Tudor York: Topography and population

Pages 117-122

A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.

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In this section


Topography, p. 117. Population, p. 120. The Tudor Economy, p. 122. Pauperism, p. 132. City Government, p. 135. Military Affairs, p. 140. Religion and the Reformation, p. 142. Cultural and Social Life, p. 155.


The accession of Henry VIII saw the medieval city in its picturesque and pinnacled splendour, with its guildhalls, alms-houses, and forty parish churches, its minster completed within living memory, its conventual buildings—pre-eminent among them the magnificent Abbey of St. Mary—as yet unthreatened by secular hands. The chief architectural change to befall Tudor York was the virtual obliteration of the monastic group, which speedily became stone-quarries. Most notable among the exceptions were the abbot's house of St. Mary's, transformed as the King's Manor into the headquarters of the Council in the North, and the nave of Holy Trinity Priory, which survives in the present parish church. The dissolution of the monasteries did not complete the tale of mid-Tudor destruction. A parliamentary Act of 1547 empowered the mayor, the recorder, the archbishop, and six justices to unite parishes, so making benefices for 'honest incumbents' not exceeding £20 annual value, and to pull down such churches as they regarded as superfluous. (fn. 1) The immediate result of this Act is obscure, but some sixteen churches ultimately suffered destruction. The transaction was completed in 1586, when the final unions of parishes were arranged at a meeting between the civic authorities and the archbishop. (fn. 2) However archaeologically regrettable, this change can have occasioned little physical hardship to the population: the parishes of York remained very small and no citizen had far to walk in order to find a church. The dissolution of chantries exercised only an indirect effect upon the profile of the city for they were seldom linked with impressive architectural features. On the other hand, their dissolution left in its wake many properties formerly contributing to the endowment, but now neglected by the Crown and by lay purchasers. For many years they contributed to the dilapidated air of the place. (fn. 3) Some ecclesiastical buildings came to strange uses. The chapel of St. William on Ouse Bridge, stripped of its lead, was used for secular purposes and in the early 17th century converted into a bourse or exchange for merchants. (fn. 4) Perhaps the most grievous artistic loss resulting from the Edwardian changes was the chapel of St. Sepulchre's College, contiguous to the north wall of the minster nave. (fn. 5)

If the people of York took relatively little part in the process of purchase, conversion, and destruction, this may have been due less to conscientious scruples than to lack of influence and ready capital. Between 1539 and 1540 Ralph Beckwith, goldsmith, and Sir George Lawson obtained 21-year leases of the White Friars and the Austin Friars respectively. (fn. 6) Both, however, were connected with landed families and, though Lawson played a distinguished part in civic life, he was also a prominent civil servant. (fn. 7) Otherwise amongst about thirty early purchasers and lessees of the properties of York religious houses, only one or two of the smallest ones are recognizably York citizens. (fn. 8) Nevertheless, sentiment is unlikely to have deterred them. As will appear, (fn. 9) the corporation itself had in 1536 already staged a private dissolution of 'decayed' chantries under its control and this on purely financial grounds. After the general dissolution of chantries under Edward VI, it made many endeavours to secure chantry lands within the city, (fn. 10) but prices proved high (fn. 11) and it finally purchased important guild properties instead. (fn. 12) Meanwhile Aldermen North and Bean, together with Miles Newton the common clerk, had managed to purchase for themselves the churchyards of three of the closed churches at extremely low prices. (fn. 13) Even parishioners were found in 1551 to be removing the leaden roofs of their churches, selling the metal at the high prices then current, and reroofing with tiles. (fn. 14) Their ecclesiastical superiors did not always prove immune from this plumbi sacra fames. Archbishop Young, intent on founding a county family, demolished the great hall of the disused archiepiscopal palace in order to sell its lead. (fn. 15) With less legality, the gaoler, Robert Redhead, in 1596 dismantled parts of the castle and the whole fabric stood in a poor state of repair at the end of Elizabeth's reign. (fn. 16)

