Origins and early growth
THE PRE-CONQUEST BOROUGH AND EFFECTS OF THE CONQUEST
Development of local government | Power struggles with rivals
Buildings and fortifications | Economy | Information sources
Map of York at the close of the Middle Ages
|The pre-Conquest borough and effects of the Conquest|
York of the tenth and early eleventh centuries appears to have been the second city of the kingdom after London, which far outstripped all other English cities in terms of its prosperity and population size, which has been estimated at between 8,000-9,000, residing in over 1.900 properties. With London absent from Domesday Book, York is arguably the most important English city described therein, though Norwich was perhaps comparably large and populous; the Domesday description is supplemented by a contemporary text listing the archbishop's rights in the city.
For administrative purposes the city was divided into seven "shires", best understood as wards, of which six were under the king and the seventh under the archbishop; as in many county towns, the king owned (from his six shires) two-thirds of the city revenues that Domesday was at pains to record, and the earl the other third, except in one shire where that third was held by the archbishop. In his own shire, the archbishop could collect tolls on merchandize imported or exported, even by residents of the king's part of the city, but the separation between the two parts should be understood more as jurisdictional than physical and men moved freely between the parts in the conduct of their affairs. Administration of at least the royal rights may have been associated with the "lawmen" (boroughs of the Danelaw typically having 12) who are mentioned and are thought to have been a hereditary "class" responsible for administering justice and collecting associated revenues. The opinion of such men would likely have been sought and borne weight in the communal assembly that met periodically to address issues of common concern. The archbishop's ward was essentially the area covered by the cathedral and monastic precinct, along with 189 properties occupied by laymen in that area. The other ward where the archbishop had a one-third right ncluded Layerthorpe and part of the old Anglian settlement around the Foss, perhaps reflecting the pre-eminence of archiepiscopal administration at the periods those areas were settled. Another of the wards was called "Marketshire" and encompassed the streets known as the Shambles and the Pavement, both the sites of major markets.
The Conquest had a dramatic affect on the city perhaps no other suffered so badly from the consequences, although chroniclers may have exaggerated matters, and Domesday suggests a few other towns (such as Ipswich) also experienced similarly severe reversals. William I's initial goal after defeating Harold was to consolidate his hold on the south. This gave the north a breathing-space in which to organize resistance; from 1068 to 1070 William faced repeated rebellions there. In response to an uprising in York in 1068, William pursued his general policy of building a castle there, garrisoned with 500 of his supporters. Despite this there was a second uprising in the city, in the following year; the castle was besieged and one of its commanders was among members of the garrison to be killed. William hurried north to relieve his forces, defeated the rebels, and punished the city by tearing down the homes of rebels; he built a second castle.
After William's departure the remaining rebel forces again attacked the castles, unsuccessfully. An alliance of Danes and English resulted in a further assault on the city later in the year, in response to which the Norman garrisons fired houses near the castles (to prevent their use by the rebels); the fire spread throughout the city, destroyed houses as well as the Minster and the large library associated with its school. The rebels nonetheless were able to capture city and castles, tearing down the latter. William again hastened north, re-entered York without opposition, began rebuilding the castles, and proceeded to break the spirit of northern resistance by a scorched earth policy which added famine to the tribulations of the residents of York and its surrounding region.
These devastating events punitive and intimidating, though hardly annihilating (which would have worked against the Conqueror's interests) left York with a much reduced population: of the 1,600 residences recorded by Domesday as having existed before the Conquest, 540 had been abandoned or destroyed by 1086 and 400 others were impoverished. Only four of the lawmen were still in evidence. The damming of the Foss to create a water barrier defending the east side of one of the castles may well have had a damaging effect on the fortunes of the Fishergate community. When the first Norman archbishop of York came to the city in 1072, he found the Minster little more than a charred shell and only three of its monks had stayed in the city. Despite all this the king was demanding a higher payment of the traditional dues than his predecessor had.
It took time for the city to recover, but perhaps not a long time; minting in the city resumed quickly and by 1086 it was possible to assemble enough long-standing residents to provide the Domesday commissioners with the historical information they needed. Eight operating parish churches are identified in Domesday Book, and this is unlikely to have been a complete list. Further revival of trade and population was likely assisted by William Rufus and other Norman lords whose patronage enabled the foundation or growth of St. Mary's Abbey, Holy Trinity Priory and St. Leonard's Hospital, all of which provided clients for local or imported goods. Rebuilding of the Minster began in the last decade of the eleventh century, and the religious community was reorganized as a secular (rather than monastic) canonical chapter; this work continued throughout the twelfth century in the Norman style, together with the building of an episcopal palace. Then in the thirteenth century, through to the end of the Middle Ages, the cathedral was extensively rebuilt on a larger scale, at first in Gothic style and later Perpendicular. This almost continuous effort created employment within the city.
A further reflection of the gradual recovery is seen in a charter of liberties granted by Henry II to the city (itself referring back to earlier grants, of similar character, by Henry I), giving or confirming commercial and urban privileges along with exemptions from tolls elsewhere in England; a charter of Henry I granting liberties to Beverley models those liberties after York's and reveals that a merchant gild had been created to direct some of York's affairs. Richard I expanded the exemption to everywhere within his empire.
Other stimuli to the restoration of prosperity included the establishment of a Jewish community in York by the 1130s; this provided moneylending services, in which Christians were forbidden to be active. It, however, came to much the same bad end as in other English towns. Crusade-fever and resentment on the part of debtors led to persecution of Jews immediately after the accession of Richard I; in 1190 when rioting and killings prompted York's Jewish community to take refuge in the castle and to refuse to allow entry even to the sheriff. He in turn ordered crusaders, assembled in York to prepare for departure to the Holy Land, to assault the castle. Most of the Jews died as a result. The king sent his chancellor at the head of an armed force to restore order, but the leaders of the attack escaped before his arrival and, although a number of citizens were arrested, little could be proved or done other than impose punitive fines. A new, and eventually larger, Jewish community grew up and was organized, with royal authority, into a formal association by 1208; but, although wealthy, it was not a community of great size and there was no Jewish quarter in the city. Renewed anti-semitism in mid-century, followed by heavy taxation by the king, contributed to the community's impoverishment before the expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290.
Transfers of land ownership to the supporters of the Conqueror, the infrastructure and population damage done by suppression of rebellions, the imposition of castles (one compromising the Anglo-Scandinavian commercial centre of the city), and the additional loss of land when damming the Foss created the King's Pool, all contributed to some reshaping of the urban landscape at York in the twelfth century. New monastic buildings were introduced. Cathedral and parish churches were rebuilt. So too were many houses wealthier townsmen seeking the security of stone walls and tiled roofs for their homes and places of business; some merchants chose to establish houses and warehouses along the riverside. The layout of the main streets (which did not alter greatly) was filled in with connecting lanes and alleys, and suburban settlements expanded. Some of these trends continued in the centuries that followed, as York's population grew to a pre-Plague peak of perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 (less than 10 of them with formal citizenship), as the city acquired greater corporate control over its own affairs, and as at times it came to be used as an unofficial capital in the north.