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 King
Authority in later medieval York had its focus in two buildings. The first is that described in 1376 as 'the mayor's chamber on Ouse Bridge', also called the council chamber. Here the city council met and the main officers of the city were accommodated. (fn. 1) The other was the Guildhall, where larger meetings assembled and where the court of the mayor and bailiffs was held in 1330 and 1368, though there was also an inner chamber where the election of the bailiffs was settled in 1357. (fn. 2) It is almost certainly the Guildhall that is meant by the frequent medieval references to the 'common hall'. At the same time, these seats of authority do not occupy quite all of the picture. The king still had a direct stake in the city; the sheriff still had his offices in the castle; the possessions of the churches of York were still 'spangled and embroidered with great privileges'. It is perhaps desirable to deal first with these other authorities as the context within which the mayors and their brethren exercised their responsibilities and powers.
The king's most immediate stake in the city remained the farm of £160 yearly with which King John had burdened it. Early in the 14th century, however, the habit crept in of assigning away much of this payment in advance. The most important of these assignments was one of £120 yearly (reduced to £100 in 1322) granted in 1318 to William Roos of Helmsley in exchange for the castle of Wark-on-Tweed. (fn. 3) It continued to be paid to his heirs until Thomas Roos's forfeiture in 1461, after which it was received for a time by George, Duke of Clarence, and in 1478–9 by Sir John Savage. (fn. 4) The balance of the farm, too, was pretty fully committed. Pensions to royal servants and to men who had fought in the Scottish and French wars were charged to the farm by Edward III, (fn. 5) and in 1351 he created another permanent assignment in the form of an annual payment of £35 14s. 7d. to St. Stephen's Chapel, Westminster. (fn. 6)
Thus, at the end of the Middle Ages, the king received little direct benefit from the farm, while it was regarded as increasingly burdensome by the city. In 1482 the citizens were seeking to have it reduced on the ground that it would then be possible to permit men to trade toll-free in York and in this way restore commercial prosperity. (fn. 7) There was at least this much to be said for this argument that, at the beginning of the 15th century at least, tolls had still been one of the main resources from which the farm was met. (fn. 8) The citizens again applied to Richard of Gloucester for relief as soon as Edward IV was dead; and Richard as king reduced the farm by £60 and appointed the mayor his serjeant-at-arms with a yearly salary of £18 5s. chargeable to the farm. (fn. 9) Henry VII, after some initial haggling, went further. He remitted the whole of the farm save for the £18 5s. due to the mayor whose appointment as serjeant-at-arms he did not renew. Faced with obstruction from the Exchequer, the citizens sought parliamentary confirmation of Henry's generosity in 1487. This did not, apparently, exempt them from paying the pension to St. Stephen's Chapel; and in the event they had to compromise with the heirs of the Roos family for a payment of 20 marks a year. It was a question which would still make for agitation in the future. (fn. 10)
Much more important than the farm came to be the direct taxes which, in the 14th century, replaced the tallages which York had paid earlier. Tallages were still leved in 1304 (yielding £418), 1313, and 1316; (fn. 11) but from about that time the city normally contributed to lay subsidies. A twentieth assessed in 1327 yielded just over £78, and in 1334 the standard tenth payable by York was frozen at the figure of £162, (fn. 12) although at the end of the 15th century the city paid just under £137. (fn. 13) By this last date the total tax burden was divided into fixed quotas for each parish, and men paid in the parishes in which they were domiciled at the time of its imposition. (fn. 14) Such a system gave rise to obvious difficulties. First, the fixed levy became proportionately heavier as the prosperity of the city declined in the 15th century, and this led to unsuccessful applications for relief in Henry VII's reign. (fn. 15) Secondly, the fixed quotas owed by parishes easily got out of line with changes in prosperity within the city. In 1420 it was said that some men were in the habit of moving from heavily to lightly taxed parishes when a tax was imposed; in 1483 the impoverishment of St. Saviour's parish was giving rise to concern; and in 1492 an attempt was made to bring the assessment into line with changes in the distribution of wealth. The parishes of St. Saviour's, St. Gregory's, and St. Mary's, Bishophill, Senior, were relieved of about a quarter of their assessment, and this was transferred to a number of other parishes, most of them with extra-mural appurtenances. (fn. 16) This can hardly be regarded as more than an attempt to patch an outworn system.
