Tudor York: Cultural and social life

Pages 155-159

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

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Cultural and Social Life

Few social and cultural developments of the Tudor age are so important as the multiplication of books and the spread of literary habits. (fn. 1) Long a great centre of manuscript production, York acquired its first printer in Frederick Freez, who became a freeman in 1497 as a bookbinder and stationer, but actually appears as 'book printer' in 1510. Described as 'a Dutchman and an alien enfranchised', he had purchased property in Coney Street four years earlier. His brother Gerard, who assumed the surname of Wandsforth, became an even more prominent figure in the book trade, commissioning a service-book from the Rouen printer Violette in 1507 and trading in partnership with the York goldsmith Ralph Pulleyn. Shortly after Gerard's death in 1510, Frederick Freez took Pulleyn to law for detaining over 1,200 printed service-books imported by Gerard and his associates from France. No surviving books can be attributed with confidence to Frederick's press; he himself was living in the parish of St. Helen-on-the-Walls in 1515, but thenceforth vanishes from the records. The fate of his Protestant sons has already been related. (fn. 2)

Only six books are certainly known to have been printed in York in the Tudor period. Hugo Goes printed a Directorium Sacerdotium in 1509, and two grammars at some unknown date. Ursyn Milner produced about 1514 two service-books of the York Use, their colophons showing that his press was in the minster yard. Two years later, working now in Blake Street, he printed an edition of Robert Whittington's important De Consinitate Grammatices. Later a stationer of French origin, John Gachet, published a series of York service-books printed for him in Rouen; he was naturalized in 1535 as a bookbinder of the city of York, (fn. 3) and his relatives appear at various later dates in the York records. All these activities were dominated by men of foreign antecedents who had to meet strong opposition from native stationers and bookbinders. The book trade itself was restricted by the decline in the demand for York service-books after the Henrican changes in religion; very little actual printing can in fact have taken place in York between 1520 and the final centralization of the craft in London by the Stationers' charter of 1557. Its revival at York was thenceforth delayed until the advent of the Civil War propaganda presses of Charles I.

Though the poverty of the city livings tended to exclude learned parish clergy, some pre-Elizabethan priests had small libraries of service-books, scriptural commentaries, sermons, and hagiographical and devotional works. (fn. 4) These were enlivened by a few histories and in one case by a copy of Boccaccio in English. (fn. 5) Some of the local clergy appear to have continued in the enjoyment of ungodly romances in the reign of Elizabeth. (fn. 6) Certain of the cathedral dignitaries owned considerable private libraries, the greatest known book-collector in York being Chancellor William Melton (d. 1528), whose inventory lists 109 identifiable works. Of these, 31 were patristic texts, 22 Biblical texts and commentaries, 6 classics, 6 histories, and several humanist works by Valla, Pico, Erasmus, and More. (fn. 7) Melton himself wrote commendatory epistles to the mystical works of Prior John Norton of Mount Grace (fn. 8) and had one of his own sermons printed by Wynkyn de Worde. (fn. 9) His contemporary, Treasurer Robert Langton (d. 1524), printed an account of a long pilgrimage through Spain and Italy, though his touristic interests seldom extend beyond the relics of saints. (fn. 10)

Of the archbishops, Lee was an accomplished humanist; (fn. 11) Grindal wrote A Fruitful Dialogue on the sacrament of the altar; (fn. 12) Sandys published several sermons and minor theological works; (fn. 13) while Hutton, celebrated among Elizabethan preachers, published a sermon preached in 1579 before Lord President Huntingdon. (fn. 14) Amongst the pre bendaries, Thomas Cottesford was an eminent Protestant devotional writer, (fn. 15) Alban Langdale a Marian controversialist, (fn. 16) William Turner the great naturalist, (fn. 17) John Thornborough a political writer, (fn. 18) and Lawrence Nowell one of our ablest early AngloSaxon scholars. (fn. 19) Yet not one of these gifted men spent long in residence at York or can have made much direct contribution to the city's cultural life.

