The later middle ages
The city's franchise and officers


Victoria County History



P.M. Tillott (editor)

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'The later middle ages: The city's franchise and officers', A History of the County of York: the City of York (1961), pp. 69-75. URL: Date accessed: 19 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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The City's Franchise

Meantime, in the course of the 14th century, the coping stones were placed upon the structure of self-government in York outside the ecclesiastical franchises. The process can be followed in a succession of royal charters. Those obtained in the age of the Scottish wars are not of major importance. In 1312 the citizens were exempted from jury service outside the city, and all wishing to enjoy York's privileges were bound to contribute to tallages and other common burdens. In 1316 the city was exempted from the jurisdiction of the king's clerk of the market even if the king were present; and in 1327 the jurisdiction of the king's stewards and marshals during royal visits was confined to the royal household. (fn. 18) Thenceforward, down to the end of the century, York's liberties were not significantly augmented. At the end of Richard II's reign, however, they received some notable additions. A charter of 1392 permitted the city to acquire lands worth £100 yearly for the upkeep of bridges; allowed the city courts to entertain the petty assizes; and made the mayor and aldermen ex officio justices of the peace in the city. (fn. 19) In 1396 Richard gave the city the status of a county, within which the mayor was to act as escheator and two sheriffs were to replace the three bailiffs of former times. The sheriffs were to hold a monthly county court as well as the courts previously held by the bailiffs; and with the mayor they were to have cognizance of the petty assizes and all pleas of land, trespass, covenant, and contract within the city. The city was to be entitled to penalties imposed by the justices of the peace and for breaches of the assizes of bread and ale and wine; the mayor might carry his sword erect save in the king's presence; and the mace-bearers of the mayor and sheriff were to have maces of silver or gilt adorned with the arms of England. (fn. 20) With this charter the medieval liberties of York were full-grown: it is time to see them in action.

The Officers of the City

The government of late medieval York may properly be described as 'magisterial' in character, for at its centre stood the mayor. (fn. 21) It was his duty, which he swore to accomplish, to keep the city safe for the king, to maintain and advance its franchises, usages, and customs, and to do impartial justice to all. (fn. 22) He was active in the various courts of the city and was the central figure in the city council. (fn. 23) He was the recipient of mandates from the central government on every conceivable matter. After 1396 he was escheator within the liberty, his name being certified to Chancery in this capacity as soon as he was elected. (fn. 24) Some impression of his varied preoccupations is conveyed by a record of the achievements of John Stockdale's mayoralty in 1501. New stocks had been installed in each ward and the crafts had been 'put in a clothing'; the walls, Pavement market, and Ouse Bridge had been repaired; new brass weights for the common crane and a new seal for cloth had been provided; the mayor's mace had been renewed and the image of Ebrauk (fn. 25) had been moved from St. Saviourgate to the Guildhall chapel; two new fairs had been obtained and the sewer and watering place in Knavesmire had been cleansed. (fn. 26) During his term of office the mayor must have been more or less fully occupied by his public duties.

If the mayor's responsibility was great, so too was his dignity. By 1365 he had a serjeant to bear his mace of office, (fn. 27) and in 1388 another was added to carry the sword Richard II gave the mayor. (fn. 28) The designation 'my lord the mayor' was creeping in during the 15th century, (fn. 29) and it was hazardous to offend him. It was scandalous for a person to say that John Tong was 'not able to be mayor of this worshipful city, and bad fie upon him for he was but a beggar'; and Miles Greenbank, when he called John Newton a 'false harlet', was lucky to escape with a public apology, for defaming the mayor commonly landed a man in gaol. (fn. 30)

At least as early as 1343 the mayor was elected annually on St. Blaise's Day (3 February). (fn. 31) During much of the 14th century re-election continued to be common. In the half-century ending in 1372 only 15 names figure in the list of mayors. Nicholas Langton and John his son between them occupied the office for 28 years, Henry Belton served for 4 years in succession, John Shirburn for 3, and Henry Scoreby for 5. (fn. 32) It was ordained in 1372 that no one was to be re-elected until a period of 8 years had elapsed, and in 1392 until all the probi homines who had not yet served had done so. (fn. 33) These rules at first were not very effective for Simon Quixley served in 1381–3, William Selby in 1385 and 1387–8, Robert Savage in 1384 and 1391–2, William Frost in 1396–7, 1400–4, and 1406, and Henry Wyman in 1407–9. At this point, however, the tradition of long-serving mayors was broken. During the ensuing century 81 men occupied the mayoral office; of these only William Holbek served on as many as four occasions, and then over a period of 23 years. (fn. 34)

