Tudor York: City government

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

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'Tudor York: City government', in A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961) pp. 135-140. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp135-140 [accessed 25 April 2024]

City Government

From the viewpoint of national history, the presence of the King's Council in the North confers a peculiar lustre upon Tudor York. (fn. 1) At no time was York more truly the capital of northern England; seldom did a government at York so effectively prosecute royal administration, or guide northern society so surely into the paths of law and order. Inaugurated by Richard III, maintained somewhat tentatively by Henry VII and Wolsey, this northern council achieved full stature after the collapse of the Pilgrimage of Grace. In the Tudor period it found three remarkable leaders: Archbishop Holgate (Lord President 1538-50), (fn. 2) Sir Thomas Gargrave (Vice-President 1555-79), and the Earl of Huntingdon (Lord President 1572-95).

Initially at least, a conflict of jurisdiction was bound to develop. Since 1502 the city had maintained a by-law that a freeman might not sue another in the king's courts, or those of any other lord, until the case had first been reported to the mayor. (fn. 3) Nevertheless the compromising role of the city in the Pilgrimage of Grace (fn. 4) left it with little power to resist the strengthened Council. In May 1541 the mayor himself meekly waited upon the Lord President to answer a bill of complaint exhibited against him by the parishioners of Holy Trinity, Goodramgate. (fn. 5) Two years later the mayor sent the Lord President the names of men brought before the Exchequer for erecting fish-garths, although by statute and commission the municipal courts had cognizance of this offence. (fn. 6) Under the less-feared régime of Protector Somerset the city plucked up courage to attack the President's authority, and a military order of November 1548 afforded a loophole. Holgate had commanded 50 York recruits to report to Newcastle to train with the arquebus, but he had directed his order, not exclusively to the mayor and sheriffs, but to a committee of which the mayor was merely a member. The corporation then irately ordered its M.P.s to use their endeavours to secure that the king's commission should always be directed to the mayor as had been the custom. (fn. 7) Shortly afterwards the mayor asked Sir Michael Stanhope to act as an intermediary with Holgate for better treatment of the city. The President, so the citizens urged, was impoverishing them by his demands for light horsemen, by conscripting workmen far above the numbers demanded in more prosperous times, and by demanding a maintenance payment of 20s. per man. Moreover, the President had backed his own servants in disputes with the city so as to infringe its ancient rights. (fn. 8) In January 1549 the M.P.s were again instructed to press these points, (fn. 9) but on 1 February the Protector sternly charged the city authorities with negligence and peremptorily ordered them to obey the Lord President. (fn. 10) Biding their time, they renewed the struggle in 1557, when they denied the President's right to require them to call and certify the musters, claiming that by charter they need only obey the royal command under the great or privy seal. (fn. 11) Some months later the Council in the North demanded light horsemen: the city obeyed only when the President, the Earl of Shrewsbury, repeated the command in his capacity as lieutenant general, the recorder then advising the mayor that he had no choice but to obey. (fn. 12) Subsequently Shrewsbury and his successors made their military demands as lords lieutenant. (fn. 13)