Between clerical and lay society stood the advocates and proctors of the ecclesiastical courts, some of whom were clearly men of learning. John Underwood (d. 1515) possessed, for example, many works on canon law, copies of Josephus, Bede, Peter Lombard, a life of Thomas Becket, and other miscellaneous titles. (fn. 20) The most distinguished of York's ecclesiastical lawyers was Henry Swinburne (1560-1623), whose two books, on testamentary and on matrimonial law, were the first English works in those fields and among the best. (fn. 21) The Council in the North attracted into residence many eminent civilians and common lawyers, such as the Ralph Rokebys, Sir John Gibson, Sir Edward Stanhope, Sir John Ferne, and Sir John Bennet. (fn. 22) Another important professional group was represented by the physicians and surgeons, several of the former holding the degree of M.D. One of these was Stephen Thomson, physician to the ailing 6th Earl of Northumberland, who rewarded his services by a lease of the Percy lands and tenements in the city and suburbs of York. (fn. 23) Stephen Tubley M.D. (d. 1558) repeatedly occurs in the records as a prominent citizen during the preceding years. (fn. 24) Thomas Vavasour, who took his M.D. at Venice and was licensed by the College of Physicians in 1556, (fn. 25) figures prominently amongst the Roman Catholics of Elizabethan York. (fn. 26) His name is often coupled with that of Dr. Roger Lee, another leading York recusant, who is said to have ridden with the Countess of Northumberland in the rising of 1569 (fn. 27) and who was still being penalized for his religion in 1600. (fn. 28) The surgeons probably varied more widely in training and status. Edmund Jordan, a Frenchman, is noted as surgeon under St. Andrew's parish in a muster-roll of 1539. The following year he was naturalized and in 1558 was certified as of trustworthy character, when the records of former Frenchmen were being examined. (fn. 29) In 1572 the corporation licensed a woman, Isabel Warwike, to practise, since she 'hath skill in the science of surgery and hath done good therein'. (fn. 30) In 1578 it appointed three local surgeons, one Mansfield, Francys Devall, and John Leache, to examine a young baker suspected of having contracted the pox. (fn. 31) Apart from lawyers and doctors, the laity make little showing in the fields of literature and learning. Amongst 40 printed wills of ordinary citizens, three mention books. An ex-mayoress had a printed mass-book; (fn. 32) a merchant a mass-book, and a Legenda Aurea; (fn. 33) a vestment-maker left unspecified books to Byland Abbey. (fn. 34)

The history of education in York outside the two endowed grammar schools has still largely to be written. It is known, for example, that John Fletcher, formerly of St. John's College, Cambridge, was teaching in Bishophill before his appointment in 1564, at the age of 24, to the mastership of Holgate's school. (fn. 35) In 1555 the corporation allowed Robert Morris, chaplain, to have either the chapel or the great chamber on Ouse Bridge for a school. (fn. 36) William Pinke was in 1579 allowed the little chapel in St. Anthony's Hall to teach children 'to write and read French perfectly'. (fn. 37) Teachers of music are occasionally mentioned, (fn. 38) while the city waits earn frequent notice in the House Books, sometimes as a disreputable group of musicians, whose personal and professional shortcomings gave concern to the corporation. (fn. 39) The guild of musicians, as might be expected, showed itself particularly anxious to prevent visiting rivals from playing in the city. (fn. 40)

The early history of the drama in York is not exhausted by the theme of the mystery plays. Throughout the reign of Elizabeth the civic records make frequent mention of rewards to dramatic companies, and an incomplete list gives over 40 such visits between 1559 and 1603; these include the queen's own company, which came at least six times, and those of Lords Leicester, Essex, Oxford, Sussex, and other noblemen. (fn. 41) The scholars of St. Peter's School also received handsome rewards for playing. (fn. 42) On the collapse of the mystery plays, increasing attention was devoted to the midsummer eve 'show', which began soon after dawn with a review of citizens in their armour, and proceeded later in the day with music and merry-making. In 1584 an enterprising schoolmaster, Thomas Grafton, asked leave to produce 'certain compiled speeches', and to borrow one of the disused pageant frames. This entertainment was repeated at six specified places in the city and recurred in the subsequent year, the play having been first perused by the corporation. (fn. 43)

