English cities York and Cambridge were both settled in the Stone Age and ruled in turn by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans.
Over the centuries, a fascinating cast of characters walked their streets while making history.
York, a quintessential market town, served as world headquarters for four different Roman emperors.
Cambridge, home to one of the oldest and finest universities in the world, inspired both Isaac Newton and Pink Floyd.
Oddly, its founding was prompted by a spate of killings.
The scene of the crime that launched the University of Cambridge was not Cambridge, but its rival, the University of Oxford.
In 1208, an Oxford student killed a local woman with an arrow. No one knows whether the death was intentional or accidental.
When the crime was discovered, a mob of angry townspeople descended upon the student’s apartment. As the suspect had already fled, the mob rounded up the usual suspects—his roommates—instead.
Although the roommates claimed ignorance of the crime, the townspeople, with the approval of King John, lynched them anyway.
The hangings took place during a lawless period in England, caused by a rift between church and state. Pope Innocent III demanded that all kings answer to him. King John and some other European kings refused.
In the Oxford case, the church backed the university and the king backed the town. Fearful for their lives, most of Oxford’s students and professors sought refuge elsewhere. Some settled in the town of Cambridge and, in 1209, founded a new university.
Today, Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world and the fifth best, according to a recent ranking.
During a visit to Copenhagen, I admired how thousands of cyclists efficiently navigated the city’s streets. Cyclists there have clearly designated lanes and even their own traffic lights.
The considerable bike traffic in Cambridge is, instead, chaotic and dangerous. In the center of town where the university is located, car traffic is prohibited. Each of Cambridge’s twenty thousand students, it seems, rides a bicycle. They fly around corners and barrel down lanes, offering neither warnings nor apologies, and scatter tourists in every direction.
Nevertheless, I strolled down King’s Parade to Trinity Street to Saint John’s Street, all one street, to Bridge Street. On the River Cam, punters were prepping for a day of poling tourists in flat-bottomed boats.
On the opposite side of the river I had a look at the Backs, including the classic view of King’s College.
I joined a group for a walking tour of a few of the colleges. We were asked to identify our nationalities—Spanish, French, Polish, Filipino, Russian, Chinese, and so on.
When I revealed mine as American, the guide looked aghast. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “Don’t you have to vote?” (Europeans followed our election closely. Two days later, I returned to the States in time to vote.)
While providing a history of Cambridge, the guide refused to pronounce the name of the university’s chief rival, Oxford, much like Ohio State fans avoid mentioning “that team up north.”
Cambridge’s colleges are arranged like the houses of Hogwarts. That is, the individual colleges within the university serve as living and learning centers for a select group of students, somewhat like the role fraternities and sororities used to play in the United States.
Cambridge’s thirty-one colleges are self-governing with their own property and endowments. They fulfill housing, dining, socializing, and tutoring needs. Prospects must apply and be accepted at both the university and the preferred college.
Each college quadrangle is entered through a large, ornate gate. Inside are a hall for living and dining, a hall for studying, and a chapel. Like Hogwarts’ houses, Cambridge’s colleges compete with each other throughout the year and nurture lifelong loyalty.
My group toured:
- Pembroke College, founded in 1347. Pembroke is home to the first chapel designed by Christopher Wren. Alumni include founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, and Monty Python’s Eric Idle.
- Corpus Christi College, founded in 1349. Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, is perhaps its most famous son. More recently, Hugh Bonneville, the Downton Abbey actor, was a “corpuscle.”
- Queens’ College, founded in 1448 by King Henry VI’s queen (Margaret of Anjou) and refounded by King Edward IV’s queen (Elizabeth Woodville).
However, Cambridge’s main attraction is King’s College, founded in 1441. Its famous chapel, an example of Gothic English architecture, serves as the town’s icon. Every year on Christmas Eve a choral service is broadcast from the chapel to millions of listeners worldwide.
The cornerstone of the chapel was laid in 1446. During World War II, the chapel’s medieval stained-glass windows were removed and hidden in Wales for their safety.
Above the altar hangs The Adoration Of The Magi by Rubens, painted in 1634. The initials of King Henry VIII and Queen Ann Boleyn are intertwined on the carved oak screen. (He later had her beheaded.)
During the English Civil War, the chapel was used for training by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, but escaped major damage, perhaps because Cromwell was an alumnus of the university.
After touring the colleges, I visited:
- Newton’s Tree, supposedly a descendant of the original apple tree. Isaac Newton said his theory of gravity was developed while watching an apple fall. The descendant tree grows outside the main gate of Trinity College, below the room where Newton used to live.
- St. Botolph’s Church, named after Botwulf of Thorney, the patron saint of travelers. The city of Boston (an abbreviation of “Botolph’s town”) is named after him too.
- Old Cavendish Laboratory, where the electron and neutron were discovered, the atom split, and the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule developed. The laboratory opened in 1874.
- Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest publisher and the second largest university press in the world
- Saxon Tower, a part of Saint Bene’t’s Church. It was built around 1020 and is the oldest building in Cambridge.
