In the Walled City of Medieval York



Yesterday, my wife and I read Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard” while standing in the churchyard of St. Mary’s, Riccall, where several members of my family apparently lie in unmarked graves.


Today, however, was spent on matters far too grand for my humble and obscure Yorkshire ancestors — much of it in the Cathedral and Metropolitan Church of St. Peter in York, or, in other words, in the famous York Minster.



We’ve been staying in an excellent bed and breakfast, The Burswood Guest House on Tadcaster Road, just south of the walled city — and practically next door to a pub called The Fox and the Roman, where we had dinner both last night and tonight.  (If you want to come to the Burswood, come quickly.  The couple who own it — it’s a second marriage for both — are planning to move to her native Perth, Western Australia, as soon as they can sell the place.)  Another pub, down the street, is called The Crossed Keys, an allusion to Peter as the holder of the keys of authority given him by Jesus at Caesarea Phillipi (modern Banias), as recorded in the gospel of Matthew.  (The crossed keys, everywhere visible at that massive display of papal authority, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, are also a repeated motif in the York Minster.)  We caught the bus at The Crossed Keys, and headed into the Old City.


Walking from where the bus dropped us off, we made our way through fascinating old streets to the Minster, where we were just in time to catch a really fine tour of the building.  Our guide, an older gentlemen, was remarkably knowledgeable about the cathedral, though I suspect that he doesn’t know or care much about religion itself, or theology.  (At one point, he announced that Constantine’s Edict of Milan is better known as the Nicene Creed, which is completely false.  It’s rather like confusing the Emancipation Proclamation with the Gettysburg Address.  Why did he bring Constantine up?  Because, when Constantius Chlorus, the Emperor of the West, died at York — Roman Eboracum — in AD 306, it was here, probably right about where the cathedral now stands, that the troops acclaimed his son, Constantine, as his successor.)


Anyway, whatever his deficiencies as a theologian, he was a superb and wickedly humorous guide to the Minster.


He plainly liked to give economic explanations for what we were looking at, but they almost certainly contain much truth.  For example, he attributed the fact that York built England’s largest Gothic cathedral to its desire to compete with Durham, which had St. Cuthbert, and with Canterbury, which, as he put it, had just acquired a very nice new martyr and an object of pilgrimage with the murder of St. Thomas Beckett on 29 December 1170.  So, in the early 1200s, the ambitious new archbishop of York launched construction of a new cathedral to match or surpass both cities.  (And he succeeded, to some extent.  Even today, the Archbishop of York ranks second only to the Archbishop of Canterbury in the hierarchy of the Church of England and the Anglican communion worldwide.)


Our guide delighted in pointing to the heraldic shields of noble families displayed throughout the Minster, which had cost them major donations to the building, and to the commercial messages embodied in the stained glass windows by their sponsors, rather like — my comparison — the commercial symbols or endorsements that proliferate in American football stadiums and basketball arenas.  He particularly pointed out a window, paid for by one Mr. Tunnock, a caster of bells, which featured his name and repeated images of bells being cast.


He also enjoyed calling our attention to bad Victorian attempts at restoration.  (Those poor Victorians.  The priest in Riccall yesterday was vociferous in denouncing the little church’s Victorian stained glass.)  But some are, without question, funny.  In the massive west window, over the main entrance to the Minster, restorers put the wrong head — a piece of glass featuring a man’s face — on the wrong body:  The scene is the angel Gabriel’s annunciation of the birth of Christ to the Virgin Mary, who now wears a beard.  And above, on the ceiling, a damaged boss (a decorated joint in the rib vaulting) had featured Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus; once the Victorians were done with it, though, the Virgin was giving her baby a bottle.


He showed us many entertaining details in the Minster’s sculptures and windows, including a number of monkeys, a monkey funeral, and one monkey doing something quite perverse with a carrot and a pig.  He showed us, too, a possibly adulterous sculpted couple, and a lion plainly carved by an artisan who had never seen one.


He said that there are over ninety examples of the so-called “green man,” the pre-Christian vegetation deity, in the Cathedral’s sculpted and painted images.  The artisans, he said, thought one god was as good as another.  But I very much doubt this.  Not in the England of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries.  I think it much more likely that the green man became, as Christian commentators have said, a symbol of life and resurrection within a Christian context.


