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
|Development of local government|
Henry I's charter did not delegate any local powers of self-government. Communal interests were probably represented by a merchant gild, whose alderman seems the invidual mentioned in 1130 in a context showing he owed his authority to the king; curiously the alderman's name, Thomas son of Ulviet may indicate a connection with one of the last lawmen, Ulvet son of Forno (mentioned 1106), hinting at some continuity in local leadership. Nor was Henry II the type of king to go beyond the scope of his grandfather's grants, if he did not need to. Perhaps frustration with this state of affairs, in a period when London had shown itself prepared to assert its political ambitions forcefully, partly explains York's preparedness to support the rebellion of Henry's son in 1173/74 and to establish an independent commune. However, that initiative may have been taken by a clique, rather than supported by the citizenry in general, since it was individuals who were fined by the royal justices for their part in the rebellion and setting up the commune. Among the clique's leaders was Thomas de Ultra Usam (along with his sons), and it has been argued [Palliser, Medieval York, p.115] that he may have been the same as Thomas son of Ulviet, despite the length of time intervening. Another of the rebels is believed to have lived in a stone house that later became the city's first guildhall. Local desire for self-government was not extinguished, however, by the controlling Henry, for by the turn of the century the city leaders were using a communal seal to validate documents resultant from their decision-making.
We hear of city reeves ca.1200, but these were probably acting as deputies to the sheriff, who had control over collection of the revenues for payment of the city farm until 1212, when the city acquired control for itself. There is reference very shortly afterwards to the city having a mayor. He was, or came to be, assisted by three bailiffs together they presided over the city court, meeting in a civic building on the Ouse Bridge and by the end of the century by chamberlains responsible for administering city finances. The bailiffs collected the revenues that went to pay the fee farm and enforced market regulations, including the assizes of bread and ale. They nominated their own successors, although mayor and community had the power to veto the nominations. At the time when we first hear of chamberlains, the city revenues that had to go towards paying the fee farm were tolls and customs on commercial goods, fines imposed by the courts, the traditional husgable (house-rents), and rents from butchers stalls. Other city officers included: three coroners, each responsible for a section of the city; bridgemasters who collected tolls and later rents and were responsible for upkeep of the bridges; and keepers of the city gates; as well of course as a town clerk. Unfortunately, loss of most of the civic records prior to the reign of Richard II makes it difficult to trace or characterize the early development of York's local government.
The threat from Scotland, at the beginning of the thirteenth century only sporadic, increased during the course of that century, and became serious enough to discourage merchants from coming to the city. Income from customs and tolls consequently fell, leading the authorities to raise the level of tolls, which in turn produced complaints from traders who had to pay them. The city also began to expand the amount of property it owned, to increase income from rents; although there were several hundred properties subject to husgable, at a fixed level of, in most cases, a penny or twopence a time the total income was not great. Local taxation had to be resorted to in times of particular financial need or shortfall. This produced complaints of excessive or unbalanced assessments in 1276 the same type of complaint was being heard in many towns at this period.
It was the need to mount a campaign against the Scots that prompted the king, in 1298, to summon a parliament at York and to order his Exchequer, Chancery, and courts of justice to transfer there from Westminster. For almost seven years the royal government remained, during which period the city was not only the capital of ecclesiastical administration in the north and the seat of the government of Yorkshire, but also the effective capital of England. The castle was the principal seat of the relocated government, although space was also commandeered in the archbishop's palace and the Franciscan friary. The city became the focus for a war administration and gathering point for armies against the Scots. The move was not entirely popular with the bureaucrats of the royal administration, who were subjected to profiteering by local merchants and tradesmen and who probably found the city smelly and somewhat parochial after London. Even after things quietened a little and the king's government returned south, the Scottish threat continued to bring Edward II to York periodically. York was again a base for royal government during Edward III's campaigns of the 1330s; but after his attention refocused on France, the defence of the north was left to the powers of that region.
Despite York's importance as a command base for the Scottish wars, the citizens did not use this to their advantage to win greater self-government from the king; on the contrary, to some extent it exposed the city to greater royal interference in local administration. For most of the century the powers of the city authorities did not increase significantly, although a royal charter of 1312 granted the citizens exemption from jury service outside of York, and officially sanctioned the principle that all who wished to enjoy the privileges of citizenship had to contribute to the common financial burdens (e.g. royal taxations).
The growing importance of the mayoralty is seen in the creation, before 1365, of the office of a sergeant to carry the mayor's mace of office, while a second was created in 1388 to bear a ceremonial sword which Richard II had allowed to the mayor. The city custumal (apparently compiled in this period) specified that mayors were to be chosen by representatives of the community, from a small selection of aldermen nominated by the outgoing mayor. An attempt to impose controls on the mayor is seen in reforms of 1372 prohibiting re-election to the office until a period of eight years had passed, and forbidding the mayor to be given any financial reward beyond his annual salary; these were ineffective, although a further reform in 1392 again targeted the growing mayoral salary and insisted that no-one be re-elected to the mayoralty until all the aldermen who had not yet been mayor had served.
