A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.
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During the later Middle Ages, particularly from the mid-14th century onwards, the economy of medieval England contracted and ran down. The fortunes of York did not at first follow this general trend. A period of rapid expansion began early in the 14th century when York was the seat of the court and a base for armies; continued in the 1330's and 1340's when the city was the home of a group of great wool merchants; and was prolonged at least until the end of the century when it became the seat of an export cloth industry and the home of cloth merchants who distributed the products of that industry to the markets of western and northern Europe. Not until the 15th century did symptoms of recession make themselves evident, though once recession had set in it made rapid progress. By the end of the Middle Ages economic crisis had become acute. (fn. 1)
These economic trends are partially reflected in the rise and fall of the city's population. Naturally no figure for the population of York at any time during the Middle Ages can be much better than a guess. Even the most satisfactory basis for calculation, the poll tax returns of 1377, has produced divergent estimates, but that which sets the total population at about 11,000 is probably the most convincing. (fn. 2) At the same time, there are pointers to the general direction of population trends. The estimate (fn. 3) that York already had a population of 11,000 in 1334 is probably too high. Calculations based on entry to the freedom of the city at this time suggest that a total of rather over 8,000 inhabitants at the end of the period of the Scottish wars may not be too wide of the mark. (fn. 4)
From that point forward indirect evidence points to a growing population down to the end of the century and a gradually accelerating decline thereafter. The average number of new freemen registered annually rose from 60 in the second, to 123 in the last quarter of the 14th century, fell to 100 in the first half of the 15th century and to 57 by the end of it. Allowance should doubtless be made for the fact that the freedom of the city was not always equally accessible and that during times of plague there was a more than usually rapid 'turn-over' of population; but what these figures suggest is a population of about 13,000 at the end of the 14th century and one of about 7,000 or rather more at the end of the 15th. The effects of plague probably make the first estimate on the high side; (fn. 5) while a restrictive policy towards aspirants to freedom, and an increasing number of inhabitants too poor to aspire to it as economic difficulties deepened, may make the second estimate too low. On the other hand, it accords well with the figure of c. 8,000 derived from the tax returns of Henry VIII's reign. (fn. 6)
Other evidence is in general accord with this picture. There are signs of considerable building development during the 14th century. The vicars choral were building houses in Patrick Pool and 'Benet Place' (probably in Swinegate) in 1360–4; in 1370 a new house in The Shambles is mentioned; in 1394 there were five rented houses on the site of a single messuage at the corner of St. Saviourgate; and in 1396 houses were being built on part of the churchyard of St. Peter-le-Willows. (fn. 7) There were also considerable built-up areas outside the walls. Building development between Bootham Bar and the Round Tower was envisaged in the settlement between the city and St. Mary's in 1354; in the 1360's there were houses outside Micklegate Bar adjacent to the 'Madderlands'; and Robert Sheffield's York property in 1373 was to be found, among other places, outside Monk Bar, in Barker Hill (now St. Maurice's Road), in Gillygate, outside Walmgate Bar, and in a street called 'Mousecotes' outside Skeldergate Postern. (fn. 8)
The 15th century, by contrast, was an unhappy time for property owners. The value of the Goodramgate property of the vicars choral, for example, began to fall about 1415 and had been reduced by 40 per cent. in 1460; while the total of the vicars' rents in York fell by 55 per cent. between 1399 and 1472 and by 66 per cent. by the end of the century. (fn. 9) Similarly, in 1445, some 20 per cent. of the rents assigned to the upkeep of Ouse Bridge were 'decayed'; the bursar of Fountains was making substantial allowances of rent on his York property in the 1450's; and some 40 per cent. of the rents assigned to Foss Bridge were 'decayed' at the beginning of the 16th century. (fn. 10) Derelict messuages in Hungate as early as 1409 and ruinous and vacant tenements elsewhere in the reign of Henry VII tell the same story. (fn. 11) The citizens may not have achieved mathematical accuracy when they told Henry VII in 1487 that the city was not half so populous as it had been in time past, (fn. 12) but decline of population is one pointer to the decay of York at the end of the Middle Ages. This decline was relative as well as absolute. In 1377 York stood second only to London in its tax assessment; in the 16th century calculations based on Henry VIII's tax returns suggest that it had fallen behind Bristol, Norwich and Newcastle, and perhaps even Exeter and Salisbury. (fn. 13)
