Volume III | Chapter 2 | Historical Background Next Back to catalogue index
by James Lang


This volume is concerned with the sculpture of the south-eastern quarter of Yorkshire, with the city of York on its western limit. The whole of the old East Riding is included, along with the Vale of Pickering and the northern watersheds of the rivers Rye and Derwent, which were formerly in the North Riding (Fig. 1). The term 'Ryedale' is used to refer collectively to these parts of the North Riding.

York has been the focus of the area since the Roman period, for that was the point at which the great river could be bridged most efficiently. The Humber estuary and the river Ouse which feeds it, which until recently was both tidal and navigable as far as the city, have long carried sea traffic to and from the continent. The importance of the waterways for commerce and settlement is therefore considerable. This is as true for the growth of the Roman headquarters and colonia at York as it is for Anglian migration and later Viking settlement. The river Trent, flowing into the Humber from the south, allowed access to the Midlands, and the Roman roads connected York with the coast and ensured easy intercourse between settlements within Northumbria and Mercia. The survival and later use of ancient routeways for the transportation of stone is considered by John Senior in Chapter III, below.


The siting of the legionary fortress of Eboracum in AD 71 by Petilius Cerialis took account of the opportunitates locorum, choosing the river crossing at a point where the ridge of a glacial moraine gave access through the marshland (Ramm 1971, 225). Routes to the western dales, to Catterick and the north, and south-eastwards to the Humber, took advantage of the topography and were made permanent in their conversion to Roman roads (Richmond 1962, xxix). The establishment of the Ninth Legion in a fortress on the north-east side of the Ouse, whose headquarters building underlies the present-day York Minster, not only laid the foundations of the city as an administrative centre which persisted well beyond medieval times, but determined the development of the settlement, its street plans, and later fortifications.

The legionary fortress was of the usual playing-card shape, but laid with its corners on the cardinal points of the compass, conflicting with the orientation of the eleventh-century and later Minster. The Roman street pattern still survives, intersecting the fortress and linking with the roads out to the hinterland (Richmond 1962, fig. 3). There was rebuilding of the defences, notably by Severus at the end of the second century, and also in the early fourth, when Constantine's proclamation as emperor took place in York. To the south-west of the Ouse, a large civil settlement grew up, certainly by the third century, to complement those of the other bank near the fortress (ibid., xxv ff.). This colonia, with its large cemeteries, laid the framework for the later growth of York on that bank of the river.

The political importance of Eboracum naturally affected the hinterland's communication system. In the area covered by this volume, Malton was an early established centre, with Brough as the crossing point of the Humber to the south. Roads from York extended to Malton, Stamford Bridge, and Brough, often clinging to slopes or ridges (Margary 1957, nos. 81a, 80a, 2e). The western escarpment of the Yorkshire Wolds in the East Riding (ibid., no. 29), and the 'street' running westwards from Malton (ibid., no. 815) are examples, while 'Wade's Causeway' crossed the North Yorkshire Moors, running northwards towards Whitby (Richmond 1962, xxviii, figs. 1–2; Margary 1957, no. 81b).

This Roman legacy is an important factor in the pre-Conquest period. As the documentary sources show, York remained a political focus throughout the Anglian and Anglo-Scandinavian periods. Archaeological evidence from the city also demonstrates that the Roman structures to some extent determined the pre-Conquest pattern: for example, the alignment of the burials in the Minster cemetery conforms to that of the near-by Roman buildings, and the development of Bishophill in the Anglian period, perhaps in the estates of the church of the Alma Sophia, and later in the Anglo-Scandinavian period, may be a response to the remains of the colonia.

Beyond the city, the Roman roads must have maintained their functions and even affected settlement, certainly on the Wolds, in the early Anglian period. In sculptural terms, those roads would also have served in the transport of stone (or finished monuments) over long distances, especially to the East Riding, where there are few stones suitable for carving (see Chap. 3), and the possibility of some of the pre-Viking sculptures of this area having a stone source near Whitby, North Riding, points to the probable use of the Roman road known as Wade's Causeway (Margary 1957, no. 81b). 1


The earliest Anglian settlements are attested by the extensive cemeteries and urn-fields of the fifth and sixth centuries at Heworth and The Mount on the edge of York, and along the western escarpments of the Yorkshire Wolds in the East Riding (Faull 1974, 6 ff; Hall 1988, 125–6). Londesborough, for example, with its sixth-century cemetery and the burgh element of its name, might be an Anglian occupation of a Roman site (Swanton 1963–6; Faull 1974, 10–11). In the Ryedale area, the paucity of pagan Anglian finds makes relating the archaeology and the place-names difficult (Jensen 1978, 24–5). Only Hovingham, an -ingaham name, has yielded any hint of a relationship between Romano-British sites and Anglian settlement. As yet thin, the archaeological evidence for the primary settlement may eventually be amplified by excavations such as the present West Heslerton project (Powlesland 1987).

