The Top 8 English Towns and Cities With Fascinating Histories
England is curiously well suited to developing history.
Almost everywhere on Earth has a fascinating history, of course. Humans have lived virtually everywhere, invented things virtually everywhere, fought wars virtually everywhere, engaged in intrigues virtually everywhere and generally done all the things that history books are made of all over the world. But in much of the world, those things aren’t recorded. English history has these chunks of time as well: what used to be known as the ‘Dark Ages’ (roughly the 5th to 10th century AD) is dark to us because we don’t know very much about what happened then. There are some kings we know of from only a small handful of coins and nothing else. It’s been suggested that we know less about what happened in those 500 years than we do the 10 hours of the Battle of Waterloo.
So why is England so rich in recorded history, especially from the late medieval period onwards? One reason is that not much has happened since then to disturb the process of gathering and recording historical information. Viking invasions led to the destruction of much scholarship in the early medieval period, but after 1066 England has not been invaded in any meaningful way. Records were destroyed in the Reformation, and again during the Civil War, but these are blips in a country that did most of its fighting and destruction overseas.
England is also small and densely populated – 53 million people in 130,000 km2 – which were it a country in its own right, would put it in the top twenty most crowded in the world. This means that in England, there is very little space that hasn’t at some point been ploughed, dug up, built on or otherwise explored. Our ancestors did it, and left traces; we do it again, and find them. This leaves us with a lot of material to figure out what happened throughout those many long and fascinating years.
So where should you go to learn about it? In this article, we take a look at the top eight towns and cities in the UK with the most rich and interesting histories, and how best to go about exploring them.
If there’s anywhere in England that isn’t London that the casual history fan has heard of, then it might well be Nottingham. Nested in that particular bit of England that makes people argue about where the North starts, it’s now a city of nearly a million people. However, it’s probably best known for the time in the 12th century when the nearby Sherwood Forest was allegedly inhabited by an outlaw known as Robin Hood.
You probably know the story: while Richard the Lionheart was fighting in the Crusades, his younger brother Prince John levelled heavy taxes on the suffering poor and was generally not a very nice man. Enter Robin Hood, a gentleman who abandoned his position to live in the forest as an outlaw, robbing from the rich to give to the poor in order to alleviate some of the damage of Prince John’s actions – and clashing with the Sheriff of Nottingham in the process. Nottingham Castle frequently features in the stories, and although not much of the original castle remains, what is there can still be visited, and houses a museum and art gallery. There’s even a Robin Hood pageant every October.
You’re less likely to have heard of Winchester than Nottingham, but it has associations with two of England’s most famous kings: King Arthur and King Alfred. King Arthur allegedly ruled England after the Roman Empire abandoned it, and in some stories he defends the country against the incursion of Saxons. There’s no evidence he actually existed, but that didn’t stop the Tudor monarchs from claiming descent from him, and even now both Prince Charles and Prince William have Arthur as a middle name. It’s been claimed that Camelot, where King Arthur kept his Court and where the Knights of the Round Table met, was actually Winchester (though plenty of other places make this claim as well). There’s even a real Round Table in the Great Hall – a former courthouse – in Winchester, which was actually made during the thirteenth century, possibly for Edward I, and then painted with the names of Arthur’s knights for Henry VIII.
King Alfred, on the other hand, really did exist and ruled the kingdom of Wessex, which had its capital in Winchester. He’s the only English monarch to be given the epithet ‘the Great’ (not even Arthur gets that). He managed to unite his people against the common enemy of the Vikings, but wasn’t just a military leader: he also improved the rule of law and education in his country. There’s not much of the Winchester that King Alfred knew left – the cathedral, one of the largest in England – dates from 1079. But the city makes the most of what does remain.
Cambridge has one of the best-preserved medieval city centres in the whole of England (you can guess where one of the others might be). Cities built on a medieval plan had a lot of problems – their narrow roads were unsuited to a growing population, they were often unhygienic and their buildings crumbled – so many medieval buildings across the country were torn down under the rapid population growth of the Industrial Revolution. Many more were destroyed in air raids in the Second World War.
While Cambridge was the site of the first civilian bomb in the Second World War, it otherwise emerged mostly unscathed. That means that unlike many cities, where you can visit and be told that such-and-such a place is where such-and-such a thing once stood, and if you look closely you can see that some of the foundations still remain, in Cambridge you can still wander surrounded by grand medieval and Renaissance buildings. There’s even a rare surviving piece of Anglo-Saxon architecture in the form of St Bene’t’s Church tower. The distinctive Round Church dates to the early 12th century, and there are hosts of beautiful university buildings from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.
