York Minster, one of the most important religious sites in Europe, has a secret. Underneath this mighty cathedral lie the remains of nearly 2,000 years of history. Some of the events that happened on this site still have implications for us today.
Across from the Minster stands a reminder of a once great empire. A single Roman column marks the site of the principia, or headquarters, of Eboracum—as York was then known. On the exact spot where York Minster now sits was a basilica, a ceremonial room within the principia.
It was almost certainly in this basilica in AD306 that Constantine was proclaimed Emperor of Rome. He was visiting Briton when news of his father’s death reached him. The Sixth Legion, stationed in Eboracum at the time, quickly proclaimed him Emperor.
Constantine would later convert to Christianity and make the religion legal in the Roman Empire. No longer could Christians be persecuted here for their beliefs, paving the way for Christianity to spread throughout Europe and onto the rest of the world. It is especially symbolic then that in the spot where he was first declared Emperor now stands one of the most important religious buildings in all of Christendom.
Centuries after the Romans left Britain, William of Normandy became king of England. The North, led by its unofficial capital of York, rebelled against William’s right to rule. In the winter of 1069 William began a merciless campaign to punish the region, dubbed the Harrying of the North. The Northeast of England was literally set ablaze as towns, livestock and crops were destroyed and a reported 100,000 people lost their lives from either direct Norman aggression or starvation.
William replaced the Northern ruling class with his own men including appointing Thomas of Bayeux as York’s Archbishop. Originally, Thomas repaired the Saxon Minster which had been badly damaged during the Harrying of the North. However, a few years later it was completely destroyed by the Danes. Thomas took this opportunity to begin building a Norman masterpiece which he placed directly on top of the remains of the old Roman fortress.
The new Cathedral was impressive, spanning around 365 feet with a large nave and three semi-circular apses. The interior was decorated with ornately carved columns and brightly painted with biblical scenes. Its size, beauty and noticeably French architecture was a symbol of Norman superiority.
By the early 13th century, cathedrals were being built in the Gothic Style. Pointed arches, flying buttresses and soaring ceiling heights allowed these huge buildings to soar higher than ever before, reaching up towards heaven.
The new Archbishop of York, Walter de Gray, watched as Canterbury Cathedral, York Minster’s historic rival, was rebuilt in this new style. In response, Walter began what would be a 250 year building programme to make York Minster the largest Gothic building in Britain.
Alongside all of the things one would expect from a Gothic building, high ceilings, flying buttresses and pointed arches, York Minster boasts enormous painted glass windows and a 235 foot (72 m) central tower. This tower is large enough to fit the entire leaning tower of Pisa inside!
In the mid 1960’s a study of the Minster’s stonework began. To their horror, they discovered that the central tower was buckling under its own weight. Subsidence had caused huge cracks, distorted walls and rotting foundations. The central tower was very near collapse.
Although they knew that the Minster sat on top of the foundations of the old Norman cathedral, it was believed that those foundations were sufficient to hold up the newer one. Unfortunately, they discovered that the Norman foundations sat on top of the remains of the Roman basilica which was not built to hold such a mighty building. This proved to be the ultimate cause of the near collapse. Work began in the early 1970’s to repair the cause of the damage.
The opportunity for an archeological excavation could not be passed up. So, over the course of the next few years engineers and archaeologists worked together. The engineering work was so impressive that even now engineers will come to look at the restoration. Archaeologists found a huge number of artefacts that tell us about the early life of the church and of Eboracum
Filling in the excavations created by the engineers was deemed to be too costly. The decision was made to convert the new space into an undercroft museum. In 2013 a newly refurbished and interactive Undercroft Museum opened to the public. Visitors can see Roman walls, early coins, a Viking ceremonial horn and Norman pillars. The museum takes you through 2,000 years of York’s history including the day-to-day operations of the Minster.
If you would like more information about York Minster or the Undercroft Museum, click on the links below:
Explore York Minster yourself by following this link to Google Earth. Drag and Drop the little man (bottom right corner) over the dots to get the best views. https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Yorkfirstname.lastname@example.org,-1.082884,239m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x4878c340e19865f1:0x4774ab898a54e4d1!8m2!3d53.9599651!4d-1.0872979