A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.
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The City and the Citizens
It is extremely difficult to make an assessment of the appearance of the city in the late Middle Ages but the abiding impression is that physical decay, although it was to be seen in ruinous houses and vacant plots, (fn. 1) was not universal. One of the chief investments for the capital accumulated during the 14th and early 15th centuries was building of a public or quasi-public nature and this form of expenditure did not at once cease when the age of economic expansion was over. The new Guildhall and the completion of the city walls are noticed elsewhere; (fn. 2) to this day the Merchant Adventurers' Hall (135768), the Merchant Tailors' Hall (late 14th century), St. Anthony's Hall (1446-53), and St. William's College (c. 1465-7) are testimony to the architectural achievements of the period.
In York, as everywhere, ecclesiastical building flourished throughout the 15th century. The minster was nearing completion. Predominantly it is not a 15th-century building but its mere size—by 1500 it had attained its present-day dimensions—cannot have suggested to contemporaries that York was in decline. The churches and conventual buildings of the religious houses in the city were likewise complete by 1450; and the 12-acre site of St. Mary's can only have seemed a monument to established monastic prosperity. Less impressive but more in the citizens' eye were the parish churches. St. Martin's, Coney Street, was entirely rebuilt in 1443 and survived until the Second World War as the finest example of Perpendicular work in the city parish churches. At least six other churches (St. Crux, St. Saviour's, All Saints', Pavement, All Saints', North Street, St. Martin's, Micklegate, St. Mary's, Castlegate) were entirely or partly rebuilt, or their fabrics were considerably augmented, between 1420 and 1500. Many church interiors were extensively ornamented. Most striking to modern eyes is the stained glass of their windows. That in the minster was admired in 1430 by Aeneas Sylvius who was thus one of the first of many visitors to comment on the magnificence of John Thornton's east window. (fn. 3) The 14th- and 15th-century glass of St. Denys's, St. Michael, Spurriergate, St. Martin's, Coney Street, and Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, suggests, since there seems no reason why these alone should be so embellished, that many another parish church, now lost or altered beyond recognition, possessed similar fine examples of this form of English religious art. In All Saints', North Street, such glass survives more abundantly than in any other church; here, the younger Nicholas Blackburn tells us he used to sit at service; and above the high altar the family window testifies directly to York's mercantile prosperity in the 14th and early 15th centuries. (fn. 4) Other monuments of 15th-century piety are less conspicuous both because they were less durable and because they more frequently attracted the attention of 16th- and 17thcentury iconoclasts; but the lectern of St. Crux and Sir Richard York's tomb remain to indicate the surroundings of the 15th-century worshipper.
The sanitary condition of the streets, however, appears to have improved not at all since the 13th century. (fn. 5) In 1332 Edward III told the citizens that he detested the abominable smell that pervaded the city more than any other in the realm; and later in the century the Friars Minor complained that butchers cast offal round their walls and into the Ouse beside their house, so that the air of their church was poisoned and they were plagued by flies and other vermin. (fn. 6) The city authorities fought a continuous battle against this anti-social conduct of the butchers, against the multitude of roaming pigs and against the throwing of garbage into the streets—all engendering 'great corruptions and horrible and pernicious air' and increasing the danger of pestilence. (fn. 7) In 1419 the canons of the minster had to be told to remove the privies they had built along the banks of the city moat; in 1428 the butchers were ordered to take their offal to a point on the river bank opposite Clementhorpe were countrymen could collect it for manure; and in 1501 every ward was to have a dung-cart and was allotted a place outside the walls for dumping refuse 'so that husbands of the country may come there to have it away'. (fn. 8) Even the better streets were not necessarily easy to pass along: an order of 1495 forbade anyone to set earthenware pots, tar barrels, and dishes of fruit in the gutter outside his shop, or to hang ropes, halters, and other harness out of his windows. (fn. 9) The wardens, who in 1485 were given the oversight of the streets to see that they were 'cleanly kept and weekly swept', no doubt performed their task only with difficulty. (fn. 10)
