A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.
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Communications and Markets
York's fortunes as a trading centre depended upon the network of routes which converged upon it. The rivers were particularly valuable for carrying bulky goods and the city continually strove to keep them free of obstructions, both physical and fiscal. The citizens objected to tolls which the lords of the honour of Knaresborough charged at Boroughbridge, (fn. 1) and waged constant battles for the removal of fishgarths and other impediments to navigation on all the Yorkshire rivers. (fn. 2) The importance of these routes emerges clearly in the building records of the minster, for which stone from 'Thevesdale' (probably near Tadcaster), Bramham (W.R.), and Huddleston (W.R.) quarries was brought by water from Tadcaster or Cawood, and lead, bought at Ripon, by river from Boroughbridge. (fn. 3) The city jurors put the matter most succinctly at the end of the 14th century: the Ouse, they said, was a highway, and was used by merchants coming up the Humber and thence to York and elsewhere in the county. It served for the great increase of the kingdom, and especially of York, Yorkshire, and other counties and towns in the north parts. (fn. 4) The citizens were also among the interested parties who sought to clear obstructions from the Foss Dyke joining Lincoln to the Trent, and so connecting that city with Nottingham, York, and Hull. (fn. 5)
The focus of these waterways was the quays of York along both banks of the Ouse: those between Ouse Bridge and the Franciscan friary, to maintain which the city was allowed to impose various tolls from time to time; (fn. 6) and the staith on the Skeldergate side where in the 15th century the common crane was placed. Charges for using the crane were a regular item of city revenue, and indicate the range of goods which moved along the rivers: wine, woad, madder, alum, spices, grain, salt, wax, steel, iron, linen, sea-coal, and lead. (fn. 7) The last commodity in particular assumed a growing importance at the end of the Middle Ages, when the city sought to make itself something of a staple for Richmondshire lead. It tried to insist that lead should be discharged at York, weighed at charges which were sharply increased in 1499, and sold only to citizens. It is hardly surprising that the lead miners protested or that there were attempts to evade these regulations. (fn. 8)
To this extent York's position on the Ouse enabled the city to remain a port—in the 14th century even in the official sense. It had a searcher for bullion illicitly exported and a gauger of wines. (fn. 9) The wool custom was collected there in 1333 (fn. 10) and again in 1339, when Edward III appointed two citizens collectors and allowed goods customed there to be taken to Selby or Faxfleet (E.R.) for reloading into larger ships which could not get farther up the river. (fn. 11) In the same year the customs were assigned to a syndicate of York merchants in return for a loan, but in 1340 transferred (as elsewhere) to the Hansards. (fn. 12) Collectors were again appointed for York in 1341, but John Goldbeter had to take wool to Hull to be customed because the king's troner at York was absent from his post. (fn. 13) From that time forward the collection of customs was concentrated at Hull, and York merchants, even more than in the past, came to depend almost exclusively on Hull's port facilities.
The rivers, then, served both the oversea and inland trade of York; but the latter followed the roads too, and these were also a matter of concern to citizens. John Gisburne in 1385 left money to repair bridges in the vicinity of York and the road to Boroughbridge over Hessay Moor; and Robert Holme in 1396 a legacy to improve the roads to Tollerton (N.R.) and to Kexby ferry (E.R.), to repair the bridge at Thornton (nr. Helperby (N.R.)), and to build a new one over the Derwent between Elvington and Sutton (E.R.). In the next century Richard Russell and the elder Nicholas Blackburn were also benefactors of Yorkshire bridges, and John Carr left £10 'to making of ways within the franchise of York'. (fn. 14) These men were active merchants and the roads were the routes they used.
