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'The King's Fishpond' was a large man-made lake that was created by damming the River Foss. It formed a key part of York's city defences for almost 600 years.
Prior to the Norman Conquest, much of the land to the east of the city was low-lying and naturally waterlogged. Three clay and gravel ridges provided the only reasonably well-drained routes into and out of this part of the city:
- One of the ridges carries a road to the northeast (now known as Layerthrope Road and Malton Road).
- The second carries a road to the east (now known as Walmgate and Hull Road).
- The third carries a road to the south (now known as Fishergate, Fulford Road and Selby Road).
Some of the land between the roads was used for arable crops, animal pasture, orchards, water meadows and gardens, while the rest remained unimproved marshland.
When William the Conqueror (King William I) and the Normans arrived in 1068, they needed a reliable supply of water (at a higher level than the tidal River Ouse) to fill a series of defensive ditches around their eastern motte and bailey castle (i.e. the site now known as York Castle). To provide this water, they built a 400 foot wide dam across the River Foss, just a few hundred yards from its confluence with the River Ouse. This raised the water level by approximately six feet and the resulting lake extended for approximately half a mile along the south-eastern edge of the city (see Image 1 below).
The Domesday Book of circa 1086 provides us with a fascinating insight into the impact of the lake's creation (see extract below). The passage highlighted in yellow tells us that 'The King's Pool' or ‘stagnum regis’ (underlined in red) resulted in the loss of two new mills worth twenty shillings a year and that it flooded 'one carucate' (approximately 120 acres) of arable land, meadows and gardens.
Source and acknowledgement: This extract was taken from an online facsimile of the Domesday Book. The full page can be viewed on the “Open Domesday” website at http://opendomesday.org/book/yorkshire/01/. The extract is used here under the Creative Commons BY-SA licence (see http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ for details). Credit for the original upload is given to Professor J.J.N. Palmer and George Slater. The yellow highlighting and red underlining have been added by the owner of the York Illustrated website to draw attention to key sections of the original abbreviated Latin text.
Shortly after its creation, 'The King's Pool' became known as 'The Fishpond of the Foss' and 'The King's Fishpond', both names reflecting the lake's use as a royal fishery. The King appointed 'keepers' to maintain and protect the fishery and granted licenses authorising a small number of well-connected individuals to catch pike, bream and other fish, either for their own (and the King's) consumption, or for sale in the local markets. (Fish was an important part of the medieval diet, especially on Fridays and during Lent.)
Over the course of six hundred years, the slow-moving River Foss deposited large quantities of silt across the lake bed, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the lake for defensive purposes. Work was undertaken in 1608 to deepen the main river channel, but this seems to have made the situation worse rather than better. When Parliamentarian Forces laid siege to the city in 1644, the lake was so shallow that Lord Fairfax seriously considered sending a contingent of soldiers across it on foot.
By the 18th century, nature had transformed the lake into a series of marshy islands (giving rise to the name 'Foss Islands'), while the citizens of York had turned the area into an open sewer and general dumping ground. In 1736, the well-respected York surgeon and antiquary Francis Drake stated that the area . . .
is now, and has been for many years, the disgrace of York, by being in summer-time little better than a stinking morass
Source: Drake, Francis "Eboracum: or the History and Antiquities of the City of York”, printed by William Bowyer (London, 1736)
By the Victorian era, the Foss Islands area was considered to be a health hazard. The city no longer needed its military defences, but land was urgently needed for housing and industry. The dam was therefore demolished and the River Foss was constrained into a narrow channel (see Image 2). A single small marsh-fringed island was left as a refuge for wildlife, but the rest of the land was drained and 'reclaimed'.
These days, the only evidence of the area's watery past is normally the name of the road (Foss Islands Road) and of the adjacent area (Foss Islands). However, the floods of December 2015 served as an unpleasant and expensive reminder that this low-lying part of York is only habitable because of the city's modern defences, namely the flood defences such as the Foss Barrier. In the 21st century, York is still a defended city.