The architectural additions of the period 1509-1603 failed to compensate for all these losses, yet they proved far from negligible. The church of St. Michael-le-Belfrey was rebuilt by the chapter between 1525 and 1537 (fn. 17) and certainly ranks among the finest Tudor churches in the kingdom. In the field of secular architecture the Elizabethan additions to the King's Manor take pride of place. When, between 1568 and 1570, the Earl of Sussex carried out extensive repairs, (fn. 18) the house had already been occupied for 30 years by the Lord President and Council in the North, but little had as yet been added to the building exploits of Abbot William Sever in the reign of the first Tudor. Sussex was followed by the queen's efficient and puritanical cousin the Earl of Huntingdon, whose additions form the first major monument of the Renaissance at York. (fn. 19) But the architectural change most striking to mid-Elizabethan visitors must have been the reconstruction of Ouse Bridge after its collapse in 1565. The medieval two-arched bridge was replaced by a single span of 81 feet which was long regarded as among the largest in Europe. (fn. 20) This picturesque rival of the Rialto survived to become the delight of Georgian painters and engravers until replaced by Peter Atkinson's dull and decorous structure of the early 19th century.

Tudor York, with its relatively static population, (fn. 21) did not need to extend itself in the manner of Tudor London. Some intra-mural parishes became depopulated (fn. 22) and no evidence suggests a significant growth of the medieval suburbs. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that much Tudor domestic architecture replaced that of earlier times. Elements of the existing fabric of Stonegate, Petergate, and of The Shambles derive from Tudor and early Stuart times. Representative examples, though in each case much restored, are the splendid house of the wealthy Elizabethan Herbert family in Pavement; (fn. 23) that represented in 1957 by the Minster Cafe in Goodramgate; and those attached to the Fossgate side of the Merchant Adventurer's Hall. Outstanding among the vanished but recorded façades of the period was that of the old 'George' in Coney Street, with its elaborate pargetting. (fn. 24) In private houses brickwork was still con fined to the chimneys, (fn. 25) though a house of red brick finds mention early in the reign of James I (fn. 26) and a few may have existed earlier. Bricklayers occur somewhat more frequently among the freemen in the last Elizabethan years. (fn. 27) The general aspect of a narrow Tudor half-timbered street is still adequately suggested in The Shambles.

Throughout the Tudor age, the repair and cleansing of the streets took place in a perfunctory and erratic manner, systematic effort being largely confined to those occasions when great personages were about to pay a ceremonial visit. The oft-repeated orders and adjurations in the House Books illustrate the insanitary habits of the population rather than the effectiveness of Tudor local government. A regulation of 1517 ordered all rubbish to be tipped behind one particular jetty rather than indiscriminately along the river-banks. (fn. 28) Another of 1524 appointed refuse-dumps for each ward. (fn. 29) Commands to mend and sand the streets preceded the visit of Henry VIII in 1541; they were specially cleaned before that of the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1549. (fn. 30) The wandering pig still presented a major sanitary problem and the order of 1549 to destroy all pigsties (fn. 31) should not deceive, since further orders, no doubt equally inconclusive, pursued these unlucky animals throughout the Elizabethan period. (fn. 32) The plague of 1550-1 made the city fathers command every householder to sweep in front of his house and remove the dirt twice a week. (fn. 33) It was agreed in 1583 that no inhabitant should empty any 'tubs or other filth' within the city, but bury such refuse in his own ground. (fn. 34) A week later the people were ordered to cleanse the streets thrice weekly, to remove market-sweepings immediately upon the end of a market, and—a final touch of optimism—'the officer of every ward shall weekly give commandment to the constables to see it done'. (fn. 35) Two years later each of the four wards was assigned a place for burying carrion. (fn. 36)

