The twelfth and thirteenth centuries: The achievement of civic liberties

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

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'The twelfth and thirteenth centuries: The achievement of civic liberties', in A History of the County of York: the City of York, ed. P M Tillott( London, 1961), British History Online [accessed 23 July 2024].

'The twelfth and thirteenth centuries: The achievement of civic liberties', in A History of the County of York: the City of York. Edited by P M Tillott( London, 1961), British History Online, accessed July 23, 2024,

"The twelfth and thirteenth centuries: The achievement of civic liberties". A History of the County of York: the City of York. Ed. P M Tillott(London, 1961), , British History Online. Web. 23 July 2024.

The Achievement of Civic Liberties

The powers wielded by the sheriff and the burdens he imposed upon the citizens perhaps inevitably bred a desire for emancipation from his authority; but no less was the city concerned to obtain privileges which would satisfy its requirements as a community of traders and craftsmen. It was the latter purpose which was served by York's first royal charter which can be dated 1154–8. (fn. 1) The citizens were granted all their liberties, laws, and customs, 'and especially their Merchant Guild and hanses in England and Normandy and their quittance of lestage throughout the coast of the sea as they . . . had them in the time of King Henry [I]'. (fn. 2)

Not all of the concessions contained in this charter are easy to interpret. The endorsement of the right of the citizens to have a guild merchant, presumably an association for managing the internal trade of the city, seems clear enough; and so does the exemption from lestage or lastage, an export tax which may be of pre-Conquest origin. (fn. 3) The right to have hanses in England and Normandy is less obviously self-explanatory. The terminology of the charter, however, taken in connexion with contemporary northern European practice, (fn. 4) suggests that the reference is to an established usage of York merchants engaged in long-range trade to form themselves into associations for mutual protection and support, and that these 'hanses' were an outgrowth of the gilda mercatoria in York.

Not the least interesting of the implications of the charter, however, is that some, if not all, of these rights go back to the reign of Henry I. At the same time, there is no suggestion that they were founded upon an earlier charter, now lost. For the existence of such privileges we need not rely merely upon supposition. A charter of Archbishop Thurstan, confirmed by Henry I, granted to the men of Beverley the liberties enjoyed by the citizens of York. These were free burgage, their 'hansehouse' for considering their 'statutes' (the king's charter speaks of their guild merchant cum placidis suis), and the right to farm the tolls of the town and to be quit of toll throughout Yorkshire. In 1144–6, again, Archbishop Fitzherbert confirmed to Beverley free burgage according to the form of the burgage of York, and a guild merchant and pleas like the men of York. (fn. 5) Thus the liberties of York in the reign of Henry I included burgage tenure, a guild merchant, and perhaps the right to farm the tolls of the city and to be free of toll throughout Yorkshire.

Of the privilege in regard to toll there is no other trace; but property held by burgage tenure is mentioned in a charter of c. 1142, (fn. 6) and later-12th-century charters refer to burgage tenements in Coney Street, Fishergate, Walmgate, Stonegate, and Bootham. (fn. 7) Tenure per franc servitium is perhaps an alternative formula; and the fact that one such tenement was held for a rent of 2 'ores' suggests that this was a tenure of considerable antiquity, perhaps descending from Anglo-Danish times. (fn. 8) There is other evidence, too, of the guild merchant with its 'hansehouse' which is implied by the Beverley charters. It is tempting to identify this house with les gildegarde mentioned in a document of c. 1080; but this cannot be pressed, for les gildegarde may be a mistranscription of leger-gildegarde. (fn. 9) On the other hand, there is no question about the existence of a guild merchant in York under Henry I, for in 1130 Thomas son of Ulviet owed a hunting horse that he might be alderman of it. (fn. 10) It is by no means clear that Thomas was a merchant, for he had considerable landed property. At the same time, he may possibly have been the son of Ulvet son of Forne, mentioned in 1106 as one of the hereditary lawmen of York; and under his alternative style of Thomas de Ultra Usam he is probably the man of that name who sought to make a commune in 1173. (fn. 11) There is insufficient data here to illumine the guild merchant or the ruling circles of the city, but at least the existence of the former early in the 12th century is sufficiently attested.

The substratum of the city's liberties, then, was laid down without warrant of a charter and may possibly have been far from new even at the beginning of the 12th century. Henry II's charter was its first documentary backing, and thenceforward each step in the direction of emancipation took the form of a grant from the king. Richard I in 1189, for 200 marks, freed the citizens from toll, lastage, wreck, pontage, passage, trespass, and all custom throughout the Angevin empire—in other words from all the local charges which burdened traders in those times. (fn. 12) Momentarily, in 1190, he went further: for the citizens were said to owe £50 blanched for the farm of their city for half the year, and they paid this amount and an increment of £10 in the following year. (fn. 13) After this brief interlude, however, the sheriff reappeared as the officer responsible at the Exchequer for the issues of the city.

