The Castle and Eye of York: A very quick account of 2000 years of change

Under construction: The Castle and Eye of York area has been transformed many times: a Castle, a Court, a Prision, a Museum. What kind of public space will it become?

Whether it is Romans, Vikings, Normans, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, 19th century judicial authority and political resistance or the rise of the car, tourism and shopping in the 20th Century, the Castle Gateway area opens up ‘little bit of everything of York’s archaeology and urban history’, as John Oxley, York’s City Archaeologist, puts it.

We’ve put together a Castle and Eye of York quick history, drawn out the big heritage ideas that emerge from the area’s history and the questions the area’s past poses for this summer’s Gathering Place discussions.

‘The Castle Gateway area tells almost every archaeological story from the history of York’
Ian Milsted, York Archaeology Trust

[before 71AD – and after]
York is where it is because of the confluence of the Foss and the Ouse. Before the Romans, John Oxley describes the area as an agrarian landscape, of fields and crops. ‘Then the Romans arrived and everything changes. That’s when you can start to take about York as an urban centre’.

[late 400s AD – ]
Leap forward to the Angles. Ian Milsted from York Archaeology Trust argues that this period ‘is the highlight of York’s story. For several hundred years, York is the ecclesiastical heart of the kingdom of Northumbrian, [home to] Alcuin, the greatest scholar of the mediaeval world and the location of a very famous library’. The Castle Gateway area may well play a role in uncovering this history. Ian Milsted notes that there are ‘hints of burial and settlements’ in the area and the Ouse was the Anglian wick, which was the commercial hub of Anglian York in 7th and 8th Centuries.

[866AD for a hundred years or so]
On to the Vikings when, as John Oxley says, ‘everything changed again’. For the Vikings, the confluence of the Foss and the Ouse, Ian Milsted argues, is ‘launch point to the rest of the world and where the rest of the world would have entered the city of York’. The Vikings would have called the confluence of the Foss and the Ouse a Ness, ‘a promontory into a seaway’, a route way for the exchange ‘of goods, people and ideas’.

[1066 – ] And then the Normans arrive and yes everything changed again. The confluence of the Foss and the Ouse is also why the Normans put a Castle there, with another on Baille Hill, the other side of the Ouse. This was part of William the Conqueror’s ‘Harrying of the North’ calculated to suppress the northern population. The Normans changed the landscape of the area, damming across the Foss and flooding the Foss valley to provide water defences for the castle and creating the King’s Fishpool. At this point royal prerogative and royal authority was firmly established and was linked to church authority as well. In 1190 it was belief in the protection of the crown which led a threatened Jewish population to seek refuge in the Castle leading to ‘one of the worst anti-Semitic massacres of the Middle Ages’ (English Heritage). In the 13th century the outer Bailey of York Castle was given to the Augustinian Friars and so this part of York become a major element of the medieval city.

[1530s- ]
The Dissolution of the Monasteries affects this area of York as the Augustinian Friars land was sold off and in the 16th century and 17th centuries, large and grand houses started to appear in this area, such as Cumberland House on King’s Staithes and the John Carr mansions in Castlegate. There was even a lost mansion that was on the Castle Car park and which had in its grounds the motte and Clifford’s Tower!

[1700- ]
The sense of the historic York Castle as an ongoing seat of authority continued with the establishment of judicial power and responsibility with the building of the county jail, the Debtor’s Prison, the Women’s Prison and Assizes Court, which is now the Crown Court.

‘This was a place that controlled your life and for many people it was a place that controlled your death. York Gallows were situated behind the Assizes Court and the last drop was at the end of the female prison’ (Neil Redfern, Historic England)


Until 1840s this was a site of ‘huge political authority and symbolism’ and became known as the Eye of the Ridings – later the Eye of Yorkshire or Eye of York – where MPs for the whole of Yorkshire were elected. It was in the Eye of the Ridings that William Wilberforce stood for election on an anti-slavery ticket in 1807. Due to this symbolism it remained a place of pilgrimage and for demonstrations, for example those agitating for improved factory working conditions such as the March Against Yorkshire Slavery in 1832.

York Castle has a long history – since the 13th century – of being used to incarcerate political prisoners. This includes Jacobites from the rebellions of 1745. In 1746 10 Jacobites were hung drawn and quarter on Knavesmire and brought back here to be buried.

‘This is a site of rich, complex and contested histories – Dick Turpin the one person everyone can named as imprisoned in York Castle Gaol, is the least interesting and important person ever to be gaoled here!’ Malcolm Chase, University of Leeds.

Those arrested at Peterloo in 1812 were tried here in 1820. Key figures in the Chartists Movement, which Professor Malcom Chase describes as ‘essentially Britain’s civil right movements’, were imprisoned here in 1840s, including one of their most famous leaders, Fergus O’Connor.

‘Through work the York Castle Museum has done we now have the names of the people incarcerated who range from people we’d consider very important history figures like Robert Aske to humble citizens’ (Neil Redfern, Historic England)

In the 1830s the Felon’s Prison was built, a very imposing building that took over the space where the car park is now. It ultimately became a military prison. During the First World War it was used to imprison conscientious objectors.

The Castle site remained under royal control until the 1960s, only then becoming part of the modern city. The Castle has come to represent the exercise of royal authority, the power of civil and legal authority and conversely the fight against oppression and the struggle for increasing social justice. It is a place of strong communal value and commemoration. (Historic England, Eye of York Statement of Significance)

[1934- ]
Then after 1934 the walls came down and the Prison became a museum. Judicial authority still exists here with the Crown Court and the political legacies continue with demonstrations.

But what does this all mean for the new public area? Read The Castle and Eye of York: Big Heritage Ideas and The Castle and Eye of York: Key questions the area’s past poses for its future?

1 thought on “The Castle and Eye of York: A very quick account of 2000 years of change”

  1. What a terrific resource of perspectives on York’s history you’ve created, and given ongoing access to, via these filmed interviews! Our challenge is how to give this vast, rich ( and contested) history visibility and voice in this place, while allowing our city and its people — not least its young people — to be forward-looking, creative, and inclusive — characteristics which will be essential to it vitality and success.
    Thanks & well done!


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