York Death Tour

Recently I took it upon myself to drag one of my carers around York to learn about death and graveyards.  Don’t feel too sorry for her, it was a warm day and we had stopped for a cup of tea half way through.

The information I used to cobble together the tour came from a York tourist board self guided tour, The York Graveyard Guide and Tyburn Tales (about executions in York).  It was both interesting and educational and I thought I’d share some of what we discovered in case anyone else is fascinated by the history of death in York…

It is estimated that the city of York contains about half a million corpses and skeletons within the walls alone.  In the middle ages, there were about 50 graveyards and over the years, they filled up, were closed and sometimes built on.

We started off the tour in Museum Gardens at St Leonard’s Hospital Arch.  The hospital was erected on the site of St Peter’s Hospital which was damaged in a fire in 1137.  In medieval times, hospitals cared for the sick, the poor, the old and the disabled but also tended to spiritual health as well as physical health.

In one of the arches of St Mary’s ruins, you can see the tomb of William Etty.  Next we headed round the corner and peered over the fence to St Olave’s graveyard.  In 1853 vaults were available in the church but cost a rather steep £100 to discourage people from being buried there.


Inside Kings Manor there is apparently a couple of find medieval stone coffins but you need to ask the porter’s permission to see them so we didn’t bother.  We did however learn that the coffins were wedge shaped and this was because Christianity stressed that you should leave the world as you entered it – that is without any grave goods.  This was very different to the Roman way of doing things which involved many grave goods such as wine and food and jewellery.  Bodies in the Christian burials were wrapped in a shroud, which in the 17th century had to be made of English wool to encourage the English wool trade…!  Like the Romans, the coffin was made of stone to preserve the body for resurrection.

Next stop was Bootham Bar which has been a gateway into York since 71AD.  It was also one of the places where you could find heads impaled on spikes.  If you were found guilty of treason you would be punished horrifically and your head would be boiled in salt water and covered in pitch to preserve it before it was put on a spike on one of the bars (entrances) to York.

Walking through Bootham Bar and heading towards the Minster you find St Michael-le-Belfry Church.  In front of the church is a triangle of pavement and was once part of the graveyard.  Burials are often still close to the surface so building work can disrupt them; on one occasion, a skeletal hand fell out of the floor.  One of the people buried here was Nathan Drake who died in 1778, 47 years later his wife Mary joined him, aged 92.  Another notable person was Dr Alexander Hunter who was a medical graduate from Edinburgh.  He came to York to take over a medical practice and was one of the founders of Bootham Park Hospital which opened in 1777 and was the fifth purpose build asylum in the country.

There is obviously much that could be said about the minster and death but that feels like an entire blog post (or series of books!) of it’s own.

Monk Bar was the next stop.  It is the tallest of all the bars and home to York’s only working portcullis which was last lowered in 1953 for the coronation of the queen.  The rooms above the gateway give access to so called murder holes which allowed enemies to be attacked from above.  At one stage the rooms were used as a prison and in 1631 held a man called Martin Best.  Best had arrived in York having previously been in London, in a house that was infected with the plague.  He was kept in the prison and his goods were burnt as part of the attempts to mitigate the impact of the plague in York.

This tenuously led on to us learning more about the plague.  The worst plague in York was in 1604 and was blamed on the arrival of the Scots.  York was struck again in 1631 but managed to avoid the great plague of 1655.  Attempts to control the plague included killing the city’s cats and dogs who were thought to spread the disease.  The poor who got ill were moved to camps outside the city and were supplied with food and drink.  Other victims quarantined themselves in their home.  Money was dipped in vinegar and goods coming into the city, especially cloth, were often impounded.

Nearby was St Maurice’s which has since been pulled down to make way for the inner ring road.  The church was near the County Hospital and when you went in for help, you had to pay a deposit to cover your burial fees.  If you made it out alive, you got that money back.  If not, you were buried in St Maurice’s graveyard.


After a quick chat about St Maurice’s in Monkgate, we moved round the city walls to the sainsburys car park.  Also known as Jewbury which might give more of a hint about its relevance.