The problem of street-lighting was attacked somewhat more casually. As the nights lengthened in November 1580, it was decided that lanterns should be hung every night throughout the winter before men's houses, and that three or four householders might collaborate to provide them. (fn. 37) The next year this was to be done at the discretion of the wardens in each ward, the beadles, or deputy constables to give warning every night and present defaulters to the wardens from time to time. (fn. 38)

The more crucial matter of a purer water-supply was not totally neglected. In 1552 Lord President Shrewsbury and the Council in the North offered to contribute twothirds of the cost of a new conduit to the city. Their offer was enthusiastically accepted by the corporation, which proceeded to discover a new spring near St. Andrew's (presumably the priory site), believing that if it were rightly handled it would yield 'an holle tone' in an hour. They asked the earl's help in securing expert opinion. (fn. 39) Another effort came in 1579, when a stranger named Wright 'skilful in springs [and] conveying of conduits' accompanied the mayor and his brethren to view a spring-head. (fn. 40) A third effort was made in 1598-9 to provide piped water but, on grounds of expense, nothing was done. (fn. 41) Fear of renewed plagues seems to have prompted these schemes; their effectiveness is not clear from the records, but they show that Tudor York was no longer satisfied to drink water from the filthy river and from old polluted wells. A major incubus upon the well-being of York was the tidal Ouse which failed to carry away the pollution of the city discharged into its waters. The complaint is familiar in Georgian times, but the trouble was well understood under the Tudors. The Council in the North in 1538 regarded the Augustinian Friary as a useless building, since it stood 'very cold on the water of Owse', without open air except across the river which was always very contagious both in winter and in summer, because of 'sundry corrupt and common channels, sinkers and gutters of the said city conveyed under the same'. (fn. 42)


During both Tudor and early Stuart times York suffered very severely from the bubonic plague. A serious outbreak occurred in 1538, when victims were segregated in houses outside Layerthorpe Postern. (fn. 43) The far more severe visitation of 1550 caused the authorities to build in addition two 'lodges' on Hob Moor, (fn. 44) but eventually they were bound to confine the sick to their own houses, mark the doors with a red cross, and order people leaving such houses to carry a white stick. (fn. 45) Strangers shunned the city to the detriment of trade, (fn. 46) 'foreign' butchers were offered free trade, (fn. 47) fugitive butchers ordered to return on pain of a £10 fine, and brewers threatened with disfranchisement if they neglected their trade. (fn. 48) Stocks of grain were surveyed and certain villages ordered by the Council in the North to send corn into the city. (fn. 49) In May 1550, when as yet only a hundred people had been stricken, a weekly benefit of 8d. went to sustain each. (fn. 50) For all this resolute action, the mayor, John Lewes, received mediocre support from his colleagues; it proved necessary to threaten absentee aldermen and sheriffs with a fine of £20 a week. (fn. 51) By January 1551 the mortality had again become negligible, (fn. 52) but the following summer the plague returned, this time accompanied by that swift and lethal scourge the sweating sickness. (fn. 53) This epidemic proved especially prevalent on the west bank of the Ouse and constables were stationed on the bridge to prevent infected persons from crossing. (fn. 54) Citizens were punished for allowing victims and contacts into their homes, (fn. 55) weavers and tailors forbidden to receive yarn or cloth from infected places, and the sale of old clothes prohibited. (fn. 56) Four intrepid men, segregated at Toft Green, had to bury the dead, cleanse houses, and burn rubbish. (fn. 57)

The contemporary registers of St. Martin-cum-Gregory confirm the fact that it lay in the heart of the worst-stricken district. In a parish with an annual average of 5 or 6 burials during the preceding years, no less than 67 died between July and December 1550 (21 in August, 25 in September) and again 40 from September to December 1551. (fn. 58) Within these two years, at least one-third of the parishioners must have died. No such catastrophe can, however, have occurred across the river. The register of St. Crux is somewhat confused, but suggests a mortality in 1550-1 little more than 50 per cent. above the average for the Elizabethan years. (fn. 59)