Roads and rivers led eventually to the market places on which were centred the vital provisioning arrangements of the city. These arrangements were a constant pre-occupation of the city authorities, who insisted for the most part that transactions should take place in authorized markets—corn markets, stock markets, the fish markets on Ouse and Foss bridges, or Thursday Market for poultry, game, meat, salt, rushes, spices, cups, dishes, bowls, salt herrings, butter, cheese, and eggs. (fn. 15) These markets were closely regulated. In 1389, for instance, all victuals brought to Thursday Market had to be sold openly there, and nothing was to be sold before the market began; city poulterers and victuallers were barred from making purchases before the market had been open for three hours; maximum prices were fixed for such exotic goods as woodcock, plover, teal, fieldfares, and larks; and no victuals were to be taken away unsold. (fn. 16) The last provision recalls a complaint by the men of Howdenshire in 1331 that corn not sold in the York market at the end of trading was confiscated by the city bailiffs. (fn. 17)
On the whole, 'foreign' provision traders were welcomed in the markets. Country butchers, for example, although no doubt they had always handled the greater part of the city's meat supply, were, in 1425 and 1482, specifically encouraged to sell in the city in order to bring down the price of meat. The city brewers, similarly, were threatened with 'foreign' competition if they did not amend their ale and abate their prices; and when 'foreign' fishers were driven from the fish-landing in 1418, probably by the jealousy of the city fishers, the city at once found them an alternative berth at the staith opposite Thurslane (now Cumberland Street). (fn. 18) Official policy was neatly put in 1503 when it was ruled that Lincolnshire and Norfolk men 'that are victuallers, bring in good and wholesome victual and to be welcome'. (fn. 19) The basic concern was to ensure adequate supplies, and it was a positive duty of the provision traders of the city to achieve this end. When Henry VII was coming to York in 1487, these traders were curtly ordered to have sufficient victuals available. In cases where they failed in this duty they were punished: a collective fine was imposed on the bakers in 1485 for not baking enough bread for the commons of the city, and on the butchers in 1495 because they had not enough meat for parish synod day in Easter week. (fn. 20)
Concern about prices was associated with concern about supply. It was said, when Edward III with his army lay six weeks in York in 1327, that 'victuals were never the dearer, for ever they had a pennyworth for a penny'. (fn. 21) None the less it was feared on this occasion that prices would rise; the citizens themselves complained that prices were enhanced when parliaments were held in the city; when the court was at York in 1319 the Bishop of Ely had corn sent for his household from his manor at Wisbech; and in 1487 the prices of wine and victuals were fixed for Henry VII's visit. (fn. 22) Moreover, the prices of ale, wine, bread, and even of poultry and game were regularly laid down by authority, milling charges were controlled, constant warfare was waged against middlemandealings in foodstuffs, and common cooks were precluded from buying until ordinary consumers had enjoyed the opportunity to purchase what they wanted. (fn. 23) No less consistent was the attempt to protect the customer against the man who sold goods of inferior quality or by short weight. It was for all these reasons that trading took place in public markets, where men dealt in the open and under supervision.
The market regulations, therefore, represent an attempt to safeguard the ordinary consumer against the ever-present fear of dearth and the ineradicable tendency of food traders to exploit necessity. In that sense, looked at from within, the city markets take on the appearance first and foremost of places where the citizens obtained the produce of the countryside. Looked at from outside, however, through the eyes of the religious of Ripon, Fountains, or Durham, they assume a different appearance. They were places where distant customers might buy fish of many kinds, brass fittings for hanging bells, wax, spices, wainscots, wooden chests, resin, altar bread and wine, oil, glass, pewter and wooden vessels, boots, shoes, wine from Gascony, Greece and Spain, iron, cloth, furs, raisins, preserved ginger, and Cyprus sugar; places where a clockmaker could be found to mend a clock or a bookbinder to bind a book. (fn. 24) The new fairs obtained by the city in 1502 offered a comparable range of opportunity. Sites were designated for the sale of fine cloth made in York, cloth of the West Riding, and cloth of Kendal and Ripon; for goldsmith's and jeweller's work; for goods imported by mercers and grocers; for iron goods, pottery, and for many other wares made by city craftsmen down to the bed sellers, mattress-makers, and upholsterers who had their stalls in Goodramgate. (fn. 25)
The importance of York as a centre of trade, therefore, emerges most clearly if we put ourselves in the place of those who came as customers. They came from considerable distances and found awaiting them goods which had often come from farther still. To them, at least, York was the greatest market of the north.
