Lancaster and York and York and Lancaster (WHTM).

Lancaster is the Red Rose City.
York is the White Rose City.
Map of the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. (Getty Images)

Where did these nicknames come from? For that matter, where did we get the names Lancaster and York? To find the answer to these questions, we must first go across the Atlantic and back almost 2,000 years, to a time when England wasn’t even a country yet.

Map close-up showing locations of Lancaster and York, England (Getty Images)

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In 43 AD The Roman Empire invaded the British Isles. (They’d done it before, but this time they stayed awhile.) Around 80 AD, they built a fort along the River Lune. Parts of the fort walls can still be seen. A settlement grew around the fort.

Precisely when the area got its permanent name is uncertain, but it was listed in William the Conqueror’s great census of England, the Domesday Book, in 1086 as “Loncastre”. “Lon” refers to the River Lune, and “castre”, or “Cæster” in Old English, derives from Latin “castrum” or “fort”. Over the centuries the spelling got tweaked until we got the present-day Lancaster.


The naming of York was considerably more complicated and convoluted than that of Lancaster. While Lancaster would stay Lancaster with a just few changes in spelling and no real change in meaning, the name of York would go through multiple permutations before it finally became York. In fact, its very first name is still a source of confusion.

Like Lancaster, York began as a Roman fortification. It was founded in 71 AD where the River Foss joins the River Ouse. The settlement became the capital of the Roman province Britannica Inferior and was named Eburakon or, in its Latinized version, Eburacum. The name combines eburos, a proto-Celtic word meaning “Yew tree” and the suffix ako(n) meaning “place of”, so Eburakon means “Place of the Yew Trees”

Or maybe it doesn’t. There is an alternate theory that the name derives from an Ancient British personal name, Eburos, and that the site was founded by someone of that name.

Eventually, the Romans left as their empire crumbled, and some new arrivals in England, the Anglo-Saxons, had their go at muddying the lineage of York’s name. They changed it to Old English “Eoforwic”, swapping the Celtic word for yew tree for their word “Eofor” meaning “wild boar”. They changed “akon” to “wic”, or “settlement”. So the future York was now the “wild boar settlement.” One can’t help but wonder what inspired them to do that, but Eoforwic stayed Eoforwic for several centuries.

Map of the Danelagh (Danelaw) from History of the English People by John Richard Greene, 1895 edition.

Then the Danes showed up. (Also called Vikings, but I won’t spend time explaining what’s wrong with that.)

The Great Heathen Army, as it was called, arrived in 865 and proceeded to take over much of eastern England, an area that became known as the Danelaw. Eoforwic became the capital of this area in 876 A.D. But, perhaps because the Danes found Eoforwic difficult to pronounce (that’s one theory, anyway) they simplified the first part of the name to Jor. (In Icelandic, the closest living language to Old Norse, the word for wild boar is villisvin, which is nothing like eorfor. However, jór is an Old Norse/Icelandic poetic word for horse, specifically a stallion.) They changed the last part to vik, their word for stream or bay. Thus the town became Jorvik. (J in Old Norse is pronounced Y, so you can see we’re moving in the right direction.)

So Jorvik either means “horse/stallion stream” or is a nonsense word produced when the Danes tried to vikingize the Anglo-Saxon Eoforwic. Either way, it’s all just a frightful muddle, so let’s move on to the next step. (If you really want to learn more about Icelandic/Old Norse, click here.)

After William the Conquerer did his conquering in 1066, the city’s name became Everwic, which sounds a lot like Eoforwic. As Old English evolved into Middle English, the town was referred to as both Everwick and York, or sometimes Yerk. Eventually, York won out and was first recorded in the 13th century.

(Incidentally, in Pennsylvania Dutch it’s called “Yarrick”.)

So that’s how the names evolved. Now where do the roses come in? Strap in, folks, it’s time for another Fun Ride into Vastly Oversimplified History.

In 1455 a civil war broke out in England over which branch of the royal family should be king. King Henry VI (b. 1421 – d. 1471) was inclined to occasional spells of insanity. During one such episode in 1453 Richard, 3rd Duke of York, was installed as Protector of the Realm. When Henry recovered in 1455, he was less than thrilled with some of the things Richard did while Protector, and Richard was less than thrilled about surrendering his power. Conflict erupted between supporters of Henry, who became known as the Lancastrians, and backers of Richard, who became Yorkists. (Richard would never become king, being killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, but two of his sons would wear the crown, Edward IV and Richard III.)

During the war, at a time before uniforms became the norm for armies, troops on each side wore distinctive badges, so they could be sure they were slicing up the enemy and not someone on their own side.

Lancastrians wore a badge with a red rose, and Yorkists wore a badge with a white rose.

(Getty Images)

The war went on until 1487, though essentially it ended in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Yorkist King Richard III was defeated (and killed), and Lancastrian Henry VII was declared King on the battlefield. In 1486 he married Elizabeth of York, the daughter of King Edward IV, bringing together the two sides under a new name, the Tudors. He combined the red and white badges to create the Tudor rose.

(Getty Images)

There does not seem to be a community named Tudor in Pennsylvania, though there are a lot of Tudor Streets, Roads, Lanes, etc.

(And now a reality check: Both sides wore a lot of different badges, including roses. The romantic name “Wars of the Roses,” didn’t come along until the 19th century. While it was actually happening it was called the Civil War or the Cousins War.)

So we know how the names Lancaster and York, and the red and white roses, came into being. How did that all end up in Southcentral Pennsylvania?

Well, we’re happy to say the Yorkists and the Lancastrians did not bring their fight across the pond. (By the time English settlers came to Pennsylvania, it was almost 200 years and another Civil War since the War of the Roses.) A lot of English place names (and Scottish, and Irish, and Welsh) came to the United States with the settlers. There are at least 23 communities named York, and another 23 or so named Lancaster, in the United States. Our Lancaster and York may be some of the best known, partly (I suspect) because they’re so close to each other.

Lancaster City was named after Lancaster County. When the county was created from part of Chester County on May 10, 1729, It was named Lancaster at the suggestion of prominent citizen and politician John Wright, in honor of his native county Lancashire, England. (This is the same John Wright who ran the Wrights Ferry, and after whom Wrightsville is named.)

Lancaster was originally called Hickory Town. The name changed when it was selected as the county seat in 1730. The town incorporated the red rose of Lancaster into its seal, which they adopted on May 1, 1907.

(Courtesy City of Lancaster)
(Courtesy City of York)

Originally called Yorktown, the community of York was the first town laid out west of the Susquehanna River in 1741. It eventually became the county seat – for a county that wouldn’t exist for another eight years.

On August 19, 1749, York County was created from part of Lancaster County, using the Susquehanna River as a convenient boundary line. York City and York County may have been named in honor of the city and shire (county) in England. They might also have been named in honor of a patron of the Penn family, James, Duke of York, who later became King James II. Either way, the white rose of York appears on the city seal.

So there you have it – two cities in the United Kingdom and two cities in the United States, linked by their names and symbols of a civil war. And it all started with two Roman Legion encampments almost two millennia ago.