An interesting detail that he mentioned was the presence, in the pre-Reformation Minster, of more than two hundred and eighty “chantries,” where masses and prayers were sung for the souls of the dead who had paid in advance for them, or whose families were willing to pay.  It was, I suppose, a warped version, or a fossil remnant, of the notion of vicarious redemption for the dead.  Only one chantry remains today.


I especially liked the octagonal Chapter House, where the dean of the Cathedral and his “chapter” have met since the late 1200s to discuss ecclesiastical business:


This was an important kind of parliament, at a time when the transnational Church was more powerful than most “states” and princes.


One of the largest and most curious windows is called “The Five Sisters.”   Partly, of course, this refers to its five perpendicular sections:


Done around 1240, before the use of color (or, should I say, “colour”?) had yet been introduced into church windows but perhaps showing the influence of returning Crusaders, the windows have a slightly Arabic or Islamic feel to them.  Or so he said.  (I would have to study them some more.)  Their name, “The Five Sisters,” presents something of a puzzle.  There are five of them, of course, but they seem to have been sponsored by Cistercian monks, with “Cistercian” somehow morphing into “Sisters.”  (I couldn’t help but think, in this context, of T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Dry Salvages,” one of the Four Quartets, which takes its name from a rock formation off the coast of Massachusetts that was originally called, in French, “Les Trois Sauvages,” “The Three Savages.”)  The Cistercians apparently objected to images of saints, and the like, which may, rather than Islamic influence, account for the windows’  abstract character.  But — and here I offer an alternate hypothesis — the window is also sometimes named “The Jews’ Window,” because Jewish money, too, went into its glass.  Jews weren’t allowed to own land, but they needed ground for a cemetery.  Thus, in exchange for their donation to this window, the church gave them a plot of land in which to bury their dead.  But they, too, would likely have objected to images.


After the tour, we descended down into the remains of the Norman cathedral that preceded the Gothic one, where something called “The Doomstone” is on display.  It’s sculpted images depict the devils of hell stoking up the cauldrons for the souls of the damned.  Thinking about it has cheered me up considerably.


One place that we didn’t have time to visit is the nearby Treasure House.  Our host at Burswood told us a fascinating story about the place.  Clear back in 1953, he says, repairs were being done on the Treasure House.  One of the workers on the project — a man that our host says he knows, who went on to be a policeman and a scoutmaster and all sorts of respectable things — was alone one day, and was terrified to hear the sound of a trumpet.  When he turned about, he saw Roman soldiers marching by, in full armor.  Everybody thought he was crazy or lying, of course, but he persisted in his story.  There was one curious detail about it, though:  He reported that he had seen the Roman soldiers only down to a little above their knees.  So the workers dug about three feet further down . . . and found a paved Roman-era street.


Well, it’s getting late.  We had a light lunch at the famous “Bettys” (no apostrophe in the original), walked through the former butchers’ area called “The Shambles,” and browsed in an excellent Catholic bookstore.  The unfortunate Catholics built the Minster, but now they’re reduced to a rather large but still much smaller church in front of it.  Our guide said that the local saying is that they’ll get the Cathedral back when it’s finished — which, of course, it never will be.  Rather like the Golden Gate Bridge, which is perpetually being painted, work on the Minster has never really stopped:  It’s now being renovated.


We finished our day in the walled medieval city by participating in choral evensong in the “quire” of the Cathedral, shown above.  It was a rich experience, with beautiful music by the Vale of York Singers (including an anthem by Ralph Vaughan Williams), various prayers (including one for authors and editors that I found oddly apropos and timely), scripture readings, and joint recitations of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed (to which I fully subscribe).


Then we walked home, about 2.5 miles, from the Cathedral through Micklegate Bar (one of the medieval gates) to Blossom Street — so named because the heads of executed rebels were often displayed on Micklegate Bar, and the stench was apparently quite potent — which becomes Tadcaster Road, through a very attractive neighborhood, past the York Racetrack (Tyburn, where murderers, rapists, and highwaymen like the notorious Dick Turpin were executed), past a little church named for Edward the Confessor, and back to the Burswood Guest House.


York, England, United Kingdom




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  • Jeff Walsh

    Hi Daniel, I live in York and if I had known you were in our fair City I would have loved to have met up with you. Did you get a photograph of Constantine with its inscription? it is just outside of the West Door of the Minster. Jeff