POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval York constitution electoral procedures mayor alderman powers oath council chamberlain coroner bailiff sheriff duties re-election bridge maintenance salary
Subject: Electoral procedures and dates
Original source: York City Archives, Memorandum Book A/Y, ff.6, 345-47
Transcription in: Item 1. Maud Sellers, ed. York Memorandum Book, part II (1388-1493). Surtees Society, vol.125 (1914), 255-60; item 2. Maud Sellers, ed. York Memorandum Book, part I (1376-1419). Surtees Society, vol.120 (1911), 16-17.
Original language: French
Location: York
Date: late 14th century


[1. Election of city officials]

[The mayoral election]

The mayor, aldermen and bailiffs, and all other officers or officials of the city are elected according to the following manner and method. That is, on 3 February, when the mayor is to be elected, the commons of the city are to assemble in the Guildhall according to custom, and the mayor who was in office for the past year shall nominate two or three of the aldermen, and the commons shall elect one of these aldermen to be their mayor in the coming year. The which alderman thus elected as their mayor, if he is then in the city, is to be administered his oath [of office] individually, in front of the commons in the Guildhall, according to the form that follows below. [...] If he is not then in the city, he is to take his oath as indicated above, before the community in the Guildhall, the day immediately following his return to the city. The mayor is to have the government of the city, subject only to the king, for the year to follow, and as city custom dictates the mayor is to receive £50 for the year, to cover the costs and expenses of himself and his officers.

Next all the aldermen and the 24 of the common council who are present will make their oath in the manner indicated below. Then the common clerk will read out the oath of the commons, as written below, in the manner and form that follows; that being done, all of the commons are to raise their hands [in indication] that they will fulfill the oath. The mayor for the time to come, according to the custom of the city, in order to preserve peace and tranquillity within the city, has the discretionary power to arrest and imprison disturbers of the peace and other offenders for rebellious behaviour, misdeeds, rumourmongering, and other offences, without facing any legal action or impeachment for the same afterwards; should he be impeached or accused in court of any such action, he is to be defended at the cost of the community.

The mayor's oath

Hear this, good people, that I will be faithful and loyal to our lord king, and will preserve and protect the city for the king and his heirs. And the freedoms, rights, laws, usages, and customs of the same I will in all regards maintain and promote, will see right done equally to rich and to poor, and will not fail in this for any reason, so help me God and the saints.

The oath of the thirty-six members of the council

You swear that you will ready to respond to the mayor's command, as often as you are summoned and commanded, to give him advice, assistance, support and to back him up in all matters, out of love for the mayor and the city and for its benefit.

The oath of the commons made to the mayor

The members of the community of the city are to raise their hands and swear to the mayor to support him in the performance of his own oath as above, in all respects, to the best of their ability.


Also, on the same day, after the mayor has been elected in the manner indicated above, all the aldermen and the twenty-four who are then present in the Guildhall shall go from the Guildhall to the council chamber. There they shall elect three reputable men, chosen from the most worthy and most judicious in the city, to be chamberlains for the year following. Who, once elected as chamberlains, are to take their oaths before the mayor in the council chamber in the form that follows.

The oath of the three chamberlains

You swear that you will be ready [to perform] all things that you are able, that you will faithfully levy and receive all dues, arrears of tallages, and other debts owing to the community. And [you will] provide acquittances to those from whom you receive [debts], and act for the profit and advantage of the community, and the money that you receive you will well and truly expend and put to use towards the needs of the city. And you will faithfully render account of receipts, to the best of your ability and knowledge, when it is required and demanded of you, so help you God and all the saints.

In addition the mayor, aldermen and twenty-four of the common council there elect two wardens for the Ouse Bridge and two others for the Fosse Bridge. Which bridgemasters are to be sworn [into office] before the mayor and chamberlains in the chamber, in the manner that follows. The wardens are to have charge and administration of those bridges and the tenements belonging to the bridges, under the supervision of the mayor and his chamberlains then in office.

[The oath of the bridgemasters follows. The duties specified were to administer the chapel on the Ouse Bridge and its personnel, the rents relating to properties on or assigned to the bridge, and expenditures on the chapel, and to render an account of receipts and expenditures before the community in the Guildhall on 3 February, with mayor, aldermen and councillors as the auditors. No mention is made of the Foss Bridge, but doubtless its bridgemasters were administered the same oath mutatis mutandis.]