Meanwhile the conflict of jurisdictions had developed on other fronts. In May 1550 the city disfranchised a citizen who refused to abandon a suit against a fellow citizen before the Council in the North. (fn. 14) Cases affecting the municipal interests must nevertheless have been taken frequently before that court, since in 1568 and 1571 the mayor and aldermen appointed retaining fees for counsel charged to maintain their rights in it. (fn. 15) In 1581 they decided that if a citizen who was a proctor or attorney of the Council in the North should be elected alderman, he should not be permitted to exercise his former office, and should be fined either for attempting to do so or for refusing the aldermanship. (fn. 16) The following year a draper, William Allen, sued a joiner before the Council in the North. Asked by the mayor whether he would submit to his judgement upon this offence, Allen 'utterly and disobediently refused so to do; saying further that Mr. Dean and the Church of York would bear him forth therein, if it cost one hundred pounds'. (fn. 17) Of a different order was the scandal of January 1580, when the Vice-President, Lord Evers, committed the mayor, Robert Cripling, to the castle. Here was the rare case of a gross misfit in the mayoralty. Cripling received no support whatever from his brethren, who in the subsequent March agreed not only to deprive him of his aldermanship but also to disfranchise him. He had repeatedly failed to punish popish recusants and to fulfil his promise to reside within the city; and he had shamed his dignity by walking in the principal street in his coat without a gown and without attendance. He had been convicted by the Lord President and Council for slandering the chancellor of the minster after a sermon. By the advice of the Council in the North, a certain Scot, John Harper, had been disfranchised for seditious speeches, but the mayor had restored him to his freedom without the assent of the Council. Cripling's own intemperate speech had occasioned a campaign of libel in the city against the clergy and the Queen herself: the corporation was deeply disturbed lest Her Majesty and the Privy Council might think the city undutiful for having chosen 'so rash and heady a man'. (fn. 18)

The authority of the Council in the North began to decline amid the factions which surrounded it after Huntingdon's death. York had not abandoned its jealousies and was destined to take its full share in the multilateral attacks made upon the Council during the subsequent reign. (fn. 19) Nevertheless, York men proved not unmindful of the prestige and the more tangible advantages brought to their city by the presence of this institution. The successive presidents and their ladies were received with lavish gifts and hospitality on their arrival. (fn. 20) More important, solid co-operation in local problems was often achieved, as already exemplified in such matters as plague precautions and water supply. And, from the viewpoint of local trade, the great household at the King's Manor and the far greater multitude of councillors, servants, suitors, lawyers, and wit nesses brought a large volume of business to the city as a whole. According to its adversary Coke, the Council in the North might have had before it in one session 450 suits, as opposed to 72 in Chancery. (fn. 21) A total of over 2,000 suits annually—or for that matter many fewer—must have attracted many thousands of visitors to York, visitors whom the city encouraged by controlling the prices of lodgings and victuals. (fn. 22) During the decade 1509-18 only six York freemen were enrolled as innkeepers, but in the decade 1594-1603 no fewer than 30 appear. (fn. 23) Some of them died rich. (fn. 24) This change cannot be purely fortuitous, nor can it be unconnected with the work of the Council in the North and the development of York as a northern capital. Small wonder that the precipitate destruction of the Council caused concern in York, and that after 1660 the citizens were still entertaining second thoughts and petitioning in vain for its restoration. (fn. 25)

Though almost all the civic institutions of the Middle Ages continued to function in Tudor York, the constitutional history of the city did not entirely lack innovation and response to social change. The so-called democratization of the mayoral elections by Edward IV led to some riotous scenes in the subsequent reign, especially in 1504, when the king intervened to punish the ringleaders of the popular party. (fn. 26) The election of aldermen gave rise to the next storm. It originated in September 1516 from Thomas Drawswerd's claim as mayor to two votes, when he was ranged with four aldermen against six. After 'divers great riots and affrays' had occurred, Drawswerd agreed with the leader of the opposition, William Neleson, to submit the choice of a new alderman to Cardinal Wolsey. (fn. 27) By the next January the deaths of two more aldermen engendered further violent disputes. Certain aldermen and citizens found themselves in the Court of Chancery, while William Neleson, sent for by the king, was committed to the Fleet. He was still there when on 23 February the king recorded these facts in a letter upbraiding the city and reminding it of still further offences. When the king had quashed the two recent appointments and commissioned the Abbot of St. Mary's, Lord Latimer, and others to supervise elections, the city had defiantly chosen the same two men, and, adding insult to injury, had elected the prisoner, William Neleson, as its mayor. The king now proceeded to nullify all these elections and ordain John Dogeson mayor. (fn. 28) A subsequent letter from Wolsey exhorted the corporation to instant obedience (fn. 29) which, with Dogeson now installed as mayor, the city hastened to show. (fn. 30) In August Neleson, who had been released on recognizances, formally surrendered any claim to an aldermanship and promised to assume no office without royal licence. (fn. 31)

