York in Hild’s time, part 2

A couple of weeks ago I posted my thoughts on York in Hild’s time, along with some nifty (or pitiful, depending on your Photoshop skills) maps showing where I thought Edwin might have built his wic.

I’ve since read “Before Eoforwic: New Light on York in the 6th-7th Centuries,”* by Cecily A Spall and Nicola J Toop (Medieval Archaeology, 52, 2008):

This paper offers two new sightings…an early-Anglo-Saxon settlement (6-7th century) from just outside the city, and an extension to the Anglo-Saxon settlement (7th-9th century) already known at Fishergate. Both these settlement occupy the same gravel terrace and are only 2km apart.

I’ve marked them on the map below, along with the site of the previously discovered eighth-century helmet, Coppergate.

York with features relating to development of the Anglo-Saxon wic (after Spall and Toop). Click to enlarge.

Spall and Toop suggest that:

Heslington Hill appears to represent a small rural farming community that had settled on the closest upland to the Roman city by at least AD 550 and remained there into the 7th century…


The best evidence for subsequent Anglo-Saxon occupation (7th-9th century) has emerged outside the fortress, on the eastern bank of the River Ouse at Fishergate. Excavations undertaken by York Archaeological Trust in the 1980s…encountered remains of a settlement of late-7th to 9th-century date: boundary ditches, postholes, stakeholes and pits… The interpretation is of a pre-determined organised settlement, with rectilinear, post-built structures, property divisions and a possible road with evidence for municipal maintenance.

Fishergate is on the east bank of both Ouse and Foss–and so just outside the area I’d marked out for Edwin’s wic:

In Hild (my novel), I assume that Edwin used the Roman fort as one of the stops in his peripatetic perambulations from one royal vill to another. I assume that the hinterlands of the city supplied food for him and his entourage; that occasionally he left the fort lightly garrisoned when he was not in residence; that the city only began to be more populated on a year-round basis once Edwin had been baptised, and Paulinus urged him to consider the symbolism of investing a Roman edifice with Christian ritual and buildings.

I’ve imagined the wic coming into being after a visit to Gipswic, Eorpwald’s East Anglian trading settlement (as part of a royal progress with double purpose: enhance his status as overking–Eorpwald’s lord–and hand over his niece, Hereswith, in marriage to Æthelric, a prince of East Anglia) . Edwin saw the money Eorpwald was skimming from the operation and wanted some of that. So he fostered trade in textiles, and centred it on York.

That all collapsed, for a while, after Edwin’s death and Oswald’s accession. Oswald was far less influenced by Rome; he would have been content to follow his northern heritage and instincts: to avoid ruins and build afresh. Besides, no doubt he would have to spend time consolidating power, not fussing with things like his trading network.

In some ways Spall and Toop’s thinking is similar to mine.

This interpretation emphasises the planned nature of the settlement and sees it as a royal centre established de novo on the banks of the Ouse, thriving as part of a polyfocal network of power, with political and ecclesiastical nuclei postulated in the legionary fortress (in the form of Edwin’s church near the Minster…)

Though they differ in that they interpret this as

…inextricably linked to wider process of social change…with the concomitant increase in social stratification…

It is particularly significant for the settlement sequence at York that Heslington was abandoned at the same time as the establishment of a new settlement on the bank of the Ouse, less than 2km to the west.

I think they have a point. Most big changes comes from a series of smaller, organic changes at the wider cultural and social level. But I’m writing a novel. It makes better story sense to funnel events through the lens of a Great Man–or, rather, from the perspective of named people, in this case a Great Woman (and her mother, and her uncle, the king). I do, of course, spend a lot of time on this notion of inexorable and organic social and cultural change. Because change is what this book is about: change and the woman at its heart.

* Thanks to Sally Wilde.

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