York City Walls

England, York Guide (A): York City Walls

Get the best view of York - from high up on England's best preserved and longest town walls. Bars are the ancient gateways into the city. There are five of them. There are also forty-five towers circling the town and most of them are joined by a walkway on top of the walls.
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Walk Route

Guide Name: York City Walls
Guide Location: England » York
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 15
Tour Duration: 4.0 hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.7 km
Sight(s) featured in this guide: Bootham Bar   Robin Hood's Tower   Monk Bar   Ice House and Roman Fortifications   The King's Fishpool   The Red Tower   Walmgate Bar   Fishergate Bar   Fishergate Postern Tower   Baille Hill   Bitchdaughter Tower   Micklegate Bar   Toft's Tower   Barker Tower and Lendal Tower   Multangular Tower  
Author: Julia Hickey
Author Bio: I am a university lecturer and writer currently living in the north of England. In addition to professional qualifications, I hold a masters degree in English Literature and a B.A.(hons) in English and History. I am passionate about history and enjoy nothing more than exploring the UK's historic cities and buildings. In addition to travel writing and educational writing, I also write fiction for a range of women's magazines including the Woman's Weekly.
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Bootham Bar

1) Bootham Bar

The five entrance gates to York are called bars as is the later addition Victoria Bar cut through the wall in the Victorian period.

Bootham Bar dates from the eleventh century but was much strengthened in the thirteenth century along with the rest of the city walls during the reign of King John- he of Magna Carta fame. A door knocker was added in 1501 to all the bars when the Scots were required to knock on the door in order to be admitted legally into the city. The three statues perched on the top of the bar are Victorian additions replacing earlier statues.

It's role as gate is far older than than the eleventh century though. Bootham was the site of one of the Roman entrances to the city. The name Bootham derives from the name ‘bar at the booths.’ St Mary’s Abbey, you can see the abbey wall in Exhibition Square running parallel to the modern Bootham Road, was permitted a market here.

The walls are open from 8.00 am to dusk and are closed during severe weather. Much of the wall is railed but some stretches are open on one side. This walk is not suitable for wheelchair users.
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Robin Hood's Tower

2) Robin Hood's Tower

You have walked along the wall parallel with Gillygate. From Bootham Bar to Monk Bar you are walking on the line of the Roman fortress. There are also some excellent views of the Minster from here. The tower has no particular link to the outlaw from Sherwood Forest. In 1485 it was called Frost Tower.

The stretch of wall that you have walked along and the tower you are now standing on were renovated by the Victorians, so this is what they thought medieval fortifications ought to look like. Beyond Robin Hood's Tower there's a bronze plaque commemorating the restoration of this part of the wall between 1888-89.

The walls have been renovated a number of times since they were built, in this case to the point of rebuilding. During the middle ages people coming into the city paid murage tolls for the upkeep of the wall but by the end 1487 the walls were in a sad state of disrepair. From the sixteenth century onwards, time and energy has been expended on the upkeep of the wall. In the eighteenth century there was even a ball held in the Assembly Rooms to raise funds for it.
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Monk Bar

3) Monk Bar

You cannot walk through Monk Bar. You have to come down from the wall and go back up again on the other side of the bar and that gives you the opportunity to admire this city gate. It's a fortress in its own right. Each floor can be defended. The coat of arms is the Plantagenet arms and the statues, which do not look in the least lifelike during daylight, are holding stones in readiness to drop on their enemies heads in order to give the impression of defence during darkness.

Monk Bar still has its portcullis and winding mechanism. If you want to see them then you can do so provided you enter the Richard III Museum that is housed in this dramatic looking entrance to the city.

The Richard III Museum presents the case for and against Shakespeare's murderous king. Did the princes in the Tower really die? Was it all Tudor spin? After all, history is the victor's viewpoint. Decode Holbein's portrait of Sir Thomas More and his family and you might be in for a surprise. One thing is for sure all the evidence indicates that Richard wasn't the deformed madman that Shakespeare portrays.

The museum is open 9.00 am - 5.00 pm seven days a week from March to October and from 9.30am - 4.00pm November to October. Visit the website at www.richardiiimuseum.co.uk for more information.
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Ice House and Roman Fortifications

4) Ice House and Roman Fortifications

There's a brick ice house, shaped like an igloo, dating from 1800 on the moat side of the city walls. You may have caught a glimpse of it as you climbed back on the walls from Monk Bar. There's also a way marker set into the path to alert you to its presence. Ice was collected in winter and stored here, then it was used as and when it was needed.

