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A History of York
from Baine's Gazetteer (1823)

Part 2

Picts, Scots, Saxons and Danes

The decline of the Roman power, obliged them to abandon their distant conquests, and in the reign of Theodosius, the younger, the empire sunk so fast, that Britain, and of course York, the city of the Brigantines, as it was called, was no longer a residence for the "lords of the universe." Rome and York both declined together, and to them might be applied the reflection of the old poet, on the fall of Carthage:

Unhappy men! to mourn our lives short date,
When cities, realms, and empires share our fate.

During the period between the evacuation of Britain, by the Romans, and the conquest of this island, by the Normans, the city of York, partook largely in the vicissitudes to which the country was exposed. The Picts and the Scots, the Saxons and the Danes, each in succession, erected their standards before its gates, and obtained possession of the city. The general history of Northumbria, during these early ages, is already sketched in this work, under the head of YORKSHIRE; and it will suffice here, to remark of this epoch, that York, though shorn of that splendour which imperial Rome conferred, still maintained a distinguished rank as a metropolitan city, and as the centre of commercial attraction. The celebrated instructor of Charlemagne, who wrote in the ninth century, thus speaks of York:-

Quo variis populis et regnis undique lecti,
Spe lucri venunt qurentes divite terra,
Divitias, sedem sibimet lucrumque laremque."

" Hither for gain from various foreign parts
Come trading people seeking opulence,
And a secure abode in wealthy land."

At this period, York was the seat not only of trade, but of letters; she was indeed, the Athens of that dark age, and the library collected by Archbishop Egbert, and placed in the cathedral, ranked amongst the first in Christendom. Alcuin, in one of his letters to his royal pupil, Charlemagne, requests that scholars may be sent from France, to copy the works deposited here, "that the garden of letters may not be shut up in York; but that some of its fruits may be placed in the paradise of Tours." (Ref: Epist. Alcuini ad Carolum Regem. Lel. Coll. I. page 399.) William, of Malmsbury, speaking of this library, says, "it is the noblest repository, and cabinet of arts and sciences in the whole world." King Arthur

Among the most celebrated of the British monarchs before the conquest, was King Arthur. This monarch expelled the Saxons from York, and almost from the Island, in the year 520, by the sanguinary battle of Baden Hills, in which 90,000 of the enemy were slain. Arthur, after the defeat of the Saxons, undertook an expedition into Scotland, with a determination to destroy that ancient seat of enmity from one end to the other. From this purpose he was dissuaded by the Bishops. The Scots had just received the gospel, and it was represented to the King, by his spiritual guides, in the true spirit of that religion which he professed, that Christians ought not to spill the blood of Christians - a maxim, that has unfortunately for the world, not been sufficiently inculcated in modern times. Arthur, after his expedition to Scotland, returned to York, where he convened an assembly of the clergy and people, to heal the divisions, and to regulate the affairs of the church. At this time, this great monarch, and his clergy, with the nobility, and the soldiers, kept their Christmas, in York. This was the first festival of the kind ever celebrated in Britain, and from which, all those ever since held have taken their model. "The latter end of December, says the historian," (Buchanan.) " was spent in mirth, jollity, drinking, and the vices that are too often their consequences, so that the representations of the old heathenish feasts, dedicated to Saturn, were here again revived. Gifts were sent mutually from one to another, frequent invitations passed between friends, and domestic offenders were not punished. All this, was to celebrate the nativity of Christ, then, as they say, born." Arthur, after all his glory, had the misfortune to be slain in a rebellion of his own subjects, and by the hands of his own nephew. From his death, violent dissentions arose among the British princes, and the Saxons again so completely prevailed, as to gain an entire conquest over the whole kingdom. Those Britons, who would not submit to pass under the Saxon yoke, sought shelter in the Cambrian mountains, where their posterity, according to Welsh history, have ever since maintained their station.

