The University of Iowa

York- gem of history and beauty in Northern England

June 9th, 2014

By Amanda Bartlett*

I have seen Big Ben, the London Eye, and ridden a double decker bus. I can (sort of) navigate the underground tube system. I’ve even gotten to know a couple of the locals on a first-name basis. All in all, it’s safe to say that I’ve fallen in love with the bustling city of London. Despite this, it was nice to get out of the urban atmosphere for a day and visit the beautiful city of York, England.

The five-hour train ride led us to a dreamlike town, perfectly preserved with its unique antiquity. Visions of rolling green meadows (yes, like The Sound of Music), rustic castles, and Roman walls from as early as 71 AD tantalized my view. I was so eager to tour our first destination, the York Museum.

The castle museum is housed in genuine 18th century buildings, where we centered our focus on what life was really like in the original Victorian prison cells. The prison has been around for over 1,000 years, and was originally built by William the Conqueror in 1068 as a base to control Northern England. Some famous inmates were brought to life, including the legendary highwayman Dick Turpin, as well as the last woman to be burnt at the stake in Yorkshire. Interestingly enough, a database was also available for visitors to check their own family name and see if they had any ties to past prisoners.

primitive writing on wall

Etchings by a prisoner from 1834

What I found most interesting, however, was that prisoners were allowed to fight for their rights despite such horrible living conditions. Petitions, or written pleas by the prisoners, were sent to the County Magistrate. Sometimes 80 or even 100 prisoners added their names to a list of complaints. Magistrates actually paid attention to these petitions and often acted on the complaints made in them. For example, prisoners were allowed to receive a set amount of bread and water each week. However, many received much less than required, and were starving to death. So, a petition was written, stating that if this did not change, they would threaten to rebel and escape. The magistrates listened and respected their wishes. So, even though prisoners did not have a lot of power, the system of petitioning at least reduced the risk of dying from starvation, cold, disease, or torture.

The castle itself is still a seat of justice, where the 18th century Courthouse is now York Crown Court. Though we did not visit them, people accused of serious crimes are placed in its holding cells and tried there.


1. Message left in the prison
2. Remains of coffins
3. Pretending to be a prisoner myself!

*Amanda is a freshman from Pleasant Hill, Iowa, majoring in journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa. She is currently studying abroad on the summer program Crime and Justice in Britain.