From Bootham Bar to just beyond Monk Bar you are walking in the footsteps of Roman legionaries as the walls were built where the Roman fortress of Eboracum had its walls. In some places the Roman fortifications are visible. The Aldwark Tower is still visible at the eastern corner of the walls, you'll come to that in a few minutes, and before that you can see an interval tower. The Roman remains are on the inside of the current city walls.

The original fortifications would have been composed of an earth bank with a wooden palisade. Over time these defences were strengthened and rebuilt in stone.
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The King's Fishpool

5) The King's Fishpool

You are standing in a part of York called Layerthorpe. During the medieval period there was a fortified bridge crossing the River Foss here. There are no walls between here and the next point on this tour, the Red Tower, because York was protected by marshes formed by the river and a man made lake called the King's Fishpool.

As you walk down Foss Islands Road look out for the markers set into the pavement to help you find your way. Each one is embossed with a turret.

It is also impossible to miss the huge red chimney on Foss Islands Road. These days it's stranded in a retail park but it dates from the Victorian period. Its all that remains of an early refuse burning plant. It is a reminder that York has its industrial heritage as well as its better known Roman and Medieval history.
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The Red Tower

6) The Red Tower

Henry VII ordered this tower to be built. It is a watch tower so that lookout could be kept across the marshes. There was apparently some trouble when the tower was built. It is constructed from brick and the city's stone masons were not happy about the use of a different material. They attempted to sabotage the building.

Despite the trouble that went into its building it didn't last long as part of York's defences in comparison to some of the other towers. It was badly damaged during the Siege of York in the seventeenth century and only restored in 1857 having served as a stables and also a gunpowder warehouse. This use led to it being called Brimstone House for a time.
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Walmgate Bar

7) Walmgate Bar

This is the only town gate in England to still have its barbican. The funnel like extension outside the gateway meant that anyone attacking the city was forced into this narrow opening if they wished to reach the wooden gates. No doubt the defenders would have been well prepared with hot oil, stones and arrows.

This bar also has its original wooden gates in tact and a peculiar extension on the city side of the bar where the gatekeeper would have lived in Tudor times. This part of the building is showing its age and is supported by scaffolding.

Walmgate was damaged by canon fire in 1644 during the Siege of York when Royalist York was besieged by the Parliamentarians or Roundheads. Their leader was General Fairfax and it is thanks to him that after the second siege when the city fell that no further damage was done to the city.
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Fishergate Bar

8) Fishergate Bar

Fishergate is not so well preserved as the other bars. In the past it was just as sturdy as its companions. It was used as a prison during the reign of Elizabeth I.

However, it stopped being an entrance to the city in the reign of her grandfather. It was damaged during the reign of Henry VII during riots about a new national tax. Northerners reacted badly as they were already paying local taxes and in the process Fishergate was set alight.

The bar was sealed shut and only reopened in 1827 by which time much of the masonry had been used for other projects including one of York's bridges.
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Fishergate Postern Tower

9) Fishergate Postern Tower

This tower was originally on the banks of the River Foss. The reason for the change in course and apparently stronger flow of the river in the past is due to William the Conqueror. When he built his motte and bailey castle in York in 1068, he dammed the river and diverted it in order to make sure that the castle had strong defences. So he created the King’s Fishpool as well, the marshy area and lake responsible for the city’s defences on this side of York.

This current tower was built at the beginning of the sixteenth century. It was completed by 1507 and it replaced an earlier tower on this site.

The postern is the small gateway next to the tower. In the past it had its own portcullis. If you look at it you can see the grooves that the wooden portcullis would have run up and down. The gateway itself is older than the tower by about a hundred years.

You are now going to follow the road around to York Castle and Clifford's Tower. The route leads you across Skeldergate Bridge and back up onto the walls. Don't forget to keep you eye out for the route markers in the pavement.
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Baille Hill

10) Baille Hill

Sources differ as to whether Baille should have one l or two. What is sure though is that it is a man made mound of earth. It is actually a motte, just like the one on which Clifford's Tower stands. It was ordered by William the Conqueror and would have had a wooden palisade on top. This was never strengthened and by the middle of the thirteenth century had fallen from use. Archeological survey revealed the remains of the palisade and also a set of stairs cut into the hill for access.

It was used as a gun battery in 1642 when cannons were placed here as part of the city's defences against the Parliamentarians. King Charles I came to York in 1640 and 1641 when he was preparing to fight the Scots. He came again in 1642 when his relationship with Parliament was so bad that he left London. In effect this made York, for a short while, the capital of England. When the Parliamentarians captured the city they set about destroying its political dominance in the region by abolishing the Council of the North.
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Bitchdaughter Tower

11) Bitchdaughter Tower

This corner tower was called le bidoutre by the middle of the fiftteenth century. It was originally part of the defenses for the mote but as time passed its uses included prison and cowshed.

