Representing the Past: York’s Guildhall

20th July 2013

York Guildhall East Window

York Guildhall East Window


An interesting discussion took place the other week in one of my Day Schools at York University  “Building the Guildhall”. The discussion focused on the Guildhall’s East Window, which depicts 10 individuals  selected to illustrate the history of the city of York, and why these particular people, or “Worthies of York” were chosen.

The Guildhall in York was extensively damaged in 1942 when Hitler decided to bomb towns and cities mentioned in the Baedecker travel guide in retaliation for the RAF’s bombing of  Lubeck.

Alderman Meek’s East Window, created in 1863, was destroyed by these “Baedecker raids” and in 1960 the city of York created a new window to represent the past of the historic city of York.

The choice of individuals representing the history of the city, in the top two rows of the window, sparked an interesting discussion. The top row depicts four figures (left to right); John Thornton, of Coventry, Constantine the Great, King Athelstan and William Etty. The second row depicts King Edward III and his wife Queen Phillippa in the centre with Archbishop Walter de Grey and Lord Fairfax to the left and  Robinson Crusoe and Lord Burlington to the right.


The choice of Lord Fairfax who saved the city from being ransacked after the Siege of York in 1644 seems logical, as does the choice of King Edward III and Queen Phillippa who married in the city in 1328 when Edward based his government in York during the Scottish Wars. More tenuous is the depiction of Robinson Crusoe- who is a fictional character- although the author, Daniel Defoe, states that Crusoe was born in York. Defoe did visit the city on his travels, but was not a York man. Neither was John Thornton, “of Coventry”, who glazed the East window of the Minster, nor William Etty, the painter, who lived in the city of York in his retirement. Are these choices  an accurate reflection of the key individuals who had an impact on the city?

Where, for instance, is a depiction of Eric Bloodaxe, arguably one of the most famous (or is that infamous) Viking rulers of York- and the last ruler of the independent Kingdom of York? And why is King Athelstan given a prominent role? Athelstan’s conquest of York in 927 could be seen as a watershed moment when the House of Wessex, based in modern Hampshire, defeated York’s Viking rulers, but on Athelstan’s death in 939 York immediately chose another Viking, Olaf Guthfrithsson, as their king. It was to be another sixteen years before the House of Wessex finally crushed the independence of the northern kingdom, defeated Eric Bloodaxe and absorbed York into “England”. Who was the more important in the development of the city: Athelstan or the Vikings?

There is no denying that Walter de Grey, Archbishop of York, who was responsible for the 13th century rebuilding of the Gothic Minster, and Lord Burlington, who planned the Assembly Rooms in York, had an impact on the physical fabric of the city.  But there were others such as John Carr, whose 19th century buildings range from schools and hospitals to affluent homes such as Fairfax House  that are found all over York, not to mention the  Rowntree’s model village at New Earswick. Does the choice of the Assembly Rooms more reflect the fact that the building had been renovated in the 1950s and was part of the shared common values of those who made the choices for the window in 1960?

And yes- Constantine the Great was declared Roman Emperor in York in 306, unified a fractured Empire and by 313  stopped the persecution of  Christianity in the Roman Empire.  But perhaps equally important was Constantine’s mother Helen- in fact Helen may have been at one time the patron saint of York.  Her Christianity was an important factor in the “conversion” of her son Constantine (who still hedged his bets and also maintained an altar to Mithras- the god of the Roman soldiers). Significantly, there were at least three medieval churches dedicated to St. Helen in medieval York. Helen was an early saint – and is reputed to have found or rediscovered many holy relics for the newly legitimised  Christian faith. Two churches, St. Helen’s in Fishergate Street, and St. Helen on the Walls in Aldwark have since been demolished. Interestingly, St. Helen on the Walls in Aldwark had a close association with Constantine and was said to be the burial place of his father Emperor Constantius in 306. Whether or not there is any truth in this local legend,  it does prove an association with Constantine of some kind.

There is still a church dedicated to St. Helen in York today. St. Helen’s, Stonegate, lies on an old Roman road near the main entrance to the fort- a very significant position. Whilst the current building is mainly 14th century, and the first historical record dates from the 12th century, it may rest on older foundations.  In 1548 the church was partially demolished, but  the citizens of York obtained an Act of parliament to rebuild the church because it had stood in a ‘principal place’ and its suppression had ‘defaced and deformed’ the city. Passions ran high, it seemed, for St. Helen, the mother of Constantine and perhaps once the patron saint of York. And yet where is she in the East window of the Guild Hall?

Memorials, whether in print, sculpture, or windows, tell us more about the people who commissioned and made them than it does about the actual past. The ten “Worthies of York” chosen in 1960 may not be the ten we would choose today. But then history changes, as we change, not purely because we find out more about the past, but because our perceptions of ourselves and our society change. We reinvent the past in  our own image and we will always do so!

Visit the History of York to find out more about the individuals depicted in the Guildhall’s East window.