The growth of York's population in the 14th century took place in circumstances anything but favourable. The Black Death reached Yorkshire in March 1349, was at its height in the city from 21 May to 25 July, and lasted in all for nearly a year. (fn. 14) This, moreover, was merely the first visitation; other outbreaks of plague followed in 1361, 1369, 1375, and 1378, and in 1391 a prisoner died of it in the castle gaol. (fn. 15) The cumulative effect must have been great, and the growth of the city's population in these circumstances can only have been due to massive immigration. Recruitment from outside, moreover, continued even in the 15th century when, of those who appear in the freemen's register, only 8 per cent. at the beginning of the century, 14 per cent. in 1442–9, and 11 per cent. in 1494–1501 are stated to be the sons of freemen. (fn. 16) These figures cannot be taken at their face value, for sons of quite notable freemen do not figure under the per patres rubric; (fn. 17) but it seems likely that a high proportion of the inhabitants of York continued to be immigrants right down to the end of the Middle Ages. Most of them still came from the country round the city, though some, particularly in the late 14th century, were drawn to York from all over the British Isles and even all over western Europe. (fn. 18) The heavy immigration at that time is clearly related to the opportunities presented by the expansion of economic activity in the city; conversely, the falling population in the 15th century must imply a slackening of immigration due both to positive measures of restriction and to declining prosperity.
No less significant than tendencies in total population are the fortunes of particular groups in so far as these are reflected in the data provided by the register of freemen (see Table 2). (fn. 19) Doubtless these figures must not be pressed too far, but certain implications seem clear. Apart from the fairly stable element represented by the provision trades, each of the main economic groups in the city expanded rapidly in the later 14th century, and particularly merchants, textile craftsmen, and those engaged in miscellaneous occupations. In the earlier 15th century only this last category expanded significantly, while the textile and leather crafts were already beginning to decline. In the later 15th century decline was general, though, relatively, miscellaneous occupations suffered less than other groups. No single explanation will cover this last phenomenon. The manufacturing crafts included under this head—bowyers, coopers, upholsterers, and so forth—declined like other crafts. On the other hand, lawyers, clerks, physicians, scriveners, and the like became more numerous. Thus one factor at work may have been the increasing demand felt throughout late medieval society for professional services. Again, some local farmers may have found it worth while to purchase the freedom of the city in order to secure exemption from tolls. As for 'gentlemen', some were sons of citizens who had thriven to gentility, like William Vescy or Robert Sallay; others, like Miles Metcalfe, held such offices as the recordership; and others again were the gentry of the neighbouring countryside. On the other hand, a man like Sir John Pickering of Kirkoswald (Cumb.) hardly falls into any of these categories. Perhaps in such instances the freedom of the city was assuming an honorary character, particularly as men were brought to York by its prominence as the administrative centre of the north. (fn. 20)
Further comment on these figures must await detailed treatment of the trade and industries of the city; for the moment it is appropriate to digress in order to mention other interests there. Many churches were still substantial property-owners in York. The chapter drew some £11 in rents from city property in 1369, and the vicars choral in 1399 almost £82 from 200 or more properties in 45 streets. (fn. 21) Monastic houses outside York—for example Meaux, Fountains, and Bridlington—continued to acquire property in the city (fn. 22) and to maintain hospices there. (fn. 23) Lay landowners, too, are found among the owners of city tenements. Some of these, like the Clarevaux and the Chaumonts, were men whose ancestors had risen out of the ranks of the citizens in the 13th century; (fn. 24) others were later comers who bought city property as an investment. Sir Geoffrey le Scrope, for example, accumulated a number of properties in Micklegate and North Street in the early 14th century and leased one of the messuages so acquired to a York merchant for 7 marks yearly. (fn. 25) Some notables, likewise, maintained a residence in the city. William Latimer had an inn in Coney Street in 1377, and Sir Henry le Scrope, in 1391, a hospice in St. Martin's, Micklegate, churchyard which may later have been occupied by John, Lord Scrope of Masham (d. 1455). (fn. 26) As early as 1352 the Percies had their inn in Walmgate opposite St. Denys's Church, perhaps on a site acquired in two parcels in 1340 and 1344; to this house the third earl, wounded at Towton, was brought to die in 1461. (fn. 27) In 1406 we also hear of Neville's Inn in Walmgate. It was alienated by the Earl of Westmorland in that year, but in 1425 he still had a dwelling in that street called 'Furnour Inn'. (fn. 28) The importance of York as a provincial centre, particularly as the Council in the North developed, must have made such town houses more than ever useful to the great men of the north.