By the middle of the sixth century the Anglian presence was sufficiently dominant to establish this region as the nucleus of the kingdom of Deira, the southern branch of Northumbria, though York may have been slow to develop as an Anglian centre (Faull 1974, 23; Hall 1988, 126). It was near Goodmanham in the East Riding that Edwin and his thanes were persuaded by the simile of the sparrow to accept Christianity (Bede 1969, ii , 13, 182–6). Edwin was baptized at York in 627 (Bede 1969, ii , 14, 186); extensive excavation in and around the present Minster has, however, yielded no trace of that early seventh-century church, nor of any of its pre-Conquest successors (Melmore 1954; Harrison 1960; Phillips 1985). Neither is there any trace so far of a cemetery of that early date, associated with the period of Paulinus's mission.

Aidan's more successful conversion campaign in Bernicia, the northern kingdom of Northumbria, resulted in the foundation of the monastery at Lindisfarne in 635 (Bede 1969, iii , 3, 218–20). A chain of monastic communities soon extended southwards down the Northumbrian coast to Whitby, and inland monasteries were to appear in quite remote corners of the North Yorkshire Moors. In 659 Cedd hallowed an inauspicious site at Lastingham, granted by king Ethelwald of Deira, and 'established in it the religious observances according to the usage of Lindisfarne where he had been brought up' (Bede 1969, iii , 23, 288–9). According to Bede a stone church had already been built there by the time he was writing, which implies the presence of masons who, by the 730s, may have embellished their new buildings with sculpture. Unfortunately, unlike the monastery of Wearmouth/Jarrow, there is no documentation on the origins, whether continental or native, of the craftsmen who worked at Lastingham. Hackness is a similar site, a cell of Whitby, founded in 680 (Bede 1969, iv , 23, 412). Whitby's influence must have been considerable, not only as a mother-house for Hackness, but because of its royal connections and its hosting of the synod of 664. Other sites, like Driffield, were royal residences by the early eighth century (Earle and Plummer 1892, s. a. 705) but, thanks to Wilfrid's success and his aspirations, York was to grow in importance. It was there that Wilfrid refurbished the decrepit church, whose condition he found appalling (Eddius 1927, cap. 16). Wilfrid's consecration as bishop of York in 669 led to the growth of continental influences in the wake of the Synod of Whitby, at the expense of the Hiberno-Saxon tradition of Yorkshire's monasteries.

Such European connections would have been reinforced during the lifetime of Alcuin, master of the York school from 766, who was in part responsible for the building of the church dedicated by Archbishop Aethelbert to Alma Sophia in the last decades of the century (Alcuin 1982, lines 1507–20). Alcuin served as one of the principal scholars of the Carolingian court. His correspondence indicates that gifts were sent by Alcuin and Charlemagne to the king and archbishop in Northumbria, sometimes with the embellishment of the church of York in mind (Allott 1974, 27, 53–4).

Alcuin's horrified response to the Viking onslaught at the end of the eighth century (Allott 1974, 40; Earle and Plummer 1892, s. a. 793, 794) should not be taken as the trumpet of doom. The presence of Anglian kings in York ensured the maintenance of the Roman walls and construction of ramparts some time before the middle of the ninth century (Hall 1988, 126). Within the legionary fortress there is little archaeological evidence from the Anglian period; across the river, in the former Roman colonia, the finds speak of eighth- and ninth-century settlement. Recent scholarship has postulated an ecclesiastical centre of some importance in this area, in Bishophill (Palliser 1984, 104–5; Morris 1986, 80–9; Briden and Stocker 1987, 85–9) perhaps the Alma Sophia of Archbishop Aethelbert (fl. 767–80). At the time of writing, neither archaeological nor sculptural evidence exists to support this proposition. The city of York may have begun to expand in advance of the Viking impact, into those southern suburbs which were to be developed in the Anglo-Scandinavian period (Cramp 1967, 11–13). Recent excavation in Fishergate, in the south-eastern part of the city, has at last revealed an Anglian presence in this area (Kemp 1985, 26–9; idem 1986; Hall 1988, 128–9).


The fall of York to the Danish host in 866 clearly changed the distribution of wealth in favour of the Vikings. Nine years later that conquest was consolidated in the settlement of the hinterland: 'Halfdan shared out the lands of Northumbria, and they were engaged in ploughing and in making a living for themselves' (Earle and Plummer 1892, s. a. 876). How far these lands extended, and how far they depended politically and commercially upon York (or Jorvik, as it was known to its new masters), is difficult to determine, but, given its proximity to the city and the opportunities of access afforded by the Roman roads and rivers, Ryedale must have been settled. The place-name evidence for a Danish (i.e. Old East Scandinavian speaking) populace in the East Riding is considerable (Smith 1937, xxiii–xxvi). In the Vale of York and the Vale of Pickering, the density of by-names has been taken to suggest heavy settlement (Jensen 1978, 40). In the early tenth century, Norwegian speaking settlers appeared in eastern Yorkshire (Smith 1928, xxvi–xxix), including Ryedale, though the place-name evidence has been challenged by some (Jensen 1972, 22–3); it is more likely that they had emigrated from the Irish Sea province, the culture of which they had, in some measure, assimilated.