- Fitzwilliam Museum, which features antiquities from ancient Egypt, Sudan, Cyprus, Greece, and Rome. With limited time, I focused on the paintings instead, an impressive collection of Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Turner, Van Dyck, Delacroix, Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Monet, Picasso, Pissarro, Renoir, Rousseau, Seurat, Van Gogh, Raphael, Titian, and more.
Downtown is a large clock sculpture unveiled in 2008 by Stephen Hawking.
The clock’s face is a five-feet-wide, gold-plated disc with no hands or numerals. Time is displayed through LED-backlit slits.
On top of the clock is a large animatronic locust, named Chronophage, Greek for time-eater. It gobbles up the seconds as they pass.
“Basically I view time as not on your side,” said the clock designer. “He’ll eat up every minute of your life, and as soon as one has gone he’s salivating for the next.”
The Eagle pub, originally opened in 1667, is owned by Corpus Christi College. The ceiling of its bar is covered with graffiti left behind by World War II airmen, mostly members of the US Air Force. Many American vets have returned to the Eagle over the years and decorated its walls with their military emblems.
When the Cavendish Lab was in operation nearby, the pub was a popular lunch destination for its staff. In 1953, Francis Crick interrupted the pub’s lunchtime to announce that he and James Watson had discovered the secret of life by developing the double-helix model of the structure of the DNA molecule.
The event is commemorated with a plaque at the table where they made the announcement. The pub serves an ale called Eagle’s DNA.
Some three hundred years ago, a fire ravaged the Eagle’s second floor. A young barmaid was trapped in an upstairs room.
Unable to open the window to escape, she perished in the fire. Ever since, the same window is kept open year-round, even during the winter.
An impressive number of Cambridge alums are famous in their fields, including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Sylvia Plath, John Milton (Paradise Lost), E. M. Forster (A Passage To India), Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), A.A. Milne (Winnie The Pooh), Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park), Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Sacha Baron Cohen, King Edward VII, King George VI, King Peter II of Yugoslavia, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, Queen Sofía of Spain, and Prince Charles.
Alums J.J. Thomson discovered the electron and James Chadwick the neutron. John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton first split the atom. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the Manhattan Project, studied at Cambridge.
Mathematician Charles Babbage conceived of the computer and Alan Turing built the first one, as told in The Imitation Game.
Oh, and three signers of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, fifteen British prime ministers, at least thirty heads of foreign countries, ninety-five Nobel Prize winners, members of the bands Procol Harum and Radiohead, and three members of Monty Python.
During my last evening in Cambridge, I heard continuous explosions.
Guy Fawkes Day is observed every year on November 5 with fireworks and bonfires.
In 1605, Fawkes was arrested while guarding explosives hidden beneath the House of Lords. The Gunpowder Plot, aimed at assassinating King James I, was foiled.
In celebration that the king had survived the attempt on his life, people lit bonfires in the streets.
Today, the cartoon likeness of Guy Fawkes signifies anarchy. It appears on masks worn in the graphic novel and movie, V for Vendetta.
Guy Fawkes was born in 1570 at my next stop.
York is an ancient city at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss. Stone-Agers lived in the area as early as 8000 BCE. The Romans arrived, conquered the local tribe and founded the city in 71 CE. They built a fortress to protect what was the most northern outpost of their empire.
Four Roman emperors held court in York, Hadrian (of wall fame), Severus, Constantius I, and his son, Constantine the Great. When Constantius died, Constantine was proclaimed emperor.
In 312 CE Constantine legalized Christianity and in 324 he moved the capital of Rome to a city he named after himself—Constantinople, now Istanbul.
After the Romans withdrew, York was settled, in turn, by the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and the Normans. The Normans erected the city walls that still stand today.
Medieval York grew rich on the wool trade and became England’s second largest city. In the 1800s, its train station was the world’s largest. Today York’s population is over two hundred thousand.
Old York is a fun house of a town. The floors tilt, the walls sag, the ceilings slant. Nothing is plumb. The foundations are still settling, as the centuries-old buildings ride the waves of time.
A snickelway is York’s word for a narrow passageway between buildings, the same as a wynd in Edinburgh, an entry in Belfast, and a ture in Stow-on-the-Wold. Old York is riddled with snickelways, but you have to look sharp to find them.
The B&B where I stayed names its rooms after local attractions. My room was called The Shambles, after a narrow, cobbled, medieval lane in York, once lined with the shops of butchers. The name is derived from shamel, a butcher’s bench upon which meat is displayed.
In the 1500s, meat hung from hooks under the eaves of the shops and lay raw upon the outside shelves. Blood and guts ran down the middle of the street and drained into a pond at the end. The floors above the shops were residences. The buildings now lean crazily toward each other, their walls buckling as their foundations shift.
In the Shambles, I visited the Shrine of Saint Margaret Clitherow. Margaret was a practicing Catholic during King Henry VIII’s time, when Protestantism was the fashion. She was executed for hiding priests in her home. A heavy wooden door (her own) was placed over her prone body and heavy weights piled upon it until she was crushed to death.
I took the free tour of Old York, run by volunteers, which circumnavigated its gates and bars. (In York, gates are streets, bars are gates and pubs are bars.)
