Friday, July 27, 2012

A Glimpse of York During the Regency Era

          York is an incredibly ancient city. Romans and Vikings established communities here.  (The Roman Ninth Legion set up camp and called it Eboracum; in 208 a.d., the Roman Empire was governed from York.)  A long Christian tradition carried on in York.  A great cathedral, York Minster, was built here, with construction beginning on the earliest incarnation of that monumental work in the 7th century.  York Minster was (and is) the seat of the Archbishop of York, the second most powerful churchman in Church of England.  The Normans built onto it.  Edward I, II and III held their parliaments there, and the Courts of Justice were held in York for seven years in the 13th century.  At the end of the Wars of the Roses, the City of York came in squarely on the side of Richard III, recording that “…King Richard late mercifully reigning upon us was thrugh grete treason of the ducof Northfolk and many othere that turned ayenst hyme, with many othre lordes and nobilles of this north parties, was pitiously siane and murdred to the grete hevynesse of this citie, the names of whome foloweth hereafter…”  Clearly, York was an important and powerful city, in the thick of things for centuries.

          By the Georgian era, things had settled down quite a bit.  Although other parts of Yorkshire had industrialized, the city of York did not, possibly due to trade restrictions called the “freedom regulations.”  However, it remained the county seat and regional administrative center, and a center of church matters including an ecclesiastical court.  Natural waterways and canals made trade and travel easier.  The turnpike made it easier, and faster, to get to York from London and other cities.  It was a military town, having the Calvary Barracks, and became an important social center with assembly rooms, horse racing, theater, and other social amenities, attracting local gentry and nobility with seats in the county. These county families included those named Fairfax, Scrope, Bourchier, Carr and Fitzwilliam, some with illustrious titles. These, in turn, attracted friends from out of town.  The horse races attracted the Prince of Wales and his set.  Book stores, linen-drapers, mantua makers, milliners, boot makers, and other business provided the goods and services required by the fashionable.  During the Georgian era, some beautiful buildings were constructed, and Fairfax House, built for Viscount Fairfax, was just one of these buildings. Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington, was responsible for the elegant designs of the Mansion House and the Assembly Rooms in York. The city became known as a polite and elegant place to live and to visit, and was one of the fashionable escapes of the day. 

          During the Regency era, theatre, dancing and other entertainments continued to be very popular in York, as elsewhere, and there was an active social season.  Mrs. Jordan (mistress of the Duke of Clarence) performed in The Country Girl in 1811;  Edmund Keane performed at the Theatre Royal in 1819.  The Assembly Rooms (also known as the Burlington Rooms) had their balls, where country dances, quadrilles and cotillions were still popular, even as the waltz was coming into fashion.  If dancing wasn’t one’s preference, one could gamble in the Round Room.  In their way, the Assembly Rooms were the Almack’s of the north, as young people were there to see and be seen, to meet and mingle.  Madame Toussaud also appeared in York with her wax sculptures in a travelling exhibition during this era.  A beautiful tree-lined walk of approximately a mile along the River Ouse, called the New Walk, was a popular place to take the air.

           The York Races were especially popular.  Even though the Prince of Wales was no longer interested in horse racing by 1807, many of the nobility and gentry still came to York in May for races and the festivities surrounding them, including the Race Ball held in the Assembly Rooms.  Buying and selling of race horses, and gambling on the races themselves (and in the Round Room after the races), made the races an especially costly form of entertainment.
          Unfortunately, the lack of industry that made York such a polite and elegant city in which to live or visit resulted in a decline.  By  the 1820’s, the assemblies were down to six winter meetings and a few special event assemblies.  By the 1830’s, the races and theatres were in decline, and the city itself was no longer the important social center it had been.  The population declined somewhat, and the nobility and gentry that had patronized the racing and social scene were spending more time elsewhere.  It wasn’t until later in the 19th century that things improved again. 

Bebb, Prudence.  LIFE IN REGENCY YORK.  York, England: Sessions Book Trust, 1992.

Heap, R. Grundy.  GEORGIAN YORK A Sketch of Life in Hanoverian England.  London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1937.
Lang, W. Andrews and Elsie M.  OLD ENGLISH TOWNS.  London:  Bracken Books, 1965.  (First published 1931 by T. Werner Laurie, Ltd., London.)
Fairfax House website.
History of York website.
Rakehell blog.  Regency Horses, by Shannon Donnelly.
Society of Friends of King Richard III website.
Victoria County History.  Modern York Social Life1800-1839. Publication: A History of the County of York: the City of York, by P. M. Tillott, 1961.   

Lauren Gilbert


  1. Great article, I love York it is a wonderful city, the Minster is brilliant.

  2. This was a wonderful read! This article has peeked my interest in York especially by the fact that it was less industrial...

  3. Was the performance in 1811 by Dorothea Jordan her undoing? After she separated from the Duke of Clarence, he told her that she would be cut off if she did perform. Which, when she did, he did, and in the end she died in poverty.

    Cool article. I visited York in 1990 and want to get back and visit it again.

  4. Elizabeth Gayle FellowsJuly 28, 2012 at 7:15 PM

    Excellent information enjoyed that.


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