Exploring alternative narratives in York.

The villains are about, come and seek them out!

What happens when you put 6 postgraduate Cultural Heritage Management students together, tasked with creating a heritage engagement activity for York? The answer is gunpowder, treason and plot!

Ultimately, what emerged from our discussions was to create a detective hunt aimed at families through the streets of York, with the tour taking in some of the city’s most significant heritage sites, and discovering villains associated with them. We also decided to create a tour in which the same narrative was not passively received by the visitor. Instead they could actively interact with characters from York’s history that are often overlooked.

View towards York Minster (Loopesko, 2017)

Characters within the tour are all privy to a scheme that involves the planting of gunpowder somewhere within the city walls. Each character tells their story and gives the audience a challenge they must solve related to York’s history. With every successful answer, visitors will receive letters which spell M-I-N-S-T-E-R- the location of the gunpowder Guy Fawkes has planted. In the undercroft of the Minster they will solve one last puzzle and hopefully save York from disaster.

The characters we included offer a narrative which challenges the authorized heritage discourse (Smith, 2006). Through using characters such as Anne Fawkes, instead of her infamous brother, to tell alternative narratives the visitors will gain knowledge of other historical figures and alternative perspectives of the various notorious villains. The tour also allows for engagement with differing time periods, rather than constricting history to regimented eras, allowing families to engage with multiple historic periods.

Our tour would be a single event, taking place in small guided groups, requiring a donation from each participant in order to ensure the event is accessible. Eight actors would be paid to stay in their location all day to interact with each successive group. This event would also require free access to some of York’s paying sites. The tour will be publicized on social media through the use of the #villainsofyork hashtag.

Read on to discover the characters and their stories, which visitors would encounter on their detective tour.

James Haigh, Luddite — by Lydia Loopesko

At the Castle we have James Haigh interacting with visitors, he was killed in the Luddite Massacre of 1812, when 17 Luddites were hanged on a gallows outside York Castle. Luddites were those who tore down mills and industrial machinery because they felt threatened by it. York was under siege as it was home to many Luddite sympathizers and after the massacre, the city was deathly quiet. This story is one that is seldom told in York and represents another side of York’s industrial history and change (York’s Alternative History 2012).

Clifford’s Tower (Egan, 2017)

Servus, Roman Slave — by Jessica Western

At the Multiangular Tower in Museum Gardens we have a Roman slave. This character is likely to have been a household slave rather than labour worker, especially if they travelled to York with a family or free Roman citizen. Household slaves led slightly more comfortable lives as there were opportunities for them to earn money and the living conditions were better (McKeown 2010,100), though this would still have been a very underprivileged lifestyle. The narrative of the Roman slave will show how unequal Roman society really was and challenge the idea that Roman York was a benevolent and democratic place.

Berhtwald, Anglian Thrall — by Joseph Perry

In the Tower Gardens, Berhtwald the Anglian Thrall tells the story of Egil Bloodaxe. Egil was the last Viking ruler in York (Hall, 1994, 20). He reigned from 947 to 948 but was driven out by the local elite, following this he returned and ruled from 952 to 954 (Woolf, 1998, 189) but was expelled again. He was a tyrannical ruler and the nobles under his command feared him. On the tour, the participants will meet an Anglian thrall who lives in Egil’s court. This subverts the traditional narrative of York because during this period it traditionally focuses on the history of the Vikings and has little to say on the native inhabitants.

Dick Turpin, Horse Thief — by William Egan

While at Dick Turpin’s Grave, this well-known historical figure will be presented in a more accurate way than the legendary swashbuckling, romanticised figure that is often presented in history today. In reality, Turpin had been a member of a gang in Essex who committed a number of crimes including deer theft, poaching and ultimately murder, for which he was hanged at Knavesmire (Sharpe, 2005). By presenting the true story of Dick Turpin, we are challenging the preconceived ideas of visitors and providing an alternative story to the one that has persisted in popular culture.

Dick Turpin’s Grave (Perry, 2017)

Mary Tuke, Grocer — by Lydia Loopesko

Visitors will happen upon Mary Tuke at the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall. The Merchant Adventurers were a guild of international merchants whose importance grew throughout the Middle Ages until they had a full monopoly over all mercantile opportunities in York granted to them by a royal charter. In 1725, Mary Tuke opened a grocery shoppe on Walmgate and refused to pay entrance fees into the Guild. For seven years she fought them and refused to pay until finally she gave in. She represents the beginning of the Merchant Adventurer’s decline and a rare example of women making history (Bennett 2004,174), as well as presenting a critical narrative that depicts the Guild as a domineering power with undeserved influence over economic growth.

