Skip to content

Nine days' wonder in York

Updated Friday 27th May 2016

William has much admiration for the Minster - but the joy of York is to be harshly curtailed...

Perhaps it would be better to come to York somewhat earlier in the year than the 2d of September. By that time the English summer has suffered often if not severe discouragements. It has really only two months out of the year to itself, and even July and August are not always constant to it. To be sure, their defection cannot spoil it, but they dispose it to the slights of September in a dejection from which there is no rise to those coquetries with October known to our own summer. Yet, having said so much, I feel bound to add that our nine days in York, from the 2d to the 12th of September, were more summer than autumn days, some wholly, some partly, with hours of sunshine keeping the flowers bright which the rain kept fresh. If you walked fast in this sunshine you were quite hot, and sometimes in the rain you were uncomfortably warm, or at least you were wet. If the mornings demanded a fire in the grate, the evenings were so clement that the lamp was sufficient, and the noons were very well with neither.

York Minster Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Robert Clopas York Minster

I

The day of our arrival in York began bright at Sheffield, where there was a man quarrelling so loudly and aimlessly in the station that we were glad to get away from him, as well as from the mountains of slag surrounding the iron metropolis. The train ran through a pass in these, and then we found ourselves in a plain country, and, though the day turned gray and misty, there seemed a sort of stored sunshine in the fields of wheat which the farmers were harvesting far and near. One has heard so much of the decay of the English agriculture that one sees what is apparently the contrary with nothing less than astonishment. The acreage of these wheat-fields was large, and the yield heavier than I could remember to have seen at home. Where the crop had been got in, much ploughing for the next year had been done already, and where the ploughing was finished the work of sowing by drill was going steadily forward, in the faith that such an unprecedented summer as was now passing would return another year. At all these pleasant labors, of course, the rooks were helping, or at least bossing.

II

We expected to stay certainly a week, and perhaps two weeks, in York, and our luck with railway hotels had been so smiling elsewhere that we had no other mind than to spend the time at the house into which we all but stepped from our train. But we had reckoned without our host, as he was represented by one of a half-dozen alert young ladies in the office, who asked how long we expected to stay, and when we expressed a general purpose of staying indefinitely, said that all her rooms were taken from the next Monday by people who had engaged them long before for the races. I did not choose to betray my ignorance to a woman, but I privately asked the head porter what races those were which were limiting our proposed sojourn, and I am now afraid he had some difficulty in keeping a head porter's conventional respect for a formal superior in answering that we had arrived on the eve of Doncaster Week. Then I said, "Oh yes," and affected the knowledge of Doncaster Week which I resolved to acquire by staying somewhere in York till it was over.

But as yet, that Friday afternoon, there was no hurry, and, instead of setting about a search for lodgings at once, we drove up into the town, as soon as we had tea, and visited York Minster while it was still the gray afternoon and not yet the gray evening. I thought the hour fortunate, and I do not see yet how we could have chosen a better hour out of the whole twenty-four, for the inside or the outside of the glorious fane, the grandest and beautifulest in all England, as I felt then and I feel now. If I were put to the question and were forced to say in what its supreme grandeur and beauty lay, I should perhaps say in its most ample simplicity. No doubt it is full of detail, but I keep no sense of this from that mighty interior, with its tree-like, clustered pillars, and its measureless windows, like breadths of stained foliage in autumnal woodlands. You want the scale of nature for the Minster at York, and I cannot liken it to less than all-out-doors. Some cathedrals, like that of Wells, make you think of gardens; but York Minster will not be satisfied with less than an autumnal woodland, where the trees stand in clumps, with grassy levels about them, and with spacious openings to the sky, that let in the colored evening light.

You could not get lost in it, for it was so free of all such architectural undergrowth as cumbers the perspectives of some cathedrals; besides, the afternoon of our visit there were so many other Americans that you could easily have asked your way in your own dialect. We loitered over its lengths and breadths, and wondered at its windows, which were like the gates of sunrise and sunset for magnitude, and lingered in a sumptuous delay from going into the choir, delighting in the gray twilight which seemed to gather from the gray walls inward, when suddenly what seemed a metallic curtain was dropped with a clash and the simultaneous up-flashing of electric bulbs inside it, and we were shut out from the sight but not the sound of the service that began in the choir. We could not wholly regret the incident, for as we recalled the like operation of religion in churches of our Italian travel, we were reminded how equally authoritative the Church of England and the Church of Home were, and how little they adjust their ceremonial to the individual, how largely to the collective worshipper. You could come into the Minster of York as into the basilica of St. Mark at Venice for a silent prayer amid the religious influences of the place, and be conscious of your oneness with your Source, as if there were no other one; but when the priesthood called you as one of many to your devotions, it was with the same imperative voice in both, and you must obey or be cut off from your chance. I suppose it is right; but somehow the down-clashing of that screen of the choir in the Minster at York seemed to exclude us with reproach, almost with ignominy.

