The twelfth and thirteenth centuries: The city and ecclesiastical franchises

Pages 38-40

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

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The City and the Ecclesiastical Franchises

In one way the account given above of the government of York has oversimplified the facts. The territory of the city was not a single area of franchise. It was honeycombed with other franchises, some of them older than the liberty of the city. The liberty of St. Peter, which came in the 12th century to be mainly the province of the chapter, was already firmly based in 1086. (fn. 1) According to an inquest in 1106, it entailed the right of the dean to hold a court at the minster gate for all transgressions in the lands of his church both within and without the city; and of the archbishop to take all 'customs' (including husgable) from his property in the city, all the tolls within his liberty, and a third of the tolls, husgable, and profits of pleas in the Walmgate and Fishergate areas of the city. (fn. 2) Henry I, moreover, exempted the houses of the canons from providing accommodation for the king and his train; and granted to the archbishop jurisdiction over his moneyers and over thieves in all the lands of his see. (fn. 3) There is also evidence that the archbishop had a fair in York before the middle of the 12th century; (fn. 4) and his mint has already been noticed.

These liberties were consolidated in the 13th century. Those of the archbishop were defined in 1293 as the right to have his own mint, husgable from all the tenants of his fee, one-third of the tolls levied at Foss Bridge, and a yearly fair during which his bailiffs took over, from those of the city, the keeping of the peace, the collection of tolls, and doing justice upon thieves. (fn. 5) Seventy years earlier Henry III had granted to the chapter the right to the fines and amercements of their men, the privilege of hearing at the minster door all pleas in which their men were involved, and quittance from toll, works, and suits of court. (fn. 6) In 1250 the king's justices were forbidden to try pleas concerning the minster or its tenants elsewhere than at the minster door, and in 1267 the archbishop and chapter were allowed to have their own coroners in York. (fn. 7)

Meantime, the liberty of St. Peter had become the prototype of others. Richard I granted the same rights to St. Mary's Abbey, and specified the liberty of having a court for its own men and the profits accruing from it. (fn. 8) This court was already being held at the abbey door at the beginning of the 13th century. (fn. 9) Again the 13th century was a period of consolidation. In 1290 the abbey asked that the general words of its ancient charters might be made more specific 'on account of modern subtlety', (fn. 10) and obtained a charter in 1308 in terms more or less identical with Edward I's confirmation of the minster's privileges in 1305. (fn. 11) St. Leonard's Hospital built up a similar liberty. Henry I allowed it to hold its possessions with sake and soke and all the liberties and customs enjoyed by the prebends of York, saving that its property was not exempted from husgable. (fn. 12) At the end of the 13th century Edward I confirmed the hospital's privileges in roughly the same terms as those applied to the liberties of St. Peter and St. Mary. (fn. 13)

In consequence, the tenants of these exempt churches were excluded from the jurisdiction of the city courts; (fn. 14) nor did they attend the sessions of the king's justices for the pleas of the city: special sessions were held at the doors of the minster, St. Leonard's, and St. Mary's to deal with matters arising within their respective liberties. (fn. 15) Finally, the administrative powers exercised by the city officials were exercised by the officers of the privileged churches in places where they had property and tenants in the city and also, in the case of the minster and St. Mary's, in complete districts of the city. The former continued to exercise full powers in an area roughly that of the archbishop's shire of 1086; the latter was no less determined to exclude the city authorities from any jurisdiction in Bootham.

This juxtaposition and interlacing of privilege was inevitably a source of discord, which early manifested itself in disputes over the claim of the privileged churches that their property in the city was exempt from common burdens. In 1226, for example, the canons had to be persuaded by Henry III to contribute to murage, and agreed only on condition that their payment was not drawn into a custom. At the same time they procured papal censure of the mayor and citizens for imposing tallages and other exactions upon their men and those of St. Leonard's Hospital. (fn. 16) From the mid-century, however, relations rapidly deteriorated. In 1251 the king ordered the tenants of the chapter to contribute to murage; and in 1254 denounced ecclesiastical coercion of the citizens, telling the chapter that, if it had grievances, its proper course was to seek redress in the king's courts. (fn. 17) Next year, he castigated the religious establishments of the city in round terms for interfering in the legitimate province of the civic authorities. (fn. 18) In 1257, it is true, Henry exempted the possessions of St. Mary's Abbey from murage and pavage, (fn. 19) but the collapse of royal authority in 1258 led to something of a climax in these conflicts.