The problem of orderly representation for the commons was answered by the letters patent of 18 July 1517, which set up a common council to share in elections and to assent to by-laws. (fn. 32) This was not a democratic body. Thirteen specified major crafts each presented 4 members from whom the upper house chose 2, and 15 minor crafts each presented 2, one of whom was chosen. For elections, these 41 members were joined by the 28 senior searchers of the crafts. So reinforced the common council met when summoned by the mayor and aldermen, but it was obliged to meet every 21 September to choose four of the most able and discreet persons, such as had not been sheriffs, from whom the aldermen and sheriffs chose two to serve as sheriffs for the year beginning on Michaelmas Day. Likewise the common council stood bound to meet every 15 January to nominate three aldermen, who had not been twice mayor already, and had not held the mayoralty during the last six years. Of these three, one must subsequently be chosen mayor by the aldermen and sheriffs and assume office on 3 February. (fn. 33) When a new alderman was to be elected, the common council had to choose three of the most grave, discreet, and able citizens, one of whom should subsequently be picked by the mayor and aldermen. From all these elections the rest of the commons were henceforth excluded. During the subsequent years the common council, though not very frequently summoned for deliberative purposes by the city council, proved itself able to draw up clear programmes, to safeguard popular interests, and to press many of its suggestions upon the oligarchy. When in 1533 it intervened to check luxurious official entertaining, it roundly blamed the mayor and aldermen for taking little notice of its former advice and so letting the city slip into decay and debt. (fn. 34) In 1547 it demanded the restoration of common rights to certain closes, which it had previously allowed to be kept in severalty. (fn. 35) In 1549 it put forward a constructive series of articles to combat many grievances, particularly the shortage of wood, the hoarding of corn, the insanitary pigs, and the threat of inclosure in the common lands. (fn. 36) This last matter formed the most permanent feature of its policy and again found expression in February 1561, when the common council petitioned that the Tang Hall lands should not be leased but left as common pasture for the freemen; a compromise offered by the mayor was rejected. (fn. 37) Early in 1564 it campaigned energetically to reduce the tolls imposed upon 'foreign' victuallers bringing their wares to the free markets of York, since these tolls increased food prices. The mayor, intent upon the city finances, undertook to 'travail and practise with the most discreet of the said commoners' to make them modify their demands. (fn. 38)

The dependence of the common council upon the crafts entailed fresh problems when a craft mentioned in the charter declined in importance and more flourishing but unprivileged crafts aspired to occupy its place. (fn. 39) The common council complained of this in 1563, and, when the mayor tried to temporize, Miles Cook, their leader, refused to proceed to a mayoral election unless this and other complaints were remedied. (fn. 40) When the common council agreed to sue in more respectful manner, the mayor and aldermen duly assented. (fn. 41) Nevertheless, the remodelling of the charter was still being debated with the common council in 1572 and 1573. The mayor and aldermen closed the matter by asking the common council who should bear the cost of renewing the charter and both sides agreed neither to charge it on the chamber nor to levy a tax. (fn. 42)

The exclusion of the mass of the commons from elections did not necessarily mean that the city council could never meet a larger body than the common council. A discussion in April 1565 on the problems surrounding the repair of Ouse Bridge was attended by the chamberlains, common councilmen and other commoners, (fn. 43) while 'a great number of the common council and commons' met the city council on 27 June 1572 to discuss the charter of elections. (fn. 44)

