There are dozens of streets in York which are worthy of preservation. The above plaques were installed separately, at different periods and for a variety of reasons. Although they present a mixed picture, in combination they are a valuable illustration of how the development of York streets exemplifies the city’s history. Four of them are named by the authoritative Royal Commission on Historical Monuments as of ‘paramount importance to preserve’: Minster Gates, High and Low Petergate, Shambles and Stonegate.
To the modern mind, named streets and maps seem natural but, for York’s first 1,000 years as a city, no streets are recorded. York itself is not named in historical records after ad 304 until ad 627 when a church history mentions a courtyard – platea populi – where King Edwin pauses on his way to baptism in the first York Minster. This may have been the courtyard of the former Roman headquarters, very near to the Minster Close and Minster Gates plaque locations. Identifying a place in medieval York was done by specifying landmarks such as a church, a Bar or a ditch, or the land boundary of a named neighbour, or a function such as a market. The first published map – John Speed, 1610 – names some streets, but strangers had to ask the way. Dr William White of Castlegate writes in his diary in 1782: ‘The City have just begun to put the names of the different streets at the corner, as is done in London.’
The streets and routes of York began with the Roman fortress and the roads to and around it. Within the fortress – where 5,000 legionaries lived in barracks with stables – were straight streets from the four gates to the headquarters which was on the site of the Minster but on a different alignment. There was also a street – via sagularis – at the perimeter inside the fortress wall; this is still illustrated by the route of Ogleforth and Aldwark near the city wall and, to a lesser extent, by Church Street. Aldwark retains its Old English name, eald geweorc (1180-90), meaning “old fortification” from the viewpoint of post-Roman residents.
After the Romans left, Anglian residents (Anglo-Saxons) added routes between or through the Roman ruins, for instance Blake Street cutting diagonally from the principal Roman gate, under St Helen’s Square, to the porta dextra, under Bootham Bar. Anglo-Scandinavian residents expanded York’s streets towards the River Foss, such as Fossgate and Coppergate, built a replacement bridge, and covered up Roman remains with trade and domestic debris.
The excavation of Roman, Anglian, Anglo-Scandinavian and medieval levels of the city, in addition to place-name evidence and charter records, show that the city layout was established before the Norman Conquest. William the Conqueror burned and harried York in 1069 rather than developed it, as with some other settlements, which meant that the pre-Conquest street plan survived.
D.W. Rollason, D. Gore, G. Fellows-Jensen, Sources for York History to AD 1100. (The Archaeology of York, Volume 1) (York Archaeological Trust, 1976)
Sarah Rees Jones, York, The Making of a City 1068-1350 (Oxford, 2013)
Peter Addyman (ed.), The British Historic Towns Atlas Vol V: York (Oxford: Historic Towns Trust and the York Archaeological Trust, 2015)
© Margaret Scott