The city council was sometimes concerned with other sorts of human frailty, including the problem of prostitutes and 'misgoverned' women. In 1482, for example, all such were banished to the suburbs outside the city walls. (fn. 11) Perhaps significant of economic decay was the attention that the council began to devote at the beginning of the 16th century to those without employment. In 1501 stocks were to be provided in every ward for punishing vagabonds; in 1503 all vagabonds, beggars, and idle persons who had lately come to the city were to leave on pain of imprisonment; in 1505 the wardens and parish constables were ordered to expel such persons in accordance with the Act of Parliament lately made. (fn. 12)
Generally speaking, the surviving evidence about the citizens concerns those who were freemen. Indeed, the word citizen itself perhaps begs a question. In the fullest sense only those who were free of the city were citizens, and not every inhabitant was a freeman. Freedom was necessary to carry on a trade or craft as a master, (fn. 13) but far from every inhabitant of the city was a master craftsman. At the end of the Middle Ages, indeed, freedom was becoming less accessible because it was becoming more expensive. In the 1480's an apprentice appears to have been able to become free on payment of 6s., but by 1502 this had been raised to £1 while 'strangers' had to pay £2; only the son of a freeman got his freedom cheaply on payment of 1s. It can only be said that the possibility of paying by instalments somewhat mitigated the severity of these charges. (fn. 14)
Down to the end of the Middle Ages a high proportion of the freemen were incomers. (fn. 15) Most of these continued to come from the villages of the Vale of York and its margins; but in the second half of the 14th century they included men from as far north as Berwick and Carlisle and from as far south as Colchester, Canterbury, and Bristol. Even at the end of the Middle Ages migrants appear from Newark, Kendal, Lincoln, and Southwold. (fn. 16) Throughout the 15th century, too, despite severe legislation directed against them, (fn. 17) there was a fairly steady trickle of Scots, including one from Aberdeen and an Irishman who had lived for ten years in Scotland; (fn. 18) there had been Irish immigrants, too, in the 14th century. There had also been a quite notable inflow from the Continent. In the later 14th century, 26 natives of the Low Countries, mainly textile workers, 13 Germans, mainly metal workers, but also including a few merchants and Peterkin the pouchmaker of Eastland, and 3 Italian moneyers, received the freedom of the city. This movement became less marked in the 15th century, though the German merchant Henry Market was naturalized in 1430, married his daughter to an alderman and served as sheriff in 1442-3. Even later, a Spanish doctor, a Dutch felt-hat-maker, and an Icelander settled in York and became freemen. (fn. 19) On the whole, however, there seems to be a slackening of immigration not only from abroad but from all sources.
Many of the incomers, of course, gained little substance and we know nothing of them but their names. A few, on the other hand, prospered greatly. Robert Holme, though his father migrated to York and founded the family fortunes, recalled in his will that he was born at Holme on the Wolds in the East Riding; (fn. 20) and William and Robert Savage were from Tynemouth, members of a family which had provided the priors of that place with their bakers in the 13th century. (fn. 21) It is no less remarkable that Germans like Henry Wyman and Henry Market throve to high civic office in a relatively short time; or that Nicholas Blackburn, the elder, one of the richest men of his day in York, was a firstgeneration immigrant from Lancashire via Richmond. Thomas Easingwold, too, who was mayor in 1428, had a brother living in his native village to be remembered in his will; Richard Russell was brought up in Durham Cathedral Priory; and Richard York, for all his name, was apparently a native of Berwick-on-Tweed. (fn. 22) To the end of the Middle Ages the population of the city was a fluid one, with roots and enduring connexions in many places: one bequest of Henry Market's was for a brother in Cologne. (fn. 23)
