The Romans had many settlement sites in East Yorkshire, centred around Brough, a port for the Roman fleet, or Malton, HQ for a Cavalry division. The nearest Roman villa or settlement was probably at Bishop Burton. Beverley itself seems to have been an Anglo-Saxon foundation.
The charismatic John, bishop of York, having retired to a monastery he had founded ‘in the woods of Deira’, died and was buried there in 721. His monastery, on the south side of the present minster, was probably in a clearing in woodland like the woodland of Burton Bushes, which once covered much of the area. The monastery had a lake to the south, now Woodmansey. Did it have beavers? Naturalists seem unsure, and no beaver bones have yet been found in excavations.
John of Beverley’s life was recorded by Bede, regarded as the first English historian. His tomb was the scene of many miracles, and pilgrims came long ways to visit. From the pilgrims’ needs, the first settlement grew beside the Minster; the settlement became a privileged place, with tax exemptions and a powerful sanctuary.
When the great survey called Domesday Book was written in 1086, the York entry covered several pages, but Beverley is disappointingly brief. ‘Beverley…was always free from the king’s geld [tax]’ explains why: the king did not get taxes and was not interested. It seems however to have been a large and prosperous place, and the large wooded pastures are mentioned in the record.
The Middle Ages
All through the middle ages Beverley prospered, on a sound ecclesiastical base. John’s Saxon minster was replaced by a Romanesque version under the Normans; after a disastrous fire in 1188 a new Gothic building was begun, completed in the 1390s. A new church, St Mary’s, was built at the north end of the town. Friaries (Dominican and Franciscan) and hospitals such as St Giles came. Markets brought wealth, buying and selling principally wool, cloth, foodstuffs and luxuries; the goods came by road or up the Beck, paying tolls to the town. The town was never walled, but had bars, gates to collect tolls, and a ditch that still can be seen to the west. The merchants organised guilds for commercial and social purposes, and the guild or mystery plays of Beverley were performed around the town. The most exotic and unusual guild was that of the minstrels of northern England, commemorated in the NE pillar of the nave of St Mary’s church ‘this pillar made [by] the minstrels’, and in the dozens of musical carvings in the Minster.
16th - 17th Centuries
Beverley still is a medieval town in the shape of its core. Behind the Georgian and Victorian fronts of buildings, there is often a half-timbered skeleton of earlier centuries; visible, for instance, within the Guildhall. When Leland came to Beverley around 1540 he wrote ‘the town is large and well builded of wood…’. The 16th century saw the town crashing from medieval wealth to early modern poverty. The Pilgrimage of Grace (1536), which began in Beverley and was led by Robert Aske was a serious attempt to halt change. But Henry VIII and his son Edward,within a few years demolished all the religious houses and customs that had kept Beverley rich. The cloth trade had also declined. During Elizabeth’s reign the town was in dire straits. In response to a desperate plea, the queen gave the town a charter of incorporation, an MP, and many church properties. So Beverley gradually climbed out of 16th-century depression to be battered again by the English Civil War. King Charles I with his two sons, both future kings, stayed in North Bar House while he tried to persuade John Hotham to surrender Hull. Armies marched through the town; soldiers were drilled in the Market Place; there were skirmishes on Westwood.
After the tumults of the 16th and 17th centuries, the 18th century was a golden time for Beverley. Much of the town centre, still its medieval shape, had the houses rebuilt. Quarter sessions, the races, the assembly rooms, the theatre, gentlemen’s clubs, brought county families with great spending power into the town. Beverley grew into the local government centre that it has remained ever since. The first drawing of Beverley (c.1720 by Samuel Buck) from Westwood shows a cluster of houses around a number of larger buildings, the town houses of the gentry. Beverley’s earliest map, of 1747, shows how the town had spread beyond the North Bar.
The railway came in the 19th century, built on former church land (the Trinities of the Knights Hospitaller and the Dominican friary). In the 20th century the ancient street pattern was affected by the building of Lord Roberts Rd, Champney Rd, Wylies Rd, Sow Hill Rd, New Walkergate and other road improvements. The town was for a long time ‘protected’ from development by the common lands, the airfield at Leconfield and poor drainage to south and east: but in the late 20th century these restrictions no longer applied. The Civic Society was formed in 1961 in response to a threat to demolish Ladygate; it has taken an active interest in modern development.