Merchants and Merchandise
One indication of the trend of commercial prosperity may be found in the numbers of freemen engaged in commerce and shipping. These occupations provided about 7 new freemen yearly in 1307-49, 14 in 1350-1449, and 7 in 1450-1509; and they constituted about 10 per cent. of the freemen in the reign of Edward I, about 16 per cent. in the 14th century, 15 per cent. in 1400-49, and 11 per cent. in 1450-1509. The same general trend, moreover, is almost exactly reproduced if the total figures are analysed into the three main groups: merchants, of whom a great number were engaged in long-range trade; chapmen, perhaps mainly engaged in local retail trade; and shipmen and mariners who provided services for both.
The links between York, the countryside, and lands oversea were active as well as passive, particularly in the 14th century which witnessed a remarkable expansion in the commerce of York. The beginnings of this expansion again seem to go back to the early part of the century when the court and the armies were at York. York ships carried corn to Hull for transmission to the Low Countries in 1297 and more regularly thereafter to Berwick and elsewhere to provision the king's forces. (fn. 26) In 1304 York men sold cloth and fish to the king, (fn. 27) and in 1316-17 and 1322 a number of them were buying corn and other victuals in Norfolk, Lincolnshire, and Nottinghamshire for the court. Not everyone so engaged had been a merchant when he became a freeman, for they included a salter, two girdlers, a tailor, and a spicer. Others, however, including Robert Graa, Alan Acaster, and Simon and William Quixley, were members of families prominent among the commercial oligarchs of the 14th century. (fn. 28) The inference is that provisioning the court and the armies offered profitable opportunities, that some men turned to this form of enterprise from their normal callings, and that a few achieved considerable prosperity from it.
This was, however, a diversion from the normal trading activities which had their focus in York and in which, at the beginning of the 14th century, alien merchants were still prominent, including Flemish, Gascon, and German merchants and Italians—the Bardi in particular. (fn. 29) York merchants, for their part, imported cloth, wax, canvas, and oats from the Low Countries, and exported grain to Gascony and grain and wool to the Low Countries. (fn. 30) It is important not to exaggerate their participation in the wool trade. In the early years of the 14th century only about 40 per cent. of the wool exported through Hull was shipped by English merchants, and in 1324–5 York merchants were responsible only for about 5 per cent. of the English share of the trade. (fn. 31) Nor were the numbers of York merchants involved very large: a score or so in 1306–7, but only about half a dozen in 1321 and 15 in 1324-5. Thomas Aguiler was trading in a fair way in 1306–7 when he exported 143 sacks. (fn. 32) By 1333 the pattern had changed: between May and September that year, 1,450 sacks were exported from York itself, three-quarters of them by native merchants. They included, along with men from Beverley and elsewhere, such prominent York merchants as John Randman, Thomas Lindsey, William Lutter ington, Henry Goldbeter, and Walter Kelsterne. (fn. 33) Wool was still exported by Brabançons and the Bardi, (fn. 34) but by this time native merchants, including those of York, were securing a larger stake in the wool trade.
There are other indications of this fact. York had representatives at the assembly of 1303 which refused to entertain a maltote on wool, and at that of 1326 which established one of the home staples in the city. In 1328 it resisted the proposal to move the staple abroad, and was again nominated as a home staple in 1333. (fn. 35) By the time of Edward III's wool monopoly of 1337 (fn. 36) York had become one of the more prominent of the English wool towns. At least nineteen of its merchants were associated with the syndicate that Edward formed in that year, and their wool seized at Dordrecht was valued at over £5,000, Henry Belton's alone being valued at £1,168, Henry Scorbey's at £592, and Walter Kelsterne's at £432. (fn. 37) Various other syndicates to exploit the wool trade soon appeared on the scene. In 1339 a group led by John Goldbeter, in return for a loan to the king, was assigned the customs of York and licensed to export 1,000 sacks of wool to Antwerp. (fn. 38) Next year, another syndicate headed by Henry Goldbeter and Walter Kelsterne sought to recoup their losses at Dordrecht by offering a loan to the king in return for the assignment of wool from the issues of the ninth of sheaves, lambs, and fleeces to the value of 4,208 marks, the combined total of their loan and their Dordrecht bonds. (fn. 39) Soon afterwards these two groups of merchants amalgamated. They offered the king a loan of 3,000 marks in return for an assignment of 1,500 sacks of the king's wool, for which the purchase price of £6,750 was to be reduced by the amount of the loan they had just made and by £1,000 outstanding from their loans of 1339. (fn. 40) As late as 1341, however, little of the promised wool had been delivered, and they had a long wait for repayment of their loans. (fn. 41)
