York Origins

City of York Origins

The Roman name for York was Eboracum, based on a native British name for the ancient site. It is thought that the root of the early name was Eburos, an Ancient British personal name, which suggests that the site was founded by someone called Eburos.

York Minster
York Minster © David Simpson

An alternative view is that the name is based on the Ancient British word Eburos meaning Yew, a sacred Celtic tree from which the personal name Eburos derives. In Roman times there was a tribe in Gaul called the Eburorovices, who were the ‘Warriors of the Yew Tree’.

York was of course a huge Roman legionary fortress with a major Roman town or ‘Colonia’ on the opposite side of the River Ouse which developed from around AD180. In AD208 York became the capital of the northern part of Roman Britain called Britannia Inferior, with London the capital of Britannia Superior. Respectively these were the provinces of lower and upper Britain.

Roman column near York Minster
This Roman column near York Minster stood within the headquarters building of the Roman legionary fortress © David Simpson

In AD306 York witnessed a momentous point in the history of the Roman Empire when Constantine, who was then at York, became the Emperor of Rome.  His father, the Emperor Constantius Chlorus died at York where he had retired for the winter following a victory over the Picts.

Constantine (Flavius Valerius Constantinus) became his successor at York. A statue of Constantine (by Phlip Jackson, 1998) roughly marks the site where he became Emperor. Later Constantine would become a Christian, the first Christian Emperor of Rome and would be remembered to history as Constantine the Great. This association perhaps reinforced York’s status as a Christian centre and it is notable that York was the home to a Christian bishop during the Roman era.

Constantine the Great
Sculpture of Constantine the Great by Philip Jackson (1998) outside York Minster © David Simpson

When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the north from Germany and Denmark in the sixth century they made Eboracum the capital of Deira, a kingdom which spread eastwards from the Yorkshire Wolds, When Deira merged with neighbouring Bernicia to the north, York was one of the capitals of the new kingdom of Northumbria along with Bamburgh.

The Roman name of Eboracum was changed or reinterpreted by the Anglo-Saxons as Eoforwic meaning ‘wild boar settlement’. The Anglo-Saxons transposed the Celtic word ‘Ebor’ meaning ‘yew tree’ with their own word ‘Eofor’ meaning ‘wild boar’.

In 865 AD the Danes captured the North and in 876 Halfdene the Dane made Eoforwic the capital of the Viking Kingdom of York . Later in 918 AD a mixed race of Norwegian-Irish Vikings settled at York and for some time York was subordinated to the Viking stronghold at Dublin.

Viking influence can still be seen in the street-names of York, where the suffix ‘gate’ as in Stonegate or Goodramgate derives from the Old Norse ‘gata’ meaning road or way. Stonegate follows the course of a Roman road through the city and Goodramgate is named after Guthrum, a Viking leader.

Bootham Bar and York Minster
Bootham Bar and York Minster from an old postcard.

The Vikings interpreted Eoforwic, the Anglo-Saxon name for York as Jorvik (pronounced ‘Yorvik’). The change of the Saxon f to a Viking V occurred in other words in the English language such as the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Seofan’ which was changed under Viking influence into its modern form ‘Seven’.

In the late Viking period it is thought that the name Jorvik was shortened to something resembling its present form, York and in the medieval age the name York was generally used, although an alternative form ‘Yerk’ also existed at this time.

One of the problems of studying York’s name is that many early records are written in Latin and thus use the Roman name Eboracum in periods when Eoforwic or Jorvik were used in every day speech. Today the early forms of York’s name are still well known and although the Viking Kingdom of York no longer exists, its natural successor Yorkshire – ‘the county of York’ still takes its name from this ancient city.

King's Square, York looking towards Low Petergate
King’s Square, York looking towards Low Petergate and York Minster © David Simpson King’s Square was the probable site of the palace of York’s Viking kings.

Yorkshire is the county or ‘shire’ of York City and has been known in the past as Eoferwicscir, the County of York and Le Counte d’ Everwyck.

Historically Yorkshire was divided into ‘ridings’. The term  ‘riding’ is of Viking origin and derives from Threthingr meaning a third part. There were indeed three ridings in Yorkshire – the East Riding, West Riding and North Riding. The ancient Kingdom of Lindsey, known today as Lincolnshire was also an area of considerable Viking settlement and was likewise divided into three ridings. The city of York did not belong to any of the ridings and historically belonged to a district all of its own known as the ‘Ainsty of York’.

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