You change direction here. From this point onwards you are walking along the south-west defensive wall of the city.

This stretch of wall takes you to Micklegate Bar. You will pass over Victoria Bar cut into the walls in 1838 to allow Nunnery Lane, outside the walls, to access Bishophill, inside the walls, and then Sadler Tower as you walk.

In Spring, the outer walls of the castle are carpeted by daffodils and as always in York if you look towards the city you can see the cathedral as well as some of the towers and spires of York’s medieval churches.
Image by Stanley Howe under Creative Commons License.
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Micklegate Bar

12) Micklegate Bar

This is the grand fourteenth century entrance to the city. Mickle means great - so this is the great gate. This is the way that kings and queens came into York.

It is also where traitors' heads were placed on spikes. Famously, Richard, Duke of York, killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 had his head put here wearing a paper crown and facing in the direction of the city as a final insult.

Some of the stonework in the four impressive storeys is thought to be reused Roman masonry. You can see the bar has been changed over the centuries. One entrance has been bricked up while an archway has been cut through the wall to allow traffic into the city. You can also see the grooves where the portcullis once ran. It even retained its barbican until 1826.

The York Archaeological Trust have refurbished the interior of the bar and have created an exhibition so that you can find out about the gatekeepers and people who lived here as well as finding out more about York's history and the English Civil War.

The museum is open seven days a week. February to September 10.00 am - 4.00 pm and from September to December 11.00 am to 3.00 pm. It is closed in January. Visit www.micklegatebar.com for further information.
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Toft's Tower

13) Toft's Tower

This tower was blown up by the Scots in 1644 but was rebuilt the following year. The English Civil War was the last time that the wall fulfilled its original purpose although hasty preparations were made in 1745 to repel the Jacobites.

This stretch of wall will take you to a more modern time in York's history. You will cross over the arches that gave the railway access to the city and York's first railway station in 1841. You'll also get a view of a signal box on the moat side of the wall.

As you continue your walk it’s impossible to ignore York's current railway station. It was completed in 1877. The shed was 800ft long. The platforms have been extended since then.

As you walk this length of wall you will also see something that looks like a park between the city walls and the road. As you get closer you will begin to see grave stones. This is the final resting place of some of the victims of a cholera epidemic that occurred in York in 1832.

Cholera came to York through contaminated water, drinking water mingled with sewerage, although at the time ‘miasmas’ were blamed - that's to say bad air. There were a variety of remedies suggested too, some of them more lethal sounding than the cholera. In total some 450 people died of cholera here.
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Barker Tower and Lendal Tower

14) Barker Tower and Lendal Tower

The tower nearest to you, on this side of the river, is Barker Tower. It’s a medieval watch tower. There are steps beside it. These led down to the ferry that plied its trade on this spot before Lendal Bridge was built in 1863. The Victorians used the tower as a mortuary but its original purpose linked it with Lendal Tower on the other side of the River Ouse. A chain linked the two towers. The chain could be raised to stop boats from continuing up river, so it had a defensive role. It also allowed the authorities in York to charge tolls.

Lendal Tower dates from the thirteenth century and was used as a water-tower in the seventeenth century. It was leased to the York Waterworks Company who pumped water from the tower into a network of pipes made from hollowed out tree trunks carrying water around the city. The pump was horse powered rather than a gravity feed. The horses were replaced by a steam engine during the Victorian period. This was housed in the purpose built brick building next to the tower.
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Multangular Tower

15) Multangular Tower

This is the west corner tower of Eboracum. It originally stood more than six metres high. The lower courses are Roman but the upper courses are the work of medieval masons. You can leave the Museum Gardens to explore inside the tower if you like. You'll find yourself in the grounds behind York's library.

If you explore inside the tower you will discover stone coffins dating from the Roman period as well as a length of wall running at right angles to the tower towards the crypt of St Leonard's Hospital. There is a portion of the wall made up from red brick tiles laid in a herring bone pattern. These are Roman so are the small regular looking stones at the core of this wall.

Heading north, away from the Multangular Tower, still in York Library grounds you encounter a bewildering array of walls. The wall made from small stones and a rubble infill finishing with the remains of a tower called the Anglian Tower is all that left of the period between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Vikings - the Anglian period, hence the name. The much larger and more substantial wall that runs parallel to the Anglian wall is medieval. It isn't the city wall. This wall belongs to St Mary's Abbey and enclosed its precincts.