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City of York: historic urban core

Date of Submission: 13/09/2023
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
State, Province or Region:
North Yorkshire, England
Coordinates: 53.962223 -1.082123
Ref.: 6687

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York is a 2000-year old continuously inhabited, historically important English city, second to London in importance for much of this time.

York is submitted for listing as a World Heritage Site as the outstanding example of urbanisation in north-western and northern Europe initiated by the Romans and developed through successive influences (Anglo-Saxon, Viking-age, Norman) to the present day. It is the pre-eminent example of such a city because the coherence of its surviving buildings and townscape, augmented by well-preserved archaeology below ground, provides an unparalleled physical record of the fusion of successive cultures.  This dynamic, well-managed city contains well-preserved evidence from all periods and as such provides exceptional testimony to the evolution of the urban culture of cities in north-western and northern Europe from the Roman arrival to the present day and meets UNESCO`s Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) Criteria (i) (ii) (iii) (iv) and (vi). 

Historic York forms the centre of the modern city. It sits at the southern end of the Vale of York where a glacial moraine crosses the vale from west to east and is breached by two rivers, the Ouse and the Foss: these three key natural features define the city’s topographic setting. The city developed around the strategic tidal river crossing, an inland port connected by river and sea to Europe and beyond. The c.200ha site is enclosed by the 3.5km circuit of multi-period defences together with selected extra-mural areas and approach roads. From the 1st century CE, the Roman legionary fortress, its civilian settlement and the colonia shaped the town, extended and augmented since by successive Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian (Viking-age) and Norman developments. York Minster sits within the well-preserved defences, physically and visually dominating the site.

The site contains a diverse and well-preserved ensemble of buildings and structures dating from the 2nd to 21st centuries above-ground and an almost unparalleled set of multi-period, waterlogged, anoxic archaeological deposits below-ground. Exceptional public, corporate, ecclesiastical and private archives and internationally important museum collections are located in this outstanding compact and dynamic urban heritage site.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Over much of its two-thousand-year history York has served as England’s second city, second in importance only to London. A centre of governance from Roman times, its Anglo-Saxon church became the seat of the northern archbishopric. The Vikings made it their Anglo-Scandinavian capital and following the Norman conquest of England its importance increased throughout the medieval period.  Between 1530 and 1641 royal government was administered from York through the Council in the North, and the city’s role in regional politics and society was paramount throughout the 18th century, ensuring its position in 19th century developments, and its enduring prosperity.

Geography determined where York was built, and geography ensures its continuing vitality.  Much of York’s fortune has been determined by its position and from Roman times, through to the great days of the railway, it has been served by an excellent communication and trading network of major river, road, and rail transportation systems.

Governance and geography, therefore, are inseparable aspects of York’s history. These have been fundamental to the advancement of the city and its past has left a rich and diverse legacy. The most visible, and striking, aspect of this legacy is the city’s exceptional collection of buildings and monuments which form part of its many- layered townscape. Remarkable as these physical survivals are, their value is magnified by the scale, diversity and quality of the city’s archives which document York’s story through unusually varied and complete civic, ecclesiastical and private records and inventories. These are well curated as are collections of paintings, lithographs, photographs and oral histories which, together with the written accounts, facilitate ongoing research and perpetuate the city’s contribution to world culture.

An equally important dimension to understanding York’s past is provided by what survives in the soil below the city and by the artefacts curated by the city’s museums. Collectors, antiquarians and archaeologists have, over recent centuries, come to recognise the exceptional quality and state of preservation of this buried legacy.

These three indivisible elements: the surviving buildings and monuments, the remarkable archival and artefactual evidence, and the quality of the archaeological deposits which survive in anoxic conditions, support York’s bid to be a World Heritage Site.

The proposed World Heritage Site has 993 listed historical buildings, six scheduled monuments, one of the UK’s earliest designated conservation areas, and one of only five Areas of Archaeological Importance in England. Much of its historic core is contained within a circuit of stone defences. The Roman legionary fortress was built when Roman York (Eboracum) was capital of Rome’s northern province of Britannia and its basic layout underlies the modern street plan. Eboracum was vital in controlling Rome’s interests in the north and York’s garrison played a significant part in the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. Emperors came here: Constantine the Great was proclaimed emperor in York, and both Septimius Severus and Constantius Chlorus lived and died in the city. As well as the upstanding Roman remains, archaeologists have uncovered wide-ranging structural evidence which includes barracks, institutional buildings, baths, temples, villas, workshops, potteries and warehouses as well as other aspects of military and urban infrastructure. Displays in the city’s museums tell the story of Roman York and artefactual evidence illustrates daily life for soldier and civilian.

