The Anglian Tower and its excavation

Here is the second guest blog from Eva Barker, one of our brilliant York St John’s University placement students

Plan of Anglian Tower excavations c1970

The site around York Library has a dense history, many of the buildings previously on this site still have visible remnants today, including the Mint Yard, St Leonard’s Hospital’s crypt and chapel, the Multangular Tower, the Church of St Maurice, and the Anglian Tower.

The latter being the subject of my interest when I came across its excavation documents in York Explore Archive inside the library. While its construction date is under debate, likely around the mid-7th Century to the mid-9th Century, its historical significance is not under debate, it is the only remaining Anglo-Saxon structure in the country that does not have ecclesiastical ties.

Although only the ground floor remains, it gives a very impressive representation of contemporary construction skills, with some of its walls being as thin as two inches, and the height reaching 3 metres. The two entrances on the ground floor suggest that it was designed for a sentry to walk along the base of the City Walls.

The site was left undiscovered after the 866AD Viking invasion, and only found in 1839 by workmen tunnelling from St Leonard’s Place to the Mint Yard. The excavation of the Tower only began in 1970 by digging into the banks behind the City Walls, where the archaeologists discovered several layers of defensive banks from the Medieval, Norman, Dark Age, and Roman periods. For many years the location had a plaque commemorating the lead archaeologist on the excavation, Jeffery Radley, who unfortunately died in an accident on site. The team managed an incredible accomplishment and dug a total of 30 feet from the original bank level to 15 feet below the modern-day street level of King’s Manor Lane. The different bank levels are now labelled for the public, but as anyone who has tried to visit the site will know, what is physically observable from the lower and upper paths is severely limited.

The council currently has plans underway to make the pathways more accessible, this is a very important feat as consequently it will make York’s history more accessible. The current City Archaeologist, Claire MacRae, helpfully explained that while the main goal of the City of York Council is to improve accessibility around the Anglian Tower, they will also be making efforts to conserve the Tower and surrounding walls.

Anglian Tower excavations c1970

This should also improve the ease of admittance to the many guided tours that go through this area of the City Walls, helping the public actually observe York’s deep history first-hand.

Accessibility is an objective every historian should have, and the archives are a great place to begin any research on the Tower as they hold a myriad of documents about the initial excavation. A majority of the excavation documents were drawn out by P.D. Little, and D.R. Henderson and the drawings shown here should provide you with a glimpse into the archives. Though I should point out that nothing compares to seeing these documents in-person, and I encourage everyone to take advantage of the archival resources of the city.

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