Nevertheless, in 1341 the Goldbeters and their associates again contracted to purchase 2,365 sacks of the king's wool in Lincolnshire and the northern counties; and Henry Goldbeter was associated with Hugh Ulseby (mayor of the staple in 1342) and Thomas Colle of Shrewsbury in the purchase of 445 sacks in Shropshire and Worcestershire. (fn. 42) By this time, however, the great days of Edward's wool manipulations were passing; but in 1347-8 another syndicate headed by John Goldbeter was involved with Walter Cheriton, the king's chief financial agent. It had paid some £6,000 on Cheriton's behalf to Italian merchants, bought wool from and sold wool to him, and made him other advances totalling about £5,000. (fn. 43) In 1353, when Edward was settling accounts with Cheriton, the latter alleged that Goldbeter and his associates owed him some £1,400. When John was given time to collect his 'records and memoranda' (dispersed, he said, 'in diverse places at home and oversea') he was able to show he had repaid this sum. Beyond this, he proved that Cheriton and his associates owed him £3,600, though generously he pardoned this debt. (fn. 44) One is left wondering whether some private bargain underlay this generosity.
Whatever their gains or losses in these ventures, men like John Goldbeter clearly commanded capital resources different in scale from those of earlier York merchants. The wool trade, moreover, continued to feed mercantile fortunes. In the 1350's some 30 York merchants are named buying wool in the North and East Ridings, (fn. 45) while in 1363 York men were said to have delivered more wool at the Staple than that on which they had paid customs in England and two of them, John Gisburne and Roger Hovingham, were among the aldermen of the English merchants at Calais. (fn. 46) By the later part of the century York merchants had come to dominate the wool trade through Hull. Foreign merchants now controlled less than 10 per cent. of this trade, and of the English share in 1378-9, York merchants had about two-thirds. (fn. 47) Some of the best-known members of the ruling circle of the city were engaged in it, including Robert Ward, Robert and Thomas Holme (who exported over 400 sacks between them in 1391-2), Robert Savage and Simon Quixley. Such men and their like shipped over 1,450 sacks from Hull between December 1391 and September 1392. (fn. 48)
By that time, moreover, wool was no longer the only important export, for York merchants were also exporting considerable shipments of cloth, with Robert Ward again well to the fore. (fn. 49) In 1359 a York draper had still been importing cloth, for sale both in Boston and in his own shop at York; (fn. 50) but by 1383 cloth, apart from 'stained' cloth, linen, fustian and buckram, does not figure among imports at Hull. (fn. 51) It appears, on the contrary, more and more frequently as an export to Gascony, Prussia, the Low Countries and, nearer home, to Berwick. (fn. 52)
In the course of the 14th century, then, alien merchants had ceased to dominate, as they had done earlier, the oversea trade centred on York. Indeed, in 1360, two Italian merchants were arrested at York 'because they were unknown and no one knew their idiom', (fn. 53) an incident that could hardly have occurred in the reign of Edward I. A partial exception, however, is provided by the merchants of the German Hanse. They are found exporting wool from York in 1344 and importing lead and bowstaves in 1351; in 1352 three of them, 'because they had long dwelt in York', were naturalized and admitted to the freedom of the city. Henry Wyman was similarly naturalized later, and eventually became mayor despite having been arrested as an alien in 1385 during a period of conflict with the Hanse. (fn. 54)
At the same time York merchants themselves became far more ubiquitous and their activities more diverse. They were most deeply committed to the trade in wool and cloth to Calais and the Low Countries, but they also provisioned London with grain and Carlisle castle with wine (fn. 55) obtained both from Gascony and the Rhineland. (fn. 56) They trafficked with France in time of truce; (fn. 57) imported iron from Spain; (fn. 58) and brought oil, wine, figs, and raisins to York and London from Portugal. (fn. 59) Perhaps most significant of all was the part they played in the English attempt to break into the Baltic. In the 1370's a York bowyer shipped wine to Prussia in return for wheat and rye, and dispatched six craftsmen there to make bows and send them back to York. Others were soon engaged in the export of cloth to the Baltic and the import of herrings from Denmark and Scania, and Sir Stephen le Scrope could find a York man in Danzig when he was seeking to raise a loan. When the goods of the English merchants were arrested in Prussia in 1385, the 33 York men who lost goods worth over £1,600 seem to be the most important group; and it was perhaps appropriate that Thomas Graa was one of the ambassadors who negotiated the treaty of 1388 which closed this particular phase of the conflict in the Baltic. (fn. 60)
