MEDIEVAL YORK: York in political history

Pages 25-29

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



York in English Political History, p. 25. York as a Centre of Administration, p. 29. York under the Sheriffs of Yorkshire (1100–1212), p. 30. The Achievement of Civic Liberties, p. 31. The Government and Customs of the City, p. 34. The City and the Ecclesiastical Franchises, p. 38. The Population of the City and its Origins, p. 40. Occupations of the Citizens and the Distribution of Wealth, p. 41. The Jewish Community, p. 47. The Owners of City Property, p. 49. The Aspect of the City, p. 51.

William of Malmesbury, early in the 12th century, described York as urbs amplissima et metropolis, but at once qualified this description. He pointed to its destruction, and the devastation of its hinterland, by the Conqueror; and to the stronger attachment of the Norman (like the Saxon) kings to the southern parts of their dominion. The very tongue of those who lived beyond the Humber was not easily intelligible, and when kings did visit their northern territories they were always accompanied by a large military following. (fn. 1) York had still to recover from the disasters of the 11th century before it properly merited the description of urbs amplissima; and if it was a metropolis, it was for long mainly a provincial one.

For this latter role, it was marked out by history and location. No longer the capital of a northern kingdom, it yet remained the seat of secular administration in Yorkshire and of ecclesiastical administration for the north of England. These attributes alone would probably have attracted population, stimulated trade and industry, and reanimated urban life. Furthermore the city was a centre of traditional land-routes and well placed to take advantage of inland waterways. Most important from a political point of view, York dominated the great route from north to south which ran through the Vale of York. It guarded the heart of medieval England from northern invasion; and, once invasion from the north is a major theme in politics, York becomes one of the centres of English political life. Other things contributed to making it urbs amplissima, but Anglo-Scottish strife turned it into a metropolis second only to the emerging capital in London.

York in English Political History

The metropolitan future of York was little in evidence before the end of the 13th century, when war between England and Scotland became endemic. Before that time, York figured only intermittently in the dealings of English kings with their own northern territories and with the kingdom over the border. In the 12th century, indeed, York seldom saw the king. Not more than four or five visits by Henry I are recorded, (fn. 2) and only that of 1122 in any detail. Then he appeared in the city in the autumn en route for a perambulation of the north, returned in December when two monks of St. Evroul encountered him, and held pleas in York before returning to 'Southumberland'. (fn. 3)

King Stephen's political troubles, and the intervention of the Scottish king in England, for a time gave York a greater prominence in national affairs. David I's invasion in 1136 brought Stephen north and, after peace had been made between the two kings, David's son did homage at York for his English lands. (fn. 4) Another Scottish invasion in 1138 was defeated without royal assistance: Archbishop Thurstan and the northern nobles met at York and determined on the campaign which ended at the Battle of the Standard. (fn. 5) Stephen's later dealings with the city were a result of domestic discord as well as Scottish ambition. He came there in 1142 with his queen (perhaps the occasion when she gave land near the Fishpond of the Foss to St. Nicholas's Hospital) (fn. 6) intending to stop a tournament between William, Earl of York, and the Earl of Richmond, and to take steps to restore his rule. Illness, however, prevented him from achieving anything of note. (fn. 7) A further visit in 1149 met with a more positive welcome from the citizens, perhaps moved by their dislike of Henry Murdac who had replaced Stephen's nephew, William Fitzherbert, as archbishop. They had already prevented Murdac from entering the city which, in consequence, had been placed under interdict. (fn. 8)

Whatever their motives, the men of York were credited with having warned Stephen of the congregation at Carlisle of Henry of Anjou, David of Scotland, and the Earls of Chester and Hereford. Stephen sought further to enlist their support by handing over to them for destruction a fortalice at Wheldrake on the Derwent (E.R.) which commanded the south-eastern approaches to the city; while they in turn are said to have prompted him to impose penalties on Beverley for having received Murdac. Nothing came of the threat from Carlisle and after tallaging the city the king returned to the south, leaving his son to devastate the lands of rebel barons and to compel the clergy of York to resume divine service which the archbishop's interdict had suspended. (fn. 9) Very soon, in fact, the citizens had to receive Murdac, though they drove him out again in 1153 on the eve of his death. (fn. 10) Stephen visited York on only one further occasion, in the summer of 1154. There is nothing to show that this had any result of note except that he decreed the demolition of a fortalice at Drax (W.R.) which commanded navigation on the Ouse. (fn. 11)