The city has, since Roman times, been protected by its walls. Three miles of them still stand, more than in any other city in England. Most were built by the Normans, some on top of the original Roman walls.
On the tour we visited:
- Multangular Tower, one of eight built to protect York from enemies arriving on the river. Constructed around 310 CE by Constantine the Great, the tower is a fourteen-sided polyhedron.
- Bootham and Monk bars, gatehouses which control traffic into and out of the city. Monk Bar, built in the 1300s, was a self-contained fort. The sign at Bootham Bar says, “There has been a gateway here for almost two thousand years. Roman legions marched through it, northwards to present-day Scotland.”
Ruins of Saint Mary’s Abbey, built on top of a church dedicated by the Vikings in 1055 to Saint Olaf II of Norway. After William the Conqueror burned the Viking church, his son gave the land to a community of monks. Saint Mary’s Abbey prospered for hundreds of years until King Henry VIII seized its wealth.
- King’s Manor, once the abbot’s house, was built in 1483. (According to early ballads, the abbots of Saint Mary’s were enemies of Robin Hood.) When King Henry VIII destroyed the abbey, he stayed in the manor, as did subsequent kings. Today, the building is home to the archaeology department of the University of York.
Fort in the cellar
I toured the staggeringly grand Minster, the centerpiece of York, which can be seen for miles. York Minster is the largest medieval Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. More than half of the surviving medieval stained-glass in England is contained within its 128 windows.
The first known church on the site was built quickly in 627 to provide a place to baptize King Edwin of Northumbria. Since then, numerous churches have been built and destroyed. The Vikings demolished one in 1075.
The constuction of the current structure began in 1220. The cathedral was declared complete and consecrated 252 years later.
Like all of Old York, the Minster is built on top of Roman ruins. The foundations of a fort and its barracks were discovered beneath the cathedral in the 1960s. They can now be seen in its vaulted cellar.
The next night, I attended evensong at the Minster. The cathedral was dimly lit, which added to the spirituality of the experience. I sat in the quire behind the choir, composed of fifteen men and fifteen boys. (The church refers to the singers as the choir and the place where they sing as the quire.) The choir’s voices soared angelically to the upper reaches.
Much history lies hidden beneath Old York. A tour guide told a story about a volunteer finding a rare gold coin at a York dig within twenty minutes of starting. Career archaeologists were confounded and jealous.
I toured the Yorkshire Museum to see some of the treasures unearthed locally, including:
- Roman statues and tombstones
- Coppergate Anglo-Saxon Helmet from the 700s, one of only four ever found
- Ormside Bowl, made by a silversmith in the 700s, one of the finest found in England
- Bedale Hoard of forty-eight gold and silver necklaces, arm bands, ingots, and a sword pommel, dating to the 800s
- Vale of York Viking Hoard of 617 silver coins and other items from the 900s
- Cawood Sword, dating to the 1100s
- Medieval Shrine of Saint William of York, dating to 1330
- Middleham Jewel, a gold pendant with a blue sapphire, dating to 1460
Dick the Kid
A cold, sunny morning. At the B&B I woke to the smell of fresh-baked bread. At breakfast the server asked, “Ya want yar toast bootered?”
I walked through town to Clifford’s Tower, all that is left of York Castle. The first castle on the site was built in 1068 by William the Conqueror. After its destruction by the Vikings, the castle was rebuilt.
In 1190, 150 local Jews committed suicide inside the keep so as not to fall into the hands of a bloodthirsty anti-Semitic mob. The castle was used as a prison from 1684 until 1929.
Nearby, York Castle Museum displays a jumble of exhibits on everything from 1960s’ nostalgia to healthy eating. I toured a dark and dingy replica of a Victorian Street and an exhibit on Britain’s involvement in World War I.
Once, a debtors’ prison was in the cellar. Today, video characterizations of its former inmates are projected on the walls of the cells. They plead their cases. One is Dick Turpin, England’s version of Billy the Kid.
Turpin was a robber and serial killer whose exploits were romanticized, following his execution in 1739 in York for stealing horses. Since his death, he has been portrayed as a dashing rake in English songs, plays, movies. and TV shows.
Cradle of chocolatiers
For British chocolate lovers, York is the wellspring of the industry. Four successful chocolate makers got there start in York in the mid-1800s:
- Joseph and Henry Rountree, founders of Rountree, now part of Nestlé, and the originators of the York Peppermint Pattie, Smarties, and the Kit Kat bar
- Joseph Fry of J. S. Fry & Sons, once the largest commercial producer of chocolate in Britain. Fry originated the modern chocolate bar.
- Joseph Terry of Terry’s, makers of Terry’s Chocolate Orange
- George Cadbury of Cadbury, now the second largest candy company in the world
Incredibly, four of these chocolate titans, Cadbury, Fry, and the Rountree brothers, shared an upstairs bedroom over Joseph Rountree Sr.’s grocery business when they were boys. Cadbury and Fry were apprenticed to Rountree.
They join the kings and poets, warriors and musicians, anarchists and mathematicians, robbers and physicists, monks and comedians, and martyrs and biologists who rose from the streets of York and Cambridge to change the world.