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York has more miles of intact city walls than anywhere else in England, and some sections of the walls date back to Roman times.
When the Romans first came here in the first century AD, they built a military fort on the banks of the River Ouse. The town of Eboracum grew up around the fort, and strong walls were built to enclose both the fort and town. These walls form the basis of the city walls that remain today.
The most notable Roman remain is the Multiangular Tower, which stands in the Museum Gardens. The tower was built during the reign of Emperor Severus, who resided in York from 209-211 AD. It has 10 sides, and stands almost 30 ft. high. There were once 8 towers, including three on each side of the main entrance to the fort.
The old Roman walls were in a poor state of repair by the time of the Danish occupation of the city in 867. The Danes restored the walls, and left the Anglo-Saxon tower near the Public Library; it is the only such tower remaining in England.
The majority of the wall dates from the 12th to the 14th century, with a few small areas which were restored in the Victorian period.
The three main gateways into the old city stand at Bootham Bar, Monk Bar, Walmgate Bar and Micklegate Bar. The name "bar" refers to the simple bars which were leveled across the gates to restrict traffic in and out of the city. The bars also acted as toll booths during the medieval period.
The rectangular gatehouse of Micklegate Bar (the name derives from the Viking "myla gata" or "geat street") marks the main entrance to the city. It is also the traditional entry point for kings and queen's visiting York. In a ceremony that dates back to Richard II in 1389, monarchs touch the state sword when entering Micklegate Bar.
The gatehouse is four stories high, and contains living quarters on its upper floors. A simple gatehouse was constructed here in the 12th century, but elaborate defenses were added in the 14th, with a heavy portcullis and barbican. There is a small museum inside Micklegate Bar, which traces the history of the Bar and the city itself.
Micklegate Bar was also the place where traitor's heads were displayed to deter rebellion. Some famous (and infamous) heads which decorated the Bar include Henry "Hotspur" Percy (1403), Lord Scrope (1415), Richard, Duke of York (1461), and the Earl of Northumberland (1572). Heads were often left atop the Bar for years.
Bootham Bar contains some of the earliest medieval stonework in the walls, with the oldest sections dating to the 11th century, though much of what can be seen today is from the 14th and 19th centuries.
Monk Bar is the most elaborate of the city gates. It consists of a four-story gatehouse which dates from the early 14th century. The gatehouse was designed to stand as a self-contained fortress, with each floor capable of being defended individually.
Monk Bar is now home to the Richard III Museum, where visitors can attend a modern "trial" of Shakespeare's villain and decide for themselves if Richard was the prototypical evil uncle, or a maligned and courageous king.
Considerably more of the walls might still exist if it were not for the misplaced efforts of the Corporation of York. In 1800 the corporation applied to parliament for permission to destroy the old walls and gates due to their age and the cost of maintenance. Despite opposition, including that of King George II, the city proceeded to demolish 3 walled forts, four gates, and short sections of wall. Some sections of wall have since been repaired.
If you choose to walk the walls of York you'll be sure to meet local inhabitants; a recent survey revealed that walking along the city walls is the favorite leisure activity of fully 39% of York residents. As you walk, look for one of the 136 brass pins set into the wall; they help local archaeologists and engineers precisely measure the location of maintenance work.