We did what we could to repair our wounded self respect, and did not lay our exclusion up against the Minster itself, which I find that I noted as "scatteringly noble outside." By this I dare say I meant it had not that artistic unity of which I brought the impression from the inside. They were doing, as they were always doing, every where, with English cathedrals, something to one of the towers; but this only enhanced its scattering nobleness, for it left that greatly bescaffolded tower largely to the imagination, in which it soared sublimer, if anything, than its compeer. Most of the streets leading to and from the rather insufficient, irregular square where the Minster stands are lanes of little houses of the fifteenth and sixteenth, centuries, which collectively curved in their line, and not only overhung at their second stories, but bulged outward involuntarily from the weakness of age. They were all quite habitable, and some much later dwellings immediately surrounding the church were the favorite sojourn, apparently, of such strangers as could have rooms at the hotels only until the Monday of Doncaster Week.

III

During those limited days of the week before Doncaster, I was constantly coming back to the Minster, which is not the germ of political York, or hardly religious York; the brave city was a Romano-British capital and a Romano-British episcopal see centuries before the first wooden temple was built on the site of the present edifice in 627. I should like to make believe that we found traces of that simple church in the crypt of the Minster when we went the next morning and were herded through it by the tenderest of vergers. Most of our flock were Americans, and we put our guide to such question in matters of imagination and information as the patience of a less amiable shepherd would not have borne. Many a tale, true or o'ertrue, our verger had, which he told with unction; when he ascended with us to the body of the church, and said that the stained glass of the gigantic windows suffered from the depredations of the mistaken birds which pecked holes in the joints of their panes, I felt that I had full measure from him, pressed down and running over. I do not remember why he said the birds should have done this, but it seems probable that they took the mellow colors of the glass for those of ripe fruits.

For myself, I could not get enough of those windows, in another sort of famine which ought at this time to have been sated. I was forever wondering at their grandeur outside and their glory inside. I was glad to lose my way about the town, for if I kept walking I was sure, sooner or later, to bring up at the Minster; but the last evening of our stay I made a purposed pilgrimage to it for a final emotion. It was the clearest evening we had in York, and at half-past six the sun was setting in a transparent sky, which somehow it did not flush with any of those glaring reds which the vulgarer sorts of sunsets are fond of, but bathed the air in a delicate suffusion of daffodil light, just tinged with violet. This was the best medium to see the past of the Minster in, and I can see it there now, if I did not then. I followed, or I follow, its veracious history back to the beginning of the seventh century, whence you can look back further still to the earliest Christian temples where the Romans worshipped with the Britons, whom they had enslaved and converted. But it was not till 627 that the little wooden chapel was built on the site of the Minster, to house the rite of the Northumbrian King Eadwine's baptism. He felt so happy in his new faith that he replaced the wooden structure with stone. In the next century it was burned, but rebuilt by another pious prince, and probably repaired by yet another after the Danes took the city a hundred years later. It was then in a good state to be destroyed by that devout William the Conqueror, who came to take the Saxon world in its sins of guttling and guzzling. The first Norman archbishop reconstructed or restored the church, and then it began to rise and to spread in glory—nave, transepts, and choir, and pillars and towers, Norman and Early English, and Perpendicular and Decorated—till it found itself at last what the American tourist sees it to-day. It suffered from two great fires in the nineteenth century, the first set by a lunatic who had the fancy of seeing it burn, but who had only the satisfaction of destroying part of the roof.

