The York Environs Project: an early medieval town and its hinterland
By J.D. Richards
The Development of Urbanism from a Global Perspective, edited by P.J.J. Sinclair (Uppsala University, 1996)
Introduction: During the first millennium AD, the City of York grew to be one of the foremost towns of northwest Europe. This study will examine the origins and growth of the Viking age town, whose development can be seen to parallel that of many of the urban centres of early medieval Europe. It will draw upon the work of the York Environs Project which is seeking to describe and explain the relationship between the town and its hinterland, and will consider the application of computerized Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to study the urban-rural interface.
York initially developed from a Roman legionary fortress, Ebvracvm, founded in AD 71 on the major land route to the north, and at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss. The fortress had acquired a substantial civilian settlement, or colonial one, by AD 237 and during the early third century became the capital of Britannia Inferior. Following the decline of central Roman power, settlement appears to have retreated within the Roman fortress walls where some form of administrative role may have been maintained, although the town’s social and economic links with its hinterland were reduced, and international trading links were cut off.
Economic growth was rekindled in the seventh century AD, with the establishment of a trading network which had links throughout northwestern Europe. At the same time royal and ecclesiastical power developed in the old legionary fortress with the foundation, by St Paulinus, of a small wooden church dedicated to St Peter near the site of the modern minster.
In the ninth century, however, there is evidence for a hiatus in trade after the decline of Eoforwic and before its capture by the Viking Great Army in AD 866. The exposed trading site at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss was abandoned in favour of a more easily defended area between the two rivers and closer to the Roman legionary fortress. The walls of the Roman fort survived sufficiently for York to withstand attack in the ninth century. Although breached in several places, much of the fortress wall stood more than 3 m high, and the insertion of the so-called Anglian tower into the walls has been taken as evidence for continued maintenance of the defences. Around AD 900, York’s new Viking rulers apparently renovated the defences so as to enclose an area bounded by the Roman walls to the north and west and by the rivers to the south and east. The total enclosed area of Viking York was therefore some 36 ha (87 acres), making it larger than the major Scandinavian towns at Hedeby and Birka.