The first round of reforms came in the context of a power-struggle between factions led by John Langton and John Gisburne. The former, who had been mayor every year between 1350 and 1363 had blocked the latter's nomination as bailiff in 1357. Following Langton's monopolisation of the mayoralty, there seems to have been an attempt to restore what was perceived (by some at least) as tradition: that the mayoralty should change hands every year. In 1371 the two men were in direct and heated competition for the mayoralty so much so that the king had to intervene to prohibit debates and unlawful assemblies and to forbid either man from becoming mayor. Despite that, Gisburne was chosen as mayor, and re-elected in 1372.
Gisburne was again elected to the mayoralty in 1380, but scandals during his term of office led to dissatisfaction that culminated in a riot, and he had to flee the city. His opponents forced Simon Quixley to accept the mayoralty and compelled the city council to swear obedience to their candidate; they had it proclaimed that, should need arise, the community would be summoned to defend this government by the ringing of the bell on the Ouse Bridge. Again, the king was obliged to intervene to restore Gisburne to office and punish the rioters. When Quixley was elected mayor by legitimate methods the following year, he proceeded to arrest or fine Gisburne supporters. In an environment complicated by the arrival of news of the rebellious peasant's assault on London, prompting further popular disturbances in York, Gisburne's followers launched an attack from outside the city on Bootham Bar, and succeeded in winning entrance; they formed a sworn association and wore a common livery. St. Leonard's and the Dominican and Franciscan friaries were subject to attacks during these proceedings, though whether this was part of the factionalism or the northern mirroring of the southern revolt is not clear. Once more the king took a hand, obliging both sides to keep the peace and forcing the city to pay a large fine for a pardon.
The reforms of 1372 thus may not have been inspired by democratic sentiment so much as by rivalries within the ruling class, aimed at preventing any faction from becoming predominant. These rivalries were subsequently complicated by an assertion of community control over its governors. The intentions of the royal government, which thought in terms of top-down power, were otherwise, however. In 1393, a new royal charter gave the mayor and aldermen the powers of justices of the peace, and the city courts allowed to entertain the petty assizes. This was a prelude to the important grant, three years later, of county status for York: two sheriffs replaced the bailiffs, and the mayor and sheriffs were empowered to hear a wide range of cases in court. By this time we are seeing tinkering with the electoral procedures and disputes over elections.
The county included not merely the city, but some surrounding lands notably an area called the Ainsty, where the city sheriffs administered justice independently from the main city courts. The latter included a general court of pleas, administered by the bailiffs and later the sheriffs, which sat on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; a court of common pleas, whose sessions each Monday were presided over by mayor and bailiffs; and a special court for acknowledgements of debts incurred, made before the mayor. The city was still, by late fourteenth century, divided into six wards, each of which had its own wardmote court hearing minor complaints; ward constables, later referred to as sergeants, were responsible for collecting certain revenues and for assembling citizens for defence of the city.
City government was still based in buildings on the Ouse Bridge, but for functions requiring more space, in its Guildhall further west along the river. The latter was used for meetings of the full city council. A council appears to have existed throughout the fourteenth century (if not before) although only took formal shape with the constitutional changes at the end of that century. By that time we can see an innermost council of 12 aldermen which was constantly advising the mayor, backed up by a larger group of 24 probi homines ("reputable men"). In the fifteenth century the community was being represented by a further council of 48, although this was consulted only on major issues, sometimes augmented by prominent gildsmen (such as the searchers of the gilds).
York continued to be caught up in national conflicts, with adverse effects at a time when its economy was already struggling. It followed Archbishop Scrope into the northern rebellion in 1405. After quashing this, Henry IV threatened to raze the city if it offered further resistance, imposed a hefty fine on the citizens, and placed its government under royal wardens until the following year. During the early phase of the Wars of the Roses, York is seen giving gifts to a large number of lords, to curry favour (or at least avoid disfavour). The power-struggle between the parties on the national scene encouraged local factionalism in the city. This was reflected in frequent breaches of the peace, and in the form of armed confrontations between individuals or groups. Even the annual elections were often subject to violent disagreements.
After the victory of Edward IV, Richard of Gloucester came to be influential in the city, it being Edward's policy to make Richard the most powerful lord in the north. While the city and Richard did not see eye-to-eye on all matters, overall he succeeded in winning the loyalty of the city, which provided him with a contingent when he moved to defend his Protectorship (1483) and ended up seizing the throne. Shortly afterwards he returned to York for a lavish celebration, which included the investiture of his son as Prince of Wales. Grateful for the city's support, he lent a sympathetic ear to the city's plea of financial hardship particularly as it affected the ability to supply troops for royal needs and its argument that a reduction in its fiscal obligations to the throne, in the form of an abolition of tolls, would allow it to re-energize the local economy; he reduced the amount of tolls the city was expected to collect each year, as part of its fee farm. The desire for a reduced fee farm was, however, probably also connected to a growing deficit that the city was carrying over from one year to the next in its annual budgets. Unfortunately, the Exchequer's refusal to acknowledge the reduction left York in the awkward position of still being subject to the full demand, yet having ceased to collect the tolls that contributed towards that amount.
The city expressed in its official records a deep regret when Richard III was defeated and killed at Bosworth. Although York submitted to Henry VII, it was not without asserting its claim to the privileges enjoyed in the time of Richard, and the city was still prepared to oppose the king's nominations for the office of city recorder (legal adviser), asserting its right to choose its own officers in this case from men known as former supporters of the Yorkist cause. However, to be fair, outside interference in local elections from whatever source had always been resisted by the city authorities.