It was never richly painted, but the color wanting in the walls and fretted vault was more than compensated by the mellowed splendors of the matchless windows. It was, indeed, fit to be the home of much more secular history than can be associated with it; but not till the end of the thirteenth century had the Minster a patron of its own, when St. William was canonized, and exercised his office, whatever it was, for two brief centuries. Then the Cromwell of Henry VIII. took possession of it in behalf of the crown, and the saint's charge was practically abolished. He was even deprived of his head, for the relic was encased in gold and jewels, and was therefore worth the king's having, who was most a friend of the reformed religion when it paid best. The later Cromwell, who beat a later king hard by at Marston Moor, must have somehow desecrated the Minster, though there is no record of any such fact. A more authentic monument of the religious difficulties of the times is the pastoral staff, bearing the arms of Catharine of Braganza, the poor little wife of Charles II., which was snatched from a Roman Catholic bishop when, to the high offence of Protestant piety, he was heading a procession in York in 1688. The verger showing us through the Minster was a good Protestant, but he held it bad taste in a predecessor of his, who when leading about a Catholic party of sight-seers took the captive staff from its place and shook it in their faces, saying, "Don't you wish you had it?"

IV

There is no telling to what lengths true religion, may rightly not go. I rather prize the incident as the sole fact concerning the Minster which I could make sure of even after repeated visits, and if I am indebted for my associations with it, long after the event, to Dr. Raine's scholarly and interesting sketch of York history, there is no reason why the better-informed reader should not accompany me in my last visit fully equipped. I walked slowly all round the structure, and fancied that I got a new sense of grandeur in the effect of the east window, which was, at any rate, more impressive than the north window. It was a long walk, almost the measure of such a walk as one should take after supper for one's health, and it had such incidents as many pauses for staring up at the many restorations going on. From point to point the incomparable Perpendicular Gothic carried the eye to the old gargoyles of the caves and towers waiting to be replaced by the new gargoyles, which lay in open-mouthed grimacing in the grass at the bases of the church. While I stood noting both, and thinking the chances were that I should never look on York Minster again, and feeling the luxurious pang of it, a verger in a skull-cap was so good as to come to a side door and parley long and pleasantly with a policeman. The simple local life went on around; people going to or from supper passed me; kind, vulgar noises came from the little houses bulging over the narrow, neighboring streets; there seemed to be the stamping of horses in a stable, and there was certainly the misaspirated talk about them. I could not have asked better material for the humble emotions I love; and I was more than content on my way home to find myself one of the congregation at the loud devotions of a detachment of the Salvation Army. After a battering of drums and a clashing of cymbals and a shouting of hymns, the worship settled to the prayer of a weak brother, who was so long in supplication that the head exhorter covered a yawn with his hand, and at the first sign of relenting in the supplicant bade the drums and cymbals strike up. Then, after a hymn, a sister, such a very plain, elderly sister, with hardly a tooth or an aitch in her head, began to relate her religious history. It appeared that she had been a much greater sinner than she looked, and that the mercy shown her had been proportionate. She was vain both of her sins and mercies, poor soul, and in her scrimp figure, with its ill-fitting uniform, Heaven knows how long she went on. I was distracted by a clergyman passing on the outside of the ring of listening women and children, and looking, I chose to think, somewhat sourly askance at the distasteful ceremonial. I wished to stop him, on his way to the Minster, if that was his way, and tell him that so Christianity must have begun, and so the latest form of it must always begin and work round after ages and ages to the beauty and respectability his own ritual has. But I now believe this would have been the greatest impertinence and hypocrisy, for I myself found the performance before us as tasteless and tawdry as he could possibly have done. He was going toward the Minster, and it would make him forget it; but I was going away from it, perhaps, for the last time, and this loud side-show of religion would make me forget the Minster.

V

Our railway hotel lay a little way out of the town, and after a day's sight-seeing we were to meet or mingle with troops of wholesome-looking workmen whose sturdiness and brightness were a consolation after the pale debility of labor's looks in Sheffield. From the chocolate-factories or the railroad-shops, which are the chief industries of York, they would be crossing the bridge of the Ouse, the famous stream on which the Romans had their town, and which suggested to the Anglicans to call their Eboracum Eurewic—a town on a river. In due time the Danes modified this name to Yerik, and so we came honestly by the name of our own New York, called after the old York, as soon as the English had robbed the Dutch of it, and the King of England had given the province to his brother the Duke of York. Both cities are still towns on rivers, but the Ouse is no more an image or forecast of the Hudson than Old York is of New York. For that reason, the bridge over it is not to be compared to our Brooklyn Bridge, or even to any bridge which is yet to span the Hudson. The difference is so greatly in our favor that we may well yield our city's mother the primacy in her city wall. We have ourselves as yet no Plantagenet wall, and we have not yet got a mediaeval gate through which the traveller passes in returning from the Flatiron Building to his hotel in the Grand Central Station.