This fluidity, of course, was reciprocal. There was a tendency for men to move out from the city to the country which will be considered later. Apart from that, a York bowyer and Alderman Thomas Bracebridge's son became citizens of London; and other York men moved to Kent, and Grantham and Hull. (fn. 24) Yet another York bowyer settled in Norwich, and it was perhaps poetic justice that he was noised abroad as a Scot. (fn. 25)
There is little evidence about the antecedents of the incomers. Many doubtless came with small resources, like the fugitive labourers who left Sutton upon Derwent (E.R.) for York in the 14th century or the tanner who was a villein's son manumitted by a Lord Nevill. (fn. 26) Servile birth, indeed, was not incompatible with considerable success, for William Burton, a notable merchant at the end of the 14th century, was manumitted by the archbishop only in 1397. (fn. 27) On the other hand, it was probably an advantage to have the backing of a gentle or a prosperous peasant family; (fn. 28) and certainly some such families sent their sons to the city: the Hays of Aughton (E.R.), the Salvins of Harswell (E.R.), Sir William Plumpton whose bastard became city clerk, and John de la Pole of Newburgh (N.R.). George Kirke (mayor in 1495 and 1512) was the son of a Lincolnshire gentle family, and Brian Conyers a younger son of Christopher Conyers of Hornby (near Bedale, N.R.). Conyers became a merchant and died soon after serving as city chamberlain; he might, had he lived, have gone on to better things, for he seemed to be on the way to prosperity and had married the daughter of Alderman Thomas Nelson. (fn. 29)
The relative wealth and prosperity of the citizens may be examined in the tax returns. Going back to the beginning of the 14th century, the assessment for the tax of 1327 records the value of the goods and chattels of some 800 citizens. Only one man had goods assessed at as much as £26, only 55 (7 per cent.) at £5 and over; while 61 per cent. had goods valued at between £1 and £4, and 32 per cent. goods worth less than £1. Finally, of the wealthier families, only about a fifth were merchants, the rest belonging to a variety of crafts. (fn. 30) The inferences seem to be, if we remember those who did not pay taxes, that there were many poor in York; that considerable wealth was in very few hands; that, since there is scarcely anyone with resources comparable with those of the 188 wealthiest Londoners in 1332, (fn. 31) accumulations of capital were relatively small; and that the merchants did not stand out clearly from the more prosperous among the craftsmen. A fragmentary roll of particulars for the twelfth of 1319 confirms these impressions. Many of the assessments are very small, like that of a man charged on two pigs worth 6s. and household utensils worth 4s. A glass-wright, on the other hand, was charged on goods valued at just over £1 and a plumber on goods worth just over £2. Only the mayor, Nicholas Flemyng, stands out from the ruck. His horse, robes, plate, and so forth were valued at over £33; and he seems to have been a man who had risen out of the trading class into the property-owning élite of the city. (fn. 32)
It seems likely that social disparities widened as time passed without there ever being a great gulf set between trader and craftsman. There continued, of course, to be a substratum of real poverty about which little can be learned; but we may assign to this category felonious weavers and other craftsmen whose goods were valued at 6s. 8d., 3s. 4d., or even nothing, when others of like status had goods valued at 50s. or 60s. or even £5. (fn. 33) The poll tax returns of 1377, however, show that some third of the tax-payers had servants—domestic, or engaged in their businesses, or both; some craftsmen had one servant, a few two, and very few three or four; a man with five or six was generally a merchant. (fn. 34) Some had even more, like the draper John Santon who, in 1381, had four servants in his business and four domestic servants, or the merchant Roger Morton who also had eight. (fn. 35) If there was a fair spread of prosperity well down among the craftsmen, the richer merchants had become conspicuously more wealthy than their fellows.