From medieval splendour, we jump forward to the great city of the Industrial Revolution. Manchester was relatively insignificant until the mid-18th century, when its position made it splendidly suited to the growing textile industry. Its population exploded with workers who abandoned the countryside in favour of the better wages the factories offered, and this made the city very distinctive. High levels of immigration (from overseas as well as within the country) and the sense of rapid change made the city a hub of unconventional thinking, invention and discovery.
Exploring England’s industrial past is worthwhile for anyone interested in history or development. While grand medieval buildings may be more beautiful than Victorian factories, it was in England and in cities like Manchester specifically that the Industrial Revolution and the prosperity that enabled the world-changing project of the British Empire came to be, and where the model of development that turned a poor agricultural country into a rich industrial one was first formed – a model that is still being followed around the world today. To understand the impact of early capitalism in action, Manchester is one of the best places to visit.
Back to the medieval now and to the city of Canterbury, the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church. The first archbishop was Saint Augustine, who led the mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons in England to Christianity. Later came Saint Thomas Becket, whose martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral – which still stands today – made the city a major destination for religious pilgrims.
Becket, who lived during the 12th century, had clashed repeatedly with Henry II over the amount of independence the clergy should be allowed. He even threatened Henry, his bishops and anyone else involved with excommunication (which under their theology would have condemned them to Hell after death). Henry is said to have cried in exasperation, “who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” – which was acted on by four of his knights as a command to kill Thomas Becket. A cathedral was meant to be a safe place, but Becket failed to submit to arrest, and the knights attacked him. Only a few years after his death, he was declared a saint, and for centuries afterwards pilgrims came to Canterbury (as in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, where the pilgrimage is clearly more of a holiday for several of the characters) to worship at Becket’s shrine. Income from pilgrims allowed the cathedral to be expanded, and it’s now part of a World Heritage Site.
York is another historical capital, both during Roman times and the time of the Viking kingdoms of Northumbria and Jorvik. There are extensive archaeological remains from both times, but not much else. Medieval York, though, is remarkably intact, including an unusually complete set of city walls. Having been settled by the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, the history of York is a neat encapsulation of the early history of England.
In many other cities with medieval remains, the picture is misleading. Some medieval buildings might still be standing, but they’re not in a medieval setting: roads have been widened, garde space added, and layers upon layers of small refinements made over the centuries have eroded much of their medieval flavour. Winchester is a good example of this: Winchester College has medieval buildings, but it was originally out in the countryside near the city. In the six centuries since its foundation, the city has expanded around it, so its fortified walls no longer make the impression they would have done when it was built.
In York, by contrast, the greater level of preservation means that we can see how small and cramped the medieval city would have been and the level of defence it required from those remarkable walls. The shopping street the Shambles shows how narrow medieval streets were, with overhanging buildings to maximise the small space. Visiting York brings to life how the people of the Middle Ages really lived.
Could we write a list like this without including London? Admittedly visiting London doesn’t really have the power of visiting somewhere like York; wherever you go in London, you can’t fail to be aware of the modern city all around you. At the same time, London has dominated the history of England since the time of the Norman invasion. You might start a historical tour at the squat and aggressive Tower of London, built just twelve years after the Norman conquest, a clear symbol of the power the new rulers of the country would exert over its population whether they liked it or not.
You might then cross the Thames towards the Globe Theatre, a loving recreation of the theatre in which Shakespeare worked for much of his career. From there, you might cross over again and go to St Paul’s Cathedral, a masterpiece of English Baroque architecture from the 17th century, dating from the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Then you might go to the Palace of Westminster, otherwise known as the Houses of Parliament, built over a thirty-year period during the reign of Queen Victoria. There’s probably nowhere else in England where you could experience such a whistlestop tour of the major events of English history within a reasonable walking distance.
Where else could we pick but Oxford? It, too, housed a monarch for a while, when Charles I set up his court there during the Civil War. It, too, provides a chance to step into medieval England and imagine what it might be like for a young scholar first arriving there nearly a thousand years ago. In Oxford you can see an example of every major type of architecture since the Anglo-Saxons, who left their mark with the Saxon tower of St Michael at the North Gate. You can explore English history through Victorian graffiti in Christ Church or the provisions made by various colleges to prevent riots. Students taking exams still walk through the city streets in traditional sub fusc academic dress. The University of Oxford was the first university in England and the second in Europe; its continued existence preserves a wealth of history and contributes to making any visit to the city fascinating.
Which English towns and cities do you think are most worth visiting for their history? Let us know in the comments!
Image Credits: Map, Major Oak, King Alfred Statue, Bridge of Sighs, Ancoats Mill, Canterbury Tales, The Shambles, Globe Theatre, Radcliffe Camera.