We do not begin to have such a hoar antiquity as is articulate in the mother city, speaking with muted voices from the innumerable monuments which the earth has yielded from the site of our hotel and its adjacent railway station. All underground York is doubtless fuller of Home than even Bath is; and it has happened that her civilization was much more largely dug up here than elsewhere when the foundations of the spreading edifices were laid. The relics are mainly the witnesses of pagan Rome, but Christianity politically began in York, as it has politically ended in New York, and doubtless some soldiers of the Sixth Legion and many of the British slaves were religiously Christians in the ancient metropolis before Constantine was elected emperor there.

I have been in many places where history is hospitably at home and is not merely an unwilling guest, as in our unmemoried land. Florence is very well, Venice is not so bad, Naples has her long thoughts, and Milan is mediaeval-minded, not to speak of Genoa, or Marseilles, or Paris, or those romantic German towns where the legends, if not the facts, abound; but, after all, for my pleasure in the past, I could not choose any place before York. You need not be so very definite in your knowledge. The event of Constantine's presence and election is so spacious as to leave no room for particulars in the imagination; and you are so rich in it that you will even reject them from your thoughts, as you sit in the close-cropped flowery lawn of your hotel garden (try to imagine a railroad hotel garden in New York!) on the sunniest of the afternoons before you are turned out for Doncaster Week, and, while you watch a little adventurous American boy climbing over a pile of rock-work, realize the most august, the most important fact in the story of the race as native to the very air you are breathing! Where you sit you are in full view of the Minster, which is to say in view of something like the towers and battlements of the celestial city. Or if you wake very early on a morning still nearer the fatal Doncaster Week of your impending banishment, and look out of your lofty windows at the sunrise reddening the level bars of cloud behind the Minster, you shall find it bulked up against the pearl-gray masses of the sunny mist which hangs in all the intervening trees, and solidifies them in unbroken masses of foliage. All round your hotel spreads a gridiron of railroad, yet such is the force of the English genius for quiet that you hear no clatter of trains; the expresses whir in and out of the station with not more noise than humming-birds; and amid this peace the past has some chance with modernity. The Britons dwell, unmolested by our latter-day clamor, in their wattled huts and dugouts; the Romans come and make them slaves and then Christians, and after three or four hundred years send word from the Tiber to the Ouse that they can stay no longer, and so leave them naked to their enemies, the Picts and Scots and Saxons and Angles; and in due course come the ravaging and burning Danes; and in due course still, the murdering and plundering and scorning Normans. But all so quietly, like the humming-bird-like expresses, with a kind of railway celerity in the foreshortened retrospect; and after the Normans have crushed themselves down into the mass of the vanquished, and formed the English out of the blend, there follow the many wars of the successions, of the Roses, of the Stuarts, with all the intermediate insurrections and rebellions. In the splendid Histories of Shakespeare, which are full of York, the imagination visits and revisits the place, and you are entreated by mouth of one of his princely personages,

     "I pray you let us satisfy our eyes
      With the memorials and things of fame,
      That do renown this city,"

where his Henrys and Richards and Margarets and Edwards and Eleanors abide still and shall forever abide while the English speech lasts.

VI

Something of all this I knew, and more pretended, with a mounting indignation at the fast-coming Doncaster Week which was to turn us out of our hotel. We began our search for other lodgings with what seemed to be increasing failure. The failure had consolation in it so far as the sweet regret of people whose apartments were taken could console. They would have taken us at other hotels for double the usual price, but, when we showed ourselves willing to pay, it proved that they had no rooms at any price. From house to house, then, we went, at first vaingloriously, in the spaces about the Minster, and then meekly into any side street, wherever the legend of Apartments showed itself in a transom. At last, the second day, after being denied at seven successive houses, we found quite the refuge we wanted in the Bootham, which means very much more than the ignorant reader can imagine. Our upper rooms looked on a pretty grassy garden space behind, where there was sun when there was sun, and in front on the fine old brick dwellings of a most personable street, with a sentiment of bygone fashion. At the upper end of it was a famous city gate—Bootham Bar, namely—with a practicable portcullis, which we verified at an early moment by going up into "the chamber over the gate," where it was once worked, and whence its lower beam, set thick with savage spikes, was dropped. Outside the gate there was a sign in the wall saying that guards were to be had there to guide travellers through the Forest of Galtres beyond Bootham, and keep them from the wolves. Now woods and wolves and guards are all gone, and Bootham Bar is never closed.