Though it might on occasion be utilized by the majority of the city council to coerce recalcitrant aldermen, (fn. 45) the common council cannot have been easy to manage. When in 1564 Archbishop Young requested a lease, the common councillors 'so differently answered, the part crying "all, all", and the others holding their peace that it was not well known whether the more part assented thereto or disclaimeth'. The mayor and his brethren finally caused them to 'sit orderly or stand in the said common hall', while the recorder and four or five aldermen went around the assembly taking their votes individually. This done, it appeared that there were 33 assenters and 22 refusers. (fn. 46) In general, there can be no doubt that the introduction of the common council proved a development of major significance in the history of York. It accomplished no instant transformation: we shall, for example, observe that the Pilgrimage of Grace found the commons still in a restive condition. Again, at the swearing-in of the mayor in February 1555, Thomas Bowes, a miller, and other ringleaders attempted to rouse the commons and to prevent the swearing until the new mayor had granted certain requests. (fn. 47) But for the common council, such unofficial leadership might indeed have occasioned far uglier scenes. The new body played its part in procuring stabler relationships and its ultimate success was to be warmly attested by Drake. (fn. 48)

The effective day-to-day administration nevertheless remained securely in the hands of the mayor, sheriffs, aldermen, and the 'twenty-four'. The attendance of the 'twentyfour' fluctuated greatly, (fn. 49) but it was unusual for more than half to come, and, over long periods, a quarter or less normally attended. At most actual meetings the sheriffs and aldermen outnumbered members of the 'twenty-four'; their preponderance was especially marked in the earlier half of the 16th century and the reign of Mary. An alderman slack in his attendances might in fact find himself threatened with a heavy fine. (fn. 50) Between 1520 and 1530 meetings unattended by a single one of the 'twenty-four' amounted to nearly a quarter of the total; in the Elizabethan period the preponderance of aldermen attending became less marked, and in the years 1576-8 the 'twenty-four' actually showed a slight majority of attendances over those of the aldermen.

That privilege and responsibility should lie with an oligarchy of rich merchants and tradesmen proved an inevitable fact of urban life. Exacting, expensive, and unpaid public office could not be borne by small tradesmen and artisans; it was regarded as an unenviable burden even by many substantial men, who avoided it by paying heavy fines (fn. 51) and even by suffering disfranchisement or imprisonment. (fn. 52) Under Henry VIII a certain John Smith was elected sheriff in five consecutive years, but refused to stand and withdrew to Skipton (W.R.). At his death Smith's executors nevertheless became liable to account to the king for the fee farm from the time of his first election, and they paid it accordingly. (fn. 53) The salaried officials stood in a different position. The recorder was usually a lawyer of eminence sprung from a county family and chosen from among the city's feed counsel. He was appointed for life with an annual salary of 20 marks. (fn. 54) The common clerk played an important and versatile part in civic administration, assisted the recorder with legal business, and paid frequent official visits to London. (fn. 55)

For its M.P.s, York did not turn to the ambitious gentry, then becoming increasingly conscious of the value of borough seats. (fn. 56) Of the 28 M.P.s in the period 1509-1603, no fewer than 24 served the city also as both aldermen and mayors: a fact that testifies eloquently to the extreme importance attached by the city to parliamentary activities. Of the remaining four, Sir Thomas Gargrave was Vice-President and John Bennet, LL.D., a member of the Council in the North, while Sir William Hilliard served also as recorder. (fn. 57) Instructions to the M.P.s are exceptionally complete and voluminous throughout the Tudor records, (fn. 58) which afford material for a whole treatise on the functions of burgesses. The irksome position of York members during a parliamentary session is epitomized in a letter written by them in December 1584. 'But for our proceedings we have not done much to write unto you, for the time faileth so forth [is so short], that those we have to do with all is of the Parliament house, and the days so very short and so many bills put to committees that little is yet done. . . . We have put a bill in to the Parliament for bringing in of fish and herrings, but it is committed and we doubt it will hardly pass. Also we have drawn a charter by learned counsel, but yet it is not finished; and for Mr. Morley, he is of the Parliament house and my Lord Treasurer is sick and keepeth his chamber; so that we can make no end with them.' (fn. 59) So difficult it must have been to convince those at home that parliament was not uniquely concerned with York problems. And the corporation could prove extremely touchy over punctilios: in 1563 it fined the M.P.s £5 apiece for failing to report to the mayor immediately on their return, 'according to civility and ancient custom'. (fn. 60)