For the rest of the century York saw little of the kings of England. Henry II was a rare visitor, (fn. 12) and the city played a part in national politics only during the young King Henry's rebellion in 1173–4. Richard Lucy's defeat and capture of William the Lion of Scotland quickly scotched the rising in the north, but not before York had been drawn into it. Roger Mowbray was one of the rebels, and
'La bone cite d'Everwic si est a dan Rogier,
Par tut Everwicsire se fait seignur clamer.' (fn. 13)
Retribution came when Lucy returned from his victory. The citizens collectively paid an 'assize'; individuals were amerced for receiving fugitives, communicating with the king's enemies, selling them shields, and so forth; a few prominent citizens, including William of Tickhill and Gerard and Hugh, the sons of Lefwin, paid heavily 'for having the king's benevolence'; and Thomas de Ultra Usam and his son were amerced because it was said that they wanted to make a commune. Unfortunately we know nothing more of this manifestation of a desire for emancipation. (fn. 14) Finally, Henry II and his son both came to York, and William the Lion did homage to them in the minster. (fn. 15)

Richard I's reign was still less eventful, apart from the anti-Jewish riots in 1190 (fn. 16) and a little activity in ecclesiastical matters. The citizens were apparently sympathetic to the archbishop when he quarrelled with the dean in 1190, (fn. 17) and in 1195 Hubert Walter held a legatine council in York. (fn. 18) Things were very different under John. His restless wanderings brought him to York more frequently than any previous ruler. He first appeared in March 1200 hoping, vainly as it turned out, to meet the Scottish king; (fn. 19) and returned in 1201 when the citizens had to pay him £100 to have his benevolence 'because they did not come out to meet him when he arrived at York, and that they might be quit because they did not accommodate the king's crossbowmen, and for having acquittance of the hostages which the king exacted from them at his pleasure'. (fn. 20) Annual visits between 1204 and 1210 were marked by the purchase of wine from York vintners and the setting of fishermen to fish 'against the coming of the king'. In 1210, indeed, there were two separate visits: in the spring when the English Cistercians were called to York to grant the king an aid, and at Christmas when the king was joined by the earls and barons of the kingdom, for whose entertainment venison was brought by water from Torksey (Lincs.). (fn. 21)

By this time, however, the conflict between King John and his barons was beginning to dominate politics. It was this which brought John to York in 1212 and in September 1213; he dispatched knights from Flanders and Hainault there in 1212; (fn. 22) in 1214–15 the sheriff was keeping up a garrison in the castle; (fn. 23) and early in 1215 the citizens were granted timber from the Yorkshire forests to strengthen their own defences. (fn. 24) In 1216 John reached York in the course of his campaign to subdue the north and east. The city made no resistance, but bought his good will for £1,000 which they paid promptly to Brian Lisle; and they handed over nineteen hostages as a guarantee of loyalty. (fn. 25) Geoffrey Nevill, Sheriff of Yorkshire and the king's chamberlain, was put in charge of York, and he strengthened its defences by cutting a ditch from Foss to Ouse below the castle and enlarging another in the Micklegate area—work to which St. Leonard's Hospital contributed out of 'mere liberality'. (fn. 26) These fortifications were soon tested, for the northern rebels laid siege to York; but for a sum of 1,000 marks the citizens bought respite until Pentecost and the baronial attack was not resumed. (fn. 27) Meanwhile administration had broken down to some degree. Geoffrey Nevill released all the prisoners from the castle gaol; and the city accounted at the Exchequer at Michaelmas 1215 for the last time in the reign, and then for only half a year. (fn. 28)

Compared with King John's reign, the next 80 years were relatively uneventful. Even during the troubles of the 1260's York was only slightly involved. In June 1263 the mayor and citizens were ordered to give their support to Robert Nevill when he was appointed sheriff, keeper of York castle, and captain for the defence of Yorkshire. A month later, however, Nevill was displaced by Montfort's supporter, John de Eyvill; but, when Henry III recovered his authority in December, Eyvill in turn was ordered to give way to Nevill. At first he refused to do so, and, apparently, rebel barons entered the city by force and spent Christmas there. (fn. 29) Indeed, Nevill still had not recovered possession of the castle on 1 March 1264 though by April he was again in control and strengthened its defences. (fn. 30) In June, however, after Lewes, Montfort's government again dismissed Nevill, but as late as October he had not handed over the castle although he must have done so soon afterwards. (fn. 31) Here, so far as our knowledge goes, York's participation in the baronial rebellion ended. There may have been a Montfortian party in the city, for it was accused of giving Earl Simon £100 and more, and was one of the towns which sent representatives to his parliament in 1265. (fn. 32) For the rest, we know only that Henry III came to York in 1268 and that Nevill's account for the custody of the castle was only brought to audit in 1276. (fn. 33)

