York’s Viking heritage under the spotlight

HERITAGE: Alice Roberts and Ben Robinson outside York Minster.
HERITAGE: Alice Roberts and Ben Robinson outside York Minster.
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In a new TV series Professor Alice Roberts explores six of Britain’s most historic towns, with York’s Viking heritage coming under the spotlight. Chris Bond reports.

There are few countries that can match Britain when it comes to historic towns, and tucked away in their myriad streets are some of the most intriguing aspects of the nation’s rich and dramatic past.

It’s something that broadcaster, author and anthropologist Professor Alice Roberts explores in a new Channel 4 series that focuses on key periods in British history by telling the story of a single town or city.

From a remarkable archaeological find hidden under a café in Chester, to a Viking poo that’s almost a thousand years old in York, Britain’s Most Historic Towns sheds light on the stories that underpin some of our well-known cities.

In each of the six episodes, Professor Roberts visits historic sites and meets local historians to understand how each place was shaped by the dominant forces of the age.

Exploring how people might have lived in each period, she attempts to storm a Norman castle, takes a crash course in 19th century female etiquette in Victorian Belfast and is subjected to some humiliating Tudor justice in Norwich.

With the help of CGI technology Roberts brings long-lost monuments back to life, while aerial archaeologist Ben Robinson takes to the skies to see how the layout of each town can be traced back in time.

The series started last week with Roberts delving into the past to examine Roman Chester and continues tomorrow night when York’s Viking influence comes under the microscope.

She admits it was difficult narrowing the shortlist down. “It was very hard. To get into the final six, the town or city had to have a really exciting story to tell.

“For many of the towns, the time frame in which we’re visiting them was when they were really ‘put on the map’ or transformed in an important way that’s left a legacy today. There had to be a good mix of grand narrative and surprising revelations,” she says.

“Each place was transformed during the time window that we look through. So we see each town starting off as something quite unrecognisable and then blossoming into something much more familiar.

“Even with the more remote periods – Roman Chester and Viking York – there are plenty of physical traces of those periods still there to see today.

“It’s incredible that the layout of the centre of Chester, for instance, is still essentially that of the original Roman fort.”

As Roberts points out, Britain is awash with historic sites and she says her journey into the nation’s past was a fascinating one.

“From finding part of a palace in a chocolate shop to exploring an abandoned linen mill near Belfast, there were plenty of memorable moments. I enjoyed ‘hunting’ deer at dawn in the New Forest, in the footsteps of William I. It’s easy to feel yourself transported back a thousand years in that woodland.”

The series unearthed some interesting stories such as the role that Chester played in a plan to extend the boundaries of the Roman Empire, and the discovery of what might be Britain’s very first hospital, in Winchester.

But as Roberts points out, if you want to get a better understanding of the Vikings and what they were all about then there’s one place in particular that offers the greatest insight – and that’s York.

Along with Dublin, York was the axis of Viking power in Britain and one of its two capitals. As Roberts puts it: “If you really want to understand the Vikings then York is the place to be.”

The Vikings captured the city, once the Roman stronghold of Eboracum and later the capital of the English kingdom of Northumbria, in 866 when it became known as Jorvik.

Perhaps it’s to do with their wild reputation, one reinforced by the classic 1958 film The Vikings starring Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas, but our fascination with axe-wielding Norsemen hasn’t dimmed over time.

The Viking world could certainly be a violent one and contained slaves and gender divisions, things we would recoil from today. Yet though their fearsome reputation was well earned (and actively encouraged by them), they were more than just invaders and warriors, they were also explorers, traders and craftsmen.

And while York was ruled by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and later the Normans, it’s the Vikings over the course of a century that arguably left the biggest impression.

“The legacy of York’s Viking past is still clearly visible in the city,” says Roberts. “As you walk around York so many of the road names end in ‘gate’, that’s Viking old Norse for ‘gata’ meaning ‘street.’ There’s Swinegate, the street of the pigs, and Coppergate, the street of the cup-makers, and then there’s Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate and I have no idea what that is...”

One of the reasons we know so much about Viking life in York stems from the astonishing Coppergate archaeological dig which began in the heart of the city back in 1976 and uncovered the best preserved Viking settlement anywhere in the UK. “Over the next five years 40,000 artefacts were unearthed including five tonnes of animal bones, a quarter of a million pieces of pottery and the most complete Viking-era structure in the UK,” says Roberts.

These rare finds helped archaeologists gain an insight into what life was like during this period and how the Viking settlers integrated with the locals and influenced day-to-day behaviour.

The discovery of items such as combs show that the men took great pride in their appearance – something that caused local women to swoon and which the local men tried to copy.

“One Anglo-Saxon monk complained that the men of York were copying the bathing habits and hairstyles of the Pagan invaders,” says Roberts.

They left their mark in more obvious, and lasting, ways too. Archaeologist Ben Robinson points out that while names such as Wetherby, Selby and Haxby were introduced by the Vikings, they kept Anglo-Saxon ones such as Elvington and Pocklington. “If the Vikings wanted to wipe the Anglo-Saxons off the face of the earth, surely they’d have changed all the place names?”

It’s another indication that their relationship was closer than many people perhaps realise, and shows just how multi-layered the story of this country really is.

And it’s something that Roberts is keen to emphasise. “I hope this series will inspire people of all ages to discover the history on their own doorsteps – or to visit British towns 
and cities they don’t know well and seek out that rich history.

“You don’t need to go to Rome, Prague or Vienna to find wonderful architecture, amazing stories and surprising, hidden gems.”

* Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Viking York, airs tomorrow night (April 14) at 8pm on Channel 4.