In that very year there was a regular assault by some of the citizens on Holy Trinity Priory; and in 1260 the city was placed under papal interdict because the mayor had arrested one Annabella, a tenant of the chapter, and hanged her out of hand despite the willingness of the chapter's steward to do justice upon her. (fn. 20) A few years later there were further attacks on Holy Trinity, which was claiming to hold a court for its men in the city; (fn. 21) and in 1263 the city opened an attack on St. Mary's by compelling its men to pay toll in York. (fn. 22) In 1264–5 there were riots in which the abbey's men were killed and its houses in Bootham and Marygate burned and plundered. The abbot was said to have paid £100 to have peace, and to have absented himself from his house for a year to prevent further trouble, and the archbishop put the city under an interdict for a time. Peace was made in April 1266 only through the mediation of the Sheriff of Yorkshire; and it was perhaps not unnatural that this concord was followed by the building of a stone wall around the abbey. (fn. 23)

The peace of 1266 was no more than a truce, and a more comprehensive settlement was arrived at in 1275. The chapter and St. Mary's aired their grievances against the city in Parliament, and the archbishop came in on their side when his servants were assaulted as they sought to protect certain boys from the pressure of the crowd after a confirmation at the Dominican friary. The king ordered a detailed inquiry, and the commission presented its findings to his council. The verdict was that the chapter had sought to usurp no jurisdiction, for they had a right to a court for their tenants, to take distresses in their fee, and to arrest thieves in their liberty and keep them in their own prison. Furthermore, their men were exempt from tallage save in respect of merchandise they had in the city outside the lands of the church. St. Mary's Abbey received no less favourable a judgement. In particular Bootham was declared to be a free borough belonging to the abbey in which the mayor and bailiffs had no powers; the men dwelling there were exempt from tallages imposed by the city; the abbot and his men were quit of tolls and murage, and the abbot had the right to administer the assize of measures in his liberty. When it was asked whether, in these circumstances, the city would still be able to pay its farm, it was answered that payment was possible, for the citizens had known of these liberties when they accepted the figure of their farm. (fn. 24)

The judgement of 1275, then, was a signal defeat for the city. It confirmed the fact that the 'large possessions' of the churches of York should be 'spangled and embroidered . . . with great privileges'; (fn. 25) and as a consequence charters of St. Mary's Abbey for a time refer frequently to property in burgo de Bouthum. (fn. 26) Some of the ecclesiastical gains in 1275 persisted for the rest of the Middle Ages. It was, on the other hand, too onesided a settlement. As a result, it did not entirely draw lines of demarcation between the competing jurisdictions; rather it provided the context of future discords.


  • 1. See p. 21.
  • 2. Visitations of Southwell (Camd. Soc. N.S. 48), 190 sqq.
  • 3. E.Y.C. i. 31–32, 155–6.
  • 4. Ibid. 126–7, 278.
  • 5. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 221–3.
  • 6. Hist. Ch. York, iii. 117 sqq.
  • 7. Close R. 1247–51, 357; Cal. Chart. R. 1257–1300, 74.
  • 8. Cal. Chart. R. 1300–26, 112 sqq.
  • 9. Yorks. Assize R. (Y.A.S. Rec. Ser. 44), 3.
  • 10. Rot. Parl. i. 57.
  • 11. Cal. Chart. R. 1300–26, 56–58, 110.
  • 12. E.Y.C. i. 142–3.
  • 13. Cal. Chart. R. 1257–1300, 436–8.
  • 14. B.M. Eg. MS. 2827, f. 138; John Rylands Libr. Latin MS. 220, f. 61.
  • 15. J.I. 1/1113, mm. 27, 29.
  • 16. Hist. Ch. York, iii. 130–3; Pat. R. 1225–32, 55.
  • 17. Cal. Pat. 1247–58, 88; Close R. 1253–4, 15.
  • 18. Close R. 1254–6, 167–8.
  • 19. Cal. Chart. R. 1226–57, 461.
  • 20. Yorks. Monastic Notes, i (Y.A.S. Rec. Ser. 17), 239; Hist. Ch. York, iii. 183 sqq.
  • 21. Yorks. Monastic Notes, ii (Y.A.S. Rec. Ser. 81), 87.
  • 22. Ibid. 56–57.
  • 23. Chron. St. Mary's (Sur. Soc. 148), 6–8; Chron. de Melsa (Rolls Ser.), ii. 135; Cal. Inq. Misc. i, pp. 284–5.
  • 24. Cal. Pat. 1272–81, 111, 119–20, 173; 1334–8, 15 sqq.; Chron. St. Mary's, 17–18; Drake, Ebor. 553 sqq.; D. & C. York, Lib. Alb. iv, ff. 37–43.
  • 25. Widdrington, Analecta, 219.
  • 26. John Rylands Libr. Latin MS. 220, ff. 68d, 72d.