding of the University of York in 1963, the growth of St John's College from its origins as the Diocesan Training College for Schoolmasters opened in 1845 to its current university status, the opening of the College of Law in the 1980s and the establishment of medical training at the Hull York Medical School in 2002 has made York a major centre for higher education.

York is a changing city and always has been.  Certain underlying driving forces have remained the same - its importance as a regional centre of political, juridical and ecclesiastical administration - whilst others, such as its economic fortunes, have changed. Its past has always played a part in its future, whether explicitly through the tourist industry of recent years, or more subtly through the survival of 'personality' in different guises. An understanding of York's personality is critical in making appropriate (and brave) decisions for its future.

The architectural expression of this history requires careful attention in planning for the future of the city.  York's builders, up to the second half of the twentieth century, on the whole respected the scale and grain of the city in producing new structures that added to its distinctiveness. The elements of this architectural distinction are important to note.


Timber framing characterises the houses of the medieval city, using home grown green oak put together by very competent and highly skilled master carpenters from about the fourteenth century. The availability of length and girth of timber dictated the structural grids which give rhythm, scale and articulation to the buildings through the bay sizes. But the size of burgage plots, the medieval property unit on which the structures were erected, determined the scale and rhythm of what we see today where street patterns have survived.

From Roman times, there was use of stone for grander buildings: churches, the city walls or guildhalls.  From around Tadcaster, good Magnesian limestone was available, from which the Minster is built. Few other buildings after the medieval period used this stone although some monastic sites were plundered for their reusable stone. Very little of the less durable calcarious sandstone from East Yorkshire and greater quantities of the West Riding sandstones were utilised on buildings as well as pavements - the large examples often employed to span pavement cellars.

Brickwork exists from at least the fourteenth century (eg the Merchant Adventuers' Hall, 1357) with bricks coming from tileries in Walmgate and from around Drax. This tile manufacture is the clue to the shape of bricks, originally thin and broad and long, only becoming fatter with the technology from better fired kilns after the eighteenth century. The advent of railway transportation brought in bricks of grey/buff hue or deeper red/browns in the nineteenth century compared with the warmer local hand-made clamps.  These developments can be traced through roofing materials too with flat plain clay tiles or curved pantiles characterising York roofs up to the late eighteenth century, when greenish Lake District slates were introduced.  With the advent of the railway, grey Welsh slates began to be used.

Brick, tile, stone and slate have their own scale and patina, which has given York buildings texture. There were limits to panel sizes and stability constraints dictated such elements as thickness, height and buttresses. The rhythm of rootops is also important, especially as there are so many aerial views of York: from the Minster central tower, from Clifford's Tower, from Marks and Spencer and latterly from the Wheel. The patchwork effect of varying size, slope, material, colour and texture, seen both from the street and from higher vantage points is a critical aspect of the city's architectural personality.  Unsympathetic recent large-scale additions assault the eye. Good terracotta and decorated brickwork from the nineteenth century is on display in most parts of the city but there is very little tilework. The concrete, panel structures and some exposed steelwork used in the twentieth century exist and have sometimes lacked empathy with the character of the city. The 1960s Stonebow has never excited much admiration, for example.

Materials have an effect on scale and rhythm through their structural limitations but principally they determine the colour and texture of a building. The choice can make the building hard or soft and in general the city has used materials which weather naturally, producing a warm and welcoming quality. Hard materials such as polished stone and glass have not been used in quantity: they dilute the warmth and the attractions for those who use the city.  

Spatial relationships

Scale, in architecture, firstly is the dimension of the building and all its parts relative to a human being, and secondly relative to the dimensions of another building. As the city has been built with human scale foremost throughout its history this is of the utmost importance if its character is to be retained. Elsewhere in England, this human scale has been sacrificed for massive and high-rise buildings, radically changing the personality of cities such as London and Birmingham. As a smaller, less industrialised centre, York would do well to concentrate on its strengths of human-scale architecture, as the difficulties of ensuring the economic and social vibrancy of the George Hudson Street/Tanner Row area very ably demonstrate.