Diversity also characterized the activities of individuals. The goods of Robert Ward were arrested in Prussia in 1385, but in 1391-2 he also exported £180 worth of cloth, a good deal of it apparently to the Low Countries, and nearly 200 sacks of wool to Calais. His return freights included woad, madder, violet dye, alum, canvas, soap, oil, and licorice. The Holme brothers were similarly engaged. They exported both cloth and wool, and imported dyestuffs, alum, iron, wax, wainscots, soap, wine, raisins, and rice. (fn. 61) This active and large-scale trade underlies the emergence of the commercial élite which dominated the city's political life and provided some of the stimulus for industrial expansion at this period, particularly of the textile industry which it linked to a European market and for which it provided much of its necessary materials. The most successful of the merchants, moreover, were richer than any other citizens of medieval York. A man like Robert Holme, apart from disposing of real and personal property on some scale, could provide for cash legacies and dispositions in his will totalling over £1,600. (fn. 62)
Diversity continued to characterize the trade of York in the 15th century. Its merchants, we are told in 1460, bought grain in 'outward' parts of England; traded in iron, oil, tar, wine, wax, soap, woad, madder, alum, tin, and lead; and brought into and exported from the city wool, cloth, and yarn from the country. (fn. 63) A great deal is heard of their activities in the countryside and in neighbouring ports. That notable stapler, Richard Russell, bought wool in the Yorkshire wolds and Lindsey; and the mercer, Richard Collinson, dealt in wool and cloth in many places in the West Riding. (fn. 64) A chapman sold mercery at Boroughbridge, John Newton bought pirated hides at Flamborough, and William Hancock's apprentice sugar, white wine, and timber from Easterlings at Grimsby. In the port of Hull, too, York merchants bought wine and other things direct from importers. (fn. 65)
At the same time they continued to go to sea in ships. They were to be found in Scotland and in Brittany. (fn. 66) They took part in the Iceland trade, where a number of them had a sorry record for violence in the 1420's. This was also to be the destination of John Lylling's false osmunds, but others more legitimately served the island with cloth and ale and brought back fish in return. (fn. 67) The main directions of trade, however, remained those established in the 14th century. Large consignments of cloth continued to be sent to the Baltic, the return freights including herrings, timber, iron, bowstaves, and ashes. It was a troubled trade. At the beginning of the century York merchants were alleging many losses in Norway, Danzig, and Marienburg; similar grievances were aired in the 1420's and 1430's, particularly about goods seized and merchants arrested in Prussia; and in 1432 the men of York and Hull estimated that they had been plundered of £5,000 worth of merchandise by the Danes. (fn. 68) Despite these disasters, the Baltic trade down to the 1470's was clearly of the greatest importance to York merchants and attracted some of the wealthiest of them. When a convoy on the way to Prussia was attacked in the Sound in 1468, the list of those who suffered loss reads like a directory of notabilities: it includes no fewer than eleven past or future mayors of York. It was therefore a serious blow for the prosperity of the city when, in the last quarter of the century, the Hanse all but excluded Englishmen from the Baltic. (fn. 69)