The chamber

On the Monday following 3 February the common clerk and all the mayor's sergeants for the year following are to be elected in the Guildhall by the mayor, aldermen, and by the mentioned above. Should it be the case that any of them dies within that year, or is dismissed for any reasonable cause or as just desserts, then the mayor then in office shall appoint another officer in place of he who has offended or died, to hold [the office] until 3 February. All these officers are to be sworn before the commons on the same Monday, in the manner that follows.

[The oath of the sergeants follows. Its essence was that they would obey all commands of the mayor, issuing summonses and making attachments when required, without any fraud or deceit.]


Aldermen are to be elected by the mayor and the aldermen then in office, within forty days following a death or discharge for any reasonable cause, as jointly agreed by mayor and aldermen, so that the number of aldermen be made up within that forty days. The aldermen thus elected are to take the same oath in the same manner as the thirty-six councillors as indicated above. The aldermen have the power under the customs of the city to commit troublemakers and other offenders to the custody of the sheriffs of the city, to be held until they have been suitably punished.

Also, after anyone has been elected alderman and is sworn, and the office has been occupied, it is ordained and instituted that forever after, according to the custom of the city, he is not to be impanelled or nominated to serve on any inquest [jury] within the city nor [any external jury in cases] concerning the liberties of the city.

Also, the mayor, aldermen and twenty-four of the common council of the city have been accustomed to elect three reputable men of the city to occupy and perform the office of coroners. That is to say, one of the three operating between the Ouse and the Foss, another on the far side of the Ouse, and another on the far side of the Foss. The three persons are to be well qualified individuals, capable and of good reputation. After they have been elected to the office of coroners, they are to be sworn before the mayor, council and community to perform their duties faithfully and fully in the county in the manner that follows.

Sheriffs or bailiffs

It is the custom within the city that on 21 September there will be elected within the city Guildhall three good, loyal, reputable men, to occupy and perform the office of bailiffs – all those who have previously filled and performed that office being excepted and excluded –; and, having duly accepted the responsibilities of that office, the bailiffs thus elected are to be presented to the community. If they are suitable to the commons, they are to be accepted by the community. The bailiffs are to take oath before the mayor, in the courthouse or in some other location within the city, as the mayor pleases. On an annual basis, the bailiffs pay to the king's Exchquer, and are accountable for, the farm of the city, and for the bailiwick of Ainsty (according to city custom); for which purpose the bailiffs must have all the revenues and assets belonging to the office since ancient times. The bailiffs may freely elect all their officers, servants and [sub-]bailiffs, both those within the city and those within the bailiwick of Ainsty, along with the gaolers of the gaols associated with their office, at their will and pleasure so long as there is no infringement of ordinances made in regard to those servants by the city council, as law prescribes. The bailiffs are to come into their office, through indentures made between them and their predecessors, on 29 September, at the first strike of Vespers sounded at the church of St. Michael near the Ouse bridge. To carry out and accomplish these matters in the manner indicated, each of the pair is to find and present two suitable men as their pledges.

Then, on 18 May 1396, King Richard authorized and granted power to the citizens, their heirs and successors to elect two reputable men of the city as sheriffs in place of the three bailiffs. Which sheriffs are to be elected on 21 September each year; and after their election each is to find two pledges, and is to be sworn in the same manner as the bailiffs used to be. The names of these sheriffs, once elected, is to be presented each year at the king's Chancery, under the common seal of the city.

[2. Frequency of re-election of mayors, and date of election of chamberlains]

Memorandum that on 9 February 1372, before John de Gysburne, then mayor of the city of York, and the entire community assembled in their Guildhall that day, it was agreed, ordained and approved that, regardless of what was previously ordained regarding the election of the mayor of the city both in ancient times and at present, from this day forth during a period of eight years no citizen of the city, no matter what his status or position, may be elected mayor of the city nor bear the responsibility or duties of the mayoralty for more than one year, until the said eight years have run their course and eight [other] citizens of the community have shouldered the office and maintained it. And that no mayor take as his salary more than £20 for undertaking the office of mayor. And whenever the mayor at the time surrenders his office to the community [...]