The upper room is a passageway for people who are walking round the town on the Plantagenet wall, and one morning we took this walk in sunshine that befitted the Sabbath. Half the children of York seemed to be taking it, too, with their good parents, who had stayed away from church to give them this pleasure, the fathers putting on their frock-coats and top-hats, which are worn on no other days in the provincial cities of England. For a Plantagenet wall, that of York is in excellent repair, and it is very clean, so that the children could not spoil their Sunday best by clambering on the parapet, and trying to fall over it. There was no parapet on the other side, and they could have fallen over that without trouble; but it would not have served the same purpose; for under the parapet there were the most alluringly ragged little boys, with untidy goats and delightfully dirty geese. There was no trace of a moat outside the wall, where pleasant cottages pressed close to it with their gardens full of bright flowers. At one point there were far-spreading sheep and cattle pens, where there is a weekly market, and at another the old Norman castle which cruel Conqueror William built to hold the city, and which has suffered change, not unpicturesque, into prisons for unluckier criminals, and the Assize Courts for their condemnation. From time to time the wall left off, and then we got down, perforce, and walked to the next piece of it. In these pieces we made the most of the old gates, especially Walmgate Bar, which has a barbican. I should be at a loss to say why the barbican should have commended it so; perhaps it was because we there realized, for the first time, what a barbican was; I doubt if the reader knows, now. Otherwise, I should have preferred Monk Bar or Micklegate Bar, as being more like those I was used to in the theatre. But we came back gladly to Bootham Bar, holding that a portcullis was equal any day to a barbican, and feeling as if we had got home in the more familiar neighborhood.

There were small shops in the Bootham, thread-and-needle stores, newspaper stores, and provision stores mainly, which I affected, and there was one united florist's and fruiterer's which I particularly liked because of the conversability of the proprietor. He was a stout man, of a vinous complexion, with what I should call here, where our speech is mostly uncouth, an educated accent, though with few and wandering aspirates in it. Him I visited every morning to buy for my breakfast one of those Spanish melons which they have everywhere in England, and which put our native cantaloupes to shame; and we always fell into a little talk over our transaction of fourpence or sixpence, as the case might be. After I had confided that I was an American, he said one day, "Ah, the Americans are clever people." Then he added, "I hope you won't mind my saying it, sir, but I think their ladies are rather harder than our English ladies, sir."

"Yes," I eagerly assented. "How do you mean? Sharper? Keener?"

"Well, not just that, sir."

"More practical? More business-like?" I pursued.

"Well, I shouldn't like to say that, sir. But—they seem rather harder, sir; at least, judging from what I see of them in York, sir. Rather harder, sir."

We remained not the less friends with that mystery between us; and I bought my last melon of him on my last morning, when the early September had turned somewhat sharply chill. That turn made me ask what the winter was in York, and he boasted it very cold, with ice and snow aplenty, and degrees of frost much like our own. But apparently those York women resisted it and remained of a tenderness which contrasted to their advantage with the summer hardness of our women.

VII

It was a pleasure, which I should be glad to share with the reader, to lose one's self in the streets of York. They were all kinds of streets except straight, and they seemed not to go anywhere except for the joke of bringing the wayfarer unexpectedly back to, or near, his starting-point and far from his goal. The blame of their vagariousness, if it was a fault, is put upon the Danes, who found York when they captured it very rectangular, for so the Romans built it, and so the Angles kept it; but nothing would serve the Danes but to crook its streets and call them gates, so that the real gates of the city have to be called bars, or else the stranger might take them for streets. If he asked another wayfarer, he could sometimes baffle the streets, and get to the point he aimed at, but, whether he did or not, he could always amuse himself in them; they would take a friendly interest in him, and show him the old houses and churches which the American stranger prefers. They abound in the poorer sorts of buildings, of course, just as they do in the poorer sorts of people, but in their simpler courts and squares and expanses they have often dignified mansions of that Georgian architecture which seems the last word in its way, and which is known here in our older edifices as there in their newer. Some of them are said to have "richly carved ceilings, wainscoted, panelled rooms, chimneypieces with paintings framed in the over-mantel, dentilled cornices, and pedimented doors," and I could well believe it, as I passed them with an envious heart. There were gardens behind these mansions which hung their trees over the spiked coping of their high-shouldered walls and gates, and sequestered I know not what damp social events in their flowery and leafy bounds.