The memory of such formidable visitations caused the corporation to take stringent and successful measures when in 1563 reports of the plague came from London and Stourbridge (Worcs.). They banned Londoners, (fn. 60) established a period of quarantine for those returning from infected places, (fn. 61) and finally posted watchmen at the bars to exclude people from stricken towns. (fn. 62) Various citizens, including four councillors, were punished for visiting London. (fn. 63) York thus escaped serious mortality; it did so again in 1570 when Rotherham and Selby suffered outbreaks, (fn. 64) and yet again in 1579, when visits to Howden fair were banned owing to the plague there and at Snaith. (fn. 65) When the century ended, York had still to suffer two major outbreaks of the plague: those of 1604 (fn. 66) and 1631. (fn. 67) Largely owing to its immunity from any great plague, the reign of Elizabeth I probably represents the healthiest half-century between 1509 and 1750. Five printed registers cover the whole or a large part of the reign, and baptisms exceed burials in every one of them. In St. Martin's, Coney Street (fn. 68) the average annual excess of births is 3.1, in St. Crux (fn. 69) 4.5, in St. Michael-le-Belfrey (fn. 70) 2.7, in All Saints', Pavement (fn. 71) 4.5, and in Holy Trinity, Goodramgate (fn. 72) a negligible 0.1. It remains true that three of these five parishes (St. Martin's, St. Crux, and All Saints') boasted an exceptional proportion of wealthier households and that none of the five included the riparian slums so notorious in later times. Even so the significance of these Elizabethan figures lies in the fact that these same five parishes proceed to show a very different picture, a marked preponderance of burials over baptisms, throughout the 17th century. In Elizabeth I's reign no year of very exceptional mortality is registered and the catastrophic year 1604 shows in these five parishes no fewer than 648 burials, (fn. 73) as opposed to an average of about 74 a year for the Elizabethan period.

Infant-mortality nevertheless remained, by modern standards, appalling. During the years 1572-85 the registers of St. Michael-le-Belfrey record the ages of persons buried and the total of 461 burials includes 155 of infants under two years of age. After infancy, however, the chance of survival to maturity climbed very steeply indeed, since only 26 of the 461 burials are those of children aged from two to five years and a mere 7 of those from six to ten.

A figure for the total population of Tudor York can only be surmised. In 1562 the corporation, in one of its many pleas for an easement of its burdens, spoke of a diminution of people and houses 'by the third part'. (fn. 74) This opinion is impressionistic and comes soon after the plagues of 1550 and 1551. Moreover, it is transparently 'interested' and has earlier parallels: even more sweeping claims had been made in 1487, when the city requested the king's help in rebuilding the defences. (fn. 75) Some degree of support for a decline of the order of one-third might, however, be derived by a calculation based upon a comparison between the tax returns of 1523-7 for York, and for Coventry where the figures are supplemented by a local return. This produces a figure of only 8,000 citizens for York, (fn. 76) involving a decline of 3,000 or more since the 14th century. (fn. 77) Moreover, as will become apparent, an overall economic decline had certainly occurred since the mid15th century and would furnish a plausible background for this population fall. An inspection of the many tax lists for Tudor York (fn. 78) shows enormous differences between the numbers of taxpayers recorded in each: for example, the roll for 15 Henry VIII (fn. 79) has about 1,300 payers for York and The Ainsty (which later bore about two-fifths of the burden), (fn. 80) while the roll for 34-35 Henry VIII (fn. 81) has only just over 200 payers for the city and shows in each parish a relatively tiny group of payers. Indeed, but for the proper names, it would seem impossible to relate these two rolls to the same city. And if the number of payers at York varied radically from tax list to tax list, it cannot be lightly assumed that in 1523-7 the ratio between taxable and total populations was the same at York as at Coventry. Everywhere the 'tail-end' of townsmen who escaped contributions to taxes remains a major unknown and variable factor. In impoverished York it may well have been exceptionally large.

