England's Second City

So good they named it four times

York is old. I don’t mean old like Williamsburg, Virginia is old. Or even in the way Oxford University is old. No, I mean old. Seriously old.

The Brigantes had a settlement here before the Roman Conquest. In the second century Ptolemy referred to it as Eborakon, meaning a ‘place of yew trees’ or the ‘estate of a man called Eburos’, an early British personal name meaning yew tree. In Celtic religious practice and legend yew trees were special and significant. Indeed, later they became an enduring feature of Christian churchyards.

The Romans latinised the name as Eboracum and it was their northern capital. The Archbishop of York still signs himself Ebor. The Anglo-Saxons destroyed much of Roman Eboracum; what remained was anglicised as Eoforwic, itself meaning ‘town of wild boars’ in their language. Doubtless there were plenty wandering through the city by the time the Angles had devastated it.

Following the Viking invasions York fell to the Danes in 867. They called it Jorvik. The Danish kingdom of Jorvik lasted until Eric Bloodaxe, the last Danish king of York, was defeated by the English in 954.

At the time of the Conquest there are thought to have been about 8,000 people living in York. Few would remain after the ordeal of William the Bastard’s scorched earth policy in the winter of 1069-70, intended to teach the English never to rebel against the Normans again.

To the Normans it became Yerk or Yarke. By the thirteenth century the name York had been established.

Many places in the Anglo-Saxon world are named after it. There is a York in Western Australia and Cape York is Australia’s north-easternmost point. There are Yorks in Canada. And every Briton and American should be aware of what happened at Yorktown. But I have always found it somehow appropriate that the greatest city in America, the symbol of the Free World, should have been named after one of the finest cities in Christendom. New York, in the United States of America.

(Much of this was sourced from Brewer’s Britain and Ireland by John Ayto and Ian Crofton, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005).