Eboracum played a vital strategic and institutional role for as long as Romans controlled Britain. A Christian bishop from York attended the 4th century Council of Arles, a rare documented event as the city fell into decline. Its remembered status, however, determined the choice of York as the seat of an archbishop by Pope Gregory whose 6th century mission was sent to reintroduce Christianity to Britain. The conversion of the Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian king Edwin in 627 was a decisive moment in the city and his baptistry became the church of St Peter the Apostle, forerunner of York Minster. This church was at the core of an ecclesiastical centre which became renowned through Europe. A monastery, school, and York’s famous library were established and spawned the influential poet-scholar, Alcuin, whose activities in York came to the attention of Charlemagne the Great. His 8th century, 1658-line poem The Bishops, Kings and Saints of York, written after he had joined Charlemagne’s court, is an exceptional literary survival, a record unique for early medieval western Europe. This, together with other historical sources, sculptural and artefactual evidence gives insights into the part Eoforwic (Anglo-Saxon York) played in both Northumbria’s Golden Age and in the spread of culture and learning throughout northern Europe. Excavated remains in the city attest to these wide connections as the growing reputation of Eoforwic began to reverse post-Roman decline.

The city was a key target for Viking attack and, in the 9th century, Eoforwic was captured. Under Viking rule it evolved into Jorvik, the capital and power base for an Anglo-Scandinavian kingdom and part of a wider Viking world. Surviving written sources provide an historical framework and literary sources add a vitality but it was archaeological excavation in the 20th century that revealed internationally important evidence in extraordinarily well-preserved detail of this Viking capital. Over 20 million visitors have viewed the innovative displays of these world class discoveries in the Jorvik Viking Centre since 1984.

The 10th century city thrived. The old street plan and defences were modified and expanded to accommodate the growing commercial centre with the rivers enabling its continuance as a port city. Many of York’s surviving street names have their origins in this period and 10th century property divisions have endured, still extant in the present day town plan. Capturing Jorvik was essential too for William of Normandy in his conquest of England and he built two castles to consolidate his hold upon the city. York’s city walls were further modified and extended to include new medieval suburbs. Five medieval gates into the city survive. Within their circuit is not only York Minster but the remains of medieval abbeys, friaries, guildhalls, hospitals, churches, chapels and inns as well as outstanding examples of lesser buildings making this an exceptionally well-preserved medieval city. Individual buildings and monuments are impressive. St Mary’s Abbey ruins, for example, present to visitors one of the country’s earliest and most important Benedictine houses whilst surviving elements of St Leonard’s Hospital reveal parts of the largest such establishment in the north of England. Clifford’s Tower is the most striking of York’s two medieval castles, occupying a prominent motte that was the setting of the infamous Jewish pogrom of 1190, commemorated annually by Jews the world over. The Merchant Adventurers` Hall, one of the city’s four surviving guildhalls, is the best-preserved in the country, still fulfilling its original purpose, whilst The Shambles is one of the most complete medieval streets of shops in Europe. Lady Row in Goodramgate represents probably the earliest preserved example of a row of timber-framed cottages in the UK and across Europe. Twenty of York’s forty-five medieval churches survive and many more have been recorded during excavation. York has the whole range of surviving medieval vernacular timber-framed buildings - domestic, religious, public, shop – well-preserved, in great number and in their original use.

York Minster is York’s most significant building, tracing its history back to King Edwin’s 7th century baptistry of 627. Completed in 1472, it is the largest medieval cathedral in northern Europe and occupies one quadrant of the old Roman fortress, remains of which are preserved in the undercroft. There are also the remains of the medieval archbishop’s palace adjacent to York Minster. A triumph of Gothic architecture, York Minster contains one of only two masons` tracing floors known in the world, demonstrating design practices that lay behind all major medieval architecture.

York Minster’s collection of stained glass is outstanding and the city`s ensemble of stained glass as a whole is unparalleled. Its windows represent a remarkable collection of medieval stained glass and include the famous Great East Window. This exceptional survival, executed in 1405-08 by John Thornton, is the jewel in the internationally important York corpus of medieval stained glass in the Minster and extant parish churches and is an example of outstanding human creative genius.

