History Talk 30 April


History Talk with York Alternative History & York Social

Date:               Wednesday, 30 April 2014, at 7.30 pm

Venue:            Denham Room, Priory Street Centre

Speakers:       Pat and Martin Bashforth

Title:               Diverse Evill-Disposed Persons

Behind the modern, comfortable presentation of Cannon Hall Country House Museum lie tales of war, revolution, murder, migration, poverty, theft, injustice and the role of women in the social turbulence of 17th century Yorkshire. A04 - Title Page

Can we combine history research with contemporary art practice to represent the past in today’s landscape?

Do these ignored stories surrounding Cannon Hall have any relevance to life in the 21st century?

What chance does such an ‘alternative history’ have of being seen and heard?

Pat and Martin Bashforth will use a variety of media to explore and present their research into the past and present of Cannon Hall and its surrounding landscape and invite your answers to questions like these.

[Free entry on the door, with a collection]

Luddites at the Guildhall York

For 90 people to turn out on a chilly, miserable Saturday afternoon, to sit in York’s draughty Guildhall and listen to a couple of hours of talks on a relatively ignored piece of York’s history has to be some sort of triumph for York’s Alternative History. What follows is a personal sense of this part of the day’s events, and my reflections on what the speakers had to say rather than a summary of their talks (which YAH hopes to provide elsewhere).

As commented by Adam Gutteridge, who chaired proceedings with a light and unobtrusive touch, YAH had originally booked the Council Chamber, where the warmth, comfort and acoustics would have been better. Nevertheless the historical setting we were given lent its own ambience.

Adam skilfully introduced the speakers, setting the event into the context of YAH’s aim to interest the general public in a re-engagement with York’s past outside the constraints of what tends to be publicly portrayed by events such as last year’s York 800, now mercifully past. The test of speakers of such high calibre is whether one comes away wiser, in this case with a better understanding of the Luddite rebellion in the West Riding in 1812, its dénouement in York in January 1813 and its continued relevance today. We were handsomely rewarded.

Katrina Navickas (University of Hertfordshire) wove an intricate argument that set into context the seemingly desperate attempt at armed rebellion against the local manufacturers and, by implication, the State that lay behind them with a massive military presence in Yorkshire. These were skilled workers rather than self-employed artisans, threatened with the loss of their livelihoods, who had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Parliament of their case. They were supported within a community and culture intrinsic to the landscape of the Calder Valley and the West Riding Pennines, with its valleys, hamlets and market towns. Support came from many other trades than the cloth-dressers or ‘croppers’. They sought to defend what they regarded as their common rights against the private interests of a handful of manufacturers. Their defence of what they called ‘the commonality’ echoes interestingly with our own fears in 2013 for our own ‘commonality’ under threat from cuts, outsourcing and corporate aggression. They were not a lot different from us in that regard.

Malcolm Chase (University of Leeds) spread his analysis beyond the immediate issue of the Luddites. With case after case, he described York Castle and its 800 year role as the main centre in the North for political and social repression, second only to London. I could not help but note that this division of labour exactly matched the organisation of the Church of England into its two provinces, with York the administrative centre of the Northern Province. From medieval times, York was frequently chosen to handle the legal repression of revolts and opposition to the State, and not merely in Yorkshire or the North generally. You would have struggled to have found anything of this in last year’s fatuous York 800 junkets or in the way in which York’s history is customarily portrayed by public institutions. York Castle (and the former Tyburn on the Knavesmire) was the scene of multiple cases of mass trial and executions until the 19th century. Only then did public sensitivity begin to recoil from this conspicuous brutality and some slight reform of the jail system begin to be effected. But York’s former black role should not be ignored in its present day historical presentation. Our commemorating the execution and trial of the Luddites points at only one small fragment of this bloody heritage.

Alan Brooke (from Huddersfield Local History Society and co-author of Liberty or Death), dressed appropriately in contemporary Luddite costume, explored the legacy of Luddism. If in one sense it was not spoken about in the Huddersfield area in years afterwards, that was part of the close culture of the people protecting their own and reflecting the extreme secrecy within which the Luddites had organised. Luddism was only one of three revolts in those times in which Huddersfield people took part. It seeped into local consciousness. To a degree it was also a precursor to Huddersfield’s unusual level of conscientious objection in 1914-18. But Alan also traced the influences through dystopian literature, the politics of Bavarian revolt in 1919 and through to modern debates about technology in society. It is useful to understand that the re-appraisal of the Luddites by today’s historians has its counterpart in current political and social movements. There is an ongoing debate as to whether we can build a relationship with technology that is not fundamentally de-humanising, degrading and impoverishing of all but a minority. Livelihoods continue to be mercilessly destroyed in the name of a ‘progress’ that seems to have little to do with human well-being. Technology is double-edged and that comes down to the question of who is in control and for what purpose.