These features of York society can be illustrated more satisfactorily from the wills of the later Middle Ages. Some of them present men clearly in a small way of business: a girdler with stock worth only about £3, or a barber with possessions worth just over £2. The net assets of a mason were less than £3, and he could afford bequests of only 2s. 6d. and to set aside 35s. 11d. for his own and his wife's funerals. Somewhat better off was a goldsmith with tools and stock worth £9, and a house containing a hall, parlour, kitchen, and two bedrooms. John Carter, a tailor, lived in a similar house, but with only one bedroom, but his kitchen was stocked with pewter and he had net assets of about £30. Better off still was Thomas Gryssop, chapman, with stock in his shop worth £90, and John Talkan, whose household goods were valued at £32 and his jewels and plate at £72. Of similar substance was Hugh Grantham, mason, who died in 1410. He had stone in store, £52 worth of malt in his brewhouse, a cow and calf and poultry among the stock of his kitchen, and cattle and sheep pastured at Green Hammerton (W.R.) and Grafton (W.R.). His house contained a hall, summer hall, two bedrooms, cellar and kitchen with contents valued at £30. His other goods were worth £68, he had £22 in cash and debts of £89 owing to him. After paying debts of £59, he could still spend £29 on drawing up his will, on physicians in his last illness and so forth, and confidently set aside £7 for the expenses of his funeral. (fn. 36)
Many men left small offerings to the friars and other religious. (fn. 37) Robert Wistow's widow (d. 1321) also endowed a chantry for her husband's soul and left property for the upkeep of Ouse Bridge; but she was relatively wealthy, for she had two maids and many personal possessions. (fn. 38) The instruments of a man's trade also might be of considerable variety and value. Constantine del Damme, an apothecary, left to a kinsman, amongst other things, mortars and pestles, balances and weights, drugs and unguents, spice-plates of pewter and jars for green ginger. Alan Alnwick, a goldsmith, left the contents of his workshop to his nephew on condition that he displayed 'good conversation in learning at the schools and at the goldsmith's art' and due defference to Alan's widow and executors. (fn. 39) Yet by comparison with these modest households, the world of Robert Holme, Nicholas Blackburn or Richard Russell was altogether different. The will of William Bowes (d. 1439), merchant, twice mayor and four times M.P., exemplifies this world. He made bequests to religious houses, left £20 to his parish church, £10 for his funeral expenses, 140 marks for a chaplain to pray for him for 20 years, and made provision for the celebration of his obit for 40 years. His children, grand-children, and other relatives received a total of £55. He held land and houses in Skeldergate, his home in Peaseholme Green (later the Black Swan Inn), and other property in the same area, in Colliergate and in Thursday Market. Finally, he bequeathed considerable personal possessions, including silver plate, arms, and armour. (fn. 40)
For the care of their souls many 15th-century notables, including Richard Russell, John Thirsk, Nicholas Blackburn, and Richard York, founded chantries as their peers had done earlier. (fn. 41) Bowes was also not untypical in his religious and charitable bequests: parish churches often received generous legacies like Thomas Barton's of £26 to St. Michael's, Ouse Bridge End. (fn. 42) Monasteries and friaries, poor folk and lepers, poor maidens in need of a marriage portion, prisoners in the local gaols, hospitals, and religious guilds, all received money in this way.
These last beneficiaries deserve another word, for the life of the city was honeycombed with fraternities. Some were parochial in the sense of being associated with a particular church: the guild of the Crucifix in St. Crux, of St. Anne in St. Lawrence's, of St. Catherine in the Austin friary, and many more. (fn. 43) Others had a broader appeal. A fraternity of Our Lord and the Virgin received royal licence in 1357 and permission to establish a hospital in Fossgate in 1371. (fn. 44) At first its members were widely drawn from all sections in the city and even from outside it, but the guild was eventually absorbed by the mercers' company which undertook the maintenance of the hospital it had founded. (fn. 45) This guild, moreover, was only one of a number. A guild of St. Christopher was in existence in 1394 and incorporated in 1396. It had its headquarters in the minster, performed the Creed Play and helped the city to rebuild the Guildhall. (fn. 46) It united eventually with St. George's Guild, which originated about the same time but received royal licence only in 1447 when it was granted St. George's Chapel. (fn. 47) St. Martin's Guild, better known as St. Anthony's Guild, had been incorporated a year earlier. (fn. 48) Most important of all the fraternities, however, was the Corpus Christi Guild. Founded in 1408 to secure better observance of the feast of Corpus Christi, it was not incorporated until 1458 when it was provided that there should be a priest as master and six chaplains as wardens. The guild attracted wide support among the laity and clergy of the city. Between 1408 and 1546 it had nearly 17,000 members: they included not only citizens, but archbishops and bishops, the abbots and priors of Yorkshire monasteries, Richard of Gloucester and peers like Clifford, Latimer, and the Scropes. (fn. 49) In this and a few other cases, the fraternities maintained hospitals; but there were many other hospitals in the city and bequests to build or maintain them were favourite acts of charity. (fn. 50)