The mayor did not serve gratis. The normal fee in 1364 was £20 yearly, but from 1365 he often received additional payments which led to an ordinance in 1372 forbidding him to receive more than the customary £20. (fn. 35) Additional payments, however, were again made in 1379–83, and the fee was raised to £40 in 1385 and to £50 in 1388. It was laid down in 1392 that it should not exceed this last figure; nor did it normally do so, though William Frost obtained additional remuneration in 1400–4, and from time to time special payments were made for particular services rendered to the city. (fn. 36)

The ordinance of 1392 suggests that the circle of candidates for the mayoral election was already restricted to the probi homines, i.e. the aldermen. (fn. 37) The city custumal tells us that the outgoing mayor ought to put before the representatives of the commonalty assembled in the Guildhall the names of two or three aldermen; of these they would choose one as their mayor for the ensuing year. (fn. 38) There was much tinkering at this system in the later 15th century. In 1464 Edward IV decreed that the crafts should nominate two aldermen as candidates, choice between them being made by the mayor, aldermen, and councillors. (fn. 39) A series of troubled elections led Edward, in 1473, to give the main role to the crafts, who were to proceed directly to the choice of one of the aldermen to be mayor. (fn. 40) This solution did not end election troubles, (fn. 41) and may well have seemed dangerously democratic to the ruling group. In 1489 the king was asked to restore the 1464 procedure; he did so in time for the election of 1490 and confirmed his judgement in 1492. (fn. 42)

The mayoralty, then, is characteristic of a system of government basically oligarchical; but the circle from which the mayors were drawn was changing. Something of an epoch was marked by the end of the long dominance of the Langtons in 1463. The first Nicholas, the ancestor of the line, had been a merchant, (fn. 43) but there is no evidence of commercial enterprise being displayed by his son and grandson who almost monopolized the mayoral office for 40 years after 1322. On the other hand, Nicholas Langton the younger was clearly a man of property, not only in York but also in Naburn (E.R.), Swinefleet (W.R.), Over Dinsdale (N.R.), and Reedness (W.R.). (fn. 44) His son, John Langton, was likewise a substantial property owner in town and country, and a military tenant of the Archbishop of York in Huddleston (W.R.). (fn. 45) It was John's son who eventually left the city to set up a county family. The Langtons, in short, like the Selby family in the later 13th century, belonged to the class of viri hereditarii whose wealth was derived from property rather than from craft or trade.

A break in the predominance of men of this sort appeared even before the reign of the Langtons was over: men like Belton, Shirburn, and Scoreby, who shared the mayoralty with them in the 1330's and 1340's, were active merchants; (fn. 46) and after 1363 such men were the normal occupants of the office. Out of 88 mayors between 1399 and 1509, one was a glazier, one a spicer, one a pewterer, and one a vintner; there were 3 drapers, 4 grocers and goldsmiths, and 5 dyers; but 68 were merchants or mercers. So far as the mayoralty is a measure of it, the government of late medieval York was not so much an aldermanic as a mercantile oligarchy. It was the merchant who had stepped into the place of the property-owning patrician of earlier times.

The mayor, however, merely stood at the pinnacle of the city's government, and he had a number of coadjutors. First-were the three bailiffs, replaced after 1396 by the two sheriffs. Their duties are summarized in the bailiff's oath of 1353. They had to acquit the city of its farm, enforce the assizes of bread and ale and other market regulations, empanel jurors, do justice to rich and poor, and collect the issues of the city courts. (fn. 47) After 1396 we continually meet the sheriffs, alone or in conjunction with the mayor, as the addressees of mandates from the central government; and, as the officers responsible for the farm, they had at their disposal all the profits and commodites pertaining to the office from ancient times. These were husgable, rents from city property, tolls, stallrents in the markets, and the issues of fairs, courts, and The Ainsty. (fn. 48)

