The twelfth and thirteenth centuries: Government and customs

Pages 34-37

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

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The Government and Customs of the City

The Ainsty was delivered at farm to a bailiff, and conformed to the common pattern of rural local government; for that reason it need not further concern us here. Within the city, on the other hand, the outlines of a civic constitution were being drawn in the 13th century. From 1212 or soon afterwards it was headed by the mayor, assisted by three bailiffs, (fn. 1) at first still sometimes called reeves. (fn. 2) By 1229 the city also had its own coroners; and in 1279 there were three of them who answered by one roll. (fn. 3) Towards the end of the century the chamberlains are mentioned—four in 1290, and three thereafter. (fn. 4) They were presumably already acting as the financial officers of the city. Occasionally, too, subordinate officials are noticed: a beadle looking for cutpurses in 1299; and a serjeant sent to make an arrest in 1279 who was beaten up in the course of his duty. (fn. 5) Wider circles, too, were drawn into public responsibility. The guild of butchers in 1279 had the custody of the city gaol by night; (fn. 6) and the duties of the ordinary man are made clear by the fact that city parishes were amerced by the king's justices for escapes, for failing to make arrests and pursue murderers, for falsely reporting the value of a fugitive's chattels, and so forth. (fn. 7) Self-government was not only a matter for officials; it involved a very general responsibility.

In this connexion, nevertheless, it is the mayor and bailiffs who appear most prominently in the records. There is nothing to tell us how they were appointed, but re-election to the mayoral office was clearly common. Hugh Selby, for example, was certainly mayor six times and probably more frequently between 1217 and 1236; (fn. 8) John his son was mayor seven times at least between 1251 and 1271; (fn. 9) and John's son Nicholas was mayor for the four years 1286–9. John le Specer and John his son were twice and five times mayor respectively; Robert de Bromholme was four times mayor; and John Sampson five times at least. (fn. 10) It was a narrow circle, it seems, that provided the mayors of the city.

The duties of the mayors and their colleagues were many and varied. Royal charters assume that the mayor and bailiffs would preside over the court of the city, (fn. 11) which met apparently either in the Guildhall or in the Tollbooth on Ouse Bridge. (fn. 12) There is little information about this court, although there are references to pleas about city property in Burghwarmoto in curia Ebor' civium, in Burghwarmoto civitatis Ebor', and in curia civitatis Ebor'; and there is indirect testimony to it when property was conveyed in the presence of the bailiffs and citizens or when charters are witnessed by the 'burgh warmoot'. (fn. 13) At the same time Henry III's charter of 1256 contemplates this court dealing with appeals, indictments, trespasses, and so forth: (fn. 14) seemingly it was a court of general competence. Sometimes, apparently, the bailiffs might preside over it without the mayor. (fn. 15) A record of 1270–1, finally, shows it proceeding by way of arbitration rather than adjudication, and keeping records: the mayor had an agreement enrolled in the common hall and claimed, moreover, that such an enrolment regarding a free tenement in York was as valid as a final concord made before the justices in the king's court for a tenement outside the city. (fn. 16)

Court-keeping was only the beginning of the responsibilities of the mayor and bailiffs. In the king's eyes it may well be that their financial duties bulked largest. The first of these was to pay the city farm of £160 yearly promised in 1212. In the early part of Henry III's reign a burden of debt from King John's last troubled years made this financial obligation no easy one; the debt amounted to nearly £728 in 1218, stood at no less than £290 in 1221, and was not quite extinguished in 1230. (fn. 17) Indeed, in 1220 the citizens offered the king 200 marks for a reduction of their farm, but without success. (fn. 18) Financial difficulties were no less acute at the end of the century. In 1292 the city was taken once again into the king's hand for a period of five years by reason of debts, amounting to between £300 and £400, some of which went back twenty years or more, and part of which it worked off by making a galley, a barge, and a navicula for the defence of the realm. (fn. 19) The accounts of the king's keepers suggest that a reason for these difficulties was that the revenues assigned to payment of the farm were inadequate. Their character and yield in 1292–3 are shown in Table 1.

