CONSTITUTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval York charter jurisdiction judicial administration justices peace landholding mortmain bridge maintenance self-government county
Subject: Charter granted by Richard II to York
Original source: York City Archives, Memorandum Book A/Y, f.56
Transcription in: Maud Sellers, ed. York Memorandum Book, part I (1376-1419). Surtees Society, vol.120 (1911), 143.
Original language: Latin
Location: York
Date: 1393


Richard, by the grace of God King of England and France and Lord of Ireland, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, dukes, earls, barons, justices, sheriffs, reeves, officers, and all his bailiffs and loyal subjects, greetings. Know that by our special grace and at the petition of our well-loved subjects, the mayor and citizens of our city of York, we have granted and given licence, on behalf of ourself and our heirs (insofar as we may), to the mayor and citizens that they, their heirs and successors may acquire and hold in their name lands, tenements and rents with appurtenances up to the value of £100 annually, to be held of us in burgage within our city and its suburbs. [The purpose being] for the perpetual maintenance and support of the bridges across the Ouse and Foss within the said city and other bridges in the suburbs of the same, and for the mayor and citizens to find and support various chaplains and other priests to celebrate mass and perform other divine services and charitable acts in the communal chapel on the Ouse bridge, for the worship of God and giving of prayers for ourself, our heirs, and the souls of our ancestors, as well as for the aforesaid mayor and citizens. Notwithstanding the statute of mortmain concerning lands and tenements, nor that the said lands, tenements and rents are held of us in burgage (as it is said). Provided that, however, it is determined, by an inquisition held in due form and [the findings] returned as customary to our Chancery, that this [acquisition of property] can be done without any loss or injury to ourself, our heirs, or anyone else. Also, considering that the mayor and citizens, through grants made by our ancestors and confirmed by us, have jurisdiction over all kinds of pleas related to land within the city and its suburbs – by virtue of which grant, our justices having cognizance of pleas of assize [of land] do not care to make allowance to the mayor and citizens, because in our said grant no express mention of pleas of assize was made, as we are informed – by our special grace and at the petition of the mayor and citizens we have granted, on behalf of ourself and our heirs (insofar as we may), to the mayor and citizens that they, their heirs and successors may have jurisdiction over all pleas of assize, novel disseisin, mort d'ancestor, relating to all lands and tenements within the city and its suburbs, [initiated] either before our justices of either bench, the justices of assize and justices itinerant, or before any other justices and royal officers holding and taking assizes in the presence of the mayor and citizens in the city's Gildhall. We also grant to mayor and citizens in perpetuity that no justices of the peace or justices assigned to try felonies, transgressions and other wrong-doings, nor justices of labourers, servants and craftsmen in the three tithings within the county of York or in any other place, may in any way meddle within our city or its suburbs or liberties, nor outside, concerning anything done or occurring within the city, suburbs or liberties. And that the mayor and twelve aldermen of our city, and their successors [in office] in perpetuity – or four, three or two of them with the mayor – have full power to correct and punish, and the power and authority to take cognizance, enquire, hear and determine all things and matters concerning all kinds of felonies, transgressions, misprisions, and extortions, as well as all kinds of other cases and pleas whatsoever occurring within or pertaining to the city, suburbs and liberties in whatever way, to the full extent that justices of the peace [etc. as above] have or shall in any way have in the future outside the city, suburbs and liberties; reserving to ourself the fines, amercements, revenues and other profits issuing therefrom in whatever way. Furthermore, considering that the bridge over our fishery the Foss is in a state of some deterioration, so that, as we understand, it cannot last much longer without repairs and renovation, we have granted and given licence, on behalf of ourself and our heirs (insofar as we may), to the mayor and citizens and their heirs and successors that they may construct and place piles and columns of stone in the fishery within the space of one hundred feet over and above the space in the pond occupied by the bridge at present, for the purpose of strengthening and supporting the bridge and houses built or to be built atop the bridge, along with a certain chapel which they propose to build on the bridge in the future, for the celebration therein by certain chaplains [of services] for ourself and our heirs and for the souls of our ancestors and for the mayor and citizens. And that they may transport by boat or by other means, beyond the head of the pond of the fishery, stone, timber and other supplies necessary for this work. Witnesses: the venerable fathers W. Archibishop of Canterbury primate of all England, T. archbishop of York primate of England, our chancellor; W. bishop of Winchester, R. bishop of London, J. bishop of Salisbury, our treasurer; John duke of Aquitaine and Lancaster, Edmund duke of York, T. duke of Gloucester, our dear uncles; Thomas earl of Warwick, William earl of Salisbury, Edward earl of Devon; John Devereux our steward of the household, Edmund de Stafford our keeper of the privy seal, and others. Given by our hand at Winchester, 11 February 1393.


