While York’s history began during the first millennium AD, evidence suggests that Mesolithic people first occupied the area as far back as 8000 to 7000 BC. However, it is unclear whether York’s first inhabitants lived in permanent or temporary settlements.
Reference to York was first found during Roman times, when Romans conquered Britain and the town was called by its Celtic name, Eboracum and Eburacum. The Romans called the towns’ inhabitants the Brigantes and the Parisii. The Brigantes eventually aligned themselves with Rome but, later, their alliance would be marked by hostility. For this reason, Rome’s Ninth Legion would be dispatched to the area.
In 71 AD, York was founded when Rome’s Ninth Legion built a military fortress in the area overlooking the River Ouse. The fortress, later to be rebuilt in stone, spanned over 50 acres and was manned by some 6,000 soldiers. Today, remains of the fortress are believed to be underneath York Minster as excavations near the Minster have unearthed the fortress’ original walls.
The Sixth Legion replaced the Ninth Legion in York sometime around 109 AD and 122 AD. They would remain in the area until Roman occupation ended around 400 AD.
During its heyday under Roman rule, York was alternately occupied by Roman emperors Hadrian, Septimius Severus and Constantius I during their respective campaigns. Severus elevated York as the capital of the Britannia Interior province and, historians say, granted York all the privileges of a city. Meanwhile, after Constantinius I died in York, his son, Constantine the Great was named the new emperor at York’s fortress.
The presence of Rome’s military in York was also a great boost to the town’s economy as various workshops were established to meet the needs of the troops stationed at the fortress. These workshops produced a wide array of products, including metalwork, leatherwork, glasswork, military equipment, military tile kilns and even pottery.
The opportunities for trade which the Roman military offered spurred the establishment of a permanent civilian settlement across the fortress on the River Ouse. This settlement would become a full-fledged colony by 237 AD, one of only four in Britain. York itself had attained self-governance by this time, run by merchants, rich locals and veteran soldiers who formed the city council.
After the Romans left Britain in 410 AD, there is little evidence about York until the fifth and sixth centuries except for reports of a settlement and private Roman houses and suburban villas in the area. York was listed as Caer Ebrauc in the roster of 28 Sub-Roman British towns identified by Nennius, which may indicate that York had become the capital of a British kingdom, Ebrauc.
Germany’s Anglians and Denmark’s Jutes would appear in York during the 5th or 6th century, as evidenced by their cemeteries that were excavated in York’s vicinity. However, it is not clear whether they settled in York during that time.
When the Saxons settled at the North of England, they named York as the first capital of Deira and, later, of the unified Deira and Bernicia kingdom, also known as Northumbria. York would become a cherished royal centre of Northumbrian kings by the 7th century. At that time, Paulinius of York, later to become St. Paulinius, established his wooden church at York, which would serve as the precursor of the York Minster. This church was where King Edwin of Northumbria would be baptized.
The next centuries would see York continue in its premiere role as a centre of royal and ecclesiastical affairs. It would eventually become the seat of a bishop and, beginning in 735, of an archbishop. The great church of the Alma Sophia or holy wisdom was also built at York during this time. York would also evolve into a seat of learning during the Northumbrian’s reign, which saw the construction of a library and religious school. Among the most prominent products of this school was Alcuin, who would later become the adviser of Charlemagne.
In 866, a huge army of Vikings from Denmark, known as the Great Heathen Army, would conquer York, setting up permanent settlements throughout the countryside. York was then called the Viking kingdom of Jorvik and was ruled by a series of Viking kings for nearly a century. Eric Bloodaxe was the last Viking king to rule Jorvik until he was expelled in 954.
The year 1066 saw the Norman Conquest of York, led by William the Conqueror, and the construction of two castles on both sides of the River Ouse. York recovered quickly from this period of destruction to become a major urban centre and, during the 13th and 14th centuries, as an alternative seat of the royal government.