Apart from the lay subsidies York also contributed to the wool taxes of 1339–47 (fn. 17) and the poll taxes of 1377–81. Of the latter that of 1377 produced only about £120, which may fairly be called 'a paltry contribution in comparison with the tenths usually granted', though it was irritating to the poor who paid at the same rate as the rich. (fn. 18) The returns from the graduated tax of 1379 were again disappointing and the assessors were accused of negligence; (fn. 19) while that of 1381 produced only about £200 because some 35 per cent. of the population evaded assessment. Part of the returns were 'a deliberate fraud based on the lay subsidy returns' of 1357; and though a commission of inquiry was appointed, it achieved nothing. (fn. 20) It is possible, on the other hand, that these experiments in taxation, particularly in so far as they shifted the burden to the poor, played a part in the outbreak of civic disturbances in 1380–1. (fn. 21)
Special taxors were appointed to raise these royal taxes in York. Down to the end of the 14th century they were normally drawn from the ranks of the most influential among the citizens, and most of them were merchants or drapers. This ceased to be so in the 15th century. Only 11 out of 41 men who served in this capacity in the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V at any time occupied the office of chamberlain, and only 4 of these went on to be sheriff or mayor; while only 8 out of 29 whose occupations can be determined were merchants or drapers, the rest belonging to the lesser crafts. This continued to be the character of the taxors in succeeding reigns. In 1497 they were a wiredrawer, a cook and two cordwainers, and were said to be 'persons not able in havour (i.e. lacking substance), feeble and decrepit'. (fn. 22) They were, of course, expected to have the backing of the city authorities and the assistance of the parish constables in the actual work of collection.
In addition to taxes the king still occasionally applied to the citizens for loans. A small loan, raised by Edward II for provisioning Carlisle in 1318, was still unpaid during his son's reign. (fn. 23) The sum of £300 was borrowed from the mayor and citizens in 1370, and they made further loans in 1386 and 1397. Richard II was trying to borrow still more heavily from selected men of wealth at the end of his reign, and Henry IV had run up a debt of £1,000 to the citizens by 1400. (fn. 24) There were later loans in 1403, 1404, and 1454, and advances against the taxes in the 1430's. (fn. 25)
These financial rights did not exhaust the king's direct stake in York. He had a little property, generally forfeited by rebels or felons; (fn. 26) but it was usually granted away to royal servants or noblemen, though occasionally a rent was reserved. (fn. 27) Similarly the castle, the Castle Mills, and the Fishpond of the Foss were royal property which occasioned periodic expense, though they also represented a measure of patronage at the king's disposal. (fn. 28)
Finally, the royal mint at York continued to operate intermittently during the later Middle Ages. It took part in the recoinage of 1344–5 (minting gold as well as silver coins for the ease of the people and merchants of the north) and was again open in 1353–5 for the issue of groats, half-groats, and pennies. The archbishop's mint was more continuously active: in 1328–31, and for the issue of pennies only in 1345 and from 1353 to the end of the century. (fn. 29) Thereafter a similar pattern prevailed. The king's mint was open only in 1423–4 (issuing nobles, half-nobles, groats, half-groats, pennies, and halfpennies), in 1465–9 with the same issue excepting pennies, in 1483–5 for groats only, and perhaps in 1495–1500 for half-groats only. In these circumstances it is not surprising that, in 1418, Thomas Wyllardeby decided to renounce the craft of minter and to work thereafter as a pewterer. The archbishop's mint, on the other hand, was active continuously from 1399 to 1464, though for the issue of pennies only, except during the short periods when the royal mint was open. After 1465 it remained open even during periods of royal minting activity, assuming sole responsibility for the issue of pennies down to 1501. After 1501 it issued half-groats and half-pence, but not pennies. (fn. 30)
In aggregate, then, the king retained a not inconsiderable variety of interests in York, even if noblemen and royal servants had established a lien on many of them. Further, the king's representative in Yorkshire, the sheriff of the county, had also his seat in the castle of York. Yet despite his situation in the very heart of the city, he seems to have impinged little on its susceptibilities. Certainly in 1348 an unruly band of craftsmen invaded the castle and assaulted the sheriff's servants, and in 1356 one of his bailiffs was killed in the course of his duties. (fn. 31) A dispute about a wrongful arrest in 1422 was settled by negotiation, (fn. 32) as was another quarrel in 1478, when agreement was perhaps made the easier by the provision of 2½ gallons of red wine for the mayor, the sheriff, a justice of assize, and others of the city and county. (fn. 33)