Table 1 City Revenues in 1292–3
£ s. d.
'Husgable' and rents of city property 6 9 2
Tolls and similar charges 42 0 5
Rents of butchers' stalls 6 13 4
1s. per sack on wool entering and leaving the city 51 1 10
Profits of courts 12 13 4
Issues of fairs 4 16 8
£123 14 9

In 1293–4 receipts were again only £120 15s. 1d. and the following year they slumped to £73 12s. 4d. because revenue from tolls, the fairs, and the tax on wool fell heavily when the Scottish war impeded merchants. (fn. 20) This situation doubtless explains the anxiety of the citizens to retain The Ainsty as a source of profit; their rebuttal of the claim of the burgesses of Scarborough to be quit of toll in York; (fn. 21) their offence of raising tolls mirabiliter; (fn. 22) and their purchase of property, the rents of which could be put towards the farm. (fn. 23) Even so such measures do not seem to have been enough. At the beginning of the 14th century the citizens alleged that they often had to tallage themselves for £100 or more and were thereby much impoverished. (fn. 24)

When the farm had been paid, the financial burdens of the city were still not discharged. It still paid tallages from time to time: 300 marks in 1230, £100 in 1254, 600 marks in 1255, 350 marks in 1261, and 400 marks in 1268, though half of the last sum was pardoned. (fn. 25) These sums, which must have been raised by special levies imposed by the city authorities, helped to embitter social relationships. In 1276 the commonalty of the city complained that lesser folk paid tallages, fines, and amercements out of proportion to their means, (fn. 26) and it is certainly true that prominent citizens were occasionally exempted wholly or in part from tallages by royal favour. (fn. 27)

Apart from their judicial and financial duties, the civic magistrates performed a host of miscellaneous administrative functions. The bailiffs account for the price of a boat from which a man had been drowned in the Ouse (fn. 28) and seize the house of a man indebted to the king. (fn. 29) The mayor and bailiffs held all sorts of inquests; (fn. 30) the mayor was associated with the Sheriff of Yorkshire in choosing a chirographer for the York Jewry; (fn. 31) the mayor and commonalty chose the Master of St. Nicholas's Hospital and the mayor's counsel was sought when the Dean of York made an ordinance for its better discipline. (fn. 32) The mayor and bailiffs sold surplus royal wine or bought new wine to replenish the king's cellar. (fn. 33) The bailiffs made arrests and had custody at least in the daytime of the city gaol. (fn. 34) Such a list might be extended indefinitely; but it is perhaps enough to add that, in 1283, a copy of the Statute of Merchants was sent to York as one of the places selected for setting up a court of recognizances to register debts. This court was presided over by the mayor assisted by a clerk appointed by the king but generally, at first at least, a York man. (fn. 35)

Self-government, then, involved a multiplicity of responsibilities; and in carrying them out the civic officers were closely scrutinized. The Exchequer was always watchful of their financial management; but probably the king's itinerant justices, before whom the city appeared by its own jury of presentment, (fn. 36) exercised the most detailed control. In 1276 it was said in their presence that the liberty of the city was one which impeded common justice. Thieves and felons found a refuge in the city. The civic officers failed to act on royal writs, took bribes, levied excessive charges on bakers, and hanged out of hand a man accused of theft when he made certain accusations against some of the majores of the city. They had given The Ainsty over to an extortionate bailiff and, when he was arrested for his misdeeds and delivered to the mayor for safe custody, the latter released him in contempt of the king. (fn. 37) Such complaints, of course, were commonly directed against local government officials in the 13th century, and the king and his justices did what they could to deal with them. There was in their hand an ultimate sanction when privileges were usurped, abused, or negligently used: the king could withdraw them, as Edward I twice withdrew the liberties of York.