These incidents apart, relations with Scotland almost alone brought York within the orbit of the king's travels in the 13th century. In 1220 Henry III arranged at York a marriage between the two royal houses, and the wedding took place in the minster in the following year. (fn. 34) Scottish affairs probably occasioned a visit at Christmas 1227; the Scottish king was Henry's guest at York in 1229; in 1236 he took counsel from the magnates at York about the discords between himself and the king of Scots; and a treaty was made there between Henry and Alexander II in September 1237. (fn. 35) Thereafter the city, although it supplied arms and provisions for the army in the north in 1244, (fn. 36) saw Henry no more until Christmas 1251 when his daughter Margaret married Alexander III. For this event preparations had been going on for five months. Deer had been taken in the royal forests and wine had been sent from London. Lincolnshire and the northern counties had provided fowls, partridges, swans, cranes, peacocks, pheasants, rabbits, hares, pigs, and salmon. Yorkshire bakers had baked bread. Costly accoutrements of all kinds had been bought. Detailed provision was made for the royal sleeping quarters in the chamber of the archbishop; and the king's marshals had come on ahead to arrange accommodation for the guests. As a precaution, they billeted all the Scots in one street, but this did not prevent some fighting among servants seeking to obtain lodgings for their masters. Finally, on Christmas Day, Henry knighted Alexander; and on the morrow the marriage was celebrated in the minster by Archbishop Gray. (fn. 37)

Henry III's protectorate over the young King Alexander again brought him north in 1255. He passed through York on his way to and from the marches; David Lardiner laid up a stock of salt venison for him in the city, while the mayor and bailiffs provided wine, and materials to make flags and pennons. (fn. 38) Thereafter, for a time, Anglo-Scottish relations were relatively quiet, although in 1267 the men of York attacked the following of John Comyn, a baron of Scotland, on Ouse Bridge. (fn. 39)

With the northern borders quiet, Edward I, down to the 1290's, paid only some five fleeting visits to York, though in 1279 a permanent cellar was made for him in houses which had belonged to Jews. (fn. 40) By 1294, however, the city's revenues were contracting because war with Scotland kept merchants away, and heavy taxation was forcing the monks of St. Mary's Abbey to accept short commons. (fn. 41) In 1296 Edward stayed in York on his way to and from his Scottish campaign: the city provided some ships for the expedition, the Chancery sat briefly in the chapter house of the minster in October, and in 1297 York men were amongst those ordered to ordain for the town of Berwick. (fn. 42) Early in 1298 the Earl of Warenne and other magnates published the confirmation of the charters in York on their way to the north; (fn. 43) and they were followed by the king, who summoned to York all owing military service and convened a parliament there. After a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. John at Beverley, Edward met parliament on 25 May and then set out on the campaign which culminated in victory at Falkirk in July. (fn. 44) Meantime the king had instructed the Exchequer and the benches to transfer themselves to York from Westminster; and at York they remained for nearly seven years. (fn. 45) This was the opening of a new period in the history of the city. After many generations during which it had been a provincial metropolis, it became for a time the second capital of England.


