York, England: Stories Writ in Stone
Apr 01, 2014 | Eric Anderson, MD, and Nancy Anderson, RN
Photography by the authors
Lovers of Olde England have their favorite places. There’s London Bridge; Westminster Abbey; Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon; the villages of the Cotswolds with their buttery colored stone homes; the mystery of Stonehenge; and way up north in Yorkshire is an attraction that brings half a million visitors a year to the cathedral Yorkminster.
Yorkshire doesn’t have the charm of England’s south, although it is the declared location for television’s Downton Abbey. It has, moreover, its share of the crotchety people described by veterinarian James Herriot in his “All Creatures Great and Small” series of stories. In one of his house call tales he relates how his car got stuck on the moors in a blizzard that nearly caused his death. In winter some parts of Yorkshire are swept with such howling winds that it is easy to imagine how the rural people would find the relative comfort of a cathedral—and its mystique—appealing.
The magnificent Yorkminster—the largest medieval cathedral in Britain—stands proudly and almost arrogantly in the city of York. Its Great East window is the single largest window of medieval glass in the world and is so big some guidebooks suggest visitors bring binoculars to view them adequately. The window was created by local artist John Thornton in 1405-1408. Although everyone in York wanted their monument in Yorkminster, Thornton wasn’t remunerated with a statue; he got real money. He was paid 56 pounds sterling (the equivalent then of $200) for his 3 years of work!
We will get back to Yorkminster in a moment, but first we must explore York, which is arguably the most interesting walkable city in England outside of London.
(Top) Clifford’s Tower, what’s left of the Royal Castle; (middle) the Shrine of Margaret Clitherow; (bottom) Thomas Herbert House
The Royal Castle was the scene of a horrible massacre in 1190: “the most notorious example of English anti-Semitism in medieval England.” A family of 150 Jews came here for protection during a rampage incited by a nobleman who owed money to Jewish businesses and saw a chance to liquidate more than his debts.
The similarly horrifying story of Margaret Clitherow, who was put to death in 1586 for harboring Catholic priests in a Protestant country, shows how even-handed religious biases were.