The liberties acquired by York in the 13th century had a further consequence in preserving and developing, though not necessarily creating, distinctive city customs, the origin of which sometimes went back to the 12th century or even further. Richard I, for example, confirmed the right of a citizen to defend himself against appeals by the oath of 36 men of the city (this is the 'great law' to which men of London, Lincoln, and the Cinque Ports also might have recourse in grave cases). (fn. 38) It was a custom still being observed in 1219, but was more or less obsolete by 1316. (fn. 39) Special customs governing real property were more numerous and diverse. Burgage tenements in the 12th century were clearly heritable, (fn. 40) and, as the charters show, alienable by gift or sale. One charter instances the right of a tenant to devise his holding, and another the right of a grantee (a clerk) to make anyone he wished the heir to his property. (fn. 41) In such circumstances tenements often changed hands with considerable rapidity. In 1208, for example, a plea arose about a holding which one Gilbert had conveyed to Thomas son of Elviva; Thomas gave it to his sister, who in turn gave it to her daughter, who, with her husband, finally sold it to William Fairfax. (fn. 42)

In this connexion one formula which appears in the records merits attention. In 1194–8 Hugh son of Lefwin granted away totum servitium meum haimaldum from a tenement in Coney Street and 9s. redditus mei haimaldi from a tenement in North Street; and a little later Richard son of Miles sold totam illam terram haymaldam he possessed on Bishophill. (fn. 43) In 1250 it was stated that 'haimald' tenements were held by fixed annual payments to the king (i.e. husgable); could be either a man's inheritance or acquisition; and could be given, sold, or devised as their holder desired. (fn. 44) The word 'haimald' suggests a Scandinavian influence upon the tenurial customs of the city; (fn. 45) and the evidence implies that it describes the normal form of tenure in the city and suburbs. Thus, when a man granted away a rent from 'haimald' land in Petergate, he did so according to the liberties and customs of the city. (fn. 46) The right of testamentary devise, normally, as a plea of 1268 suggests, by nuncupative will, (fn. 47) was likewise a general one. A charter of 1290 states categorically that it was the usage and approved custom that anyone who had lands and tenements in the city might freely give, devise, and assign them to whomsoever he wished in his last will. (fn. 48)

These tenurial customs had certain practical results. First, successive alienations were apt to lead to an accumulation of rent charges upon tenements, though such charges, of course, might be created without alienation. Thus, for example, a tenement taken up by Richard Graa in the 13th century paid rents totalling 24s. to St. Leonard's Hospital, the church of St. Mary, Castlegate, Nostell Priory, the heirs of Nicholas de Mandeville and the heirs of Thomas Fairfax. (fn. 49) Secondly, it was a matter of real importance that, in proprietary actions, citizens should be able to put themselves, not on the grand assize, but on a jury of their fellow citizens who would know the custom of York. (fn. 50) Further, it was no less important that, with alienability so much the rule, possessors should be protected against frivolous questioning of their titles. Thus it was the custom of the city, Hugh Selby argued in 1226–7, that no one need answer to a writ of entry unless it was preferred within a year of his obtaining possession of the disputed property. The plaintiff could only acknowledge that this was the custom. (fn. 51) Finally, the fact that property could be devised by will had as its corollary the rule that the writ of mort d'ancestor did not run in the city, a rule in which the king's justices concurred in 1246. (fn. 52) Such matters constituted the lex civitatis in 13th-century York, a law different in important respects from the emerging common law of England.