The political and commercial base for these Scandinavian settlements was York where, until the middle of the tenth century, a dynasty of Viking kings vied with each other for control (Smyth 1978). Their distinctive silver coinage, minted in the city, reflects the economic power they aspired to wield (Hall 1988, 129). The archaeological record for Anglo-Scandinavian York is now considerable: not only the buildings and artefacts of the Coppergate excavations, but a substantial body of material from Bishophill (Hall 1984; Moulden and Tweddle 1986), demonstrating settlement on both sides of the river.

During the period of the kingdom of Jorvik, its Scandinavian rulers were inextricably involved in the Dublin colony. Ragnald's arrival from Dublin in 914, and his victory at Corbridge, mark the beginning of a political axis between the two towns which prevailed for thirty years, with figures like Olaf Sihtricsson alternating as ruler on either side of the Irish Sea, depending on dynastic fortunes (Collingwood 1908, 127–8; Smyth 1975, 93–113). 2

There were brief periods of English control during these years of Viking supremacy: for example, the reigns of Athelwold (900–1), Edward (910–14), Athelstan (927–39), and Edmund (944–8) (Binns 1963, 20). During the floruit of the kingdom, Christianity appears to have prevailed, to judge from the monuments, and the authority of the archbishopric was not totally submerged. The ecclesiastical structure was, perhaps, beginning to change, however, from one essentially monastic to another associated more closely with what were to become parish churches (Blair 1988b, 1–9). Monasteries such as Lastingham withered on the vine, though their graveyards continued in use well into the tenth century, to judge from the surviving carvings (see Lastingham 1–2; Ills. 574–81). The colonial Scandinavian was quick to assimilate Christianity (Hall 1976, 14), as the paucity of pagan graves testifies (Wilson 1967); and so the adoption of the Insular custom of erecting funerary sculpture was natural.


With the death of Eric Bloodaxe in 954 the English supremacy was re-established by Eadred (946–955) and York was governed by a series of earls. They, together with the archbishops, were zealous in ensuring the exclusion of Scandinavian control, as well as establishing English access to Yorkshire's prosperity (Hall 1988, 130). Landholdings, and hence patronage, must have changed without disturbance of the economic structure. The archbishops had a southern origin, holding the see of Worcester in plurality (Cooper 1970, 2) and, like Wulfstan, were often appointed for their ability to draft law-codes (Whitelock 1942, 257). The political control of the region was thereby centralized under the English crown.

The latter part of the period at least was not an impoverished one for the region. The archbishops of York, during the second third of the eleventh century, were zealous in rebuilding at least one major church, at Beverley, where the new shrine of St John and the introduction of superb metalwork and ceiling paintings there also speak of archiepiscopal munificence (Cooper 1970, 17, 22, 27; Morris and Cambridge 1989, 12–20). Archbishops Wulfstan, Aelfric, Cynesige, and Ealdred, were all equally generous even to establishments far from their see or province, yet there is no apparent sculptural manifestation of their patronage. Nor is there undisputed evidence for church building elsewhere in the region before the middle of the century, the spate of tower building probably falling in its second half: of the principal examples, Middleton and Skipwith are probably to be placed around the middle of the century, with Hovingham and St Mary Bishophill Junior, York, a generation or more later (Taylor and Taylor 1965, i , 326–8, 418–23, ii , 550–4; Wenham et al. 1987, 84–140). 3 At Kirkdale, a ruinous church was bought and rebuilt, the event being recorded, along with the names of the patron and the local priest, on the new sundial (Kirkdale 10; Ill. 568). The Kirkdale inscription fixes the date of these events to 'The days of Edward the king and Tostig the earl', that is, 1055–65, as well as underlining the assimilation of the Scandinavian-named Orm Gamalson into the English land-holding. 4

Within little more then a decade of the Kirkdale rebuilding, the region was to witness two major battles, at Fulford and Stamford Bridge, the prelude to a conquest and a harrying which effectively killed any possibility of the resurrection of the Anglo-Saxon tradition in creating stone monuments.

For a review of Roman settlement in the area of this volume, see Faull 1974, 1–6.

He ruled York in 927, 942–3, and 944–52.

I am grateful to Dr R. D. H. Gem for his advice on the dating of these towers.

See further Morris, R. K., 1988, 196.

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