Tudor York: Military affairs

Pages 140-142

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

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Military Affairs

Military affairs occupy an important place in the administrative records of Tudor York, since the city together with the rest of the shire formed the main source of reserves and the second line of defence against Scotland. (fn. 1) While the Border made the chief military demands upon the city, threats sometimes developed nearer at hand. In July 1547, when 400 men from 15 enemy warships landed at Flamborough, a York muster was hastily prepared to be sent against them. (fn. 2) More notably York played its role in the suppression of the northern earls, who reached Ripon on 18 November 1569 and did not begin their retreat until six days later. (fn. 3)

It has already been shown how vigorously the city attempted to avoid the military burdens imposed upon it by Lord President Holgate. (fn. 4) Such efforts continued under Mary's government and in 1557 the Earl of Shrewsbury refused to accept a certificate of 60 able-bodied men for York and The Ainsty; he compelled an amendment to 100, (fn. 5) the traditional figure which, in general, York accepted but hated to exceed. Soon afterwards more subtle methods of evasion may be detected. In February 1558 the mayor and aldermen agreed to give Sir Oswald Wolsthrope £10 in gold, because he could 'do much with my Lord Lieutenant' to ease the military burdens of the city. (fn. 6) A smaller bribe subsequently went to Strickland, the Lord Lieutenant's secretary, for similar purposes. (fn. 7) In March 1558 Alderman William Holme was instructed to declare 'after his discreet manner' to the President and Council in the North that never more than 100 men had been taken from the city and The Ainsty albeit the city had in times past been more populous and wealthy. (fn. 8) The city and Ainsty nevertheless contributed 200 men in 1558, (fn. 9) 300 in 1586, (fn. 10) and the following year 150 at the common charge, in addition to 300 charged upon private persons. (fn. 11) Obviously the potential levies greatly exceeded these figures. The certificate of 1548 gives, for example, an actual muster of 1,310 able men for York and The Ainsty: 315 mounted archers and billmen; 107 archers and billmen on foot; the rest without horses, armour, or weapons. (fn. 12) Fortunately no emergency arose whereby the Government was called upon to bridge this gap between able bodies and arms. Judging from the inquiry of 1569, the armourers in York itself were largely occupied by commissions for the Yorkshire gentry. (fn. 13) Throughout the period the great bulk of the levies actually furnished by York were billmen and bowmen, obsolete by 1588 and ill fitted to encounter the formidable pikes and firepower of the Spanish infantry. (fn. 14) In addition, however, small detachments sometimes went to train with the arquebus or the caliver, (fn. 15) or to perform the arduous duties of pioneers. (fn. 16) Demands for light horsemen appear under both Edward VI and Elizabeth I. (fn. 17) At all stages, but especially in the Border campaigns of the forties, the provision of horses and carts formed an appreciable part of the military burden. Even an infantry detachment needed horses to carry its armour over long distances: in 1569 the city provided every five footmen with a horse and a groom. (fn. 18)

Disputes sometimes arose over the captaincy of the York levies and the 2nd Earl of Cumberland asserted his traditional claims to this office between 1542 and 1544, and in 1557. (fn. 19) Several of the aldermen and citizens proved able and willing to assume commissioned rank. The musters for Flamborough in 1547 were commanded by Alderman John North as captain and by John Dobson, a butcher and one of the 'twenty-four', as petty captain. (fn. 20) A former alderman, John Hodgson, was actually captured by the Scots in 1545 at the disastrous action of Ancrum Moor. Five years later, Sir Robert Bowes, Warden of the East and Middle Marches, urged the city to help Hodgson, whose imprisonment had so reduced his means that Sir Robert had temporarily taken him on the strength of the Berwick garrison. The letter did not fail to win sympathy from both the aldermen and the common council, who finally voted Hodgson a life annuity of £5 from the common chamber. (fn. 21)

On two occasions within this period a siege of York seemed imminently possible, yet on neither were the ancient walls put to the test. As will shortly appear, the flight of the king's councillors themselves and widespread internal sympathy with the rebels made impossible a defence of the city against the Pilgrimage of Grace. (fn. 22) Very different was the story in 1569, when a resolute Council in the North worked in close co-operation with a loyal and vigilant city council. Early in November efficient and thorough precautions were being taken. The suburban population was brought within the walls, boats and ladders taken into custody, walls and bars hastily repaired, the posterns walled up, the guns overhauled, and the watches increased under the supervision of the wardens and city councillors. Armourers underwent close questioning on their stocks and were forbidden to allow the removal of arms, armour, and gunpowder. Even innkeepers were instructed to report on seditious gossip and rumours. (fn. 23) By 21 November a force of over 3,000 soldiers drawn from all parts of Yorkshire was billeted in the city by harbingers acting for each ward. (fn. 24) In the event the city's strength was not put to the test: but, clearly, a very different spirit prevailed 30 years after the Pilgrimage.


  • 1. N. J. Longbone, 'Military Obligations York Citizens in Tudor Times' (Leeds Univ. M.A. thesis, 1953; copy at York Pub. Libr.), treats the subject at length.
  • 2. York Civ. Rec. iv. 158-9.
  • 3. See p. 142.
  • 4. See p. 135.
  • 5. York Civ. Rec. v. 153-4.
  • 6. Ibid. 172.
  • 7. Ibid. 180.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Ibid. viii. 124-5.
  • 11. Ibid. 149, 152-3.
  • 12. Ibid. iv. 170.
  • 13. Ibid. vi. 162-3.
  • 14. Ibid. v. 180, gives a good account of their arms and equipment.
  • 15. Ibid. iv. 181; vii. 149, 151, 170.
  • 16. Ibid. v. 52.
  • 17. e.g. ibid. v. 1, 14; viii. 15-18; for muster rolls, certificates of horses and armour, &c.: Giles, Cat. York Corp. Doc. 69-73.
  • 18. York Civ. Rec. vi. 165.
  • 19. Ibid. iv. 79, 101, 103, 123; v. 154.
  • 20. Ibid. iv. 159.
  • 21. York Civ. Rec. v. 42-44.
  • 22. See p. 144.
  • 23. York Civ. Rec. vi. 160-82.
  • 24. For the detachments and their numbers: ibid. 172-3; for the names and weapons of the city contingent, led by John Ingleby Esq.: York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. xxiv, ff. 170-5.