Concerning the election of chamberlains at the Purification

Memorandum that on 3 February 1375, by consent of the entire community in their Guildhall, assembled there that day for the election of their mayor, it was agreed, ordained, and instituted that all the chamberlains who are customarily elected on 21 September, when the bailiffs are elected, are henceforth to be elected on 3 February, the same day that the city mayor is elected and sworn. This so that mayors and chamberlains may take up their official duties together, and carry out what they must do (in regard to receipts, expenses, and payments of the city) and close out their terms together, the one with the other, notwithstanding any ordinance made in ancient times.


The civic register now known as Memorandum Book A/Y was begun in 1377 by the town clerk for purposes of ready reference. Copies of many existing records were made in the volume; perhaps some previously unwritten customs were included. The original source of information about elections clearly dates after 1375 but before 1396, but the version in the register was amended to bring it up to date with the constitutional changes of the 1390s. It may well have been those changes that prompted the copying, and updating, of the electoral information into what is considered the custumal section of the register, at some point in the second half of the 1390s.

Prior to 1396, and since about 1213, the government of York was in the hands of a mayor and three bailiffs, the latter focusing on aspects of administration from which flowed revenues destined for the Exchequer via the fee farm. By 1289 chamberlains had been introduced into city officialdom; in the late fourteenth century they were three in number, although in earlier and later periods four appears to have been the norm. All these were elected officials. In typically shadowy fashion, a town council evolved and by the 1370s had sophisticated to the point where we perceive a three-tiered system: at the top the 12 aldermen who had all borne the office of mayor or bailiff and thus represented an elite of experience within the upper council; associated with them, a group of 24 men of similar socio-economic status, but with less governmental experience; and finally a still-hazy lower council of 48, less frequently assembled, intended to ensure the community at large was represented at meetings where decisions would require community approval.

The method of mayoral election at York was the reverse of that at London, where it was the commons who nominated candidates and the mayor and aldermen who made the final selection from the nominees. But the effect was probably pretty much the same in either case, with the ruling elite exercising a significant degree of control over the choice of mayors. The extent of popular participation in elections at York is likely to have undergone the same gradual restriction that is evidenced in other of England's chief cities. We cannot imagine that the entire community attended elections on every occasion, although when the populace was aroused the attendance could exceed the capacity of even as large a guildhall as London's, as the Northampton affair showed. The York Guildhall had less capacity, although of course the community was smaller; but there is no reason to believe that elections were generally attended by a large proportion of those enfranchised. It came to be seen as appropriate for community participation in elections to be managed through a representation principle, although the effort to find a viable principle of representation itself proved difficult.

It is not clear how the 24 councillors were chosen. Based on a description of the shrieval election in 1418, the sheriffs were elected by "those to whom the election of new city sheriffs belongs" [Memo. Book, II, 74] apparently the common council, since the mayor and community were said to remain in the main hall of the Guildhall, while the electors withdrew to an inner chamber. On that occasion the sheriffs chosen were a mercer who was one of the 24 and a potter who was not. About a week later, an ordinance was passed specifying that the 24 were to be chosen only from those who had previously served as sheriffs; only in the absence of sufficient candidates so qualified could an alternate choice be made.

Nor is it clear who elected the bailiffs, although evidently it was not the commons. Probably the bailiffs to be were chosen by those about to leave office, as was the case in 1357. The sheriffs, on the other hand, were in the fifteenth century elected by mayor and council, with the community again having the opportunity to confirm the choice.

The provision for an 8-year interval between a man holding mayoralties was the outcome of political conflict in the city, with Gisburne as the reformer who, ironically, had just been re-elected to his second consecutive term in the mayoralty. Several mayors had held the office repeatedly earlier in the century. So tenuous was the hold of the reformers on government that Gisburne had to break his own rule by accepting election to the mayoralty again in 1379, and then again in 1380. Nor did his successors show respect for this principle, or for its extension in 1392 that no man be re-elected until other aldermen who had not yet served had done their tour of duty; it was not until the second decade of the fifteenth century that a trend begins for the mayoralty to be spread among a larger group, with few men serving more than once and (with one exception) no consecutive re-elections throughout the remainder of the century.