Calais was a somewhat less hazardous market, and through Hull or occasionally Newcastle (fn. 70) many of the greatest merchants of 15th-century York continued to send wool there: they included Richard Russell, John Thirsk, and Richard York, who were mayors of the staple; and Thomas Gare the younger who, like Robert and Thomas Holme in the previous century, had property in Calais. (fn. 71) Here again, however, they were engaging in a trade which was everywhere declining with considerable rapidity, and the major preoccupation of York merchants came progressively to be narrowed down to trade with the Low Countries. Though there may have been a time when York had a special connexion with Veere in Holland, (fn. 72) their main resorts in the late 15th century were Bruges, Antwerp, Middelburg, and Bergen-op-Zoom. (fn. 73) In these places, however, the York merchants found themselves in close juxtaposition to the mercers of London, who were assuming an increasingly dominant role in the organization of English merchants trading in the area. The association was a far from happy one. York men were probably involved in some sort of revolt against London domination as early as 1421, (fn. 74) and in the latter part of the century troubles became endemic. In 1474-5 the company of York merchants was seeking to lay down maximum 'hansing' fees for its members trading in the Low Countries, doubtless in face of an attempt to raise them; and two years later it was airing its grievances against John Pickering (the Londoner who was governor of the English merchants in the Low Countries) to Hull, Beverley, the Earl of Northumberland, Richard of Gloucester, and in Parliament. It claimed that, by custom, there ought to be two governors, one of them representing the ports north of the Trent: and that Pickering, as sole governor, had discriminated against the northerners in an outrageous manner. The result was a royal proclamation enjoining fair treatment. (fn. 75)
It seems unlikely that it had much effect. In 1495 the York merchants were again laying down maximum 'hansing' fees, (fn. 76) and doubtless they joined with other nonLondoners in petitioning Parliament in 1497 against the charges imposed on them by the London adventurers. (fn. 77) By the beginning of the 16th century the writing on the wall was clear. Pushed out of the Baltic by the Hanse, their Calais trade declining, the Merchant Adventurers of York were also being extruded from the Low Countries by the Merchant Adventurers of London.
Nor were these the only difficulties which faced York traders. They complained in 1508 that Hull was refusing to allow them to deal direct with foreign importers and was imposing heavy charges on the cloth and lead they brought there for sale. (fn. 78) It is possible, too, that the West Riding cloth industry was beginning by the end of the Middle Ages to sell its products through London, as it did in the 16th century; (fn. 79) and it is certain that Londoners were beginning to invade the markets of York itself: grocers, tailors, drapers, and mercers are mentioned in 1504. (fn. 80) No less keen was the sense of grievance towards what was called in 1430 'the society of Hanseatic merchants staying in York'. (fn. 81) In 1482 York complained that the Hansards 'has their free buying and selling in this land' while Englishmen's rights in the Baltic were very restricted; and an undated mani festo accused the Easterlings of bringing large amounts of goods into England and exporting the money they received for them, while it contrasted the commercial freedom accorded to the Hansards in England with the rule that English traders in the Baltic were not to sell retail or to other merchants. (fn. 82)
One result of these circumstances was a growing spirit of restriction. As early as 1417 alien merchants were ordered to sell wine, spices, and dyestuffs only to citizens; (fn. 83) and they were instructed in 1459 to lodge only at 'the inn of the mayor and community at the sign of the Bull in Coney Street'. (fn. 84) In 1442, moreover, all merchants strange to the liberties of the city were forbidden to buy and sell among themselves in York, (fn. 85) and in 1481 'foreigns' bringing cloth to York were restricted to wholesale transactions, Londoners specifically being limited to selling only to merchants of the city. (fn. 86) Two years later, the retail trade in wine was restricted to freemen. (fn. 87) The merchants of York had gone over very thoroughly to the defensive.
Such were the forces which were narrowing York's commercial horizons in the 15th century, a feature as marked as the decline of its industries. The pattern of trade changed little. In April-June 1401, for example, Henry Wyman exported cloth worth £49; Thomas Gare imported Spanish iron; John Bolton imported paper, canvas, thread, wax, osmund and iron, bowstaves, and herrings; and William Burton and Robert Talkan fair quantities of wine. (fn. 88) In the 1460's and 1470's, likewise, while men like Thomas Wrangwissh and Thomas Lamb exported cloth, Thomas Nelson was bringing in salt, osmund and iron, bitumen, bowstaves, and salmon. The main difference is a considerable export of lead, which engaged such important figures as Thomas Nelson, William Todd, John Kent, and Thomas Beverley in 1462-3, or John Ferriby and John Gilliot in 14712. (fn. 89) When the city sought to make itself a staple for Richmondshire lead, it was concerned with an increasingly important part of the livelihood of merchants.
