The twelfth and thirteenth centuries: The population of the city

Pages 40-41

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

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


The Population of the City and its Origins

The achievement of self-government, the assumption of financial and other obligations by the civic community, and the self-consciousness evinced by the struggle with the ecclesiastical liberties all testify indirectly to York's recovery from the disasters of the 11th century. Constitutional development reflected the expansion of economic activity and the accumulation of wealth. This recovery and expansion, moreover, probably involved a growth of population, although it is impossible to demonstrate this fact statistically. On the other hand, if the population of the city in 1086 was possibly in the region of 4,000–5,000, it may nearly have doubled by the second quarter of the 14th century. (fn. 1) A good deal of this increase perhaps took place during the years of the Scottish wars, when the presence of the court and the armies brought much business to the city. There are, however, topographical indications of expanding settlement in the 12th and 13th centuries, (fn. 2) some clear signs of the economic importance of York at this time, and much evidence of immigration throughout the period.

The presence of incomers is only occasionally directly attested, although we are told that William of Hunmanby came to reside in the city at the mature age of 45 years. (fn. 3) At the same time, names like his are themselves indicative of immigration. It is true that, well into the 12th century, many of the inhabitants still bear names of a Scandinavian origin—Asze, Romund, Askil, Yol, Barn, Gamel, Outhan, Vesing, Balki, Bonda, Ketal, and so forth (fn. 4) —and that such names are rarely linked with a topographical element suggesting immigration from the countryside. This would seem to imply that, to begin with, the core of the population of 12th-century York was composed of AngloScandinavian settlers of some standing. On the other hand, the freeman's register opens in 1272 with the names of Thomas of Fulford, Peter of Foxholes, James of Pickering, and John of Settrington—all names of East and North Riding villages. Names similarly formed are found frequently enough in the 12th-century records. They suggest at least an ultimate rural background for a high proportion of the citizens, and regular immigration as the source of much of the city's population.

These names also indicate the geographical range from which the population of the city was recruited. Most incomers clearly derived from the villages and small towns of the broad plain between Doncaster and Thirsk. A smaller number came from the more distant parts of Yorkshire—the Durham border, high up Ribblesdale and Wharfedale, the Wolds and the coastal area beyond. Some came from Lincolnshire, in particular from the villages along the south bank of the Humber, and a few from more distant places— Carlisle, Nottingham, Newcastle, Durham, Kendal, Lincoln, Coventry, and Northampton. There were even foreigners in the modern sense: Reiner of Flanders in Henry II's reign; and later Adam 'Lumbard', Raymond of Dinant, John called 'of Paris, dwelling in York', John de Skotland, and a whole tribe called 'le Flemyng', some with Christian names suggesting an oversea origin rather than kinship with the landed family of that name long settled in Yorkshire. (fn. 5)

These data cannot be manipulated to give a rate either of immigration or of population growth. They are too fragmentary; and since men kept the label of their origin over many generations, a topographical name does not by itself indicate that a man is an incomer. Further, even if the rate of inflow could be measured, it would not necessarily provide an index of the increase of the city's population. It seems likely that mortality was high. In 1246, for example, a claim to property was traced back to a tenant in Richard I's reign whose two sons and daughter all died without heirs. The title then reverted to the original tenant's brother. His two sons also died without heirs, leaving their sister as sole claimant to the rights of both branches of the family. Similarly, William of Otley in 1268 inherited family property because his two elder brothers and a sister had all died without issue; and William of Harewood acquired a tenement in right of his wife because her two brothers and two sisters had all died without heirs. (fn. 6) Such instances may suggest that immigration was necessary to maintain the city's population, let alone to augment it. It seems none the less likely that, in fact, immigration did increase the number of the inhabitants of York, slowly perhaps but fairly steadily, between the beginning of the 12th century and the beginning of the fourteenth.


  • 1. The figure for 1086 is based on the fact that some half of the mansiones were more or less uninhabited; for the 14th cent. see p. 84.
  • 2. See p. 52.
  • 3. Cal. Inq. p.m. vii, p. 137.
  • 4. For identification of names of Scandinavian origin, E. Bjorkman, Studien zur englischen Philologie, Bd. xxxvii (1910). Some continued Scandinavian immigration during the Anglo-Norman period is not impossible (Stenton, in York Min. Hist. Tracts), though direct evidence for it is lacking.
  • 5. Pipe R. 1180, 71–72; B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, ff. 123d, 124, 126d, 129; D. & C. York, St. Mary's Charty. ff. 1d, 37; York Freemen, i. 1 sqq., which also names immigrants from Brabant and Bruges.
  • 6. J.I. 1/1045, m. 38; /1050, mm. 82d, 83d.