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 Anglian wik focused around Fishergate, already mentioned, shows manufacturing of products from wood, metal, bone, leather, and furs, and the importation of pottery from parts of England and abroad. It added, to the administrative base located within the old Roman walls, another dimension to the gestation of an urban community. Viking raids of late eighth century may have disrupted international trade, and perhaps even regional commerce, for a while, but not disastrously as far as we can tell. Indeed, archaeological evidence suggests that, on balance, the aftermath of the Viking conquest of York in 866 was stimulation of significant growth in both the physical city and in its economy. The Danes preferred to settle around centres where their armies had their headquarters. By early twelfth century settlement had spread across the other side of the Ouse, and ships from Germany and Ireland were visiting it, although growing problems with river navigation, the growth in size of ships, and the development of a harbour at Hull gradually made York less attractive to sea-going vessels. Yet it remained a port of some significance, even after mercantile shipping concentrated more around east coast ports.
From Roman times York was one of the north's main population centres, situated within a region fairly well-endowed with farmland for raising crops and livestock and with forests that could supply timber, as well as proximity to lead mines further east. Yet, before the town-founding craze of the twelfth century, there were only a handful of other places that might compete with York to act as distribution nodes for, or manufacturing centres repurposing, rural products. By the thirteenth century it was drawing immigrants from far afield in Yorkshire and from the Midlands, as well as a few from Scotland, France, Lombardy, and Flanders; an earlier satirical text could dismiss York as "full of Scotsmen". While the city doubtless relied on its hinterland to supply the fresh blood constantly needed to replenish the labouring class more prone to the mortal risks of the urban environment, a relatively high proportion of its well-to-do residents those able to purchase citizenship were attracted from more distant places. Some, perhaps many, of those migrants likely had done business at York prior to moving there, for the city was an important consumer market in itself, as well as the major redistribution point for goods destined for the northern regions. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was being visited by merchants from Italy, Germany, Flanders, and France, and there is also evidence of trade with Ireland and Scotland. The bulk of trade was probably directed at the Low Countries, however, with grain, hides, and wool prominent among exports. A community of fishmongers is early in evidence, while wine merchants are also seen in the twelfth century. By that period it seems likely the leading traders of the city had organized themselves into a merchant gild; Although evidence for one is slim, when in 1130 the Archbishop of York granted his men of Beverley with a charter of liberties he specified they could exercise the same rights as the men of York did through their hanse-house. As in most other towns, the mercantile interest gradually came to dominate local society and commerce became the mainstay of the economy. The assessments of the lay subsidy imposed in 1334 suggest that York was by then England's third wealthiest city.
Most local marketplaces are assumed to have been in the section of the city referred to by Domesday as "marketshire". Two were specifically mentioned at that time: the butchers' market (likely a large space before infilling took place), and to its south a general provisioning market in the Pavement, which was also the location for public proclamations and punishments the pillory was located there. The Pavement's market was probably held on a Sunday, which appears to have been the main market day of the city until about 1322, when Sunday was prohibited for sale of most goods; the market day thereafter varied according to which market was being held. In the previous century we start hearing of the Thursday Market, which eventually became the principal market of the city. There were other specialized markets further afield, such as one for fish caught at sea, held on Foss Bridge, and the cattle market held on Toft Green (at least, by the fifteenth century). The city had annual fairs at Pentecost (late May/early June) and on 29 June, which were held outside the walls on the site of the horse market.
Perhaps even more than most towns, York showed great concern to keep its lifelines roads and river open to commerce; its main streets were, unsurprisingly, those linking the points at thich most goods entered the city (quayside, bridges and wall-gates) to consumers (marketplaces, castle, cathedral and abbey). The maintenance of the bridge over the Ouse was the rationale for the citizens obtaining a grant of new revenues from the king in 1392 (lands in mortmain), while keeping the Ouse clear of obstacles notably fish-garths led to an expensive lawsuit against St. Mary's Abbey in the fifteenth century. Similarly, attempts by the lords of the honour of Knaresborough to impose tolls on river traffic at Boroughbridge met with resistance from York. York might be considered a port; for a brief period (1337, 1339) it was even one of the official collection points of the national wool custom. Its quayside stretched along both sides of the Ouse between the bridge and the Franciscan friary. However, it was too far upriver for most sea-going vessels. It was necessary to ship goods to some point downriver, such as Selby, and transfer them to larger ships that would continue on to the Humber. By the end of the thirteenth century, corn was being ferried from York to Hull, for transfer to ships bound for the Low Countries; from the 1340s, Hull was generally considered the port facilities for York's international trade.
Although leather-working remained a prevalent industry in the century or two following the Conquest (for not every animal produced wool, but most were souces of hides or furs), textile manufacture began to become more prominent a transition evidenced at many towns, as new technology moved weaving from a domestic activity to one carried out by professional craftsmen. The king's grant in 1163 to the weavers of York of the right to form a gild and to share with the weavers of other royal boroughs in Yorkshire a monopoly on the manufacture of dyed and striped cloth suggests the textile industry was important in the city at that period. York seems to have been one of the leading cloth-making towns in England in the late twelfth century. Yet, at the beginning of the next century, the weavers were having difficulty paying the £10 annual farm they paid to the king for their rights; assuming this was a genuine expression of financial hardship, it is perhaps attributable partly to competition from imported Flemish cloth. By mid-century the weavers gild was badly in arrears of its farm, and in the early fourteenth century was trying to persuade the king to release them from the farm altogether.
