Open City, Closed City

I was in York last week, and one morning completed a circuit of its medieval walls.


The walls are remarkably well-preserved and almost entirely intact, the only two interruptions being where the walls cross the river, and a stretch along what used to be very marshy ground to the South East. York, in common with many ancient and medieval towns, was a closed city, one that was attacked, defended and overcome on numerous bloody occasions.

Cambridge, by contrast, was not a closed city. At least, it was not a fortified city. There were in fact some substantial pre-Conquest earth works consisting of a ditch thirteen metres wide and four metres deep, dug around the perimeter of the city and known as the King’s Ditch, the only evidence for which is a depression in the Fellow’s Garden of Sidney Sussex College. And there may have been a smaller ditch running within the larger, evidence of the first phase of city defence. A visit from Henry III in 1267 saw the earthworks widened and strengthened, but the defences, such as they were, were almost certainly a means of funnelling trade goods through a restricted number of points or gates, so that tolls and customs could be exacted.

To the medieval mind, the city was an emblem of a certain sort of freedom – freedom, for the most part, to trade and to live as freemen. The cities of the Hanseatic League had as their motto stadt luft macht frei (city air makes you free). Free, that is, from the tyrannies of bishops, princes, and barons.

Cambridge was, additionally, a university town, and the university had various freedoms accorded it by royal charter. It was – and emphatically is – in the interests of a university town to promote free movement. Scholars come and go, bearing passports of learning. Cambridge was not and is not merely an East Anglian town (although it is also that); it was, and is, an entrepôt, a clearing house of scholarship.

York too, of course. But the university at York is both new (founded 1963) and located on a campus outside the old city. Universities, now as then, always stand a little apart.

Read more about the King’s Ditch here