The will of William Bowes not only exemplifies the pious generosity that supported these religious and eleemosynary institutions but illustrates the close family ties which linked influential men together. William's daughters, for example, married the merchant Robert Louth and Alderman John Blackburn. Blackburn's father, the elder Nicholas, married a sister of Alderman William Ormshead, and their daughter Alice married Alderman John Bolton. Alliances with the gentry were, again, not unusual: Henry Wyman's daughter married Sir William Gascoigne of Gawthorpe (W.R.); and John Barden's daughter Sir John Dawnay of Escrick (E.R.). (fn. 51) Conversely, William Selby married a Mowbray of Easby (in Cleveland, N.R.) and Richard York may have married a Mauleverer. (fn. 52) Nor were marriage and kinship the only ties between citizens: John Northeby, for example, started life as the servant of a notable merchant, William Vescy; and Robert Hancock, mayor in 1488, had been a servant of Thomas Barton, mayor in 1450, and even desired to be buried by the side of his old master. (fn. 53)
The possession of property was another characteristic of William Bowes and his peers. They normally had a number of city holdings. William Ormshead (d. 1437) had tenements in Colliergate, Peaseholme, Stonegate, and Micklegate; (fn. 54) William Holbek (d. 1477) had about two dozen tenements in the city, including a large house in Micklegate called 'The Crowned Lion'; (fn. 55) and George Kirke (d. 1513) accumulated some twenty tenements, perhaps advisedly, for he had a wife and three sons to provide for. (fn. 56) Thus rents would form a normal part of the incomes of the ruling families. At the same time, their wills often provide for the sale of tenements to meet their bequests, suggesting that they regarded investment in city property as relatively short term, a manner of holding balances until they were needed.
No less characteristic, however, were holdings of rural property. Investment of this sort eventually took the Langtons out of York altogether, as it had the Fairfaxes and Clarevaux earlier. The nucleus of their estate (in Heworth, West Lutton (E.R.), and elsewhere) was built up by the first Nicholas Langton at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries. (fn. 57) It was augmented by Nicholas his son, (fn. 58) and John his grandson added Mowthorpe (in Terrington (N.R.)) and held in Huddleston (W.R.) by knight service of the archbishop while at the same time serving year after year as mayor of York. (fn. 59) John's son, however, married a Nevill of Hornby (Lancs.) and settled down as a country gentleman. The Langtons, it is true, belonged to the old type of patrician family whose income came mainly from rents; but investment in country property while maintaining an interest in trade was hardly less characteristic of the new mercantile rulers of the city: Ralph Hornby bought an estate at Hornby (nr. Bedale (N.R.)); Henry Scoreby the manor of East Tanfield (N.R.); and John Gisburne leased the manor of Raskelf (N.R.) for his life. (fn. 60) Thomas Holme, at his death in 1406, held property at five places in the West Riding as well as the lease of Stapleton (W.R.) quarries; (fn. 61) and at the end of the 15th century William Todd had four country properties, John Tong five, the younger John Gilliot six, and Thomas Nelson eleven. (fn. 62)
Rural investments did not always assume the same degree of importance among the preoccupations of the rich men of the city. Some rural transactions, like some invest ments in city property, were short term and the property was sold again as necessity or advantage determined. (fn. 63) On the other hand, heavy and more or less permanent investment in country property seems more characteristic of the late 15th than of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Of 13 men of aldermanic rank who paid the land tax in 1436, 4 apparently had no property outside the city, 5 had incomes from property of £5-£10, 6 of £10-£20, one of £20-£30, and one only, John Bolton, of £62. (fn. 64) By contrast, Richard York's manor of Sledmere (E.R.) was alone worth £30 yearly; and it was on the ground that William Nelson and John Gilliot had £40 or more a year from land that they were said to be eligible for knighthood at the beginning of the 16th century. (fn. 65) Gilliot in fact accepted this honour (though Nelson did not) as Richard York and William Todd had done in 1487, the first citizens knighted since John Sampson at the end of the 13th century. Possibly, as trading opportunities narrowed, there was a greater incentive to invest in property, and particularly in country property in view of the heavy fall in urban rents. One result was, by comparison with the preceding generations, a speeding up of social mobility. Richard York was an immigrant who made a fortune in commerce; but when his heirs appeared in the sheriff's court in 1500 to claim a debt they were described as Richard York, esquire, Thomas, William and John York —all gentlemen—and Christopher York, LL.D. (fn. 66) Commercial enterprise smoothed the path to gentility in a single generation.