In York as elsewhere, city politics both inside and outside the council chamber were frequently attended by altercation and insult. It was formally minuted in 1544 that 'none of the said persons nor their successors at any time hereafter shall call any of his brethren, aldermen, sheriffs or any of the ["twenty-four"] knave or false knave nor none other opprobrious or slanderous name'. (fn. 61) On the other hand, constant effort was forthcoming to maintain the forbearances of civilized life and the outward dignity appropriate to civic affairs. The office of lord mayor continued one of great authority and influence; its holder moved about the city, even upon his daily concerns, with considerable pomp and retinue. (fn. 62) Aldermen were forbidden to step outside their parishes without attendants to wait upon them or without their tippets; whenever the mayor commanded, aldermen and councillors had also to wear their scarlet and crimson gowns. (fn. 63) Historians would be guilty of over-concentration upon abnormalities were they to depict the internal history of Tudor York as a succession of chronic tensions, virulent quarrels, and public distrust. The evidence points rather toward a co-operative community which brought forth many public-spirited men, retained the affection of its absent natives, (fn. 64) adapted itself to some at least of the contemporary changes, and achieved an increasing degree of internal harmony.


  • 1. For the work of the Council in the North: Reid, King's Counc. in North; for its relations with the city: F. W. Brooks, York and the Council of the North (St. Anthony's Hall Publ. no. 5).
  • 2. For Holgate's presidency: A. G. Dickens, Robert Holgate (St. Anthony's Hall Publ. no. 8); see plate facing p. 117.
  • 3. York Civ. Rec. ii. 173.
  • 4. See p. 144.
  • 5. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. xv, f. 19; the forthcoming royal visit may not have been without its effect.
  • 6. Ibid. xvii, f. 17; soon afterwards efforts were made to trace the person who reported to the Lord President an argument between two aldermen: York Civ. Rec. iv. 95.
  • 7. York Civ. Rec. iv. 181-2.
  • 8. Ibid. v. 1-2.
  • 9. Ibid. 7-8.
  • 10. Ibid. 12-13.
  • 11. Reid, King's Counc. in North, 325, cites York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. xxii, f. 46.
  • 12. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. xxii, ff. 68b, 75b, 79.
  • 13. Reid, King's Counc. in North, 325.
  • 14. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. xx, f. 15.
  • 15. York Civ. Rec. vi. 138, where it is noted that the Recorder is a member of the King's Council in the North and so has less time for city matters; York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. xxiv, f. 242b.
  • 16. York Civ. Rec. viii. 40.
  • 17. Ibid. 55-56; for other examples of York citizens being restrained from suits in 'foreign' courts: Reid, King's Counc. in North, 326.
  • 18. York Civ. Rec. viii. 25-30.
  • 19. Reid, King's Counc. in North, 327 sqq.; but see p. 198 below for the period post 1625.
  • 20. See indexes to York Civ. Rec. volumes under 'presents'.
  • 21. Reid, King's Counc. in North, 371.
  • 22. e.g. York Civ. Rec. v. 135, 170; vi. 31-35, 44-45, 140; vii. 165.
  • 23. York Freemen, i. 233-41; ibid. ii. 36-48.