Though the pattern of trade changed little, its volume decreased. Some measure of this is provided by the evidence for the collapse of the fortunes of Hull, which had been York's great outlet to the markets of Europe. Compared with the years 1404-9, the value of the wool, cloth, and wine and of goods paying poundage which passed through Hull had fallen by 11 per cent, in 1439-44 and by 58 per cent. in 1478-82. At the last date, moreover, alien merchants (mainly the Hansards) had increased their share of trade at Hull by over 50 per cent. since the beginning of the century. Only cloth exports had increased, and every other branch of Hull's trade was in full retreat. (fn. 90) These facts provide one explanation of the fall in the numbers of traders and shippers becoming freemen of York, particularly after the mid-century. They may also explain the fact that great cash fortunes disposed of by will belong to the late 14th and early 15th centuries rather than to the period after 1450. In the generation after 1400 there were still men about who may be compared with Robert Holme. Thomas Alstanmore (d. 1435) was said to have left wool, silver vessels, and other goods and chattels worth £1,600, while Richard Russell's cash legacies and dispositions amounted to over £700 and the elder Nicholas Blackburn's to about £800. By contrast, men like Richard York and William Todd a generation or two later, though they were at least of equal consequence, seem to leave less cash and more property. While Thomas Alstanmore had some nine or ten properties in York and land in Dringhouses, Richard York (apart from city property) had houses in Hull, Newcastle, and Berwick-on-Tweed and land in about eleven Yorkshire villages. (fn. 91) It looks as though the leading merchants of the early 15th century retained more of their assets in a liquid or readily realizable form than did their peers later. One reason for this may well have been that commercial trends gradually undermined any confidence they felt that by keeping money in trade a man's fortune would continue to grow.
Declining trade led to a more elaborate organization on the part of the merchants. The 'mistery of mercers' obtained a charter of incorporation in 1430 on grounds of poverty. This was not, of course, the beginning of their company, for their searchers are mentioned in 1396. But the charter empowered them to elect annually their own governor and two wardens, later generally described as the master and constables, to have a common seal and to acquire property to relieve the poor of their craft and to maintain a chaplain. (fn. 92) Their charitable activities were organized through Trinity Hospital in Fossgate: the mercers had early begun to dominate the guild which maintained this hospital and had taken over its hall by the 1420's. Eventually the company and fraternity became indissolubly united with a common entrance fee of 6s. 8d. (fn. 93) For general business, the company held quarterly meetings or 'courts' where the master and constables determined all matters between parties brought before them and adjudicated on breaches of the company's ordinances. Members were forbidden to go to law against their fellows without first bringing their causes before the master and constables. The constables were responsible for the financial management of the company, and, with the master, controlled entry to it. They also enforced the rule that apprentices should be 'free born and of free condition', and approved applications to open a shop or warehouse. (fn. 94)
Intermingled with these professional preoccupations were the charitable and social activities of the company. They maintained Fossgate Hospital, a burden that became increasingly heavy as the rents which supported it fell; (fn. 95) they held feasts for members, their wives, and other 'sisters'; (fn. 96) and the performance of the pageant of 'Domysday' which concluded the Corpus Christi cycle was their responsibility. (fn. 97) In every respect the merchants' company was wealthier and more elaborately organized than any other York craft, even to the extent of maintaining its own clerk. (fn. 98) This organization doubtless helped to strengthen the hold of the mercantile interest on city government, but in the end it failed to sustain the prosperity of the merchants. It could not control the extraneous forces which undermined the fortunes of York—the competition of Londoners and Hansards, Edward IV's favour to the Hanse, and the general economic trends of the times. It is perhaps symptomatic of narrower horizons and a new pettiness that, in 1502, the merchants of York contemplated writing to the Council in the North because the Abbot of Fountains had bought and sold lead 'as a free merchant, contrary to God's laws and man's'. (fn. 99)