Perhaps picking up from Alan’s more political appreciation of the Luddites, many of the contributions from the floor seemed to focus on the relevance of the Luddites for today’s politics, rather than directly engaging with the arguments presented by all three speakers. This had the unintended affect of deterring some people who had come to learn more about who the Luddites were, losing the value of having Katrina and Malcolm to answer questions and comments. Katrina’s discussion of the importance of communal context is just as vital for guiding action today and Malcolm’s arguments laid bare how politically loaded is the idea of ‘heritage’, which can subtly influence the sense that people have of themselves today, as Adam commented in his introduction.

This minor cavil apart, thanks to the wide coverage of the talks, we came away with much on which to ponder and reflect. Involvement in this commemorative enterprise has given me a wholly new appreciation of the significance of Luddism that will lead me off into further investigation, both of the past and of its relevance today – hopefully others will be similarly motivated. Meanwhile perhaps this highly personal view, only one among ninety, will prompt others to comment?

Gateway to York’s History – Open or to be Shut?

The consultation process to build the case for HLF funding to improve the City of York’s provision for archives and local studies came to an end on 1 August. The submission will be made in a month’s time and the result will be known at the end of the year. If successful, the construction phase will happen during 2013 and finish in the spring of 2014, subject also to the planning process now in progress. For those who have suffered the old archive provision and the current mess in the upstairs of York Explore, the improvements can’t come soon enough.

The overall archive and local studies content in York is second only to London, if one includes the Borthwick Institute at the University of York, the characterful York Minster Library and the City Archives and Local Studies department. Records in the City Archives go back more than 800 years and are not confined to just the civic records, though these form the largest element. For radical and alternative historians who like to write against the official grain, what is in there might come as a surprise: vaccination records, poor law administration correspondence, slum clearance plans, council housing construction, 1960s Civil Defence material, to mention a handful. Unfortunately the content is not matched at all by the provision for access.

Among the improvements, other than architectural, funding has already been achieved for cataloguing the civic archives, thanks to The National Archives. There are plans to open up access to archive material through neighbourhood initiatives, combined with a much broader and more inclusive collections policy. There will be links to schools and colleges and a stronger partnership with the other archives and libraries in the city. Architecturally the key element will be a purpose-built, state of the art repository, which is desperately needed. In terms of access for the public, the upstairs of York Explore will be completely re-designed to create separate areas for the secure study of original archive material, informal drop in areas separated from quiet and individual study areas, and a dedicated Family History room. This will be much better, especially for those who want peace and quiet for research.

Congratulations are due to the archive development officer, Richard Taylor, for his open vision for the archives and how they should relate to the wider community, and may every success attend his endeavours to bring this project to fruition. Not everyone will like what is done, some people comfortable in the existing arrangements will have to get used to change and a new professionalism about the place and there will be the inevitable upheaval of construction work. But this project has the potential to improve archives access in the city a thousand-fold from its current dire state and create something with which the people of York can more readily and enthusiastically engage.

If there is one issue over which concern might still be expressed it is the uncertainty of the City Council’s commitment to the future of libraries and archives in York. The current budget indicates that from 2013 there is to be a £200,000 saving scheduled against the establishment of unspecified ‘social enterprises to operate in areas including libraries and community education’. It is time the Council came clean on what exactly this means, especially as it continues to make cuts in grants to other ‘social enterprise’ provisions in arts and culture, year on year. Or are they going to spring it on us as a fait accompli in March 2013, as is their usual practice?

2012 And All That: the long view

This blog post follows on from Martin’s earlier piece entitled ‘2012 And All That!’  That post questioned why the City of York Council were making such a big deal out of an inconsequential medieval charter and, in particular, why they were linking it with freedom, democracy and self-government.  I am going to provide more of a long view of York’s past and development as a town to show how the council are effectively rewriting history.  They are doing so in a way which has implications for how concepts such as self-government and democracy are understood by erasing the ‘ordinary’ people of the city from its history.


Most people living in York have a vague understanding of its development from Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, medieval periods and so on.  How can we not when we live and work with remnants of this history all around us and a strong tourist economy built on the story of this past.  I would argue that this makes the council’s year-long celebration ignorant and even patronising by calling 1212 the year when York became a self-governing city[1].  If that statement were true then we need to ask who governed the earlier settlements of York since Roman Eboracum was established in c.AD71.  (Note: there is earlier evidence of habitation in the York area going back to the Mesolithic; however for the purposes of this piece I am going to start in the Roman period as this is when the past settlements of York can realistically start to be referred to as a city).


