The historic city of York has barely changed throughout the years. During this time, the York City Walls have remained in a remarkable condition, almost intact centuries after they were first built and can now be walked, free of charge! Taking a stroll along the York Bar Walls (you’ll get to know more about this peculiar name later) is a must for both locals and tourists and certainly a great way to get to know more about the rich history of York.
The York Walls stand as the longest medieval town walls in England (they’re 3.4km or 2 miles long!), and also the best preserved. They can be accessed through four main and two secondary gates. But before we dwell on these, let me tell you all about the amazing history of the York City Walls.
Jump to The York City Walls Trail.
The original York Walls date back to 71 AD, when the city of York was erected as a Roman military fortress on the banks of the River Ouse and given the name Eboracum. With the Viking invasion of 866AD, the city was renamed Jorvik and the original Roman Walls were covered with dirt with a wooden palisade added to create an even stronger defensible shield. Some parts of the original Roman walls remain – such as the spectacular lower section of the Multangular Tower, which stands in the Museum Gardens, between the Yorkshire Museum and St Leonard’s Hospital.
The fortress walls kept evolving throughout the centuries, strengthened and expanded with new additions from the successive Norman settlement (with the majority of the current walls dating back to the 13th century). Four fortified main entrances were erected at North, South, East and West points around York, known as “bars” for having barriers or barrières controlling the access to York. Additionally, a number of towers and secondary gates were also created. By the end of the 1700s, city officials applied to demolish the walls as they’d turned to ruin and were preventing York from expanding. Thankfully, this was met with strong opposition from residents and the York City Walls were never destroyed. Today, the York Walls are protected from the threat of demolition by being both a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a Grade 1 listed building.
1. Micklegate Bar
Meaning “Great Street”, Micklegate Bar is the main gateway to York from London and the South and was created in the 12th century. It was used as a Royal entrance for the King and Queen over the centuries (such as Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII, James I and II, Charles I and Elizabeth II). In fact, you can currently explore the life of Henry VII through the “Henry VII Experience at Micklegate“! The Royal arms of England, France and the City of York can also be seen on the outer wall of Micklegate.
Did you know…? The severed heads and other body parts of traitors and rebels were spiked above Micklegate Bar as a warning, with victims including Richard of York, the 3rd Duke of York – who had a paper crown placed on his head -, Sir Henry Percy (Hotspur) and the Earl of Northumberland.
2. Bootham Bar
The oldest of the four gateways to the city, Bootham Bar dates back to Roman times over 2,000 years ago. The oldest parts of the current gateway are from 11th and 12th centuries, with some stones of the original Roman structure almost certainly reused on Bootham Bar’s reconstruction. In 1501 a knocker was added as Scots had to knock and have permission granted from the Lord Mayor to enter York. In 1835, the barbican was demolished, making Bootham Bar the final gate to lose its barbican.
Did you know…? Bootham Bar is the closest of the gates to York Minster, with the City Walls between this and Monk Bar enclosing The Liberty of St Peter – a walled area where the Dean and Chapter of York Minster retained control with its own laws, courts and prison. It contained the Archbishop’s Palace and Cathedral, the Dean’s house, the Treasurer’s house (which can be still be visited up to this day), other houses of the Canons and the Precentor.
3. Walmgate Bar
Walmgate Bar is the most complete gateway of the York City Walls. The oldest section of the bar is an archway from the 12th century, which was originally part of a small gatehouse that sat on the site before stone walls were built to either side. The Walmgate Bar is also the only bar with a preserved barbican, a 14th century addition to the existing gate, which also had a portcullis (a barred gate with spikes) and 15th century wood gates. With a timber framed interior dating back to the Elizabethan period, Walmgate Bar also presents the Arms of Henry V on the outer side.
Did you know…? People have lived in Walmgate Bar since before the 14th century and as recently as 1957! Also, there’s a hidden resident next to one of the windows – a cat statue! Cats have been part of York’s history and thought to bring luck since medieval times (they have 9 lives after all!). Originally, statues were placed on buildings to scare mice and rats away. Now, you can have fun trying to find them all following the York’s Lucky Cat Trail. There are a total of 22 cat statues scattered on rooftops, chimneys and windowsills of historic buildings all around York!
4. Monk Bar
Originally known as Monkgate Bar, this is the tallest and most ornate of the York City Walls bars. Built in the early 14th century, it owes its name to the monastic community that once lived on the site of the York Minster.
Although originally used as a house, this four-storey building was designed as a strong self-contained fortress easily defended from floor to floor, and features small rooms in the turrets to hold prisoners. Monk Bar still has a working portcullis with its original winding gear, which was used until 1970 and was lowered for the Queen’s coronation in 1953.
Did you know…? Monk Bar is currently home to the Richard III Museum. Here visitors can explore life of the last King of the Plantagenet dynasty through “The Richard III Experience at Monk Bar“.
Two small bars: Fishergate Bar and Victoria Bar
1. Fishergate Bar and Fishergate Tower
The first recordings of this secondary bar on the York City Walls date back to the early 14th century. An inscription commemorating William Todd, Lord Mayor of York knighted by Henry III in 1487, can be seen above the central arch. In return, he paid for the restoration work of 55 metres of the Bar Walls. However, just two years later, The Fishergate Bar entrance was damaged so badly in the Yorkshire Revolt against the heavy taxation imposed by Henry VIII that it remained blocked until 1827. Scorch marks from the Revolt can still be seen on the central arch!
Did you know…? Roman Catholics were imprisoned in the Fishergate towers above Fishergate Bar during the 16th and 17th centuries. Also, if you look up closely at the first floor of the Fishergate Tower, you can see a medieval toilet or “garderobe” with an external chute. Thankfully, this isn’t currently in use so it’s safe to stand underneath!
2. Victoria Bar
Victoria bar is a relatively recent addition to the York City Walls. Named after Queen Victoria, whose coronation took place in 1838 – the same year this gateway was built, its main purpose was to facilitate access between Bishopshill, inside the York Walls, and Nunnery Lane, on the outer side.
Did you know…? This isn’t the first bar on the site – the remains of the Lounelith Gate (meaning “hidden or obscure gate”) mentioned in 12th century documents were discovered underneath the grass rampart when the process to build Victoria Bar started!
The York City Walls Trail
The York Walls walk offers fantastic views of the city, with a contrast from both sides of the wall. You can walk either way along the walls and access it through various points around York – either through the main and secondary bars or towers. The whole York City Walls trail takes approximately two and a half hours to walk. The route is also marked with small metal studs on the ground featuring a tower with battlements. As some parts of the City Walls aren’t complete, on each Bar are maps with indicators to help you follow the trail. Look out for other markers on the ground which highlight specific sections of the wall – such as the gateway to the Roman Fortress and Clifford’s Tower/Baile Hill.
York City Walls opening and closing times:
- The access gates open daily at 8am
- The gates close at dusk, starting from Fishergate Bar in an anti-clockwise direction. The closing times vary between each month (from 3.30pm in winter to 9pm in summer), so make sure you check these before you start walking York City Walls!
What did you think of my York City Walls post? Have you walked the walls before? I hope this post has inspired you to visit this beautiful city and to walk these amazing walls full of history! If you liked our York Walls walk post, please leave us a comment, pin some photos and show us some love on social media using the buttons below
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