In Late Roman Britain, York (Eboracum) was the base of the Sixth Legion and the civilian part of the city had the status of colonia, the highest rank of Roman city. It was clearly an important centre of Roman civil and military power. What happened to it after the end of Roman imperial administration in Britain?
Documentary sources refer to York in the fourth century and the early seventh, with a possible snippet or two in between. Archaeology also provides some possible clues. I’ll discuss the documentary sources in this post.
Death of Emperor Constantius and elevation of Emperor Constantine, 306 AD
"Constantius died at Eboracum in Britain in the thirteenth year of his reign, and was deified. ..."--Eutropius, Breviarium, Book X Ch. 1 and 2, available online
"On the Death of Constantius, Constantine, his son by a somewhat undistinguished marriage, was made emperor in Britain, and succeeded to his father's position as a very popular ruler. ..."
These events occurred in July 306 AD.
Bishop of York attends Council of Arles, 314 AD
Eborius episcopus de civitate Eboracensi provincia Britanniae--Signatories to the acts of the Council of Arles, 314. Text quoted in Painter 1971, first page (with the relevant quote) available online.
Restitutus episcopus de civitate Londiniensi provincia suprascripta
Adelphius episcopus de civitate Colonia Londiniensium
Exinde Sacerdos presbyter Arminius diaconus
The Council of Arles was held in 314 AD. The text translates roughly as follows:
Eborius bishop of the city of Eboracum in the province of the Britains--My translation, very approximate.
Restitutus bishop of the city of Londinium in the above province
Adelphius bishop of the city of Colonia Londiniensum
[?] Sacerdos the priest [and] Arminius the deacon
I don’t know what ‘exinde’ means on the fourth line (if anyone would like to enlighten me, please feel free to comment), but it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this post. The two cities clearly identified are Eboracum (York) and Londinium (London). ‘Colonia Londiniensum’ is unclear. It might be a repeat of London, although two bishops from the same city seems a little extravagant, or a spelling mistake for Colonia Lindensium (Lincoln). Clearly, York had at least one bishop in 314 of sufficient standing to attend an important church council. Whether his name really was Eborius, or whether this was a mistake or a guess by a harassed scribe, or a title used instead of a name, is open to interpretation.
The next unequivocal mention of York in a documentary source is from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written in 731, which quotes a letter from Pope Gregory to St Augustine written in 601:
We wish you also to send a bishop of your own choice to the city of York, and if that city with the adjoining territory accepts the word of God, this bishop is to consecrate twelve other bishops and hold the dignity of Metropolitan. If we live to see this, we intend to grant him the pallium, but he is to remain subject to your authority. After your death, however, he is to preside over the bishops whom he has consecrated and to be wholly independent of the Bishop in London. Thenceforward, seniority of consecration is to determine whether the Bishop of London or of York takes precedence, but they are to consult one another and take united action...--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book I Ch. 29
Pope Gregory clearly envisaged two senior bishoprics at York and London with approximately equal status. It may be significant that these are also the two bishoprics clearly identifiable in the Council of Arles, with which Pope Gregory must surely have been familiar. Perhaps he looked up the records when deciding how he would like his new branch of the church to be organised. Or possibly he had heard of a bishopric at York in his own day or in the recent past.
In 627, York was the site of the baptism of King Edwin (Eadwine) of Northumbria and was established as a bishopric:
...King Edwin, with all the nobility of the kingdom and a large number of humbler folk, accepted the Faith [...] in the year of our Lord 627 [...] The king’s baptism took place at York on Easter Day, the 12th of April, in the church of St Peter the Apostle which he had hastily built of timber [...] and in this city he established the see of his teacher and bishop Paulinus.-- Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book II Ch. 14
For a discussion on the possible location of the early church mentioned by Bede, see my earlier article ‘Location of the seventh-century church in York’.
It was another century before York formally acquired archbishopric status and Pope Gregory’s wish was fulfilled. (However, at least it was fulfilled eventually. Augustine’s southern archbishopric ended up being based in Canterbury rather than in London as Pope Gregory intended, a situation that persists to this day.)
XL.--Notitia Dignitatum, Latin text, available online
Sub dispositione viri spectabilis ducis Britanniarum:
Praefectus legionis sextae.