Changes in Industrial Prosperity
An expansion of the whole economy of the city had its beginnings in the earlier 14th century. The average number of freemen enrolled annually in 1307–49 was 59 as compared with 26 in the reign of Edward I; and, as has been shown, this increase was spread over all occupations. A contributory factor to this expansion was probably the presence of the court and the armies in the city during the Scottish wars. A wide range of employment was offered to York artisans: to carpenters, smiths, tailors, ropers, bowyers, and fletchers, and to masons working not only on the ecclesiastical, civic, and domestic buildings of the city, but on the king's siege engines or on the castle. (fn. 29) Cloth, shoes, and canvas were bought in York, and in 1304 arrows and the ingredients to make Greek fire. (fn. 30) War and the presence of the government, in other words, were good for business as was shown in 1337, when the men of Westminster followed the king and the courts to York and elsewhere. (fn. 31)
It may also have been the market represented by the court and the armies which helped to re-establish the textile industry in York. For the first time in 1319 a weaver finds a place in the register of freemen; (fn. 32) and thenceforward down to 1349 a weaver a year on the average received his freedom, and dyers about as often. The pioneers of this resuscitated industry were Englishmen, but in due course they received some foreign reinforcement, five Flemish and Brabançon weavers, shearmen, and fullers becoming freemen of York by the mid-century. At first, the fact that these immigrants were exempt from taxes and tallages was a matter of grievance, but this would be removed as they were assimilated into the community of the city. When they were received as freemen that process was well under way. (fn. 33)
In the half-century after 1350 the textile crafts came to dominate the industrial life of the city. One-sixth of the new freemen each year were drapers, weavers, coverletweavers, dyers, fullers, shearmen, or tapiters; and if the tailors are included with the manufacturing crafts the textile industry seems to have employed some 28 per cent. of the body of freemen. The weavers' guild emerged from the doldrums into which it had fallen in the 13th century. In 1346 and 1377 it secured confirmations of Henry II's charter, (fn. 34) and the weavers' ordinances at the end of the century contain a list of 51 masters. (fn. 35) An aulnager's account for the year beginning in September 1394 records 3,256 cloths as having been sealed in York; but, like that covering the period April-October 1399, it raises certain problems about the organization of the cloth trade and industry which must be faced before its significance can be assessed. (fn. 36)
In 1394–5 those who paid tax on cloth in York included 39 merchants and mercers, 18 drapers, 12 weavers, 6 tailors, and 3 dyers. Many men and women paid only on very small quantities while others were dealers in a large way. John Braithwaite, a merchant, paid on 134½ cloths; Robert Ward, mercer, on 79; Richard Redehode, draper, on 77¼; Thomas Gare, merchant, on 110½; Thomas Holme, merchant, on 70½; and so on. In 1399 the picture is much the same, with Braithwaite again well to the fore. One explanation of this feature of the aulnage accounts may be that some mercantile capitalists were organizing textile production on a putting-out system: and certainly the mercer Robert Collinson, who died in 1458, left to the 'dyers, fullers, shearmen and weavers working with me, from whom I have had any goods, a good breakfast and 12d. each'. (fn. 37) But evidence of this sort is sparse, and it was probably more characteristic for merchants and drapers to buy cloth from independent producers in and around the city and to pay the tax on it when they had it sealed. At the same time, some small producers both of the city and the country also paid tax when they marketed their cloth in York. In consequence, therefore, the aulnage accounts, quite apart from the fact that they contain no record of the worsted cloth made or marketed in York, do not enable us to distinguish the cloth actually manufactured by city craftsmen from that brought in by York merchants and drapers or by country clothmakers themselves. (fn. 38) Only the numbers of city textile workers provide an index of the dominance of the industry in York's economy at the end of the 14th century.
