Monday, April 16, 2007

Yorkshire Holiday, Part 5 (and last): York

Mickelgate Bar, York.

We took the Transpennine Express from Scarborough to York and spent about five hours in a city that really deserves at least a week of its own. The city is full of ancient churches, full of medieval stained glass, Anglo-Saxon dedication stones, and other historical treasures. From the rail station, we walked down to Mickelgate Bar, the main gateway to the medieval city. In the Middle Ages, it was customary to display the severed heads of traitors from Mickelgate Bar. In Shakespeare's Henry VI at the RSC, we heard Queen Margaret demand the beheading of her enemy, Richard, Duke of York, with the words: "Off with his head and set it on York gates;/So York may overlook the town of York." The Duke's head was set above the gate in 1461. He was not the first figure from one of Shakespeare's histories to suffer this fate: in 1403, the head of Harry Hotspur (see Henry IV, Part I) was set on a pole above this same gate.

On the walls of York

St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read, All Saints, North Street, York. Click to enlarge for more detail.

From this gruesome beginning, we walked north along the city's western walls to the River Ouse, then headed up North Street to the marvelous church of All Saints, where it's possible to get right up close to the beautiful medieval glass, such as this delightful window (early 1400s) of St. Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read. The church also contains a window illustrating the harrowing medieval poem "The Pricke of Conscience," depicting the last fifteen days of life on earth—beginning with rising sea levels and other disasters that seem eerily like global warming.

York Minster

The "Heart of Yorkshire," the great west window of York Minster. Click to enlarge for more detail.

From All Saints, we walked to York Minster, the largest cathedral in northern Europe, where we spent about two hours looking at the stained glass. We also went down into the undercroft, where excavations have revealed fragments of the Roman garrison (including a well-preserved section of a Roman wall painting) that, as in Lincoln, once stood on the site of the cathedral.

Like Lincoln, York had a large Jewish population in the early Middle Ages, before the expulsion of the Jews from England in the 13th century. As in Lincoln, and elsewhere in Europe, the Crusades brought a backlash against the Jews, and in 1190 a hundred and fifty Jews of York took refuge from a mob in the wooden tower of the castle. Rather than surrender to the mob, the Jews set fire to the tower and committed suicide. This later stone tower, known as Clifford's Tower, stands on the site of that earlier wooden tower.

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