This translates approximately as “Under the command of the honourable Duke of the Britains, Prefect of the Sixth Legion”. The base of the Sixth Legion is not named in the Notitia, but the Sixth was known to be based at York in earlier centuries and several inscriptions relating to the Sixth Legion are known from Roman York. Assuming that the Sixth hadn’t relocated, this would suggest that York was still a legionary base when the Notitia Dignitatum was compiled, which is usually placed in the early fifth century.
Where the Dux Britanniarum himself was based is not specified in the Notitia. York would seem a likely candidate, but somewhere closer to the frontier at Hadrian’s Wall might also be possible, or the Dux may have had several bases and moved between them as occasion demanded.
501 Bishop Ebur rests in Christ, he was 350 years old.--Annales Cambriae, available online
The similarity of the name ‘Ebur’ to the Roman name for York, Eboracum or Eburacum, and to the name of the bishop of York who attended the Council of Arles in 314, Bishop Eborius, is consistent with this ‘Bishop Ebur’ also being a bishop of York. If this is correct, it might indicate a long-running practice of referring to the bishop by the title of his see*. If this inference is correct, it implies that there was still a Christian bishop based in York in 501 or thereabouts. If so, this could also suggest a context for Pope Gregory’s desire to establish a bishopric at York; if he thought there had been one there in the comparatively recent past, he might have wished to revive it.
The rather enigmatic reference to the bishop’s age ‘he was 350 years old’ is a bit of a puzzle. The number could be a straightforward scribal error, and this is perhaps the simplest explanation. Another possibility may be that it referred to the office, rather than to the incumbent, i.e. that the bishopric of York was 350 years old. The Council of Arles shows that it was established by 314. Three hundred and fifty years before 501 takes us back to about 150 AD, which would be early but perhaps not impossibly so. York was a major army base and major city, and had a cosmopolitan population. Tombstones have been found in York commemorating people from Italy, Gaul, Sardinia, Bavaria and possibly Egypt, and eastern religions such as Isis and Mithras were present in the city (Ottaway 2004). Perhaps Christianity might have arrived in the city and established a church as early as 150 AD, which could have been remembered as the origin of the bishopric. Or possibly whoever compiled Annales Cambriae was familiar with the legend recounted by Bede of a British king requesting Christian conversion in 156 AD (Bede Book I Ch. 4), ascribed that (with or without cause) as the origin of the York bishopric and did the calculation.
If the entry refers to the bishopric, it could be interpreted to mean that the bishopric of York, i.e. the office, came to an end in 501 AD. Or it could refer to the death of the current bishop at the time, conflated with a separate record about the antiquity of his office.
York was clearly an important ecclesiastical centre in 314, as well as a military base and colonia. The military base may have persisted into the fifth century if the Sixth Legion mentioned in Notitia Dignitatum had not changed its location.
When York next appears clearly in the historical record, in the early seventh century, it is again as an ecclesiastical centre (intended in 601, realised in 627). Whether it also had political and/or military importance is not known. As the southern bishopric established by St Augustine ended up in the royal centre of the kingdom of Kent at Canterbury (rather than in London as specified by Pope Gregory), this may indicate that bishoprics tended to gravitate to royal centres, and this in turn may suggest that the northern bishopric was also established in a royal centre. If so, this suggests that York may also have been a royal and political centre for the kingdom of Deira/Northumbria by 627.
What happened in between? Apart from the enigmatic reference in Annales Cambriae, which is consistent with (but does not prove) York having retained some ecclesiastical significance up to (at least) 500 AD, the documentary sources are silent on the fifth and sixth centuries at York. Further clues to the post-Roman development of York may come from archaeology. I’ll discuss these in later posts.
Annales Cambriae, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Council of Arles, 314. Text quoted in Painter 1971, first page (with the relevant quote) available online.
Eutropius, Breviarium, Book X Ch. 1 and 2, available online
Notitia Dignitatum, Latin text, available online
Ottaway P. Roman York. Tempus, 2004. ISBN 0-7524-2916-7.
Painter KS. Villas and Christianity in Roman Britain. British Museum Quarterly 1971;35:156-175. First page available online
*The Archbishop of York still signs documents as ‘Ebor’, so this may be a very long-running tradition indeed.