  • 1. Charty. Bridlington, ed. W. T. Lancaster (Leeds, 1912), 234–5.
  • 2. John Rylands Libr. Latin MS. 220, f. 54.
  • 3. Close R. 1227–31, 173; J.I. 1/1057, m. 55.
  • 4. York Freemen, i. 4 sqq.
  • 5. Sel. Cases in K.B. Edw. I, iii (Selden Soc. 58), pl. 53; J.I. 1/1055, m. 45.
  • 6. J.I. 1/1057, m. 55d; Cal. Fine R. 1272–1307, 161.
  • 7. J.I. 1/1047, mm. 17–17d; /1057, m. 55.
  • 8. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i. 341 (1217); Pat. R. 1225–32, 12 (1226), 320 (1229), 355–6 (1230); Close R. 1234–7, 90–91 (1235); Y.A.J. xii. 97 and B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, f. 86 (1236).
  • 9. York Corp., Supplemental Year Bk. (1928), 36; Cal. Pat. 1258–66, 679.
  • 10. Supplemental Year Bk. 36.
  • 11. Cal. Chart. R. 1300–26, 185–6.
  • 12. J.I. 1/1052, m. 15; Sel. Cases in K.B. Edw. I, iii, pl. 53. The Tollbooth seems also to have been the financial office of the city; in 1246 payments for registering transfers of property were ordered to be made there: J.I. 1/1045, m. 38.
  • 13. J.I. 1/1043, m. 21; /1085, m. 73d; /1102, m. 19d; B.M. Eg. MS. 2827, f. 137; Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, ff. 103d, 164, 165; Fountains Charty. i. 272.
  • 14. Cal. Chart. R. 1300–26, 185–6.
  • 15. D. & C. York, Vicars' Charty. f. 100.
  • 16. J.I. 1/1052, m. 15.
  • 17. E 159/2, m. 17d; E 368/4, m. 11d; E 372/63, m. 15; Pipe R. 1230 (P.R.S. N.S. iv), 290.
  • 18. E 368/2, m. 11d.
  • 19. E 372/137, m. 25d; /146, m. 7d; E 155/66, m. 62d.
  • 20. E 352/90, m. 12d; E 372/146, m. 7d; S.C. 6/1088/13.
  • 21. Bracton's Note Bk. ed. F. W. Maitland, pl. 16.
  • 22. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), i. 131.
  • 23. Yorks. Fines, 1246–72, 80.
  • 24. SC 8/46/2267.
  • 25. Pipe R. 1230, 32; Close R. 1253–4, 66–67; 1254–6, 72–73; 1256–9, 336; 1264–8, 509, 534; Cal. Pat. 1247–58, 404.
  • 26. Cal. Pat. 1272–81, 138.
  • 27. Ibid. 1247–58, 76, 191.
  • 28. Rolls of Justices for Yorks. (Selden Soc. 56), pl. 814.
  • 29. E 368/2, m. 11.
  • 30. Yorks. Inq. i, ii, passim.
  • 31. Cal. Jewish Plea R. (Jewish Hist. Soc.), ii. 62.
  • 32. Yorks. Inq. ii. 123–32.
  • 33. Cal. Pat. 1258–66, 3; Close R. 1237–42, 303; 1254–6, 128, 131, 139; 1256–9, 420.
  • 34. J.I. 1/1109, m. 34d; /1057, m. 55d.
  • 35. Cal. Close, 1279–88, 244.
  • 36. J.I. 1/1057, m. 55.
  • 37. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), i. 117, 120, 126.
  • 38. Drake, Ebor. 264; Borough Customs, i (Selden Soc. 18), 37–45.
  • 39. Rolls of Justices for Yorks. pl. 808; Cal. Chart. R. 1300–26, 328–9.
  • 40. E.Y.C. i. 192–3, 207.
  • 41. Ibid. 228–9, 237–8.
  • 42. Cur. Reg. R. v. 266–7.
  • 43. D. & C. York, St. Mary's Charty. f. 2d; E.Y.C. i. 235–6.
  • 44. J.I. 1/1046, m. 68.
  • 45. For haimald compare O.Norse heimild, used especially in the laws for right, title, &c.; and O.Icelandic heimill applied to something a man has a right to or has at his disposal. The author is indebted to Professor Bruce Dickins for advice on this matter.
  • 46. John Ryland's Libr. Latin MS. 220, f. 54.
  • 47. J.I. 1/1050, m. 84.
  • 48. B.M. Cott. MS. Claud. B. iii, f. 144d; for Hugh Selby's will, devising a rent charge in Goodramgate to the vicars choral, D. & C. York, Vicars' Charty. f. 27.
  • 49. B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, f. 101d.
  • 50. J.I. 1/1046, m. 64d; /1085, m. 73.
  • 51. Bracton's Note Bk. pl. 1889.
  • 52. J.I. 1/1045, m. 35.