Jewbury was a cemetery between 1177 and 1290 when Jews were expelled from England.  Before 1177, Jews had to be taken to London for burial, wherever in the country they lived and died.  In 1177, Henry II gave permission for Jewish burial grounds outside about 10 cities, York being one of them.  This was obviously still incredibly inconvenient but a slightly better situation that before.

When Sainsbury’s car park was being built, nearly 500 skeletons were excavated but it’s estimated that the remains of about 1000 individuals were buried there.  As only one of the skeletons showed signs of a violent death, we know these were not the victims of the 1190 massacre.  Most of the burials were in wooden coffins with a few personal items.

Following the walls again, we headed onto Peasholme Green and stopped at St Cuthbert’s Church whose graveyard is raised above the pavement level.  Graves were originally dug 6 feet down, but as more and more people were buried, the sheer volume of bodies meant that graves got shallower and shallower and began to smell awful.  The authorities dealt with this by heaping earth on the graveyards which meant that the land rose quickly.  Shallow graves were also vulnerable to body snatchers and York was well placed to serve the illegal trade for both London and Edinburgh, being close enough to both to get bodies there before they perished too much.  As a result of this, the rich would pay more to be buried inside churches.

Just pas the church, on the right, is a sign to an art gallery and cafe.  Follow it and amidst the hubub of cars and buses and so on, you’ll find a wonderful garden, a sanctuary.  You’ll also find the friendly York School House Art Gallery and Cafe which had a wonderful turkish apple tea and I’m told the brownies are also great!



Whilst there are many churches and graveyards in the centre of York, I didn’t want us to get overloaded with death so I’d selected some that were more personal to me, basically just because I had lived near them for a number of years.  They were familiar in the sense that I saw them on a near daily basis going to and from work and yet I didn’t know much about their history and who was buried there.

Starting with St Michael’s on Spurriergate.  This parish covered part of an undesirable area but also shopkeepers.  It had a small graveyard which was reduced in size in 1337 when it was divided into two parts by Church Lane.  The part now split from the church became a public urinal in 1857.

As you cross over Skeldergate bridge and start to head uphill, you pass a church that is now a nightclub.  We stopped here, on the edge of the busy road, to learn more about St Johns.  In the nineteenth century, this was the second most crowded parish and was next to the most crowded parish.  This busy area meant that the graveyard was reused many times and had to be closed in the mid 1800s.  The graveyard was paved over in 1966 when increased traffic meant the road needed to be widened.

Heading further up the hill, we came to St Martin-Cum-Gregory’s which was once one of the richest parishes in York.  Quite a different congregation to Spurriergate only a stones throw away.  This area was home to nobility but because the graveyard was crowded, in hot weather the smell of death was in the air… Amongst those rotting corpses, there are two monuments to the Cave family.  Thomas Cave was the founder of a dynasty of engravers and his grandson, Henry Cave, created a book with 40 engravings of York buildings which was published in 1813.


Nearby is St Mary Bishophill Junior, confusingly older than St Mary Bishophill Senior.  Anyway, St Mary Junior, had what might be one of the most overcrowded graveyards in York.  Burials meant breaking coffins and disturbing remains.


A little further on is St Mary Bishophill Senior which dated back to to the eleventh century.  By the 1930s, worship had ceased and the church began to fall into ruin.  In 1963 it was pulled down and some of its stones were reused to build Holy Redeemer on Boroughbridge Road.

York was a place for the fashionable members of society and the hair styles of the late eighteenth century meant combs were in demand.  To keep piles of hair upon the head, the comb industry was essential and at this time they were made from horn.  Traditionally, comb makers were found near the source of the materials, that is the Shambles which was a street of slaughter houses.  Increased demand meant that new workshops were established around Micklegate Bar and Tanner Row.  The invention of a comb making machine in 1796 would see the end of the combmaking in York.  Anyway, the point of this detour into combs was all to say that one of the families buried in St Mary Senior were the Rougiers.  Joseph Rougier founded one of the largest and longest lasting firms of combmakers in York.

Other people buried there included George Benson, a cheese and butter seller and James Cawthorp who died in 1852 aged 37.  Cawthorp was a prison governor at the nearby gaol.  Thomas Gowland was killed on 3rd November 1851 when a train he was working on was hit from behind by another train.  He was crushed and died two hours later.  The coroner’s jury noted that no one was to blame and that it was bad luck and in 3 out of 4 cases, the second train would have come off worse and the guard wouldn’t have been harmed.