In 1357 the bailiffs were chosen by their predecessors in the office, though the mayor and community had the right to reject their nomination. (fn. 49) In the 15th century, on the other hand, the sheriffs were elected by the mayor, aldermen, and councillors, who presented their nominees to the commonalty for endorsement. (fn. 50) An attempt by the commonalty to assert a right to elect the sheriffs was successfully resisted in 1504. (fn. 51) The election took place on 21 September and the year of office began at Michaelmas. The occupants of the office of sheriff in the 15th century were of like sort to those who served as mayor: 23 out of 38 sheriffs whose occupations are known in the decades 1410–19 and 1490–9 were merchants. This is natural enough, for the ranks of the aldermen were filled by past sheriffs, so that the shrievalty was a step towards the mayoralty.

Like the mayor, the sheriffs had their assistants and their dignity. Each had his serjeant-at-mace, responsible for making summonses, arrests, and so forth; (fn. 52) and there was a sheriff's clerk, originally appointed annually but during good behaviour after 1445. (fn. 53) The sheriffs moved about the city in some state, with a serjeant preceding them and an honest servant at their back, according to a decree of 1419. (fn. 54) This was one of the rules which made the office an expensive one. In addition, they had to provide an annual feast for the dignitaries of the city and a dinner after their yearly 'riding', during which they proclaimed the by-laws at various places. (fn. 55) George Essex in 1500 was fined for dereliction of almost all these obligations: he did not have his proper entourage during his 'riding'; he failed to have his mace borne before him when visiting a vintner; he failed to provide the proper towels at the dinner after his 'riding'; and he failed to invite the chamberlains and others to his annual feast. (fn. 56) It is perhaps not surprising that a comparatively young merchant, Brian Conyers (he was free in 1473), was excused election for eight years in 1478 unless, by the grace of God, he 'may grow in goods and riches to have the said [office]'. (fn. 57)

Goods and riches were not less necessary for the chamberlains. Normally three in number, their year of office down to 1376 began at Michaelmas, but in that year it was changed to coincide with that of the mayor. (fn. 58) In the 15th century they were chosen by the mayor, aldermen, and councillors, (fn. 59) and the net was cast somewhat more widely than it was for mayors and sheriffs. Of 78 men who held the office in the decades 1410– 19 and 1490–9 only 28 were merchants, the remainder being drawn from 30 other crafts and occupations. It is also noticeable that merchants were much less prominent at the end than at the beginning of the century, possibly owing to pressure from the crafts, but more probably to the increased financial liabilities which the chamberlainship entailed.

This was an outcome of a crisis in civic finance which emerges clearly from the chamberlains' accounts. In 1442 the receipts of the chamberlains from payments due in that accounting year totalled £172. The main sources and their percentage contributions to the total were as follows: payments for freedom of the city (24); the bridgemasters' surpluses after maintaining the bridges (40); the farm of the common crane (6); fines on brewers (8); the surplus of murage after repairs to the walls (3); fines and other charges imposed on craftsmen (5). Other charges which sometimes swelled the chamberlains' income were market dues, fines for exemption from civic office, penalties imposed by the justices of the peace, and so forth. On the other side of the account in 1442, the chamberlains had to make payments totalling £179, the main items being £20 for the city's Members of Parliament and £145 for wages, expenses, and liveries to the officers, legal advisers, and chaplains of the city. In short, on this occasion they just failed to break even.

At the same time this presents the situation in too favourable a light. Particularly in the second half of the century, the yield of all the main sources of revenue, with the exception of that from the common crane, was tending to fall. Income from the crane, too, fell from 17 to 8 marks between 1442 and 1466; but later in the century the crane was no longer farmed and charges were raised, with the result that revenue from this source increased to about £34 in 1499. In general, however, the main sources of revenue produced about 40 per cent. less in 1499 than they had done in 1442. Moreover, a deficit on the year's working was almost normal: £30 in 1445, £50 in 1453, £35 in 1463, £36 in 1466, and £88 in 1486. To some extent these current deficits might be offset by the collection of revenue in arrears from previous years: in 1445, for example, £37 was so collected and the chamberlains were therefore able to balance their accounts for that year. On the whole, however, a more or less permanent deficit was the normal state of affairs. At the beginning of 1442, the accumulated debit balance was £184 (about one year's revenue), which had fallen to £145 in 1445 and to £66 in 1454. In 1463 it had risen again to over £250, was reduced to £160 in February 1466 and to £102 by the end of that year, and had been converted into a small surplus in 1470. By 1478, however, the adverse balance had reappeared: £109 in that year, in 1484 it was at least £160, though it had been again cleared off by the end of the century. (fn. 60)