At times I distinctly wished to know something of the life of York, but I was not in the way of it. The nearest to an acquaintance I had there, besides my critical fruiterer, was the actor whose name I recognized on his bills as that of a brave youth who had once dramatized a novel of mine, and all too briefly played the piece, and who was now to come to York for a week of Shakespeare. Perhaps I could not forgive him the recrudescence; at any rate, I did not try to see him, and there was no other social chance for me, except as I could buy in for a few glimpses at the tidy confectioners', where persons of civil condition resorted for afternoon tea. Even to these one could not speak, and I could only do my best in a little mercenary conversation with the bookseller about York histories. The bookstores were not on our scale, and generally the shops in York were not of the modern department type, but were perhaps the pleasanter for that reason.

In my earlier wanderings I made the acquaintance of a most agreeable market-place, stretching the length of two squares, which on a Saturday afternoon I found filled with every manner of bank and booth and canopied counter, three deep, and humming pleasantly with traffic in everything one could eat, drink, wear, or read; there seemed as many book-stalls as fruit-stalls. What I noted equally with the prettiness of the abounding flowers was the mild kindness of the market-people's manners and their extreme anxiety to state exactly the quality of the things they had for sale. They seemed incapable of deceit, but I do not say they really were so. My own transactions were confined to the purchase of some golden-gage plums, and I advise the reader rather to buy greengages; the other plums practised the deception in their looks which their venders abhorred.

VIII

I wandered in a perfectly contemporary mood through the long ranks and lanes of the marketplace, and did not know till afterward that at one end of it, called the Pavement, the public executions used to take place for those great or small occasions which brought folks to the block or scaffold in the past. I had later some ado to verify the dismal fact from a cluster of people before a tavern who seemed to be taking bets for the Doncaster Week, and I could hardly keep them from booking me for this horse or that when I merely wanted to know whether it was on a certain spot the Earl of Northumberland had his head cut off for leading a rising against Henry IV.; or some such execution.

What riches of story has not York to browbeat withal the storyless New-Yorker who visits her! That Henry IV. was he whom I had lately seen triumphing near Shrewsbury in the final battle of the Roses, where the Red was so bloodily set above the White; and it was his poetic fancy to have Northumberland, when he bade him come to York, pass through the gateway on which the head of his son, Hotspur Harry, was festering. No wonder the earl led a rising against his liege, who had first mercifully meant to imprison him for life, and then more mercifully pardoned him. But there seems to have been fighting up and down the centuries from the beginning, in York, interspersed with praying and wedding and feasting. After the citizens drove out Conqueror William's garrison, and Earl Waltheof provided against the Normans' return by standing at the castle gate and chopping their heads off with his battle-axe as they came forth, William efficaciously devastated the city and the country as far as Durham. His son William gave it a church, and that "worthy peer," King Stephen, a hospital. In his time the archbishop and barons of York beat the Scotch hard by, and the next Scotch king had to do homage to Henry II. at York for his kingdom. Henry III. married his sister at York to one Scotch king and his daughter to that king's successor. Edward I. and his queen Eleanor honored with their presence the translation of St. William's bones to the Minster; Edward II. retreated from his defeat at Bannockburn to York, and Edward III. was often there for a king's varied occasions of fighting and feasting. Weak Henry VI. and his wilful Margaret, after their defeat at Towton by Edward IV., escaped from the city just in time, and Edward entered York under his own father's head on Micklegate Bar. Richard III. was welcomed there before his rout and death at Bosworth, and was truly mourned by the citizens. Henry VII. wedded Elizabeth, the "White Rose of York," and afterward visited her city; Mary, Queen of Scots, was once in hiding there, and her uncouth son stayed two nights in York on his way to be crowned James I. in London. His son, Charles I., was there early in his reign, and touched many for the king's evil; later, he was there again, but could not cure the sort of king's evil which raged past all magic in the defeat of his followers at Marston Moor by Cromwell. The city yielded to the Puritans, whose temperament had already rather characterized it. James II., as Duke of York, made it his brief sojourn; "proud Cumberland," returning from Culloden after the defeat of the Pretender, visited the city and received its freedom for destroying the last hope of the Stuarts; perhaps the twenty-two rebels who were then put to death in York were executed in the very square where those wicked men thought I was wanting to play the horses. The reigning family has paid divers visits to the ancient metropolis, which was the capital of Britain before London was heard of. The old prophecy of her ultimate primacy must make time if it is to fulfil itself and increase York's seventy-two thousand beyond London's six million.

