The walls of York, incomplete as they are, are still the best surviving municipal fortifications in the British Isles. Although York is perhaps a bit less spectacular than its counterparts in Avila and Carcaossonne, it is nevertheless impressive in its own right. The walls of York are perhaps more important from an historic standpoint. Dating back in part to Roman times, they have more ancient surviving sections than any other city in Europe. From a visitor standpoint, they are also the most accessible and among the easiest to negotiate. Because of this the city walls have a larger than usual share of foot traffic, both among tourists and among locals making their way about the city. York’s fortifications also include Clifford’s Tower, one of the most infamous castles in England.
The city of York was founded as Eboracum by the Romans shortly after their conquest of Great Britain in the 1st century AD. Home to the ill-fated ninth legion, which was likely annihilated by tribes from Scotland around 117, Eboracum was the last major city on the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. Because of its location near the empire’s violent border with the Scots, the city was strongly protected with both a wall and a fortress.
York declined in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal of Roman troops in the 5th century. However, the city’s strategic importance was evident to nearly all of Britain’s subsequent conquerors. It was captured, sacked and rebuilt numerous times during the various invasions of the Danes, Saxons and Vikings. In 1068, after a brief period of resistance, the city of York was absorbed into the expanding Norman kingdom.
Under the Normans and their successors, York became the pre-eminent city of Northern England. Because of its proximity to unruly Scotland, the city’s fortifications were greatly strengthened throughout the late Middle Ages. This did not stop York from being a target of war and conquest. Most famously, the city was sacked in the late 13th century by the armies of William Wallace. York witnessed many other sieges and battles, notably during the various wars with Scotland and during the English Civil War.
By the 17th century the medieval walls had largely become obsolete, and by the 19th century were no longer necessary, as relations between the English and Scots had long since mellowed. The walls were allowed to fall into a state of disrepair, and in many places were torn down to make way for road access. Thanks to preservation efforts in the the 19th and 20th centuries, much of the city wall has been restored, including a half dozen of the city gates dating from as far back as the 1100s. Of the once substantial York Castle, which constituted a part of the city’s defenses on the south side, only Clifford’s Tower now remains.
The Walls of York are in generally good condition, though there are large gaps throughout. Most of what is still standing is walkable. Some portions of the wall, most notably the Multangular Tower, date from Roman times, though most of what is currently standing dates from the late Middle Ages. Of the gates still standing, a few are of particular note: Monk Bar, which boasts a working portcullis and a museum dedicated to King Richard III, and the infamous Micklegate Bar, where heads of executed prisoners were often displayed.
Clifford’s Tower, which crowns a hill on the south side of the city, is all that remains of the medieval York Castle. Now little more than a shell, this keep dates to the Norman conquest in the 11th century. It became famous as the site of a Jewish mass suicide and massacre in 1190. It is now a popular place to visit for the excellent views it affords of the city.
The Walls of York are an open site, however access is generally restricted to daylight hours due to safety concerns. There is otherwise no charge for admission. Clifford’s Tower, located about a quarter of a mile south of the city center, is open daily from 10:00am-4:00pm (longer hours in the Summer). Admission is L2.40. Web: www.visityork.org (official website).
Most of the great walls of England are long since gone, but a few are still around. The Walled City of Chester is generally considered the second best after York. The Walled City of Canterbury still has about half of its defenses preserved, and these can be appreciated from the top of the gatehouse which is open to visitors. Probably the most interesting from an historical standpoint are the Walls of Chichester, which survive in part from Roman times. Also close to York are Beeston Castle and the hulking Leeds Castle.