These figures explain the anxiety of the citizens to secure a reduction of their farm at the end of the 15th century. In so far as the crisis was weathered, it was partly due to strict economy and a better exploitation of such assets as the common crane and city property. (fn. 61) More important, however, were endeavours to raise supplementary income. From time to time the city taxed itself, raising £139 in 1445 to meet certain legal expenses it had incurred and, on occasion, imposing similar charges to pay the soldiers it levied for the king. In 1482 the aldermen and councillors paid the costs of the city's troops, and in 1483 the richer citizens contributed £437 towards the costs of King Richard's entertainment. (fn. 62) More important, however, were royal concessions: Edward IV's grant to York of a pension from the Hull customs, (fn. 63) and the reduction of the farm which enabled the sheriffs to pay over to the chamberlains £40 in 1486 and £60 yearly thereafter. (fn. 64)

These financial difficulties explain many features of the history of the chamberlain's office in the 15th century. Permanent deficits meant that the chamberlains were continually short of money for day-to-day expenses and had to meet these out of their own pockets. Between April and December 1449, for example, they paid £75 in nine instalments into the common funds in order to meet such essential charges as the mayor's fee and the wages of the city's Members of Parliament. (fn. 65) In 1484 it was expected that, at best, they would have to wait almost a year before they were fully reimbursed; and it was decided, in order to spread the burden, to raise the number of chamberlains to four. This dispensation continued until 1486; there were six chamberlains each year in the period 1487–98 and four again in 1499–1500; not until 1501 was it possible to revert to the traditional three. (fn. 66) The high cost of the office during this period may well explain why it proved less attractive to the commercial élite in the later 15th century than it had done earlier.

The rest of the officers of the city may be more rapidly passed over. There were three coroners, chosen by the mayor, aldermen, and councillors, and responsible respectively for the area between Ouse and Foss, for Micklegate, and for Walmgate and Fishergate. If they performed their duty individually, however, they still apparently compiled a common roll. (fn. 67) The Ouse and Foss bridges were each in the charge of bridgemasters who were responsible for their maintenance, for collecting the revenues assigned to them, and for paying over any surplus to the city chamberlains. (fn. 68) There were also keepers of the city weights and measures, keepers of the gates, and, in the 15th century at least, city minstrels. (fn. 69)

There remain two officers who fall into a different category. The recorder and common clerk were representatives of a new professional class; (fn. 70) they were chosen for their professional skill and sometimes made their civic office a stepping stone to better things. The first known recorder is Thomas Thurkill (1388–1408), (fn. 71) but the office was in existence in 1385 when an ordinance provided that it was to be filled by a man knowing the law and of good repute. (fn. 72) Little is known of Thurkill's successors before Guy Fairfax (1460–77), who became a king's serjeant in 1468 and was a member of the council of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1477. (fn. 73) Miles Metcalfe (1477–85) owed his appointment to Richard of Gloucester and was a judge of the county palatine of Lancaster in 1483. (fn. 74) His successors, John Vavasour (1485–90) and William Fairfax (1490–6), were both appointed to the judicial bench. The recordership of York, quite clearly, could be a rung upon the ladder of promotion in the English legal profession. (fn. 75) It is no less noticeable that the recorders were variously employed. Apart from legal duties in the narrow sense, Metcalfe and Vavasour fulfilled the role of the city's ambassadors at large. They are found wherever the city had business to do or interests to pursue.