The Merchant Adventurers Hall (Loopesko, 2017)

Edward of Middleham, Prince of Wales — by Sophie Farmer

At the Richard III Experience in Monk Bar, we have Edward of Middleham (Richard III’s Son.) Middleham was invested Prince of Wales at the Archbishop’s Palace (within the Minster grounds) during his father’s royal progress here. The royal party entered the city via Micklegate Bar (Richard III Rumour and Reality, 2013). However, Edward was a sickly child and died aged 10. Richard III has been been vilified throughout history, most notably by Shakespeare. However, on the tour his role as a father will show him in a more sympathetic light, thus contributing to the alternative historical narrative (without making a definitive claim of his innocence or guilt.)

George Leeman, Lawyer — by Sophie Farmer

Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate will provide a chance to encounter George Leeman, a lawyer and politician involved with the expansion of the railway within York. He was influential in taking down his business opponent, George Hudson ‘The Railway King,’ following Hudson’s illegal share transactions. Hudson was imprisoned for his offences in 1865 when he was running for parliament. The former millionaire never regained his status and wealth, and died with possessions worth less than £200. Hudson’s name was until recently removed as a street name, but a panel recognizing him as Lord Mayor has remained in Holy Trinity Church (York Museums Trust, History of York.) Leeman’s inclusion in the tour will highlight the industrial heritage of the city, which is often overlooked, and represent Hudson as a dubious figure in York’s history, despite his contribution to the rail industry.

Anne Fawkes, Wife of Henry Kilburn — by Lexi Baker

York Minster will provide a connection with Guy Fawkes himself. Anne Fawkes, the younger sister of Guy Fawkes (Herber 2007), will give a more informal interpretation of Fawkes’ role in the Gunpowder Plot. This would provide an alternative narrative, and using Anne would give a chance to tell a story that is not in keeping with the authorised narrative (Smith 2006), albeit influenced by our own experiences and views (Bonde & Houston 2013). She can be related to York Minster as Edward Fawkes, her father, was a proctor of the ecclesiastical courts and advocate of the consistory court of the Archbishop of York (Herber 2007).

Holy Trinity (Egan, 2017)

The tour has been designed in accordance with both emerging and established heritage scholarship in mind. Laurajane Smith describes the authorised heritage discourse (AHD) as being a canon of widely accepted ideas and stories, specific to the UK, that surround a society and create a sense of safety and communal identity (Smith 2006; Smith and Waterton 2009). This discourse then shapes the way heritage is presented in public spaces, and becomes a self-perpetuating entity that does not allow for the expression of alternative narratives that might challenge any of the premises on which the AHD is based. Our project is designed to challenge some of the stories within York that conform to the AHD by presenting them from the perspectives of those who were victimised or forgotten.

York already has some experience with challenging the AHD by promoting the alternative histories of the city, an example being the walk that takes place every year to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day (Graham 2013). By using characters on the tour that are not normally associated with the historical events we are examining, we allow for an alternative perspective to be highlighted. In this way, the tour furthers the work of ‘York’s Alternative Heritage’ group (Ibid), who are already trying to highlight the undiscovered parts of York’s heritage.

Creating a narrative through the use of live interpretation, and in a tour format, uses ‘participatory’ techniques of presentation. According to Nina Simon, it is vital to engage and connect visitors through encouraging a dialogue based upon interpretation. To become ‘participatory,’ an institution should allow visitors to be “collaborators” and “creators,” as well as “consumers” its interpretation (Simon, 2010.) The use of the tour provides a premise which incites the audience to make their own decisions and judgements, through finding the location of Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder, thus allowing them to create. Whilst the live interpretation encourages a dialogue between facilitator and visitors, resulting in collaboration. Visitors will also be “distributors” and “critics,” this can be achieved through the use of the social media promotion.

We hope this initiative will provoke a dialogue between heritage visitors and institutions, whilst publicising an alternative, underrepresented narrative.

Authors: Jessica Western, Lydia Loopesko, Lexi Baker, William Egan, Joseph Perry and Sophie Farmer.


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