IX

I should be at a loss to say why its English memories haunted my York less than the Roman associations of the place. They form, however, rather a clutter of incidents, whereas the few spreading facts of Hadrian's stay, the deaths of Severus and Constantius, and the election of Constantine, his son, enlarge themselves to the atmospheric compass of the place, but leave a roominess in which the fancy may more commodiously orb about. I was on terms of more neighborly intimacy with the poor Punic emperor than with any one else in York, doubtless because, when he fell sick, he visited the temple of Bellona near Bootham Bar, and paid his devotions unmolested, let us hope, by any prevision of the misbehavior of his son Caracalla (whose baths I had long ago visited at Rome) in killing his other son Geta. Everywhere I could be an early Christian, in company with Constantine, in whom the instinct of political Christianity must have begun to stir as soon as he was chosen emperor. But I dare say I heard the muted tramp of the Sixth Legion about the Yorkish streets above all other martial sounds because I stayed as long as Doncaster Week would let me in the railway hotel, which so many of their bones made room for when the foundations of it were laid, with those of the adherent station. Their bones seem to have been left there, after the disturbance, but their sepulchres were respectfully transferred to the museum of the Philosophical Society, in the grounds where the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey rise like fragments of pensive music or romantic verse, inviting the moonlight and the nightingale, but, wanting these, make shift with the noonday and the babies in perambulators neglected by nurse-girls reading novels.

The babies and the nurses are not allowed in the museum of antiquities, which is richer in Roman remains than any that one sees outside of Italy. There are floors of mosaic, large and perfect, taken from the villas which people are always digging up in the neighborhood of York, and, from the graves uncovered in the railway excavations, coffins of lead and stone for civilians, and of rude tiles for the soldiers of the Sixth Legion; the slaves were cast into burial-pits of tens and twenties and left to indiscriminate decay till they should be raised in the universal incorruption. Probably the slaves were the earliest Christians at York; certainly the monuments are pagan, as the inmates of the tombs must have been. Some of the monuments bear inscriptions from loving wives and husbands to the partners they have lost, and some of the stone coffins are those of children. It is all infinitely touching, and after two thousand years the heart aches for the fathers and mothers who laid their little ones away in these hard cradles for their last sleep. Faith changes, but constant death remains the same, and life is not very different in any age, when it comes to the end. The Roman exiles who had come so far to hold my British ancestors in subjection to their alien rule seemed essentially not only of the same make as me, but the same civilization. Their votive altars and inscriptions to other gods expressed a human piety of like anxiety and helplessness with ours, and called to a like irresponsive sky. A hundred witnesses of their mortal state—jars and vases and simple household utensils—fill the shelves of the museum; but the most awful, the most beautiful appeal of the past is in that mass of dark auburn hair which is kept here in a special urn and uncovered for your supreme emotion. It is equally conjectured to be the hair of a Roman lady or of a British princess, but is of a young girl certainly, dressed twenty centuries ago for the tomb in which it was found, and still faintly lucent with the fashionable unguent of the day, and kept in form by pins of jet. One thinks of the little, slender hands that used to put them there, and of the eyes that confronted themselves in the silver mirror under the warm shadow that the red-gold mass cast upon the white forehead. This sanctuary of the past was the most interesting place in that most interesting city of York, and the day of our first visit a princess of New York sat reading a book in the midst of it, waiting for the rain to be over, which was waiting for her to come out and then begin again. We knew her from having seen her at the station in relation to some trunks bearing her initials and those of her native city; and she could be about the age of the York princess or young Roman lady whose hair was kept in the urn hard by.