In the fourteenth century, royal charters granted to boroughs were more differentiated than those of the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, as local issues came more to the fore. However, common threads can still be identified in the development of local government. York's liberties did not significantly increase during the fourteenth century, until its final decade. Although the charter here only had two concerns to address, they were important ones. The charter of 1393, together with that of 1396, represented a significant change for city government, providing the fullest expression of self-government that was possible under a monarchical regime; just how significant the ramifications would be may not have been fully appreciated at the time.

One of matters addressed by the 1393 charter was a continuation of the expansion of judicial administrative powers that is a feature of urban constitutional development. The particular concern at hand was that the borough authorities were unable to persuade royal justices to relinquish to borough courts the hearing of pleas of assize, because the borough charters did not clearly specify jurisdiction over that kind of case. The solution here was for the judicial authority of mayor and selected aldermen to be explicitly broadened to be the equivalent of royal justices dealing with local cases (petty assizes); for the borough this was part of the long-standing ambition to be independent of external authorities as much as possible, while for the king the change served to integrate boroughs more closely into the national system of administration. In the process of this extension of jurisdiction, the long-standing sphere of jurisdiction of the borough courts was confirmed; perhaps equally important, confirmed without specifying exemptions for the independent liberties within the city, long a thorn in the side of city authorities. The secular jurisdiction of those liberties was henceforth more limited.

The appointment of local officials as commissioners, and later justices, of the peace was not uncommon. But nor was it guaranteed or continuous. Outsiders could continue to be appointed to administer justice in York in certain types of cases. In particular, the Statute of Labourers (promulgated following the labour shortage caused by the Black Death, which enabled survivors to demand higher wages and gave rise to inflation) and the statute instituting searchers of crafts to police shoddy workmanship or monopolistic, price-fixing practices (the searchers themselves policed by royal justices), had introduced additional external intervention in trade matters previously left to local authorities. The 1393 charter transferred this jurisdiction back to them. The 1396 charter, giving York county status (only Bristol having already acquired such status by grant, while London had it as the result of a long development), was a natural extension of what had been started in 1393 and also plugged a few holes in the earlier charter, as well as ensuring that the revenues from the judicial jurisdiction granted went into city coffers. County status was an additional guarantee that officials of the external county could not intervene locally. It became a common feature of fifteenth-century charters, at least in the case of larger cities, for justice of the peace powers to be granted to local authorities and often this was associated with the grant of jurisdiction equivalent to that of a county.

The second concern was to find new or expanded sources of revenue to pay for the increased activities borough governments had assumed over time. In this case the concern was with the city bridges and the communal chapels built thereon. From at least the mid-fourteenth century, York was appointing wardens to be responsible for the bridges and collection of associated revenues. The acquisition of real estate, for purpose of obtaining annual income from rents and leases, was a common solution pursued by boroughs, and was one factor paving the way towards formal incorporation of boroughs. Of the two rivers flowing through York, the Ouse was the major, and the route for commerce. The Foss gradually lost its navigability after William I dammed it just below the castle in order to ensure a supply of water for the castle ditch, and as a result a large pond formed further north, which became a royal fishery; mud and debris from the fishpond clogged the stretch of river to the south. Thus, in the charter (and sometimes in local documents), the Foss is not referred to as a river but by the term vivarium, a fish preserve – not just the pond, which is itself referred to in the charter as stagnum. South of the pond was the Foss Bridge which, by 1376, was encumbered by 23 tenements, 3 shops and a salt fish market; the more important Ouse Bridge held not only St. William's Chapel but also a city prison and its council chamber.

