Late Roman York was an important military, political and ecclesiastical centre in the fourth century. Anglian York was a royal and ecclesiastical centre in the early seventh century. What happened in between?
In this sequence of posts, I have briefly summarised some documentary and archaeological evidence that may help to sketch out a picture of York in the post-Roman centuries:
- the documentary evidence;
- the headquarters building;
- the Anglian cremation cemeteries at The Mount andHeworth;
- the inhumation cemetery at Lamel Hill;
- the possible Anglian cemetery at Castle Yard;
- the craft-working and possible trading settlement at Fishergate.
I have also discussed the ‘Anglian Tower’, built at an unknown date between late Roman and Anglo-Scandinavian York.In this post I will try to draw the information together.
York as a political and ecclesiastical centre
One aspect that strikes me is the similarity between York at either end of the gap in the documentary record.
In Late Roman Britain, York was an important centre of ecclesiastical (a bishop of York attended an international church council in 314), military (base of the Sixth Legion and probably of the high-ranking military commander the Dux Britanniarum), and political (the civilian city on the west bank of the Ouse was a colonia, the highest rank of Roman city) power.
When York next appears in documentary records in the early seventh century, it was an important centre of ecclesiastical (seat of the bishop of York and intended by Pope Gregory to become an archbishopric) and royal (chosen by King Edwin (Eadwine) of Deira/Northumbria as the site for his baptism and that of much of the Northumbrian aristocracy) power. Although military and political power were (in theory) separate under Roman administration, in early medieval Britain both were effectively subsumed under royal authority, as kings were both political and military leaders.
So York seems to have held broadly similar status on either side of the three-century gap in the historical record. This could be pure coincidence. It is possible that Roman York was to all intents and purposes deserted in the fifth and sixth centuries, and that King Eadwine and Bishop Paulinus established their new church and bishopric in a grass-grown ruin that meant nothing to either of them except that Pope Gregory had specified the location. Even this minimalist interpretation, however, requires that someone at least knew which particular grass-grown Roman ruin Pope Gregory meant, implying that the name of Roman York had been remembered.
More likely, in my view, is that York remained inhabited in some form throughout, and that its political, military and ecclesiastical roles were either retained – no doubt much modified according to changing circumstances – or at least remembered.
Continued habitation in some form is consistent with the archaeological finds, which (although fragmentary) span the gap in the documentary records between them:
- in the early fifth century, someone left a large quantity of young pig bones in the headquarters building, perhaps the debris from a Roman-style luxury feast;
- in the fifth to sixth century, someone was interring their dead in cremation cemeteries at The Mount and Heworth;
- possibly in the seventh to eighth century, someone was interring their dead in an inhumation cemetery at Lamel Hill;
- someone deposited an early seventh-century hanging bowl at Castle Yard;
- at some unknown date between the late fourth and mid ninth centuries, someone built the Anglian Tower;
- in the late seventh to mid ninth centuries, people were living and working on the production of craft goods at Fishergate, by which date York has reappeared in the documentary records.
The environment of post-Roman York
Such continued habitation would be very different from the densely populated urban environment of Roman York. The complex Roman mercantile economy with its network of specialist producers relied on safe transport over long distances, sufficient stability to make long-term investments such as learning specialist skills worthwhile, and a reliable means of exchange so that specialist producers could obtain the means of living that they did not produce for themselves. The economy was already declining in Roman Britain in the late fourth century, undermined by internal power struggles, political purges, raids, piracy, and successive troop withdrawals as a parade of would-be emperors ‘borrowed’ the British garrisons to have yet another try at grabbing the top job via a military coup. When the Empire officially gave up on Britain, in the shape of Emperor Honorius’ letter telling the civitas governments to look to their own defences, the cessation of Imperial funds would have been one more blow to an economy already struggling. People living in late- and post-Roman York would have had to adapt to increasingly erratic supplies at local markets and a near absence of long-distance trade. Increasingly, if you wanted something you would have to grow it or make it yourself, or make something you could arrange to swap for it with someone nearby.
City populations would probably have been less well equipped than rural populations to weather this change. Rural populations who already grew food for their own use and to sell to the city could still eat if trade collapsed, even if they could no longer buy useful manufactured goods; city populations would have lacked both the skills and the land area to grow enough food to feed themselves. York may have been better placed than many cities to manage the issue of land availability, if the withdrawal of troops by successive usurpers reduced the city’s population and also freed up vacant land that could be converted to cultivation. If York was very lucky, it may also have had access to military supplies or supply contracts for a while, which could perhaps have been used to smooth the transition. However, even if York fared better than average (which is speculation on my part), the city population would be expected to decrease from its peak as people moved away or died, and to settle eventually at a density sufficiently low to be roughly self-sustaining on the amount of land available. Post-Roman York is probably best thought of as sparsely populated, with settlement dispersed around the city and perhaps also shifting from place to place to make the best use of available land and surviving structures.
Social structure in post-Roman York
The presence of the elaborate hanging bowl at Castle Yard, and perhaps also the pigs in the headquarters building (if they represent the remains of luxury feasting) suggest that some people in post-Roman York had access to expensive luxury goods, and whoever built the Anglian Tower clearly controlled considerable resources. These are consistent with the presence of local rulers or chieftains, perhaps similar to whoever built the post-Roman timber halls in the old Roman fort at Birdoswald. York may have been a permanent base for a local ruler, or perhaps one of several bases visited on a rotating basis by a ruler with a larger territory (or both at different times).
Whether permanent residents or seasonal visitors, such rulers would presumably have needed a working population in and around York to provide for their needs; people who grew crops on areas of open ground, grazed livestock on grass and scrub among the ruins, scavenged for raw materials to work into craft products for use or exchange, built simple houses against convenient standing walls or where space allowed, interred their dead in cremation or inhumation cemeteries according to religion or family custom, and dumped their rubbish on waste ground or in convenient derelict buildings. Such activity would be consistent with the deposits of ‘dark earth’ that separate Roman from medieval archaeological deposits on some sites in York, which would form as rubbish and perishable materials rotted down.
So my suggested model for post-Roman York is one of a sparse and more or less self-sufficient resident population, producing what they needed to support themselves and a small group of visiting or resident aristocrats. This model offers a mechanism whereby York could have retained its status as a political centre if visited (even if only occasionally) by the local rulers, and as an ecclesiastical centre if some of the population continued to follow Christian beliefs and to maintain links with Christians elsewhere in Britain.
Although this model allows for some continuity of occupation and status between Roman York in the early fifth century and Anglian York in the early seventh century, there is a striking apparent change. In the early fifth century York was controlled by Roman officials. In the early seventh century it was controlled by an early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) king. How might that political transition have come about? More on that in another post.