But no individual craft predominated in the city, and it was commerce more than industry that really seemed to characterize York's economy, while at the core of its society were merchants, victuallers (whether selling through stalls, shops, taverns or inns), and craftspeople who sold their own products; this included a large number of women, although they do not appear in the lists of residents acquiring citizenship and are relatively less visible than men in other documentary sources. The wool trade gradually gained importance for the city during the thirteenth century, although much of it was in the hands of foreign merchants. Some of the region's sheep-raising monasteries, such as that at Durham regularly sent their wool to York to be sold (in return buying supplies), much of it to merchants from the Low Countries, who would ship it abroad through the ports of Hull, Boston, or Lynn. Some York merchants also dealt in wool, taking it to the principal fairs of England, or shouldering the higher risks involved in exporting it in their own right. At the same time, the various leather industries appear to have employed a greater number of local craftspeople; the skinners, glovers, saddlers and hosiers had all attempted this time without royal authorization to form gilds by 1180. During the thirteenth century, York's society appears to have been relatively egalitarian, in terms of wealth there were few residents who were noticeably more wealthy than their fellows as a result of extensive land-holding or participation in international commerce.
In the fourteenth century, York's economy was affected by the Scottish wars, which both jeopardized the peaceful conditions under which commerce best flourished, yet also brought profit to those citizens able to take advantage of opportunities for provisioning the York-based national government and the royal armies, while also providing employment for craftsmen who could help furnish the army with weapons or clothing, or help with the rebuilding of city defences. Provisions were being taken from York to Berwick, while in 1316/17 and 1322 York merchants were active in the Midlands and East Anglia buying supplies for the relocated royal court. However, much of the international commerce at York was in the hands of foreigners. Furthermore, the downside of the stimulation to trade was that with the relocation of government bringing a wealthier clientele to York, prices rose, due in part to shortage of goods (as many were diverted to the army) and in part due to local tradesmen trying to take advantage of the situation. The king, probably in consultation with city authorities, issued a set of ordinances in 1301 to regulate York's trade: ensure that good quality foodstuffs were sold at fair prices, and combat illegal activities aimed at forcing prices up.
At York as in other English towns, the growing wool trade brought fortunes for a few. In the 1330s and '40s a group of England's leading wool-merchants were among the citizenry and the city remained an important source of wool exports throughout the century. The textile industry also revived and came to be helped, as the century wore on, by the growing numbers of Hanseatic merchants taking English cloth to northern markets. Consequently, the city attracted relatively high numbers of immigrants in this period, about one-sixth of them in occupations related to the cloth industry. The weavers' gild revived to the point where it was able to purchase royal confirmations of its ancient privileges in 1346 and 1377, and by the end of the century there were 51 master weavers operating in the city. The influx of immigrants in turn strengthened the revenue base of local government. But York's merchants were not reliant solely on the wool and cloth trades, even though it tended to be merchants active in the cloth trades who were most prominent among the political elite. They were also, for example, taking grain to London, wine to Carlisle, and importing iron from Spain, oil, figs, raisins and wine from Portugal, herring, timber, furs, iron and ashes from the Baltic and Iceland. In the last part of the century, when much of the country was experiencing an economic decline, York was probably at the peak of its medieval prosperity.
However, the seeds of reversal had already been sewn. The activity of Hanseatic merchants in York was not wholly welcome; although it stimulated the local economy, it also made it difficult for York's own merchants to capture or maintain a share in international trade. Whereas earlier kings had provided encouragement and incentives for foreign merchants to be active in England, from the late fourteenth century there was a trend towards protectionism, both at the national level (e.g. the imposition of special taxes on merchants of the Hanse) and at the local level. At York efforts were made to restrict the types of goods foreigners could deal in, or impose restrictions on those with whom foreigners could do business.
Retaliatory measures were ordered by the German authorities. After rivalry turned violent in 1385, leading the authorities in each country to seize the commercial goods of merchants of the rival country, the king appointed two ambassadors one a York citizen, the other a Londoner to present complaints and demands for compensation before the German authorities; the complainants were merchants from a number of cities involved in the northern trade, but York's merchants were the most numerous among this group (although Lynn's merchants were claiming a larger sum of money). The dispute was patched up with a treaty, but resentment, hostility, and ill-treatment of foreign merchants (with reprisals by the other side) grew. While diversification continued to be a feature of York's international commerce, the northern trade was becoming increasingly important to its merchants. Consequently, intensification of political troubles between England and the Hanse during the fifteenth century had adverse effects on York's economy, by creating obstacles to the North Sea and Baltic trade.
A second factor in economic decline in the fifteenth century was competition from cloth producers in rural areas of the West Riding. York's weavers used this as leverage to persuade the king to allow them, in 1400, to levy charges on country weavers as a contribution towards the annual farm the gild paid for its privileges. Rural competition took its toll particularly on the broadcloth industry (as well as on the leather trades); the city's producers of worsteds and small cloths managed to hold their own. Fulling was another part of the industry in which rural competition was strong. The city authorities tried protectionist measures, ordering that no citizen have cloth woven or fulled outside York, nor buy wool in or near York unless he planned to have it made into cloth in the city. By the close of the Middle Ages, York's weavers' gild was in sufficient difficulty that it was able to convince the king to reduce its farm by half.
Evidence is conflicting on quite how much impact the declining economy had. On the one hand, depopulation is evidenced by vacant or ruinous houses and dropping property values; on the other, the financing of church rebuilding in the fifteenth century argues for continued private prosperity. Doubtless the fortunes of some declined, while others continued to get by perhaps in part shifting their financial strategy to invest in extra-urban land (ultimately leading some families out of the city to join the rural gentry). It was more likely the city government that were worst hit, as its traditional sources of revenue such as rents and tolls fell, while its expenditures continued to grow in the demanding political environment of the fifteenth century, as well as the growth of public ceremony, including the mounting of the pageants of the famous York Mystery Play. By the end of the Middle Ages, York had declined to the point that it was no longer one of the country's top ten towns.