  • 1. Gesta Pontificum (Rolls Ser.), 208–9.
  • 2. Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum, 1100–35, ed. H. A. Cronne and C. Johnson, nos. 713–15, 925–7, 1332–8, 1889; Dugd. Mon. iv. 683; Hist. Ch. York, ii. 266.
  • 3. Sym. Durham, Hist. Works (Rolls Ser.), ii. 267; Henry of Huntingdon, Hist. Anglorum (Rolls Ser.), 244; Ordericus Vitalis, Hist. Eccles. ed. A. le Prévost, iv. 435.
  • 4. Annals of Hexham (Sur. Soc. 44), 72, 114.
  • 5. Annals of Hexham, 84 sqq.
  • 6. Cal. Inq. Misc. i, pp. 299, 303.
  • 7. Sym. Durham, Hist. Works, ii. 312; Annals of Hexham, 141; J. H. Round, Geoffrey de Mandeville, 157, 160–1.
  • 8. Sym. Durham, Hist. Works, ii. 322; Mem. of Fountains, i (Sur. Soc. 42), 102.
  • 9. Annals of Hexham, 159–60; Henry of Hunt. Hist. Angl. 282; Gesta Stephani (Nelson's Med. Classics), 142–3.
  • 10. Sym. Durham, Hist. Works, ii. 329.
  • 11. William of Newburgh, Chron. Stephen, Henry II and Richard I (Rolls Ser.), i. 94; Benson, Hist. York, ii. 2.
  • 12. For possible visits in 1155, 1158, 1163, 1180, and 1181 see R. W. Eyton, Itin. of Henry II, 5, 33, 62, 230, 242.
  • 13. Jordan of Fantosme, Chronique de la Guerre (Sur. Soc. 11), ll. 971–2; Complete Peerage, ix. 370–1.
  • 14. Eyton, Itin. Hen. II, 185; Pipe R. 1175 (P.R.S. xxii), 172, 179–80, 182–3.
  • 15. Wm. of Newburgh, Chron. Stephen, &c. i. 198; Benedict Abbas, Gesta Regis Henrici (Rolls Ser.), i. 194 sqq.; Roger of Hoveden, Chronica (Rolls Ser.), ii. 79 sqq.
  • 16. See p. 47.
  • 17. Roger of Hoveden, Chron. iii. 31–32.
  • 18. Ibid. iii. 293–7.
  • 19. Ibid. iv. 107.
  • 20. Ibid. iv. 157; Pipe R. 1201 (P.R.S. N.S. xiv), 159.
  • 21. For these visits, Pipe R. 1204–11 (P.R.S. N.S. xviiixxviii), passim, and Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum (Rolls Ser.), ii. 58; for the dealings with the Cistercians, D. Knowles, Monastic Order in Eng. 368–9.
  • 22. Pipe R. 1212 (P.R.S. N.S. xxx), 12, 27.
  • 23. E 368/3, m. 10.
  • 24. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i. 195–6.
  • 25. Ibid. 269; A. L. Poole, From Dom. Bk. to Magna Carta, 480–1; E 368/4, m. 11d.
  • 26. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), ii. 120; Yorks. Inq. i. 1–2; T. P. Cooper, York: Story of its Walls, &c. 108–10; B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, f. 69.
  • 27. Ralph of Coggeshall, Chronicon (Rolls Ser.), 180.
  • 28. F. M. Powicke, Henry III and the Lord Edward, 26; E 372/61, m. 3d.
  • 29. Cal. Pat. 1258–66, 263–4, 271, 302; Cal. Inq. Misc. i, pp. 284–5.
  • 30. Reg. Giffard, no. 733; Cal. Pat. 1258-66, 313, 383; see p. 523.
  • 31. Cal. Pat. 1258–66, 327, 373.
  • 32. Powicke, Henry III, &c., 487; Cal. Inq. Misc. i, pp. 284–5.
  • 33. Close R. 1264-8, 478-81, 552-3; Cal. Close, 1272-9, 283.
  • 34. Roger of Wendover, Flores Hist. ii. 253; Matt. Paris, Chron. Maj. (Rolls Ser.), iii. 67.
  • 35. Matt. Paris, Chron. Maj. iii. 143, 193, 372–3, 413–14.
  • 36. Close R. 1242–7, 209, 216, 259.
  • 37. Matt. Paris, Chron. Maj. v. 266–7; for the data regarding the preparations, Close R. 1247–51, 1251–3, and Cal. Pat. 1247–58, passim.
  • 38. Close R. 1254-6, 120, 124-8, 139-40, 217-20.
  • 39. Chron. St. Mary's (Sur. Soc. 148), 12–13; Cal. Doc. Scot. ed. Bain, 1108–1272, 487.
  • 40. Cal. Close, 1272–9, 527.
  • 41. E 372/146, m. 7d; Chron. St. Mary's, 25.
  • 42. Cal. Close, 1288–96, 474–5, 508, 517; 1296–1302, 76; Cal. Pat. 1292-1301, 180, 185, 206, 216; J. Stevenson, Docs. Illus. Hist. Scot. ii, nos. 406, 416.
  • 43. Rishanger, Chronica et Annales (Rolls Ser.), 182.
  • 44. Ibid. 185–6.
  • 45. Matt. Westminster (attrib.), Flores Historiarum (Rolls Ser.), iii. 104.