There are indications, however, that by 1399 the cold wind of country competition was once more sweeping across the city. Late in Richard II's reign the York weavers petitioned the king's council to investigate weaving in the countryside around, saying that at least 200 men were so occupied and that in consequence the York guild was finding difficulty in paying its farm. A commission was appointed in 1399, the guild's privileges were confirmed in 1400, and the York weavers were apparently enabled to levy charges on the weavers of the neighbouring countryside as a contribution towards their farm. (fn. 39)
Before pursuing the fortunes of the weavers, it should be noticed that for other crafts the later 14th century was a time of expansion. Compared with the first half of the century, all the main groups, if judged by their contribution to the citizen body (see Table 2), were expanding. Even when allowance is made for a greater accessibility of citizenship due to a more diffused prosperity, and for a more rapid 'turn-over' due to plague and mortality, an impression of general expansion in all branches of the city's economic life remains.
During the same period it is also possible to obtain some glimpses of the location of this industrial activity. Apart from the metal and leather trades there seems to be little concentration of particular crafts in particular areas. Cutlers seem mostly to be found in the parish of St. Michael-le-Belfrey and in Bootham, pinners mostly in St. Crux's parish, lorimers and spurriers in Ousegate and Castlegate, and girdlers in Girdlergate and its vicinity. The tanners, too, seem to be concentrated in the parish of All Saints, North Street; and there was some congregation of saddlers, cordwainers and skinners in the parishes along the opposite bank of the Ouse. It is also natural to find butchers living mainly in the areas round The Shambles and Thursday Market, and fishmongers near their markets on Ouse and Foss bridges. These groups apart, only the fullers show notable concentration: in the parish of St. Margaret, Walmgate. (fn. 40) In addition, there is evidence of tile-making conducted outside the south-western walls in Bishops Fields and boat-building in what is now St. George's Field below the castle. (fn. 41)
The prosperity of York's industry declined in the 15th century. The leather, metal, and textile crafts, which had contributed on an average 43 new freemen yearly in 1350–99, accounted for only 36 yearly in 1400–49 and 28 yearly in 1450–1509. The decline, both relative and absolute, of the textile crafts was particularly serious. Measured by the average number of new freemen drawn from them yearly, the main manufacturing crafts in this category suffered a contraction of 25 per cent. by 1450 and of 50 per cent. by 1509. Worst hit were the dyers, drapers, weavers, and tailors, while the shearmen and fullers, at least at first, were somewhat less affected. On the other hand, tapiters, making coverlets 'called worsted ware' and small cloths, (fn. 42) maintained their position, while cappers and linen-weavers became rather more numerous. The general impression is that the basic broadcloth industry suffered a catastrophic decline, that the decline of some of the finishing processes was somewhat more retarded, but that low-grade worsted manufacturers and a few new crafts (though they were mostly small ones) maintained or improved their position. At the same time, the fact that the tailors shared in the falling fortunes of the manufacturing crafts is an indication of a general sag in the prosperity of the city.
