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York, England: Romans, Vikings, and the Minster

York, England

York — originally a Roman town, then conquered by Vikings — became wealthy in the Middle Ages because of its wool trade. Its Minster is England’s largest Gothic church. The Yorkshire Museum tells the town’s long history well.

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York offers a fascinating collection of great sights mixed with an easygoing pedestrian ambience all lassoed within its formidable wall. Its rich history goes back to ancient Roman times. This column is a scant reminder of when York was a Roman provincial capital — the northernmost city in the Empire.

Constantine was actually proclaimed emperor right here in the year 306.

Later, in the 5th century, when Rome was falling, the emperor sent a letter to Britannia — as this part of the empire was called — and he said basically "you're on your own." When Rome pulled out, the barbarians moved in and York became the capital of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

The Vikings later took the town, and from the 9th through the 11th centuries, it was a thriving Danish trading center called Jorvik. Then came the Normans. Medieval York grew rich on the wool trade. With 9,000 inhabitants, it became England's second city. Henry VIII used the city's fine church, or Minster, as his Anglican Church's northern capital.

The Minster is the pride of York. Britain's largest Gothic church brilliantly shows that the late Middle Ages were far from dark.

The York Minster is filled with history and tradition. Its grand bells have called people to worship here for well over a thousand years.

Each day at noon the huge bell nicknamed Great Peter is rung from the church tower. At ten tons, the bell can actually ring its ringer.

Inside, your first impression might be the spaciousness and brightness. The nave, from about 1300, is one of the widest Gothic naves in Europe. On festival Sundays, 4,000 worshippers pack the place.

The central tower soars nearly 200 feet. The neck-saving mirror allows you to marvel at it comfortably.

The church has more original medieval glass than the rest of England's churches combined. The east window is the size of a tennis court. The Great West Window has exceptional stone tracery. With its nickname the "Heart of York," it represents the sacred heart of Christ and reminds worshippers of His love for the world.

The intricacy of the painted and stained glass held together by lead is exquisite. The fine details, far too tiny to see from the floor, are said to be for God's eyes only.

The choir screen separates the nave from the choir. This ornate wall of carvings is lined with four centuries of English kings: from William the Conqueror to Henry VI. While most of the faces are generic kings with the same scraggly beards… Henry, during whose reign it was carved — in 1461 — is both genteel and engaged.

York's Minster is considered England's number two Anglican Church — after Canterbury. The Anglican Church came into existence about 500 years ago — born out of Europe's long power struggle between popes and kings.

England's split with the Vatican goes back to King Henry VIII. Henry wanted to divorce his wife and marry his mistress. The pope said no. Henry did anyway, and declared that he, and not the pope, was the head of England's Catholics. While Henry considered himself a faithful Catholic — just not a Roman Catholic — his Church of England soon embraced the essence of the Protestant Reformation.

Canon Jeremy Fletcher explains in a nutshell how Anglicanism differs from Roman Catholicism.

Canon Fletcher: Henry the VIII's archbishop was Archbishop Cranmer and he defined three pillars for the Church of England: scripture and reason and tradition. The Bible, our own human understanding and the tradition of the church. And that's the great difference between the new Church of England the Roman Catholic church then; that the medieval church was much less based on the Bible. The Church of England is a reformation church. It's a protestant church. But the structures remained Catholic ones as well, so it has both. We like to describe ourselves as being both Catholic and reformed.

York's mighty wall is a reminder that the city was more than a religious power. It was a military and political center vital for the control of North England from Roman times through the Middle Ages. These ramparts — some of which sit on the remains of the Roman wall — are mostly medieval — 14th and 15th century.

Each of the town gates was heavily fortified — and, I imagine pretty scary if you were trying to break in. Gaze up at the tower, imagining 10 archers behind the cross-shaped arrow slits. Keep an eye on those 12th-century guards, with their stones raised and primed to protect their town.

Today those walls seem only to protect the half-timbered charm. Ye olde downtown York — much of it as car-free today as it was 500 years ago — is filled with characteristic old buildings. It feels made for window-shopping, people-watching, and strolling.

York's rich history goes back much further. The ruins of St. Mary's Abbey — once the wealthiest abbey in north England — are located in a lush and inviting park.

In his fight with the Roman Catholic Church, Henry VIII saw the wealthy monasteries and convents as both a threat to his rule and some easy money. In what's called the dissolution, he dissolved the religious orders. He took their money and destroyed their great buildings.

The Yorkshire Museum — actually built into the ruins of the abbey — tells the story of life here for the monks, how that all ended, and much more.

The ancient Roman collection includes slice of life exhibits from cult figurines to the skull of a man killed by a sword blow to the head — making it graphically clear that the struggle between Romans and barbarians was a violent one. This fine 8th century Anglo-Saxon helmet shows a bit of barbarian refinement. And those Vikings, they wore some pretty decent shoes and actually combed their hair.

The Middleham Jewel, an exquisitely etched 15th-century pendant, is considered the finest piece of Gothic jewelry in Britain. To the noble lady who wore this on a necklace, it both helped her worship and protected her from illness. The back of it, which rested near her heart, shows the nativity. The front shows the Holy Trinity crowned by a sapphire which people believed gave your prayers top priority with God.

For a lively change of pace look for the local Morris Dancers who boldly keep centuries of dancing tradition alive. Mixing both pagan and Christian traditions, they're always ready to celebrate — cheer leading the town through the return of spring, the harvest, your mother's birthday… whatever.

(Morris Dancers dancing.)