Eboracum was established as a Roman fortress and became the permanent base of the IX and, later, VI Legions.  As with many similar settlements across the Roman Empire a civil town developed alongside the fortress.  Eboracum was a very important place; not only was it one of only three permanent legionary fortresses in Britannia but it hosted several Roman Emperors at a time when the Empire would have been ruled from whichever place the Emperor happen to be.  This put York at the centre of Roman politics on several occasions, most notably with the controversial proclamation of Constantine I as Emperor in 306.  Not only did Eboracum become the capital of northern Britain (Britannia Inferior) but around 3rd century it was made a colonia, the highest legal status a city in the Roman Empire could attain.  By this time it was as, if not more, self-governing as the 1212 charter made medieval York.  It was ruled by a council made up of wealthy locals such as merchants and veteran soldiers.


With the withdrawal of centralised Roman administration and military force from 410 Eboracum ceased to exist in its previous the form and function.  As with the rest of what was Roman Britain the way society was organised went through a period of change, away from urban centres of power to a myriad of often self-sufficient smaller settlements alongside local leaders competing for power.  The end of the Roman Empire enabled much movement of people across Europe as new opportunities (for trade, land ownership, power etc.) became available and were exploited.  It is into this context that the Anglo-Saxon cultures developed in what was to become England.  By c.600 there is evidence of the development of an Anglo-Saxon trading centre (wic) at York, known as Eorforwic.  There were several wics such as Eorforwic all over North-West Europe around the same time; all seem to have been important central trading centres in contact with each other and under substantial, if not outright, royal control.  The power struggles which characterised the immediate post-Roman period in had led to the development of competing kingdoms.  By the 7th century the most powerful of these included Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria.  Eorforwic became a cultural centre and the capital of the Northumbrian sub-kingdom, Deira.  As such, it would have been controlled by a continually fluctuating combination of the Northumbrian kings, their lords and, with the conversion to Christianity, the church.  Although power was autocratic and most likely semi-feudal, it was not fixed and was subject to a culture of honour, indebtedness, political marriages, pledges, allegiances and oaths.  This permeated all the way through society from slaves to kings.  This is the context in which York became subject to Viking rule and in many ways Jorvik continued to be governed in much the same way as Eorforwic had been, through a combination of competing interests – ultimate power belonging to whichever king sat on the throne of what had become the Kingdom of Jorvik (this was essentially Northumbria but under Scandinavian rulers).


With the formation of England under the Wessex kings and their defeat of the last king of Jorvik, Eric Bloodaxe, York was controlled by newly established Earl of York.  Both Nordic and Anglo-Saxon men were granted this title and ultimately answered to the king of England.  However, the king had to contend with the continual power struggles between his lords, the church and other elite individuals (such as landowning and/or very successful merchants/traders) in taking decisions that would affect York.  The 1066 Norman invasion of England led William the Conqueror to consolidate his power by making sure all his lords were loyal to him.  In order to achieve this he replaced many of the Anglo-Norse lords with Norman ones.  York is often cited as a centre of a northern uprising against King William I, however society at this time had become very structured and it is unlikely that peasants and other lower status people would have had reason to rebel against a new ruler – not much would change for them, just the individual that they were indebted to would speak an early form of French rather than an Anglo-Norse dialect (this isn’t to say that the language issue isn’t important – they are more likely to fight for someone who spoke in a similar way to them, however the poorer sections of society would not have seen much change in their daily lives whether they were ruled by a Norman or Anglo-Norse lord).  The rebellion is more likely to have been instigated by the Anglo-Norse lords who would have called on their subjects to fight for them.  Historical sources report that William I “laid waste” to the York and the lands around it, however there is little to no archaeological evidence to suggest that this meant mass destruction.  Again, this is elite fighting elite for control of land and although other people may have been caught up in it the outcome would not have made much difference to their life, or given them any more control over the governance of York.


York in the medieval period was controlled on behalf of the king by the sheriff.  He would have also had to contend with powerful people such as local lords, the church and an increasingly wealthy merchant class.  As the traders and merchants grew wealthier they formed guilds (much like a combination of cartels and lobbying groups) that had more and more control over York.  It is in this context that we need to understand the charter of 1212 (see ‘2012 And All That!’).  This was King John attempting to both raise more money and give the power that had previously been held by the earls and sheriffs of York over to the newer mercantile elite.  In short, he was consolidating his power and seeing off a potential elite rebellion like that which William I had faced.


To conclude, the charter of 1212 which the City of York Council are holding up as a beacon of freedom, democracy and self-governance was nothing more than another way of transferring power over York from one elite to another.  York, like any other city, had been controlled by the elite of society up to that point and would continue to be so for a long time after.  To say otherwise is rewriting history or, in other words, outright lying.  It does a disservice to all the people who campaigned to have control over their own lives and the places in which they lived (and still live) in.

Further Reading: