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
|Power struggles with rivals|
There were a number of independent franchises within York's boundaries. The most obvious was the archbishop's "shire", within which his officers had the power of judicial administration over minor offences occurring on lands owned by the cathedral a court being held at one of the Minster gates and to the revenues therefrom, as well as from husgable rents and other customary dues owed by tenants of cathedral lands. The archbishop also had the "third penny" of revenues from a second ward of the city, which included the tolls collected on the Foss Bridge. By the mid-twelfth century, the cathedral had its own fair, which provided competition with the city markets, if only temporarily.
The castles too were areas within the city yet outside its sway; there were occasional disputes between city and sheriff regarding legal jurisdiction, although they were relatively minor. By contrast, a more important case involving rival jurisdictions took place in 1390-91, when wealthy citizen Thomas de Howom successfully sued a fishmonger in the city court for a debt of £8; when the fishmonger delayed in repaying, an impatient Howom took matters into his own hands, seizing a ship anchored in the Ouse belonging to the debtor. The fishmonger then appealed to the court of the admiral of the north who, on the grounds that the ship was on a tidal water when seized, reversed the city court's decision, despite the creditor's argument that the ship was moored and that the case therefore was within the jurisdiction of the city court. The admiralty court was already unpopular and its decision in the Howom case only gave more ammunition to its detractors. The king had to intervene to stop the admiral prosecuting Howom, and the affair led to the introduction in parliament of statutes that led to restrictions on the authority of the admiralty court.
Other franchises included St. Mary's Abbey, St. Leonard's Hospital, and Holy Trinity Priory. Lay tenants living on property owned by such institutions were independent of the jurisdiction of borough authorities, who could not intrude upon the areas covered by the franchises.
Inevitably there resulted disputes over the precise scope of jurisdiction of the various ecclesiastical authorities, not least with regard to whether tenants of the franchises were to be treated as residents or outsiders in the case of toll-collection or local taxation. The townspeople felt aggrieved that residents of the franchises could benefit from the economic and defensive advantages of the city without contributing to the costs involved in maintaining those advantages. This resentment led to a series of assaults by some citizens on the priory, beginning in 1258. St. Mary's was subject to similar treatment between 1264-68, following a dispute between the abbey and city over whether abbey tenants should be subject to tolls; in the course of rioting, some of the abbey tenants were killed and houses ransacked and burned down. The archbishop intervened to put the city under an interdict, but it was left to the county sheriff to mediate a restoration of peace; the abbey then erected a stone wall around its precinct. It may have been no coincidence that city authorities were themselves, at this period, engaged in an active programme of rebuilding the city walls, an assertive expression of jurisdiction.
By 1275 relations had so deteriorated that the archbishop and the abbot brought complaints before parliament. A royal commission was appointed; its investigations upheld the rights of abbey and cathedral, including the status of the Bootham suburb (beyond the northwest corner of the city) as a separate and abbey-affiliated borough in which the city authorities had no jurisdiction. The citizens were not prepared to let matters rest here. A fresh round of discords in the early fourteenth century led to an armed band breaking into the archbishop's property at the Old Baile which was also subject to dispute between the city authorities and the archbishop over who was responsible for the maintenance and defence of the section of city wall there. The jurisdiction of the archbishop's courts over the cathedral franchise was another source of contention at this time.
During the reign of Edward II, the city authorities tried to assert jurisdiction in Bootham, by levying taxes and holding assizes of bread and ale there. Although Edward III reaffirmed the abbey's liberties, the citizens were not to be discouraged: they blockaded the Ouse to prevent food supplies getting as far upriver as the landing used by the abbey, and issued threats against the lives of abbot and monks, who eventually were forced to flee when there was an armed siege of the abbey grounds. By a settlement of 1354, most of Bootham was restored to the jurisdiction of the city, which used the argument often convincing to kings that it had difficulty paying its fee farm without the revenues that came from Bootham.
Hostility between the city and the abbey continued to express itself on one issue or another. In 1377 there was a dispute over a right-of-way from the Ouse to Bootham via a road on the west side of St. Mary's; the abbey had blocked the road with a ditch, but was forced to fill it in. In the first half of the fifteenth century, one bone of contention was freedom of passage along the Ouse. In the second half we still see violent confrontations between citizens and residents of the abbey liberty.
A similar type of dispute with St. Leonard's erupted in 1401, when the brethren had a ditch dug around a piece of land considered by the citizens as common pasturage, and a gate erected there. The mayor sent twenty men to pull down the gate and fill in the ditch, which led the hospital to complain to higher authorities. We do not know the outcome. It appears, however, that St. Leonard's was resented as much as St. Mary's, for during the disturbances of 1380, the hospital had to obtain a special protection.
While the king himself cannot be seen exactly as a rival to a provincial city, there was a certain tension in their relationship, just as was the case between most any European monarch and civic jurisdictions within the royal domain. The king gave with one hand and took with the other. He was not simply the leading landlord in most large towns, but as governor of the nation needed cities, citizens, and the resources they had at their disposal: tax money and other sources of revenue, military manpower or services (e.g. transportation), and supplies for his court and his armies. He needed civic authorities to keep the peace locally, uphold national laws, and regulate economic matters. In return, he (or his agencies) sponsored local infrastructure projects such as fortifications, bridge maintenance and street paving, helped protect towns from hostile forces (notably, Scots) or internal strife, kept the highways and rivers safe for travellers, provided diplomatic support for merchants trading abroad, acted as judicial arbiter in urban disputes which went beyond local jurisdiction, and delegated selected rights or powers to civic corporations, thus relieving them of meddling by royal officers who previously exercised such powers. The king and the towns of his realm were, to an extent, mutually dependent; but it was a fine line to walk that could incur resentment on either side: the king might find civic authorities negligent or unresponsive, while they might consider the king too demanding or too hands-on. An offended king might suspend the chartered liberties that the city had acquired, as for example Henry III did in 1256 after the city mayor and bailiffs had failed to appear at the Exchequer in person. The assertive Edward I suspended York's liberties on several occasions when, in his perception, civic authorities failed to meet their obligations.
Every so often York played host to kings and their entourages; for example, in contrast to his absentee brother, King John made one or more visits almost every year of his reign such visits could be burdensome but also provided opportunities to negotiate new autonomies for local government or support for some local initiative. Frequent visits and associated largesse were not guaranteed to win loyalty; the baronial revolt leading up to Magna Carta was dominated by northerners and York's position in the conflict must have been suspect, for in 1216 the citizens found it necessary to regain royal good will through a large monetary payment. The situation was not dissimilar during the rebellion in Henry III's reign. However, as royal rule was based in the south, John's successors were less frequent visitors, except (notably) when hostilities with Scotland broke out. The king's sheriff of Yorkshire was, on the other hand, a more steady presence, having his base in one of the castles, and presiding (in person or through subordinates) over the county court in a building facing Toft Green