We did try to find the headstones of a few people who were executed.  At one point, executed criminals could be buried in church yards and Tyburn Tales does record the burial location of many of the executed people.  As such, we knew that on Wednesday 2nd August, 1672, Robert Driffield (aged 24) and Mark Edmund (22) were executed for setting fire to six corn stacks.  Many people gathered to watch their execution and their bodies were later interred in St Mary Bishophill Senior.  Given the age of the burials, it’s not surprising we didn’t find any trace of them.

And thus concluded this particular portion of my death tour of York!


Death by sex

Having talked a lot about animal sex recently, I felt it important to tip my hat to some of those creatures out there that really have the sex of their lives… Forget chocolate, these animals die because of sex, often just after copulation but even midway through the ‘romantic’ act…

How to make love to a cannibal?  Carefully.  The most touted example of cannibalistic love is the praying mantis, a species well known for females eating males after sex.  But they often go one step further and eat their mate during the act… This might seem counter-intuitive but in doing so, they get their eggs fertilised and have more fun.  Obviously the male is a bit scared and tentative as they approach and assume the position, not the best attributes for a good romp…  If however, you bite off their head… the male’s body goes into spasms which allow for sperm to be delivered and the joys of vibrations.

“Females in more than eighty other species have been caught eating their lovers before, during, or after sex.  Spiders are the most common culprits, although several other mantises, some scorpions, and certain midges also number among the guilty.”
– Olivia Judson

For orb-weaving spiders, pheromones play a key role in the male’s willingness to be cannibalised by his mate…

“When exposed to mated females, males attempt to escape much more often than those exposed to virgins.  The latter show a tendency to self-sacrifice in the name of biological fitness.”
– Carin Bondar

The combination of sex and cannibalism is attractive to some females because not only can they get their eggs fertilised but they can also have a great, nutritious meal, perfect for keeping the mum to be healthy.  To avoid death, some species of spiders which practice sexual cannibalism, males have evolved to break off their genitalia, thus plugging up the female in the hopes that it will be their sperm used in fertilising eggs.

Similarly, when male honeybees climax, their genitals are ripped from their body – the idea is that leaving behind your genitals in the queen prevents other males from mating with her and thus ensures her young are yours.  Obviously once the genitalia has been forcefully ripped from the males, they die.

It’s a big of a grey area in terms of death but in some species, the males commit themselves so much to the task of mating that they lose a sense of  themselves.  Take for example the angler fish, the males are much smaller than the females and they search the seas for a mate.  Once a female has been found, they will bite into her underbelly and fuse themselves to her permanently.

In some species, it’s the males that get carried away and kill or severely injure the females…  A flock of sheep on Ile Longue have been left to their own devices and the result is that ewes are chased and battered by the rams.  Once pinned down the males try to mount her repeatedly for hours.  If she’s lucky and the injuries and exhaustion haven’t killed her, she risks being disembowelled by giant petrels…

For some frog species, sex is a bit of an orgy.  Females gather in pools to mate, they release eggs into the water and the males squirt in their sperm.  If a female has attracted several males, they all push and shove so its their sperm that get to fertilise the eggs.  As they do so, there is a risk that the female drowns or is crushed.  A similar situation arises for some solitary bees and wasps; when the females emerge from their burrows, they are greeted by a hoard of males, all desperate to mate and in that desperation, she may end up dead.

In the rough sex gone wrong category, we can also find southern elephant seals who may end up killing their lovers by biting females on the head instead of the neck and dog mink who pierce the base of the brain instead of grabbing the scruff of the neck.

There is also the salmon, where both males and females die shortly after scattering their eggs and sperm to the rivers.  This strategy of using up all your energy and resources is called semalparity, or suicidal reproduction and is also practised by the antechinus.  The males of this species engage in an active sex frenzy for about 14 hours, and in doing so destroy their immune systems.  After mating, a lot, they suffer from internal bleeding, collapse and die.

Basically, life is tough, and sex can be tougher…  Next up I’ll be looking at parenting in the natural world; do dads play a role? who has it hardest? who engages in infantcide?

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