Proportion has two qualities in architecture. First it is the ratio of length to breadth which was achieved by medieval builders consciously in the design of ecclesiastical buildings and perhaps more by 'rule of thumb' in the construction of domestic and commercial structures.  Proportion became better understood through the study of classical architecture and is shown by the sense of order visible in the ratio of solid to void in a fašade - ie the positioning of windows, doors and bay divisions in buildings such as the Mansion House or the Georgian houses in Micklegate.

Rhythm is the arrangement and size of the constituent parts of a fašade and is related to the grain of the city as a whole. Narrower bays produce quicker rhythms, and vertical proportions of constituent parts produce repetitive rhythms within street facades broken by buildings with a strong horizontal emphasis. Grain is the size of the component buildings of the city, the overall arrangement and size of the constituent parts (perceived as townscape where buildings relate to streets and landscape which in turn determines the texture of the city). Some of the iconic views of York demonstrate the way in which buildings of different periods work together to present this sense of variety of design, yet unity of scale. Siting is critical here, enabling new buildings to become part of the grain of the city in their relationship with other buildings in the street, perhaps best demonstrated in recent times by the shops built in Davygate.

Massing is the three dimensional disposition of the different parts of a building including height, bulk and silhouette. Massing by and large has respected the height of the existing structures with the bulk relating to adjoining buildings, i.e. their tops broken by gables, turrets, dormers, and chimneys in empathy with its neighbour. Views across the rooftops of York, from the Minster central tower and from Clifford's Tower, demonstrate this harmony in variety and also prove the disruptive nature of major out-of-scale developments - only the Minster gets away with that, floating serenely above the cityscape.

Street patterns, plot sizes, paving materials and street furniture give an area scale proportion and rhythm. Often in York it is the spaces between the buildings that delight the eye, produce the surprise 'explosion' of space and vistas or develop transitions of volumes and shapes which encourage the enquirer to explore and provide the resident with familiar and delightful views. Care is needed to safeguard these precious attributes, for once they are removed, they cannot be replicated.


York is a complex mosaic of buildings and streets and a working city that sensitively uses its historic buildings to contribute to its economic success. Its geography has been dictated by its history - its political and economic fortunes and those imperatives will continue to exert their power. Lord Esher, in his report of 1966 into the issues of conservation in the city, was well aware of the pressures and realistic about them.  Where his suggestions have been taken up, for instance in the pedestrianisation of the centre and the redevelopment of the Bedern area, the economic benefits to the city are palpable, showing how essential it is to work with rather than against of the grain of so precious an inheritance. People will continue to want to live, study and work in and visit York - it is for our generation to ensure that the York they love and admire is sensitively and thoughtfully conserved and developed.  York's future depends on our ability to maintain the delicate balance of the spatial relationships of this unique townscape that have been described and explained here - the whole is the result of a long process of continuity and change and we should add and subtract with sensitivity.

Civic Trust advice to planners and developers
(see also Trust publication Why York is Special by Professor Sir Ron Cooke)
Maintaining the delicate balance of the spatial relationships can be achieved by adhering to the following guidelines:

1. Order and unity manifest themselves in architectural discipline through use of symmetry, balance, repetition and use of grid, bay or frame to produce a unity which good buildings possess whatever their size.

2. Expression of the function of the building must enable us to recognise its use, i.e. It should not masquerade as something else.

3. Integrity or honesty should adhere to the principles of design in terms of materials used in its construction.

4. Plan and section should involve ingenuity and innovation in siting, planning and organisation of a building including the integration of its structure and services.

5. Detail should imply the manner in which a facade expresses its quality, simplicity being the most difficult and ornament or decoration, unless intrinsic to the whole, merely becomes an added or unnecessary adornment, i.e. a large building does not reduce visibly in size by adding panels of inappropriate materials or by painting in different colours.

6. Integration. Undeniably the most important criterion relating to York, with the building needing to fit into its surroundings, with qualities which will achieve this. Contrast provides variety, similarity is a striving for unity whereas good neighbourliness is essential to preserve the character of the city.