The Reformation and the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536-7, which resisted Henry VIII’s ecclesiastical reforms) brought changes to York. Royal government in the north was administered from York from 1530 to 1641. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries the Abbot’s Lodging at St Mary’s Abbey was appropriated by the Crown to become the seat of the King’s Council in the North and residence of its President. During the 16th and 17th centuries, kings visited and stayed in this building, now called the King’s Manor. The Siege of York in 1644 was a landmark in the English Civil War. York witnessed and responded to the religious conflicts between Protestant and Catholics that swept Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries. The Bar Convent, England’s oldest living convent, was established secretly in 1686. It is a testament to the remarkable role played by two York women, Mary Ward and Frances Bedingfield, in the religious life of 17th century York and an important example of early education of girls.

York retained its regional political and social importance through the 18th century when it became the County Town of the Yorkshire Ridings. Some of the best and most influential examples of town architecture of the period reflect this role. The Assize Courts by the architect John Carr are still used for their original purpose in the twenty-first century; the civic Mansion House, earlier than London`s, remains the official residence of the Lord Mayor; Lord Burlington’s seminal Assembly Rooms (based on a design in Vitruvius Britannicus, is probably the earliest neo-classical building in Europe. All these reflect York’s preeminence as the Social Capital of the North. Fairfax House is only one of many well-preserved 18th century town houses. The city`s two 18th century mental hospitals, Bootham Park Hospital and The Retreat survive and were leaders in the progressive treatment of mental disorder. Numerous examples of Georgian terrace houses survive demonstrating the evolution of the house plan to accommodate changing life styles.

In the 19th century, York became a focus in the early development of railways with fine surviving Victorian stations and administrative buildings. It was a manufacturing town: the Walker Iron Foundry was appointed Iron Founders to Queen Victoria; Terry’s and Rowntrees’ manufactured chocolate products that were traded across the world; and T. Cooke and Sons’ optical instruments maker achieved world-wide importance. Seebohm Rowntree`s pioneering studies of poverty took place here and led to social policies and reforms which had international impact and to the city’s New Earswick Village suburb that represents some of the earliest model urban planning for social welfare.

The city continued to be a centre of innovation. York’s scientific society, the Yorkshire Philosophical Society (1822), helped establish both the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831) and the Museums Association (1889), the earliest of its kind in the world. These institutions were inaugurated at the Yorkshire Museum, a building designed by the architect of The National Gallery which it predates. This museum together with the York Castle Museum, Jorvik Viking Centre and National Railway Museum continued to break new ground in the 20th century in methods of presentation and interpretation of the heritage. The city’s wider initiatives in building and heritage conservation continued from the 1827 York Footpath Association (for the preservation of the city walls) through early post-war conservation of The Shambles, to Lord Esher’s “York: A study in Conservation” (1968), all of which are similarly influential exemplars. The establishment and recent expansion of York’s two universities perpetuate a commitment to education which goes back to the 7th century.

The city`s role as a military headquarters has been maintained through much of two millennia, its ecclesiastical role for fourteen centuries, and its civic, judicial and administrative roles continuously for over twelve hundred years. York has maintained these functions over a long period, creating a layering of diverse cultures and cultural values which are preserved in the city’s morphology. It has successfully assimilated a series of transformational episodes and a succession of people - Romans, Germanic, Scandinavian, Norman, and many others – and this dynamic acculturation continues.

Criterion (i): The Great East Window, the work of John Thornton between 1405 and 1408, and the corpus of medieval stained glass in York Minster and in the surviving medieval churches in the city are masterpieces of human creative genius.

Criterion (ii): The city demonstrates assimilation and layering of successive phases of development in town-planning and urban morphology over 2000 years:

  • Roman: legionary fortress and colonia, establishment of walls, access points and principal streets.
  • Anglo-Saxon: establishment of an ecclesiastical and scholarly focus around York Minster.
  • Anglo-Scandinavian: establishment of a thriving urban place and rapid growth as a political, craft and trade centre.
  • Norman: political and ecclesiastical re-ordering of the urban landscape, construction of significant buildings.
  • Dissolution: secular appropriation and redistribution of ecclesiastical precincts and property within the city.
  • Georgian: flowering as social centre and county town with a wide assembly of fine buildings designed in the new architectural style based on classical principles.
  • Victorian: assimilation of railway infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities into town-plan.

