Daniel Defoe's York

York from the Windmill without Castlegate Postern c 1700 Francis Place York Art Gallery

1722AD - 1724AD

Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, toured Britain between 1722 and 1724 and his impressions were captured in his account, ‘A Tour Thro’ The Whole Island Of Great Britain’.  His description of York depicts a city in transition.

York is indeed a pleasant and beautiful city,’ he wrote, ‘and not at all the less beautiful for the works and lines about it being demolished, and the city, as it may be said, being laid open, for the beauty of peace is seen in the rubbish; the lines and bastions and demolished fortifications, have a reserved secret pleasantness in them from the contemplation of the publick tranquility, that outshines all the beauty of advanced bastions, batteries, cavaliers, and all the hard named works of the engineers about a city.

Defoe described York’s Roman origins, and went on:

But now things infinitely modern, compared to those, are become marks of antiquity; for even the castle of York, built by William the Conqueror, anno 1069 almost eight hundred years since Constantine, is not only become ancient and decayed, but even sunk into time, and almost lost and forgotten; fires, sieges, plunderings and devastations, have often been the fate of York; so that one should wonder there should be any thing of a city left.

But ’tis risen again, and all we see now is modern; the bridge is vastly strong, and has one arch which, they tell me, was near 70 foot in diameter; it is, without exception, the greatest in England, some say it’s as large as the Rialto at Venice, though I think not.

York’s importance for the gentry and nobility did not escape Defoe’s eye.

There is abundance of good company here, and abundance of good families live here, for the sake of the good company and cheap living; a man converses here with all the world as effectually as at London; the keeping up assemblies among the younger gentry was first set up here.

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