It does not belong to this work to trace the events of the Heptarchy, of which period it has been observed, with some justice, that if "the old wives' tales and friars' dreams" be expunged, this volume of history will be reduced to a page. But it is proper to record, that in the year 867, the Danes, who had long envied the happiness of their neighbours, the Saxons, in the possession of the greatest and the wealthiest island in Europe, fitted up a mighty fleet, and entered the Humber in the spring, with a strong invading army, under the command of Hinguar and Hubba. Their first operation was against York, where a sanguinary battle was fought in the midst of the city, and the two Saxon kings, Osbert and Ella, being slain in the engagement, the city fell into the hands of the Danish invaders. In the conflict, York, was reduced to a heap of ruins, by the enraged Barbarians, who spared neither palace nor cottage, age, or sex. "Matrons and virgins," says Hoveden, "were ravished at pleasure. The husband and wife either dead or dying, were tossed together. The infant snatched from its mother's breast was carried to the threshold, and there left butchered at its parents' door, to make the general cry more hideous." For some ages the struggle was maintained in England between the Saxons and the Danes, but in the year, 1010. the power of the former was extinguished. The Danes, under Sweyn, their sovereign, advanced into Northumbria, with a powerful army, and pitched their tents on the banks of the Ouse. To this place, Ethelred, the Anglo-Saxon monarch, with an army strengthened by a number of Scots, marched to give them battle. The engagement, which took place near York, was bloody and well contested. Ethelred fought to retain, and Sweyn to obtain a kingdom. Victory at length declared for the Danes, and Ethelred, with a few of his followers, seizing a boat, passed over the Ouse, and fled into Normandy, leaving his crown and his kingdom to the conqueror. The Danish viceroys, or Comites Northumbri, took up their residence at York, while their sovereigns not unfrequently made this city the royal residence. The death of Sweyn, who breathed his last at Gainsborough, took place in the year, 1014, and he was succeeded by his son, Canute, the most powerful monarch of his time. The reproof given by this King to his fawning courtiers, is so just and impressive, that its memory has survived through eight centuries. Some of these flatterers breaking out in expressions of admiration of his power and grandeur, exclaimed, that to him every thing was possible. Upon which, Canute ordered his chair to be placed upon the sea-shore, while the tide was rising; as the waters approached, he commanded them with a voice of authority to retire, and to obey the lord of the ocean. For some time he feigned to sit in expectation of their submission, but the sea still advanced towards him, and began to wash him with its billows; on which he turned to his courtiers, and said, "Behold how feeble and impotent is man. Power resideth in one Being alone, in whose hands are the elements of nature, and who alone can say to the ocean; Thus far shalt thou go and no further, and who can level with his nod the most towering piles of pride and ambition."


On the death of Canute, in 1035, Harold, his second son, surnamed Harefoot, succeeded to his British dominions; this monarch was succeeded by Hardicanute, a licentious tyrant, who died two years after his accession, at the nuptials of a Danish lord. Edward, the Confessor, though not the hereditary descendent, was raised to the throne by the voice of the people, to the exclusion of Sweyn, the Danish claimant, and was the last of the Saxon line who ruled in England. Harold, the son of Godwin, succeeded Edward, but was opposed by his brother Tasti, at whose instance, Harfager, the King of Norway, undertook the invasion of this kingdom, with a numerous and well appointed army, embarked on board a kind of Norwegian armada, This mighty armament entered the Humber, in the autumn of 1066, and the ships sailed up the Ouse, as far as Riccall, within ten miles of York; where they were moored. Having landed their forces, the invaders marched to York, which city they took by storm, after a desperate conflict, fought at Fulford, on the eve of St. Matthew, with Morchar, the governor, and Edwin, Earl of Chester. Harold no sooner heard of the arrival of the Norwegians, than he marched to York, at the head of a powerful army. On his approach, the invaders quitted the city, and took up a strong position to the East of York, having the Derwent in front, the Ouse to the right, and their navy on the left. Harold, disregarding the advantageous position of the enemy, determined to cross the wooden bridge which passed over the river, and to attack them in their trenches. His army was put in motion early in the morning, but an impediment, as the historians say, was interposed by a champion, in the Norwegian army, who placing himself on the bridge, kept by his own individual prowess the whole British army at bay for three hours! This hero being at length slain by a dart, the English army passed the bridge, and attacking the enemy in their trenches, sword in hand, victory declared on the side of Harold. The King of Norway, and Tasti were both slain; and their army, which consisted of sixty thousand men, suffered so complete an overthrow, that though from five to six hundred vessels were necessary to bring them to England, twenty vessels were sufficient to carry back the miserable remains that survived the slaughter. This battle, which commenced at sun rise, and did not terminate till three o'clock in the afternoon, was fought at Stamford Bridge,(Note:- See Stamford Bridge in this volume.) on the 23d of September, 1066. The spoil taken by the victors was immense, and it is represented, that the gold alone which the Norwegians left behind them, was as much as twelve men could carry on their shoulders. (Ref:- Camden) Harold's triumph was of short duration. Returning to York, on the night of the battle, he gave orders for solemn feasts and rejoicings to begin the next day. Scarcely had these demonstrations of public joy commenced, when a messenger arrived from the South, and announced to Harold, as he sat in state, at a magnificent entertainment, that Duke William of Normandy, had landed with a mighty army, at Pevensey, in Sussex. The recently acquired victory of Harold, though great and honourable, proved in the main prejudicial to his interests, and may be regarded as the immediate cause of his ruin. He had lost many of his bravest officers and soldiers in the action; and he had disgusted the survivors, by refusing to distribute among them the Norwegian spoils. On receiving the intelligence of the arrival of William, the King marched at the head of his army, through London, to Sussex, in order to expel the invaders. Here the sanguinary battle of Hastings was fought, only nine days after the battle of Stamford Bridge, and here Harold lost both his kingdom and his life.

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Data transcribed from:
Baines Gazetteer 1823
Scan, OCR and html software by Colin Hinson.
Checking and correction by Richard Tetley.