As elsewhere in contemporary Europe, pageantry in general and costume in particular occupied a prominent place in the minds of all orders of society. A man's substance was judged by the clothes his wife could afford to wear, and when in 1565 the Council in the North apportioned military taxation, it officially imposed a certain burden upon those whose wives wore jewellery or gowns of silk and velvet. (fn. 44) On the other hand, the Elizabethan zest for display did not as yet extend creatively to the plastic arts. The great Renaissance monuments in the minster derive from the Stuart period, while the characteristic late Tudor memorial is the modest little brass to Elizabeth Eynns (d. 1585), wife of a secretary to the Council in the North and sometime lady-in-waiting to the queen. Apart from the Huntingdon wing of the King's Manor, the idioms of the continental Renaissance are little represented in York art before 1603. Stonecarvers declined sharply in number, (fn. 45) while after the last windows of St. Michael-le-Belfrey (c. 1530), (fn. 46) glass-painting almost vanished until its rebirth with Henry Gyles at the end of the 17th century.

Sports and pastimes show few local peculiarities. The civic records have references to cock-fighting, (fn. 47) bear-baiting, (fn. 48) and bull-baiting, (fn. 49) while the popularity of dice, cards, and backgammon was in 1573 blamed for the scandalous neglect of archery. (fn. 50) In 1566 two boys were flogged by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for kicking a football in the minster itself. (fn. 51) The first recorded horse race at York took place between William Mallory and Oswald Wolsthrope in 1530; the winner received a silver bell, which he undertook to return a year later, when his horse should compete for it against any challenger. (fn. 52) Needless to remark, frequent reference is made to the pleasures of the alehouse, which no doubt provided the chief relaxation of the less respectable. In 1530 poor labourers were indulging in such riotous evenings that the corporation established a highly undemocratic curfew upon labourers, both 'foreign' and 'free'. (fn. 53)

The social historian would be unwise to dwell too exclusively upon the picturesque aspects of life in the Tudor city. It was an age when moralists ceaselessly preached the virtues of industry and parsimony, when mastery in a craft remained difficult to attain, when the number of holidays diminished, when wages were not readily adjusted to the constant inflationary process. The journeyman worked in the winter from dawn to sunset, in the summer from 5 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m., with only 2½ hours for 'breakfast, dinner or drinking'. (fn. 54) And if official valuations of their goods bear any relation to realities, artisans and most tradesmen cannot have boasted more than a few poor sticks of furniture and very few of the domestic comforts taken for granted by all classes since Victorian times. (fn. 55) For more than two centuries after the death of Elizabeth I, the men and women of York had to accept a constant cycle of epidemics, a short life span, much unassuaged pain, and frequent bereavements. The harsh lot of the average townsman was far from originating with the rise of factories and industrial slums. In Tudor times it would indeed have been insupportable without that implicit religious confidence (fn. 56) which stood unshattered by the Reformation and which must be accepted as altogether essential to the vitality and cohesion of the urban community.