Criterion (iii): York is an outstanding example of urbanisation in north-western and northern Europe initiated by the Romans and developed through successive cultural influences (Anglo-Saxon, Viking-age, Norman) to the present day. It is the pre-eminent example of such a city because the coherence of its surviving buildings and townscape, augmented by well- preserved archaeology below ground, provides an unparalleled physical record of the fusion of successive cultures. As such it provides exceptional testimony to the evolution of the urban culture of cities in north-western and northern Europe from the Roman arrival to the present day.

Criterion (iv): York provides an unbroken compendium of secular English building history, demonstrating developments in social, economic and political history as they reflect cultural change and evolving lifestyles over 2000 years. Developments in building types, construction methods and architectural style are exemplified, following on from the archaeological evidence of Roman stone buildings and timber Viking Age houses conserved in the Jorvik Viking Centre. There are possibly the earliest medieval timber- framed rows and an exceptional assemblage of unusually large, diverse and well- preserved pre-modern timber-framed buildings. There are transitional houses demonstrating the evolution of medieval units into the later brick-built terrace houses provided with staircases and fireplaces of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Twentieth century developments are exemplified by the Aldwark development within the proposed World Heritage Site which continues York’s history of innovation in housing seen in the nearby village of New Earswick. (New Earswick was founded by Joseph Rowntree in 1901 under the influence of his son Seebohm Rowntree’s seminal study on Poverty. From its beginning it was regarded as experimental and the new house types introduced there formed the basis of the national Government’s post World War I ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ campaign. This was to extend nationally into the provision of social housing as at Tang Hall in York and influence the creation of garden suburbs and middle-class housing schemes.) Other notable buildings reflect the evolution of educational provision, health, trade, manufacturing and engineering activities and their accommodation into the twenty-first century.

Criterion (vi): York has, over a period of 2000 years, been associated with significant events and traditions of outstanding universal significance, for example:

  • Constantine was proclaimed Emperor in York in 306 CE and went on to adopt Christianity as the official religion of the empire.
  • York was established as a centre of learning and liberal teaching in the 8th century and became internationally famous under Alcuin.
  • York Cycle of medieval mystery plays and their revival in the 20th century, performed by the Guilds and following the same processional route and performance stations.
  • Mary Ward, early pioneer in girls` education internationally, who established schools in Europe.
  • John Goodricke, elected Fellow of the Royal Society aged 21, observed from the Treasurer’s House in York the periodicity of the star ALGOL and discovered the variation of DELTA CEPHEI and other stars thus laying the foundations of modern measurement of the Universe.
  • William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner, was one of two MPs for Yorkshire, elected at the Eye of York adjacent to Clifford’s Tower.
  • John Snow, one of the founders of modern epidemiology through his pioneering work on cholera in London in 1854, was born and lived in York.
  • Seebohm Rowntree is known in particular for his three York studies of poverty.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

York possesses a high degree of integrity with the layering and coherence of the planning, design, construction and assimilation of the individual components and attributes undiminished. Individual components are likewise well-preserved. All the components and attributes which define the OUV of York are within the proposed boundary although some of attributes extend beyond the chosen boundary. The essential and complex relationships between the components remain intact, for example the relationships between the multi-period defences, street plan and individual component structures. The intimate interrelationship of, for instance, the large-scale Minster and small-scale domestic and civil structures remains a striking feature of the present-day urban landscape.

Comparison with other similar properties

An Initial Scoping Comparative Study has identified that York’s proposed OUV as an outstanding example of urbanisation initiated by the Romans places it within a geo-cultural region comprising an area of Europe lying north of the Mediterranean littoral extending to the Roman limes from northern Britain in the west to the Carpathian Mountains in the east. Several potential comparative sites have been identified that were established from Roman military occupation and which endure to play a significant role in their respective regions. These sites (Regensburg, Strasbourg, Lyon and possibly Bordeaux), although having common origins with York, have OUV defined in significantly different terms to that proposed for York. In the same way, it is individual buildings in cities such as Cologne, Trier, and Chartres which are inscribed for OUV again very different to that of York. York’s OUV is as the outstanding example of urbanisation initiated by the Romans and developed through successive cultural influences to the present day, evidenced through its plan, buildings and structures, archaeological deposits, outstanding stained glass, historical associations and cultural traditions. York’s OUV therefore fills a significant gap in World Heritage Site inscriptions.