There is a good deal of other evidence for these tendencies. Once again under Henry V and Henry VI the York weavers were seeking security in the shelter of Henry II's charter; (fn. 43) and as early as 1425 the fullers were concerned about cloth fulled by 'foreign' competitors. (fn. 44) By the 1470's the fullers' anxieties had grown. They looked back to a time when York fullers had handled cloth made both in the city and the country around; but, by contrast, fulling 'goeth at these days into the country'. So it was ordained that no cloth made in the city was to be given out to a 'foreign' fuller and no cloth fulled by a 'foreigner' was to be received in the city—provided the city fullers did their job as cheaply as their country brethren. (fn. 45) Soon afterwards the weavers' farm was reduced from £10 to £5 yearly on condition that no one living outside the city was to contribute to it; and Henry VII excused them the balance and granted to the York guild a monopoly of making dyed and rayed cloth in the city and the county of the city (i.e. in The Ainsty). There is nothing to show that these measures did anything to arrest the rapid decline of the York broadcloth industry. (fn. 46)
The city authorities were far from unconcerned in all this, and drew up many regulations for the industry. Some were aimed at maintaining standards of manufacture, doubtless in the interests of the cloth merchants who dominated the counsels of the city. Others, on the other hand, were designed to stimulate a flagging industry. It was laid down, for example, that clothworkers were to be paid in cash unless they explicitly agreed to accept payment in kind; that no citizen was to have cloth woven or fulled out of the city; and that no one was to buy wool in or near the city unless he intended to have cloth made of it in York. (fn. 47) At the same time, 'foreigns' selling cloth in York—'foreign drapers of the country'—had to be accepted as suppliers of the York mercantile interests. They were permitted to sell both wholesale and retail provided they did so in Thursday Market and submitted their goods to inspection by the drapers' and tailors' guilds. As for husbandmen and other 'poor creatures' of the country, who made only a piece or two of cloth a year in their own homes, they might sell retail wherever they liked in the city and suburbs. (fn. 48) It is perhaps hardly surprising that in 1505 the York drapers were said to number only three, and that hosiers and tailors, who sold cloth as drapers did, had to contribute to the support of the drapers' pageant. (fn. 49)
One reason for all this was the expansion of the rural textile industry. It is characteristic that Durham Cathedral Priory, which had bought cloth from York drapers in 1419 and 1449–58, turned in the last two decades of the century to drapers of Halifax and Leeds. (fn. 50) Similarly, regulations of 1502 for the Ascensiontide fair in York assumed that there would be offered for sale cloth from Kendal, Ripon, Knaresborough, Leeds, Wakefield, Halifax, Bradford, and so forth. (fn. 51) This country cloth, brought in by 'foreign' drapers, husbandmen, and York merchants themselves, and bought up by York tailors like John Carter who had Halifax tawny, green, russet, and black kersey in his shop in 1485, (fn. 52) was killing the cloth industry of the city. How far the effectiveness of this country competition was strengthened by the York guild organization, which 'over-taxed and over-regulated' the city clothworkers, (fn. 53) is not easy to assess. Regulation seems often to have been a reaction to a flooding of the city market as much as a condition which made that possible.
The decline of the textile industry was crucial for the prosperity of York, but it was not the only decaying industry. The number of leather-workers among the freemen of the city declined by about two-fifths in the 15th century, and of metal-workers by about one-third in the second half of the century. The number of pewterers, however, increased, perhaps as a result of a change of fashion as much as anything else. Here again country competition entered the picture. In 1416, 1430, and 1476 there was question of tanned hides being brought into the city, and even of 'foreign' tanners buying undressed skins there. (fn. 54) Spurriers and lorimers, cutlers and blade-smiths were also concerned about 'foreigns' bringing in goods belonging to their crafts, and cardmakers were forbidden to import 'cardleaves' from Coventry. (fn. 55) And if the weavers could plead poverty, so could the goldsmiths in 1432: 'for the world has changed around them and they are poorer than they used to be.' (fn. 56) This was perhaps special pleading, but that does not mean that it was entirely divorced from reality.
The competition suffered by the crafts of York came from farther afield than the countryside around the city. Many a citizen had a Carlisle axe; Margaret Blackburn had a mappa (possibly linen damask) and a carved chest both made in Flanders; William Bowes had a Bordeaux sword; and John Talkan chests from Prussia and Flanders. (fn. 57) The range of goods brought from a distance available to the citizens is shown by the stock-in-trade of Thomas Gryssop, chapman, who died in 1446. He had cloth from Brabant and Champagne, chests from Flanders, men's gloves from Prussia, knives from Doncaster, and, from London, coffers, purses, girdles, and glass. It is also significant that he owed considerable debts to Londoners, including a capper and a spicer. (fn. 58) The craftsmen of York faced, not only local, but national and even international competition at the end of the Middle Ages.