The office of common clerk is attested earlier than the recordership. Nicholas Seizevaux held it in 1317 and 1327; (fn. 76) and William Rufford, city clerk in the 1360's and 1370's, was strongly suspected of stealing certain remembrances, money, and other things. (fn. 77) His successor, William Chester (1379–1405), kept the city register and had an underclerk to assist him; (fn. 78) and some of the 15th-century clerks were moderately distinguished. Roger Burton (1415–36) wrote a history of the archbishops of York in 88 chapters; (fn. 79) and John Harrington (1484–90) was a Cambridge graduate and had been registrar of the Archbishop of York and clerk of Richard III's council. Richard, indeed, persuaded the citizens to appoint him despite their reluctance to have a non-resident clerk; but he was soon able to settle down to his office in York after Richard's death with no more trouble than was required to dispel the rumour that he was of Scottish birth. (fn. 80) Nicholas Lancaster (1476–80) is no less interesting. He described himself as clerk and merchant, and was a member of the Merchants' Company as well as an LL.D. It may even be that the debts he was seeking to collect through the sheriffs' courts in 1478–9 and 1499 were business debts. Soon after relinquishing the office of common clerk he became an alderman, and was twice mayor and twice M.P. for the city. In 1483, moreover, he became a member of Richard III's council. This connexion perhaps helped him to become mayor in 1485, and the fact that he was mayor may do much to explain the firm stand taken by the city when Henry Tudor invaded England. (fn. 81)

Not all the city clerks were men of this eminence. Thomas Yotten had to be dismissed in 1476 for negligence or even dishonesty, though the opportunity was seized to demonstrate the city's right freely to elect its clerk. (fn. 82) Where this right was exercised, the choice was likely to fall upon such a man as John Shirwood (1442–71), the second son of an alderman and father of a bishop of Durham, and one likely to give his full time to the office. (fn. 83) For this he received his livery and an annual stipend of £7 17s. 4d. At the end of his service, moreover, he might expect a pension: in 1445 Roger Burton was still in receipt of 4 marks yearly and a gown. (fn. 84)

The professional element in the government of the city was, however, still a slight one. The normal civic official was an amateur, serving generally for a year at considerable cost to his pocket and doubtless at much inconvenience to his business. It is not, therefore, surprising that even in the 14th century some men sought exemption from office by the purchase of royal letters patent. (fn. 85) This was reasonable enough if a man was old or sick, (fn. 86) but another matter entirely when a number of able and wealthy citizens secured exemption for life in the mid-15th century. (fn. 87) The city secured parliamentary cancellation of their patents and the imposition of a penalty of £40 on anyone securing similar exemption in the future. (fn. 88) This had the effect of preventing the circle of office-holders being artificially narrowed; exemption became a matter for the city authorities and could be manipulated to benefit the city's finances. Nicholas Vicars, for example, paid 40 marks for release from the office of sheriff. (fn. 89)


