31 Days of History: Our Tudor thread

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Over the last month, we have been able to bring to light periods of history or significant events which sewn together make up a patchwork of York’s diverse history. As you travel through the cobbled streets or along the riverbank, you may notice that one period of history has had a particular influence on the city, one which we continue to marvel at today.

The era in question, between 1485 and 1603 is the period of the Tudor dynasty who ruled the realms of England and later Ireland. It is generally known that this period of rule rose from The War of The Roses when Henry Tudor defeated the House of York to claim the throne. However this conflict was soon settled due to his convenient marriage to Elizabeth of York and a year after his ascension to the throne, Henry VII visited York in an attempt at peace-keeping after fierce rivalry.

Winning the King’s favour was of the upmost importance. At Mickelgate Bar (which was the royal entrance to the city) it has been recorded that the welcoming crowds sprinkled the royal entourage with rose water and dressed as previous King Henrys a sign of respect and adulation.  White and red roses were waved in celebration to mark the union of two former enemies. A year later, Henry VII returned for a different reason- to see the capture and execution of several rebels who risked the safety of the throne. In between his display of swift punishment, it is believed he also had time to watch a production of Mystery Plays from a house in Coney Street.

When his son Henry VIII took to the throne, York was in turmoil. No longer able to balance the books, York’s authorities were in increasingly bad favour with the King. However it would be the impact of the reformation which would have a lasting effect on the city.

Henry VII’s desire to remarry and divorce his current wife Catherine of Aragon threw the accepted order of religious worship in the air. Henry VII, motivated by the desire to produce an heir rather than religious belief, made plans to separate England and its realms from the power of the Catholic Church. The impact of this disagreement affected everyone, especially in York. Home to the seat of the archbishops and to the impressive Minster, York was bound to be affected by Henry’s Dissolutions of the Monasteries which placed principal control of church property into the King’s possession. Many religious buildings were left to ruin or were destroyed such as the Abbey church of St Mary’s and St Leonard’s Hospital. York Abbey at the time was one of the largest religious centres, and the grammar schools which were served by these parishes were also closed. The Minster however remained relatively untouched as it wasn’t classed as monastic in its function. Aspects in the Minster’s design which were believed to be related to the Pope or papal beliefs were swiftly erased such as on the shield of St Peter’s Keys located in the Central Tower:  for if you look closely you may see where the image of a papal tiara has been removed.

The Abbey grounds went on to become the home of the Council of the North and was moved permanently into the former Abbot’s house in what had been St. Mary’s. Robert Holgate was appointed as president in 1538 and soon became the Archbishop of York in 1545 (he would later be sent to the tower by Queen Mary when England returned to Catholicism in 1553). The council’s jurisdiction covered the areas of Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland and Cumberland. The council was a powerful force in 16th century and insured the regional areas of the north complied with national legislature.

Between the three of Henry VIII’s children, York and the rest of the kingdom was to go through a great many changes which would throw the country into further disorder and confusion. Aged just nine when he claimed the throne, Edward VI was a profoundly devout supporter and leader of the Church of England. The chantry altars which were remains of a belief in purgatory were swiftly removed, as were statues which devoutly worshiped saints. This, like in many other religious cities, further altered the face of York’s religious practice. Reigning for only 6 years nevertheless, Edward’s eldest sister Mary I soon became Queen.

A supporter of the Catholic faith, priests in the north of England quickly complied and soon returned to celebrating mass with the customs of Roman Catholicism. Many clergymen who had married in the years England was Protestant were soon dismissed on the grounds that they had broken the sacred vows of celibacy Catholic priests were expected to keep. Interestingly, with an almost immediate compliance with Mary’s Catholic ruling, not a single protestant martyr was killed in the city during this period, and it was even once reported that Mary I considered moving to York to “live among the Catholic people”.

With the passing of Mary I, half-sister Elizabeth was the next and final monarch to helm this famed period of turbulence. A Protestant like her brother and father before her, York was just as quick to switch godly allegiances as it was for the previous incumbents. Renamed as the Supreme Governor of the Church, Elizabeth enforced all churches to worship from a Protestant prayer book in order to monitor and control daily religious life. Increased power was also granted to the Council of the North still based at King’s Manor (formally known as St Mary’s) and soon became a court of great esteem and authority across the region. Many banquets and ceremonies were held there, and despite its former Catholic loyalties, York was granted as the judicial and administrative capital of the north. The King’s Manor is located in Exhibition Square next to the City Art Gallery and is home to The University of York’s Department of Archaeology and the Centres for Medieval and Eighteenth Century Studies.

Life in Elizabethan York was typical of the Tudor period and many architectural aspects are still recognisable within the city. The city became an economic stronghold thanks to the increasing power granted by the protestant throne. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, York had cleared most of its debts which had continually troubled it. Of course with all this renewed prosperity comes an increase in population. Migration into York and other anthropological factors contributed to outbreaks of plague which the city struggled to shrug off.  Then as now, York had a constant stream of visitors and by 1596, more than 60 inns provided accommodation for traders and merchants who brought their custom to the area. Commodities such as textiles which had brought business to most of Yorkshire, especially in the west of the county also provided an income for many York residents.

Numerous buildings in York, particularly pubs such as The Black Swan, The Golden Fleece and The Punch Bowl offer a glimpse of the structures which will have lined the busy streets of Tudor York. An eventful period, York was a city which changed with the times. It was impressively strategic, compliant with change and focused on a goal of economic growth and renewed stability- even when faced with religious uncertainty. A wealthy Tudor past is left for us to discover, leaving a fascinating trail which reveals a city at the centre of one of the most famous periods of British history.

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