In the period of intense political rivalries of the 1370s and early '80s, it is tempting to conclude that the intent of the restriction was to prevent any individual becoming entrenched in local government through an extended hold on the mayoralty. However, rotation of the office through a larger number of individuals also spread the burden – the financial burden was the excuse given for the abolition of mayoral re-election at London earlier in the century, although this too was at a time of political conflict. In 1426 it was enacted at London that no-one could be re-elected to the mayoralty until seven years had elapsed following the end of his term. Northampton, with a tradition of modelling itself after London, passed a similar ordinance in 1437 with terminology hinting at easing the burdensome duty; a further ordinance in 1448 noted the "grievous expenses and costs" incurred by the mayors, exceeding their salaries, and provided additional relief via perpetual exemption from licence fees for domestic brewing and from participation in watch and ward duties. The early decades of the fifteenth century had seen a number of cases of re-election to a second term and the mayor in 1437, John Sprigy, had himself been one of the 'victims'; during the remainder of the century, the seven-year hiatus was respected. The 1430s also saw it decreed in London that no-one should be expected to have to serve a third term; as at York, throughout the rest of the century holding the mayoralty more than once was far less common than in the earlier period. In 1426 at Salisbury an ordinance specified that whoever served as mayor should not be called upon to serve again until a five-year interval had elapsed, and the impression given is that this was to protect those subject to election; in 1451 it was ruled that a mayor could not be nominated for re-election for the succeeding term.

The mayoral salary (perhaps more properly considered a fee, since it was originally a one-time payment at the conclusion of the term of office, although later appears to have been paid in instalments) was not perceived as adequately offsetting the personal costs incurred by holding the mayoralty. It had been at £20 since at least 1364. But mayors often received "rewards", intended to compensate them for out-of-pocket expenses, which tended to increase as there were more demands on administration, particularly in the area of hospitality and gift-giving to court favour, and as the mayors needed assistants at least some of whose costs they were expected to cover; such rewards could be quite large. There was growing concern over the salaries and expenses of borough officers, particularly the mayor, as these were normally the largest item of expenditure in the budget; likely this concern, or even resentment on the part of the poorer citizens, translated into political discontent and charges of official corruption or fiscal mismanagement.



Sheriffs were substituted for bailiffs when York was given county status in 1396, which therefore marks the upper limit in date for the early part of the text.

"3 February"
This date for the beginning and end of the fiscal and administrative year was unusual. In most towns August or September (especially Michaelmas) were the norm, partly because this matched the Exchequer year and was therefore useful in terms of accounting for the fee farm; by the 15th century, typically, elections were often taking place in August, but the officers-elect did not take up office until Michaelmas. At York and Coventry, however, Candlemas (the Purification of the Virgin Mary) was the focal point; 3 February, St. Blaise's day, was the day following Candlemas. Initially the chamberlains and bailiffs were elected in September, but it would have been more convenient for the mayoral and camerarian years to coincide, and this adjustment was made by the above ordinance of 1375. In 1490 the election was moved into January, but assumption of office remained at St. Blaise's day.

The original term is apartement, which I take to intend a contrast with other oaths being administered collectively.

This I assume to be the gist of paroiles, although it might also refer to slander.

"at the cost of the community"
See a similar provision for the governors of Beverley in 1345, and it appears to have been the case in some, if not many, other towns.

"council chamber"
This was located down the street, atop the Ouse Bridge.

"the power"
The magisterial power of arrest seems to be the major distinction between aldermen and other councillors.

The term in the original, demourant, might refer to residence, but I suspect the intent here was to define boundaries of jurisdiction. However, it may have been that the concern was rather to have a coroner reasonably close at hand to where a crime was committed, so that he might be called to the crime scene while the trail was yet hot.

City jurisdiction extended over a sizable area, anciently known as a wapentake, to the west and south of the city, known as The Ainsty. In the early 13th century the citizens were claiming that such jurisdiction had been accorded them when King John granted them by charter the city and all its appurtenances. After a challenge, the royal government eventually allowed this, and the city held it at farm thereafter; however, when York became a county, the Ainsty was not initially a part of that territory.

"to the community"
Damage to the following section of the manuscript made it hard to transcribe, but it appears that the departing mayor was expected to make a commitment of loyalty to his successor.

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Created: May 27, 2003. Last update: January 6, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2003-2019