  • 1. For full details of the York presses see E. G. Duff, Eng. Provincial Printers to 1557, 42 sqq.; see also R. Davies, Memoir York Press.
  • 2. See pp. 142-3.
  • 3. L. & P. Hen. VIII, viii, p. 305.
  • 4. Test. Ebor. v. 78, 101, 289.
  • 5. York Dioc. Regy. (St. Ant. Hall), Reg. Lee, f. 182.
  • 6. See p. 150.
  • 7. Test. Ebor. v. 258 sqq.; note also the library of Robert Barra, prebendary of York and Southwell: ibid. v. 221.
  • 8. Linc. Cath. Libr. MS. A. 6. 8, ff. 1-2, 28-30b., 7779; D.N.B. sub. Norton.
  • 9. Short Title Cat. ed. A. W. Pollard and G. R. Redgrave, No. 17806; see P. Hughes, Reformation in Eng. i. 85.
  • 10. The Pilgrimage of M. Robert Langton, ed. E. M. Blackie (1924).
  • 11. D.N.B.; B.M. Cat. Print. Bks. s.v. Leeus.
  • 12. Grindal's Remains (Parker Soc. 1843); see also C. H. Cooper, Athenae Cantab. i. 470-81.
  • 13. D.N.B.
  • 14. Ibid.; Cooper, Ath. Cantab. ii. 421; Corresp. Matt. Hutton (Sur. Soc. 17).
  • 15. D.N.B.; Cooper, Ath. Cantab. i. 140; C. H. Garrett, The Marian Exiles, 129.
  • 16. D.N.B.; Cooper, Ath. Cantab. i. 509.
  • 17. C. E. Raven, Eng. Naturalists from Neckham to Ray, 99; D.N.B.; Dickens, Lollards and Prots. 192-4.
  • 18. D.N.B.; Le Neve, Fasti, ed. T. D. Hardy, iii. 126.
  • 19. D.N.B.; Le Neve, Fasti, iii. 169; Cooper, Ath. Cantab. i. 357-8.
  • 20. Test. Ebor. v. 68-70; another example is that of Brian Wensdale who in 1519 left books of canon law: ibid. v. 99-100; John Chapman, who built up a fortune as registrar, also had a library: ibid. v. 240-5.
  • 21. D.N.B.; Drake, Ebor. 377; A. À Wood, Athenae Oxon. ed. P. Bliss, ii. 289; his Testaments and Last Wills went through many edns. 1590-1743; his splendid memorial is in the north choir aisle of the minster.
  • 22. Reid, King's Counc. in North, 490 sqq. gives their periods of service and main offices; the younger Rokeby wrote 'Oeconomia Rokebiorum': B.M. Add. MS. 24470, ff. 294-333, print. T. D. Whitaker, Richmondshire, i. 158 sqq.; Fern wrote The Blazon of Gentrie (1586).
  • 23. De Fonblanque, Annals House of Percy, i. 407, n. 2; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xii(2), 57; he was apparently also in orders since he sat as a judge in the consistory court during the trial (1534) of the heretic Vanbellaer: York Dioc. Regy. (St. Ant. Hall), Reg. Lee, f. 90.
  • 24. York Civ. Rec. v. 122, 172; Yorks. Wills, ii (Y.A'.S., Rec. Ser. xiv), 167.
  • 25. Cooper, Ath. Cantab. i. 327.
  • 26. See p. 153.
  • 27. J. J. Cartwright, Chapters in Yorks. Hist. 145.
  • 28. Morris, Troubles Cath. Forefathers, iii. 289-91.
  • 29. York Civ. Rec. v. 187-8; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiv(2), p. 225.
  • 30. York Civ. Rec. vii. 48.
  • 31. Ibid. 182.
  • 32. Test. Ebor. v. 38.
  • 33. Ibid. 192.
  • 34. Ibid. 324.
  • 35. York Dioc. Regy. (St. Ant. Hall), R. VI. A. 1, ff. 72, 95a-b.
  • 36. York Civ. Rec. v. 130.
  • 37. Ibid. viii. 22.
  • 38. e.g. a teacher of the lute: E. Peacock, List Rom. Cath. in Co. York, 59; refs. to instruments and written music are not uncommon in wills, e.g. Test. Ebor. v. 22, 49.
  • 39. York Civ. Rec. iii. 129, 134; v. 161; vi. 16, 119, 121, 125; vii. 18, 42, 53; viii. 23, 80, 94.
  • 40. E.H.R. ix. 284-5.
  • 41. J. T. Murray, Eng. Dram. Companies, 1558-1642, ii. 411-13.
  • 42. A. Raine, Hist. St. Peter's Sch. 80-81.
  • 43. York Civ. Rec. viii. 76-77, 103: the chamberlains' accts. give a few further partics.: R. Davies, Extracts Rec. of York, 274-5.
  • 44. York Civ. Rec. vi. 106.
  • 45. See p. 127.
  • 46. Flemish in manner and possibly imported.
  • 47. York Civ. Rec. vi. 135.
  • 48. Ibid. iv. 53.
  • 49. Ibid.
  • 50. Ibid. vii. 148-9.
  • 51. J. S. Purvis, Tudor Par. Docts. 86.
  • 52. York Civ. Rec. iii. 131-2.
  • 53. Ibid. 134.
  • 54. 5 Eliz. c. 4, s. ix; G. W. Prothero, Select Statutes Eliz. and Jas. I, 47-48.
  • 55. Trans. R.H.S. 5th ser. vi. 18.
  • 56. Notice the attitude of mayor John Lewes to the plague: York Civ. Rec. v. 49.