Royal interest in the valuable fishery, on which boats were infrequently allowed to travel, was the reason the city had to seek licence to expand the bridge and use the river for transporting construction materials. Renovation probably began soon after the charter grant and continued for some years – there being grants of pontage for this purpose in 1402, 1406, 1409 and 1411, by the end of which period the bridge had been substantially rebuilt in stone. Construction of the proposed chapel, which was dedicated to St. Anne, near the northern end of the bridge was underway by 1407 and the chapel was certainly in use by 1424. The chapel is an example of the involvement of urban government in administering religious matters, by meeting the pious needs of citizens concerned with their souls.

The charters of 1393 and 1396 were obtained at much effort and expense on the part of the citizens, and the fiscal advantages they gave must have been offset by the increased administrative responsibilities and costs. The citizens of York were able to capitalize on Richard II's quarrel with the Londoners, who had supported the Appellants against him in 1387 and in 1392 refused to loan him money; as a result he briefly moved his court from Westminster to York in the latter year. This proximity made it easier for the citizens to present their petition and follow up with initial negotiations; the king was doubtless inclined to be sympathetic, both to win gratitude and support from the city and to thumb his nose at London. Similarly, the grant of the 1396 charter was facilitated by a visit of Richard to York with much pomp and ceremony. It was probably not uncommon for towns to take advantage of royal visits in that way. It has been estimated that the city spent the equivalent of £1,000,000 in modern value on gaining its end [S.R. Jones, "York's Civic Administration, 1354-1464", The Government of Medieval York, 1997, 115], and details were still being worked out when Richard returned to London, his retinue accompanied by a team of York negotiators, led by mayor William Frost, a man whose past service in royal administration may have helped give the king confidence that new administrative responsibilities could be placed on the shoulders of the York rulers. Richard never returned to York after 1396, and his subsequent financial exactions from some of its leading citizens lost him some of the goodwill his charter grants had presumably won; the citizens were prepared to lend Bolingbroke money to assist his coup in 1399.



The 13th-century codification Summa de legibus from Normandy characterized burgage as property: capable of being bought or sold without licence from an overlord or challenge from heirs or relatives of the seller; subject to dower right after the death of the owner; divisible between both male and female heirs; and not subject to feudal reliefs. It contrasted burgage tenure with tenure by homage or by charitable gift (alms).

"mort d'ancestor"
The assize of mort d'ancestor concerned itself with the right of an heir to immediate possession of the property held by a deceased party at death, even if another claimant had better title (that claimant had other legal avenues than asserting his rights upon the death of the tenant).

William Frost
Frost is credited with being the moving force behind the city's efforts to obtain the charter of 1396. A relative newcomer to the city, he was already important enough in county circles to have served as Yorkshire's escheator (1388-90), and he served in this period and later on various royal commissions. He had ties to a family important in Beverley and Kingston-upon-Hull; but, more important, before 1390 he had married the coheiress of the wealthy former mayor John Gisburne. He did not take up citizenship until 1395; but having already succeeded to Gisburne's residence and possibly his business, as well as having connections among the gentry, must have helped catapult him to the mayoralty the following year. His involvement in commerce does not seem to have been great, however, and his own wealth may have been built more from the lands he owned. Frost's success in negotiating the charter (during which process he also obtained royal licence to found his own chantry) helped win him re-election in 1397. Despite favour shown him by Richard II's government, he supported Bolingbroke's coup and in 1404 Henry IV rewarded him with the rank of esquire and a life annuity; this relationship may help explain his repeated elected to York's mayoralty in 1400, 1401, 1402, and 1403 – an extraordinary run, especially given that an ordinance apparently still on the books, though largely disregarded, dictated a long interval between mayoralties. When the city followed Archbishop Scrope into the rebel camp in 1405, Frost (despite being related to Scrope and to other rebels) remained aloof and, after the city surrendered to the king, was made joint keeper during a period of suspension of city liberties. Following their restoration, in June 1406, the citizens thought it politic to again make Frost their mayor. Not long after concluding that term of office, he fell ill and disappears from the record after 1408. He left a widow, but no children.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 15, 2002 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003