18 Cal. Chart. R. 1300–26, 186–7, 328–9; 1327–41, 47.
19 Ibid. 1341–1417, 333–4, 336–7.
20 Ibid. 354–6, 358–60.
21 York Mem. Bk. ii, pp. v sqq.
22 Ibid. 256.
23 See pp. 75–76.
24 S.C. 1/38/156: notification of John Marshal's election, 3 Feb. 1480.
25 On this image, possibly a Roman memorial stone but believed to represent King Ebrauk, the legendary founder of York, see A. Raine, Med. York, 59-60.
26 York Civ. Rec. ii. 171.
27 York Corp. Rec. D/1, ff. 6d–7d.
28 Ibid. f. 9; Drake, Ebor. 181; Widdrington, Analecta, 84 (though his account of the conferring of the sword on Wm. Selby bears a suspicious resemblance to the terminology of the charter of 1396; York Mem. Bk. i. 160).
29 e.g. York Civ. Rec. i. 76–77, 79.
30 Ibid. i. 32, 90–91.
31 York Corp. Rec. D/1, f. 4.
32 York Corp. Supplemental Year Bk. (1928), 37.
33 York Mem. Bk. i. 116; York Corp. Rec. D/1, f. 9d.
34 Supplemental Year Bk. (1928), 37–39.
35 York Mem. Bk. i. 116; York Corp. Rec. D/1, ff. 6–7.
36 York Corp. Rec. D/1, ff. 7d–10d; Chamberlains' Roll, 1445; York Mem. Bk. ii. 255.
37 York Corp. Rec. D/1, f. 9d; see p. 78.
38 York Mem. Bk. ii. 255.
39 Cal. Pat. 1461–7, 366.
40 Ibid. 1467–77, 416.
41 e.g. York Civ. Rec. i. 48–52.
42 Ibid. ii. 39–44, 49, 54, 104; Cal. Pat. 1485–94, 297.
43 See p. 45.
44 Feud. Aids, vi. 231; Yorks. Fines, 1327–47, 21, 23; Yorks. Deeds, i. 187.
45 Kirkby's Inq. (Sur. Soc. 49), 273 n.; Feud. Aids, vi. 215, 223, 234, 236; B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii. ff. 191d–2; York Mem. Bk. i. 26.
46 See p. 101.
47 York Corp. Rec. D/1, f. 313.
48 York Mem. Bk. ii. 259; S.C. 6/1088/16.
49 York Corp. Rec. D/1, f. 313d.
50 York Mem. Bk. ii. 52, 74–75, 259–60.
51 York Civ. Rec. iii. 8–9.
52 York Corp. Rec. E/25, ff. 10, 43.
53 Cal. Pat. 1441–6, 368.
54 York Mem. Bk. ii. 86-87.
55 Drake, Ebor. 196–7.
56 York Civ. Rec. ii. 162.
57 Ibid. i. 25; York Freemen, i. 193.
58 York Mem. Bk. i. 16–17.
59 Ibid. ii. 256–7; York Civ. Rec. i. 16.
60 York Civ. Rec. i. 87; York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Rolls, 1442, 1445, 1453, 1463, 1466, 1470, 1478, 1486, 1499.
61 e.g. the review of leases of city property in 1506 and the ruling that anyone outbidding a sitting tenant might have such leases: York Civ. Rec. iii. 18.
62 Ibid. i. 34, 42, 45, 54–55, 59, 74, 80, 85; York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Roll, 1445.
63 See p. 60.
64 York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Rolls, 1486, 1499; York Civ. Rec. i. 164–9.
65 York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Bk. 1449, f. 12d.
66 York Civ. Rec. i. 87; York Freemen, i. 207 sqq.
67 York Mem. Bk. ii. 258–9; J.I. 2/219.
68 York Mem. Bk. ii. 257.
69 Ibid. 90, 260–1; Davies, York Rec. 12–13; Mem. Fountains, iii. 60; York Civ. Rec. i. 102.
70 A. S. Green, Town Life in the 15th Century, ii. 263.
71 York Corp. Supplemental Year Bk. (1928), 62.
72 York Mem. Bk. i. 40.
73 E. Foss, Biographia Juridica (1870), 246; Davies, York Rec. 87.
74 York Civ. Rec. i. 19; J. C. Wedgewood, Hist. Parl. 1439–1509 (Biogs.), 588; see p. 63.
75 Foss, Biog. Jurid. 246, 689.
76 Cal. Pat. 1313–17, 692; Cal. Close, 1327–30, 214.
77 S.C. 8/212/10596.
78 York Mem. Bk. i, pp. xxiv, 13–14; York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Roll, 1398.
79 York Mem. Bk. ii. 101.
80 Davies, York Rec. 289 sqq.; York Civ. Rec. i. 93, 109, 134–5, 169, 171, 175–6.
81 York Civ. Rec. i. 78–79; C.C. Guild, 105; Test. Ebor. iv. 205 n.; Wedgewood, Hist. Parl. (Biogs.), 524; York Merch. Adv. 64, 67, 104; York Corp. Rec. E/25, ff. 2, 152; F/1, f. 14.
82 York Civ. Rec. i. 8–11, 15–16.
83 Test. Ebor. iii, no. 61.
84 York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Roll, 1445.
85 e.g. Cal. Pat. 1377–81, 561; 1391–6, 289, 427.
86 e.g. the exemption accorded to Thomas Bracebridge a year before his death: York Mem. Bk. ii. 143.
87 Cal. Pat. 1436–41, 126, 440, 556; 1441–6, 22, 395; 1446–52, 49.
88 Rot. Parl. v. 225.
89 York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Roll, 1486.