The chantry surveys (fn. 82) may also be used to make an estimate: for York they record the communicants in only 17 parishes. Amongst these occur some of the parishes recently scheduled for absorption; (fn. 83) we must hence reckon with a further 22 parishes, since the Act of 1547 had not yet been implemented. The 17 parishes yield a total of 4,131 communicants, yet we cannot credit the 22 missing parishes with proportionate averages, since most of them prove on examination to have been among the smaller ones. (fn. 84) A series of rough estimates has suggested that 2,900 would constitute a reasonable addition for all of them, a figure which would yield a total of some 7,000 communicants. In the attempt to convert this 7,000 into a total population, more shadowy conjectures arise. While children were then confirmed very young, it would seem risky to assume that those under fourteen were normally counted by parish priests and churchwardens as 'houseling people'. Again, in such a city as York, there must always have been hundreds, if not thousands, of persons unlikely to appear either in subsidy rolls or parish estimates: visiting merchants, clergy, and tourists; vagrants, pensioners in almshouses, litigants in the ecclesiastical courts and before the Council in the North, denizens of migratory noble and gentle households. Altogether, an addition of 50 per cent. for children and for all these groups would seem the very lowest possible. So interpreted, the chantry surveys thus suggest a total population for 1549 in excess of 10,000. This figure presumably increased during the relatively healthy Elizabethan period. (fn. 85)