X

There is in York a little, old, old church, whose dear and reverend name I have almost forgotten, if ever I knew it, but I think it is Holy Trinity Goodramgate, which divides the heart of my adoration with the Minster. We came to it quite by accident, one of our sad September afternoons, after we had been visiting the Guildhall, Venetianly overhanging the canal calm of the Ouse, and very worthy to be seen for its York histories in stained glass. The custodian had surprised us and the gentlemen of the committee by taking us into the room where they were investigating the claims of the registered voters to the suffrage; and so, much entertained and instructed, we issued forth, and, passing by the church in which Guy Fawkes was baptized, only too ineffectually, we came quite unexpectedly upon Holy Trinity Goodramgate, if that and not another is indeed its name.

It stands sequestered in a little leafy and grassy space of its own, with a wall hardly overlooked on one side by low stone cottages, the immemorial homes of rheumatism and influenza. The church had the air of not knowing that it is of Perpendicular and Decorated Gothic, with a square, high-shouldered tower, as it bulks up to a very humble height from the turf to the boughs overhead, or that it has a nice girl sketching its doorway, where a few especially favored weddings and funerals may enter. It is open once a year for service, and when the tourist will, or can, for the sight of the time-mellowed, beautiful stained glass of its eastward window. The oaken pews are square and high-shouldered, like the low church tower; and, without, the soft yellow sandstone is crumbling away from the window traceries. The church did not look as if it felt itself a thousand years old, and perhaps it is not; but I never was in a place where I seemed so like a ghost of that antiquity. I had a sense of haunting it, in the inner twilight and the outer sunlight, where a tender wind was stirring the leaves of its embowering trees and scattering them on the graves of my eleventh and twelfth century contemporaries.

XI

We chose the sunniest morning we could for our visit to Clifford's Tower, which remains witness of the Norman castle the Conqueror built and rebuilt to keep the Danish-Anglian-Roman-British town in awe. But the tower was no part of the original castle, and only testifies of it by hearsay. That was built by Roger de Clifford, who suffered death with his party chief, the Earl of Lancaster, when Edward of York took the city, and it is mainly memorable as the refuge of the Jews whom the Christians had harried out of their homes. They had grown in numbers and riches, when the Jew-hate of 1190 broke out in England, as from time to time the Jew-hate breaks out in Russia now, to much the same cruel effect. They were followed and besieged in the castle, and, seeing that they must be captured, they set fire to the place, and five hundred slew themselves. Some that promised to be Christians came out and were killed by their brethren in Christ. In New York the Christians have grown milder, and now they only keep the Jews out of their clubs and their homes.

The Clifford Tower leans very much to one side, so that as you ascend it for the magnificent view from the top you have to incline yourself the other way, as you do in the Tower of Pisa, to help it keep its balance. The morning of our visit, so gay in its forgetfulness of the tragical past, we found the place in charge of an old soldier, an Irishman who had learned, as custodian, a professional compassion for those poor Jews of nine hundred years ago, and, being moved by our confession of our nationality, owned to three "nevvies" in New Haven. So small is the world and so closely knit in the ties of a common humanity and a common citizenship, native and adoptive!

The country around York looked so beautiful from Clifford's Tower that we would not be satisfied till we had seen it closer, and we chose a bright, cool September afternoon for our drive out of the town and over the breezy, high levels which surround it. The first British capital could hardly have been more nobly placed, and one could not help grieving that the Ouse should have indolently lost York that early dignity by letting its channel fill up with silt and spoil its navigation. The Thames managed better for York's upstart rival London, and yet the Ouse is not destitute of sea or river craft. These were of both steam and sail, and I myself have witnessed the energy with which the reluctance of the indolent stream is sometimes overcome. I do not suppose that anywhere else, when the wind is low, is a vessel madly hurled through the water at a mile an hour by means of a rope tied to its mast and pulled by a fatherly old horse under the intermittent drivership of two boys whom he could hardly keep to the work. I loved the banks of a stream where one could see such a triumph of man over nature, and where nature herself was so captivating. All that grassy and shady neighborhood seemed a public promenade, where on a Sunday one could see the lower middle classes in their best and brightest, and it had for all its own the endearing and bewitching name of Ings. Why cannot we have Ings by the Hudson side?

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?