At the same time emancipation from the sheriff was now close at hand. John, in March 1200, merely confirmed earlier privileges for a modest charge of 50 marks, (fn. 14) but not later than 1207 there is one piece of evidence for a growing corporate spirit. A letter was addressed by the city to the archbishop—and was sealed with the city seal—testifying that All Saints', Peaseholme, belonged to Ralph Nuvel. (fn. 15) In 1212 this corporate capacity received its ratification. The citizens promised to pay by Easter 1213, 300 marks and 3 palfreys for having the city at farm for £160 yearly and for freedom of navigation on the Wharfe and Ouse as far as Boroughbridge. In 1214 they had still only paid 50 marks of their fine, but were already paying the new farm of £160 and the charge for purprestures; they accounted themselves for forest amercements incurred by the citizens and for a tallage of 500 marks. (fn. 16) The king had made a good bargain, substantially increasing his annual income from the city. In return, he allowed the citizens collectively to step into the place previously occupied by the sheriff in the financial management of the city. An immediate consequence was the appearance of a recognized head of the civic government: in 1213 a writ was addressed to the mayor of York, and within a few years Hugh Selby and Thomas Palmer attested charters with that title. (fn. 17)

These initial liberties were steadily developed in the 13th century. Henry III, in 1252, confirmed Richard's and John's charters and made it clear that the payment of the city's farm and the collection of summonses of the Exchequer were matters for the citizens alone. (fn. 18) Two new charters in 1256 laid down that citizens were not to be impleaded outside the city for lands or tenements within it, and that pleas of land or trespass within the city were to be settled by the mayor and bailiffs, or, if they were unable to determine a case, by the next general eyre. Citizens were to be convicted only by a jury of their fellow citizens save where the city as a whole had been at fault or where the matter touched the entire community. Justices in eyre were to deal with pleas arising in the city on certain days set aside for the purpose; and the citizens were to answer at the Exchequer for their city as the sheriff did for his bailiwick. Finally citizens were not to be arrested for debts of which they were not principal debtors or sureties, except where the city courts had failed to compel a citizen to satisfy his creditor. (fn. 19) Thus, to all intents, the sheriff was deprived of all his former authority and the city, between 1212 and 1256, became a franchise as directly answerable as the county to the central government.

During the same period the city extended its authority over the adjacent rural wapentake of Ainsty. (fn. 20) It was apparently handed over by the under-sheriff of Yorkshire to the citizens in 1212 as an appurtenance of the city. (fn. 21) Their right to it was frequently disputed by the king's officers in the 13th century, and no less stubbornly defended. One of these disputes over The Ainsty, in 1280, resulted in a demonstration that all the privileges conferred on the city by the king were enjoyed by his sufferance. In the course of an inquiry into the city's title to the wapentake it was discovered that King John's charter to the city (adduced in support of its case) had been tampered with: so York lost The Ainsty, was declared in the king's mercy, and was taken into the king's hand; the mayor was consigned to prison. The citizens did not recover their self-governing rights or The Ainsty until 1282. (fn. 22) Clearly, however, their possession of the latter was being drawn into a custom. On the other hand the privileges they enjoyed, though they had been notably extended by royal concession in the 13th century, were no less clearly shown to be dependent upon the royal grace.


  • 1. E.Y.C. i. 171–2.
  • 2. Trans. from J. Tait and A. Ballard, Brit. Boro. Charters, i. 6, 204.
  • 3. N. S. B. Gras, Early Eng. Customs System, 28 sqq.
  • 4. Cf. A. von Brandt in History, N.s. xli. 29–31; H. Planitz, Die Deutsche Stadt im Mittelalter, espy. 57–59, 75–79.
  • 5. E.Y.C. i. 90–92, 100–1.
  • 6. Ibid. 247.
  • 7. Ibid. 192–3, 207, 210, 218, 246–7, 252–3; Fountains Charty. i. 273; D. & C. York, Lib. Alb. ii, f. 54.
  • 8. E.Y.C. i. 209–10, 214–15.
  • 9. P.N. Yorks. E.R. (E.P.N.S.), 289. Gildegarde is from O.Scand. 'gildigardr' (enclosure belonging to the guild); 'leger' may be O.E. 'leger' (grave or burial ground) or O.Scand. 'leir' (clay). The Gildgarths of later time may have been on Bishophill, see p. 542, n. 7.
  • 10. Pipe R. 1130, 34.
  • 11. Y.A.J. xxxix. 339–42; see p. 26.
  • 12. E.Y.C. i. 172; Pipe R. 1190, 68.
  • 13. Pipe R. 1190, 89; 1191 and 1192, 61.
  • 14. Ibid. 1200 (P.R.S. N.S. xii), 110; Rot. Chart. (Rec. Com.), 40.
  • 15. E.Y.C. i. 230–1.
  • 16. Rot. Chart. (Rec. Com.), 187; Pipe R. 1212, 37; E 372/60, m. 8.
  • 17. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i. 151; E.Y.C. i. 178–9, 200.
  • 18. Cal. Chart. R. i. 379.
  • 19. Ibid. 185–6.
  • 20. See pp. 318–19.
  • 21. Rolls of the Justices for Yorks. 1218–19 (Selden Soc. 56), pls. 721, 794, 1106, 1109, 1138.
  • 22. York Mem. Bk. i. 124; Sel. Cases in K.B. Edw. I, i (Selden Soc. 55), pl. 42; Cal. Pat. 1281–92, 41, 70.