  • 1. 1 Edw. VI, c. 9, print. York Civ. Rec. iv. 168-9.
  • 2. York Civ. Rec. viii. 112; Drake, Ebor. 237; Knight, Hist. York, 388-9. The deed of union (1586) is in York Corp. Rec. G/7.
  • 3. York Civ. Rec. v. 87, 93, 96, 130, 137; vi. 33, 118.
  • 4. Drake, Ebor. 281; see p. 482.
  • 5. J. Raine, York, 158, suggests that marble shrinework found in the precinct came from this chapel, but this cannot be proved.
  • 6. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xv, pp. 556, 565.
  • 7. Sir G. Lawson was Treasurer of Berwick from 1522 and a member of the Duke of Richmond's Council; an alderman of York, he served it as M.P. from 1529 and as mayor 1530, when he was knighted; he led the city's deputation at the Pontefract meeting of the Pilgrims of Grace, but managed to avoid serious trouble later; he died in 1543: R. Reid, King's Council in the North, 103, 109; M. H. and R. Dodds, Pilgrimage of Grace, index, sub Lawson; York Civ. Rec. iii, iv, indices, sub Lawson.
  • 8. One minor exception was Rich. Thompson: L. & P. Hen. VIII, xxi (2), p. 439; one of the chief purchasers was Sir Rich. Gresham, whose grant of 1545 forms a valuable document on York topography: ibid. xx (1), pp. 520-4.
  • 9. See p. 143.
  • 10. York Civ. Rec. iv. 177; v. 1-2, 87, 139.
  • 11. Ibid. v. 1.
  • 12. See pp. 147-8.
  • 13. York Civ. Rec. v. 4.
  • 14. Ibid. 53-54.
  • 15. Drake, Ebor. 454; this story may have lost nothing in its telling by Drake's racy informant, Harrington.
  • 16. See p. 524.
  • 17. Y.A.J. xl. 145, n. 2 gives references.
  • 18. R. Davies, King's Mannour House at York, 5-6, gives references.
  • 19. Ibid. 6-7.
  • 20. Drake, Ebor. 280; Hargrove, Hist. York, ii. 193, corrects the measurements; see pp. 516-17.
  • 21. See pp. 120-2.
  • 22. See p. 124.
  • 23. Y.A.J. xxxix. 343 sqq.
  • 24. Y.A. & Y.A.S. Proc. 1950-1, plates after p. 16; ibid. 1949-50, plates after p. 32.
  • 25. Drake, Ebor. 279.
  • 26. 'Le read brick house, ac uno orto super le baksyde ejusdem' in Micklegate, occupied by the rich innholder, Thomas Waller, who d. 1609: Davies, Walks Through York, 137.
  • 27. Six are enrolled in 1594-1603: York Freemen, ii. 36-48; the brickmakers in 1592 wanted to separate from the tilemakers: Davies, Walks Through York, 138.
  • 28. York Civ. Rec. iii. 59, 95.
  • 29. Ibid. 95-96.
  • 30. Ibid. iv. 64, 65, 72; v. 25.
  • 31. Ibid. v. 29.
  • 32. Ibid. vii. 113; viii. 80.
  • 33. Ibid. v. 82; similar orders follow in 1564: ibid. vi. 83.
  • 34. Ibid. viii. 68.
  • 35. Ibid.
  • 36. Ibid. 104.
  • 37. Ibid. 38.
  • 38. Ibid. 52.
  • 39. Ibid. v. 80.
  • 40. Ibid. viii. 8.
  • 41. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 32, ff. 59, 61-62, 64-65, 73.
  • 42. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii (2), p. 297.
  • 43. York Civ. Rec. iv. 30.
  • 44. Ibid. v. 30.
  • 45. Ibid. 36.
  • 46. Ibid. 29.
  • 47. Ibid. 36.
  • 48. Ibid. 41.
  • 49. Ibid. 41, 45.
  • 50. Ibid. 38.
  • 51. Ibid. 41.
  • 52. Ibid. 49.
  • 53. Ibid. 57, 68.
  • 54. Ibid. 68.
  • 55. Ibid. 81.
  • 56. Ibid. 74.
  • 57. Ibid.
  • 58. T. Laycock, Health Towns Com. Rep. on State York (1844), 57-60 (off-print in York Pub. Libr.).
  • 59. Yorks. Par. Reg. Soc. lxx; in 1550 and 1551, 37 deaths occurred: the Elizabethan average was 12.9.
  • 60. York Civ. Rec. vi. 61.
  • 61. Ibid. 62-63.
  • 62. Ibid. 83; for a ban on a fair: ibid. 84.
  • 63. Ibid. 72.
  • 64. Ibid. vii. 11.
  • 65. Ibid. viii. 11, 14, 16, 26.
  • 66. Drake, Ebor. 133, 375-6; Knight, Hist. York, 445-6; V.C.H. Yorks. iii. 455; D.N.B. under 'Thomas Morton'; Drake's figure of 3,152 deaths is apparently based on parish registers.
  • 67. For Wentworth's vigorous methods: V.C.H. Yorks. iii. 455 sqq.
  • 68. Yorks. Par. Reg. Soc. xxxv.
  • 69. Ibid. lxx.
  • 70. Ibid. i.
  • 71. Ibid. c.
  • 72. Ibid. xli.
  • 73. In All Saints', 80 of the 103 deaths of 1604 are specifically ascribed to the plague.
  • 74. York Civ. Rec. vi. 33.
  • 75. Ibid. ii. 9.
  • 76. Trans. R.H.S. 5th ser. vi. 5.
  • 77. See p. 84.
  • 78. E 179/217/81 to 218/62; York Corp. Rec. E/48-51, 59, 59A.
  • 79. E 179/217/92.
  • 80. Drake, Ebor. 382.
  • 81. E 179/217/108.
  • 82. The relevant portion is print. Yorks. Chantry Surv. 450 sqq.
  • 83. See p. 117.
  • 84. The 17 include almost all the big ones: St. Michaelle-Belfrey (500), St. Crux (423), Holy Trinity, Micklegate (400), St. Michael, Spurriergate (350); all except three parishes appear to estimate to the nearest ten and it would seem unlikely that most had precise lists of communicants.
  • 85. As is suggested by the increased per patres group in the Freemen's Rolls: see p. 128.