  • 24. e.g. Thomas Waller, yeoman and innkeeper, who was lord of the manor of Middlethorpe: Davies, Walks Through York, 137.
  • 25. Reid, King's Counc. in North, 454-7; for the petition of 1663; York Corp. Rec. G/45.
  • 26. York Civ. Rec. ii. 191-4, iii. 1-8; see pp. 71, 83; for the case of the alderman expelled in 1511 for betraying the confidences of the commons: ibid. iii. 34.
  • 27. Ibid. iii. 51-52.
  • 28. Ibid. 55-57.
  • 29. Ibid. 57-58; Wolsey was translated to York 15 Sept. 1514 and made cardinal in 1515; the attribution of these transactions to Bainbridge in ibid. 59 is hence incorrect.
  • 30. Ibid. 60.
  • 31. Ibid. 61.
  • 32. York Corp. Rec A/33 (an inspeximus charter of 1547 embodying the letters patent of 1517). The term 'common council', used so often in the House Books before 1517, merely refers to the 'twenty-four': York Civ. Rec. i. 102, 155; ii. 29.
  • 33. York Civ. Rec. vii. 127 gives a good description of such elections.
  • 34. Ibid. iii. 147-9.
  • 35. Ibid. iv. 161-2.
  • 36. Ibid. v. 22-23.
  • 37. Ibid. vi. 3-6.
  • 38. Ibid. 76-79; the point recurs in the grievances of 1563: ibid. vi. 52.
  • 39. In 1554, the M.P.s were ordered to negotiate about the alteration of the crafts in the charter: ibid. v. 103.
  • 40. Ibid. vi. 52; it was presumably on this same occasion that Cook told Alderman Pacocke he was unworthy to sit on the bench 'if ye be ageynst the common wealth': ibid. 53.
  • 41. Ibid. v. 52-53.
  • 42. Ibid. vii. 50-51, 66; the privileged crafts as given in 1563 (E.H.R. ix. 280) and 1579 (York Civ. Rec. viii. 9) do not significantly vary from those of 1518.
  • 43. York Civ. Rec. vi. 97.
  • 44. Ibid. vii. 50.
  • 45. Ibid. iii. 156.
  • 46. E.H.R. ix. 280-1, from York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. xxiii, f. 159.
  • 47. York Civ. Rec. v. 116-17.
  • 48. Drake, Ebor. 184.
  • 49. The subsequent particulars are based upon the printed York Civ. Rec. and therefore not upon the complete evidence; they should nevertheless be representative.
  • 50. Ibid. vi. 26.
  • 51. Drake, Ebor. 186-7; the normal fine for refusing the sheriffdom was £50, not £5 as stated in E.H.R. ix. 284.
  • 52. York Civ. Rec. iii. 108; v. 185-7.
  • 53. Drake, Ebor. 186; York Civ. Rec. iii. 106, 110.
  • 54. York Civ. Rec. vii. 79-80; viii. 53; John Pulleyn resigned on account of age in 1537: ibid. iv. 19.
  • 55. The recorded activities of Miles Newton in the reign of Hen. VIII illustrate well the duties of this official: ibid. iii. iv, passim.
  • 56. For the choosing of M.P.s: ibid. v. 109, 167; vi. 47; vii. 21; viii. 43, 80, 127-8.
  • 57. The list is in G. R. Park, Parl. Representation Yorks. 48-51; Drake, Ebor. 357, 364-5, 368; Reid, King's Counc. in North, 492-6.
  • 58. Most can be traced in the indexes to York Civ. Rec. under M.P.s.
  • 59. York Civ. Rec. viii. 88.
  • 60. Ibid. vi. 56.
  • 61. Ibid. iv. 99; for insults: ibid. iii. 88; iv. 42, 70, 95, 96, 137; v. 55, 98, 115-16, 122.
  • 62. E.H.R. ix. 282.
  • 63. York Civ. Rec. viii. 43; E.H.R. ix. 283.
  • 64. The chief example is that of Sir Martin Bowes, a York boy who became Lord Mayor of London and presented the state sword (1549) and other gifts to his native city: York Civ. Rec. iv. 172-3; v. 19-20, 152-3; his letter of presentation is in York Corp. Rec. G/8; and is print. W. Giles, Cat. York Corp. Doc. 89.